For much of the past 10 years, I’ve been told that I need to start making decisions about life. “Hey kid, you need to pick a college and to do that, you better know what career field you’re interested in.” “Now it’s time to pick a major – you’re deciding your future here!” The weird part of these decisions though, is that as soon as I made them, I realized they weren’t as important as my advisers and teachers/professors made them out to be. I went to my chosen university and transferred to a different one – and neither one would have locked me into anything for my future. I chose my major and now I’m thinking of a career path in which I could have had any undergraduate major I wanted. Yes, it has helped that I have carefully considered my options and chose the college and major best for me. It is important. But for 10 years, I have been thinking that I’m deciding my future and keep finding out there’s more on the way – I really hadn’t made the big decision about my future at all. And now, after thinking that way for so long, I’m finally have to make those decisions. It’s surreal
I told myself that I wouldn’t pursue any post-grad education unless I knew exactly what I wanted to study and why I was doing it. I wouldn’t pursue an M.A. in International Studies only to find out that the jobs I’m looking at could have been attainable with a Bachelors Degree. I also wouldn’t get one graduate degree only to find out my passion was in a different field altogether. So, I’ve set an ultimatum: work at a law firm for two years with the intention of applying to law school in that time. If I don’t discover some job or field that I’d rather pursue in that time, then becoming an attorney is probably the best fit for me.
Don’t get me wrong – I really do think I’d enjoy working in the legal field and have enjoyed so far working in a law firm. I just have what I like to call Millennial Next Door Syndrome. It’s characterized by fear that the choice you’re making isn’t the perfect choice and anxiety or general feeling of being overwhelmed because there are just so many choices out there. If you haven’t seen Malcolm Gladwell’s TED Talk, “Choice, Happiness, and Spaghetti Sauce,” you should. He’s insightful and entertaining and it explains a lot why we have so many products that offer hundreds of options. But I would like to add: damn you, Malcolm Gladwell. Today we have hundreds of choices in just spaghetti sauce alone. How are we supposed to know which one is the best if we have to try hundreds? We’re always going to believe there’s another better spaghetti sauce, even if we’re eating the best one, just because there are so many more out there. This applies to nearly every decision today. Yes, the internet, Amazon, and Tinder also help to make sure we’re aware of just how many options are out there, but damn you, Malcolm Gladwell for making us think it makes us happier. It doesn’t. We’re perpetually dissatisfied and looking for better options now. (For more specifically on choice and romance, read Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance. It’s also worth a read because he’s hilarious.)
In short, I’m stuck with a major life decision that I thought I had been making for the past 10 years, but really hadn’t been, and am in the exact day and age where decisions are most difficult. Yipee!
At first, I tried to find some direction by simply allowing myself to ruminate over the possibilities and keep my doors open – surely I would find a golden path! But that would be incorrect. That’s another symptom of Millennial Next Door Syndrome – there is a golden spaghetti sauce that I can discover if I just keep tasting more of them. But you can’t just go and taste every single spaghetti sauce! You have to at least narrow it down a little bit. For me, that’s getting rid of the onions.
My first strategy to get rid of the onions was to do the “Warren Buffet List” exercise. The premise is fairly simple: create a list of 25 priorities in your life. Then narrow that list down to the most important five items. Once you have those five items, forget everything else and focus on those absolutely most important priorities. Then you can spend more of your energy pursuing those priorities and less of it doing things you don’t really care about. It can also help you figure out what you don’t really care about to avoid guilt when you ignore them. (Except hygiene – I don’t care if hygiene doesn’t even make your top 25 – you just have to.)
This list did help me. One of the most shocking revelations was that figure skating, the activity that has taken much of my focus for nearly all of my life, didn’t even make the top ten. I performed this activity shortly after discovering that, in order to attend any figure skating practices in the Denver area, I’d either have to wake up at 5:00am or skip lunch, neither of which is ideal. Of course, the location of figure skating on my priority list was circumstantial, as was likely every other priority. The important part, however, was that I could put my mind at ease when I didn’t manage to skate at all for the first few months after getting my job – it’s difficult to prioritize and there were other facets of my life I wanted to focus on. That’s okay – priorities change as life goes on. I can reevaluate if those circumstances – including my willingness to wake up early – change.
Part of the reasoning behind this list, too, is that you can really make anything happen if it is your absolute priority. There was a story I read in a book (I don’t remember which one) that told of a man that really wanted to swim in the White House pool with the president. It was his number one life dream. He put all of his energy into it, taking every single opportunity that might have put him in a position closer to making it a reality – and he did it. He swam with Obama in the White House pool. It’s a really cool story about determination and taking opportunities. Most people, even if they wrote that down as a number one priority, would find out pretty quickly that making every decision based upon whether or not it will get you closer to the White House pool is not an awesome way to live. It actually probably sucks. That’s the important part: you have to love the journey. I’m sure most people want to make oodles of money as a CEO, but not many people want to work 80-hour weeks their entire life to get there. You can’t just focus on the goal – you have to try out the process, too.
The Warren Buffet List helped me get rid of the onions. But there are still so many options out there. I had to remove the chunky sauces, too. For those of you that like oniony, chunky spaghetti sauces: good for you, not for me. (As Amy Poehler has said.) Pretend I was “adding” the onions and finding the chunky sauces. Deal with it.
So my next strategy focused on the process, not the end goal. I tried to figure out what my subconscious most wanted me to do in each moment. It’s not obvious why this focuses on the process, but think of it this way: if I’m craving pizza, I’m seeking the process of eating the pizza, not the end result of ingesting all the grease associated with it. With every subconscious desire or thought, you’re not thinking through the consequences, you’re craving the process. I decided to focus on that level of priorities to remove the chunky sauces:
- Record every future-oriented thought that crosses my head in a notebook. If I’m thinking about how something will serve me well in law school, record it. If I’m thinking about what I’m going to do at the gym later, record it. If I’m thinking about how much I love being at breweries, record it.
- Go back to this notebook full of thoughts and code it. Label each thought with a priority it’s associated with, e.g. law school, fitness, breweries.
- Calculate how much I think about each priority relative to another.
- Bam! I’ve got myself a list of how much my brain prefers going to law school over starting a brewery or going to the gym – or, what processes I most desire.
However, this list doesn’t account for one important bias. I thought a lot about law school while I was tracking down my thoughts, but that may have been influenced by the fact that I work in a law firm. Of course I’m going to think about that path, just like I would think about eating pizza if I were working in a pizza restaurant. It doesn’t mean that eating pizza is the most enjoyable process for me. It just means I’m surrounded by a lot of pizza smells.
For the sake of following through, though, (and for humor), these are the thoughts that went through my head that afternoon:
This project didn’t go quite as well as I hoped, especially considering that almost a third of my thoughts were just about what I could do with the project itself, but it was worth a shot.
What these projects have come down to is that whichever path forward I choose, I’m probably not going to be entirely convinced when I start down it. After all, it’s not going to be some shining perfection – I’m just going to be stuck in the idea that there is something better the next door down. At the same time, I’m still determined to at least narrow down my options more. Stay tuned.