Ok, so you’ve recently arrived at the conclusion that waking up with a sinking feeling in your chest every morning at the prospect of going to work just isn’t going to cut it anymore. First, pause to appreciate just how important this moment is. There are many reasons why we decide to follow paths other than where our own inspiration would lead us. Reclaiming that inspiration, though sometimes daunting, can be a beautiful and ultimately grounding process.
In March of 2013 I stepped out of the day-to-day operations of the mobile technology company I helped launch 3 years prior in order to look for work that was more deeply meaningful to me. In the months that followed I took the time to reconnect with friends and family, talk to people who were doing things that inspired me, and travel. A year later I’m happily cranking away on my latest startup, UnThink. Looking back, there are a few key lessons that I gleaned along the way.
1. Alignment is more powerful than sacrifice.
As humans we all have myriad desires and needs that contribute to the life decisions we make. For most of us these include things like the desire for positive recognition, the desire to do good, the desire to be happy, and the desire for material wealth, to name only a few. However, we often act as if only a fraction of those desires matter, and often pursue the ones that we think weare supposed to instead of the ones that we naturally gravitate toward. In this sense “doing good” at the expense of other important desires is just as much of a trap as “making money.” Finding meaningful work is less about sacrificing certain life desires in the pursuit of others than it is about using creativity and ingenuity to find the natural alignment that can exist between them.
2. Channel your inner child.
The fact is, people who love what they do now are rarely out of touch with what they loved and dreamed about as children, even if what they’re doing isn’t an exact copy of that. Before we learn to be “realistic,” we are all avid and passionate dreamers, and one of the great opportunities of adulthood lies in harnessing those innate passions to create practical transformation in the real world. Asking yourself what you inherently and irrevocably love to do is a great place to start, and the kid in you already knows.
3. Connect with people who inspire you.
Who are the people out there who are doing things that inspire you? Excite you? Get you so motivated that you’re ready to step out the door with a shovel to help? Reach out to them directly. Invite them to lunch, coffee or a phone call, and listen to what they have to say. This isn’t about getting help finding a job; it’s about enjoying an exchange with someone who is doing something you’re interested in. If they’re anything like the folks I spoke with during my transition, they’ll love the opportunity to speak with someone who’s excited about what they’re doing. Meanwhile, you get to learn more about the thing that inspires you, and connect with another human being who is out there in the world doing something awesome. Depending on the case, you may also end up with a friend, advocate, or colleague.
4. Stop thinking so much.
Most major life decisions aren’t made at the analytical level of our brains; they’re made at the emotional level, and only later justified at the analytical level. Often we create cycles of self-doubt by over analyzing major decisions and treating them much as we would a math problem. Unfortunately (or fortunately), life isn’t a math problem, so when we’re not able to find the “right answer” to a big life question panic can set in. It’s possible to create room for emotion and intuition to come more directly into play by doing things that bring the mind into the present moment and away from future- or past-oriented thinking. Hiking, meditation, mindfulness practices, prayer, physical exercise, and travel (my personal favorite) are all ways of doing this.
5. It’s not about balance, it’s about balancing.
The process of integrating and expressing our desires, passions, and dreams through the work we do is a lifelong process. Don’t expect to make a single job transition and have everything perfectly sorted out. Instead, focus on learning to notice when something important to you is being ignored. One of the most important things I’ve taken away from my own transition is a deeper appreciation for the beauty of a life that, although perhaps never quite in balance, is always in the process of balancing.