When you were little, you probably knew exactly what you wanted to be when you grew up. But when we get older and realize becoming a ballerina/astronaut is unlikely, this classic childhood question becomes way harder to answer for many of us. Plenty of us make it all the way to adulthood -- maybe even decades into a career -- without really knowing what they want to do with our lives.
One option is to muddle through with whatever job you landed in. That pays the bills, but a heap of research suggests you'll eventually regret it bitterly. Plus, the world needs more humans who are passionately acting on their deepest talents and vision.
So how do you get out of your current fog of confusion to a place where you actually know what steps to take? Virgin founder Richard Branson recently offered a simple two-part suggestion on his blog.
Grab a pen and paper ...
"'What on earth should I do?' is a question every entrepreneur asks themselves at one point or another. If you tackle the challenge with curiosity and a can-do attitude, it is also the question that will launch your career," writes Branson. I'd bet the confusion isn't limited to entrepreneurs.
But whether you're an employee or a founder in the making, Branson's prescription is the same: Grab a pen and paper and answer the following two dead simple questions:
What do I love? "Make a list of all the things you are passionate about or that interest you. It doesn't matter how trivial or random the items are, or if they don't appear to lead to an entrepreneurial idea -- one could spark an idea that turns into a business," Branson explains. Aspiring or serial entrepreneurs can go on to consider which interests might align with an industry that's ripe for disruption, or ways you could improve businesses you already love. But passions can be a powerful source of career inspiration for other professionals too. For instance, Bill Gates claims that you're most likely to become a world-class performer at something you did for fun in high school (like programming in his case).
What do I dislike? For entrepreneurs, annoyances can be a powerful source of startup ideas. After all, if it bugs you, then it probably bugs lots of other people, so solving the problem might just be a business idea with legs. "Many Virgin Group businesses have been sparked by an employee's exasperation that another company wasn't doing something well," Branson testifies. But even if you're just looking to change career tracks, having a clear sense of what sort of environments and activities drive you up the wall is essential for finding a path where you can thrive.
It sounds super straightforward -- and it is -- but it's also a helpful reminder that there's no magic way to figure out what to do with your life. The truth is both simple and difficult. Searching your heart for what really drives you (along with a little clear-eyed self appraisal of your skills) is the only way to go.
... and then get experimenting.
What's next? "Take some time out from your day to think about you can act on those items to make the world a little bit better," instructs Branson. Once you have some hypotheses about what sort of career paths might work for you, you need to think like a scientist and validate those ideas with experiments.
Or in Branson's words: "It's time to start testing your ideas."
His complete post offers more wisdom on how to do that in an entrepreneurial context, but he's not the only expert suggesting that pilot projects are the only way to move from a half-formed notion that a particular path might be for you to making the life-altering decision to actually embark on it.
Google career coach turned author Liz Blake, for instance, counsels those searching for a new career to think smaller, so that they can get started on testing whether their ideas hold up in the real world straight away. "What are small experiments I can run right now that will not drastically shift my day-to-day life, but involve skills, or test a new hypothesis of something I'm interested in?" she suggests you ask yourself.
Your days of dreaming of becoming a firefighter or veterinarian might be long gone, but according to Branson that's no reason to let yourself wander in a fog of indecision or soldier on in an unfulfilling career. Start by answering these simple questions and then get experimenting. The 80,000 hours you'll spend working in your career are way, way too many to waste.