I’ve often been told to dream big. The sky’s the limit; the possibilities are endless. I guess statements like these are supposed to be inspiring, but instead, they terrify me. Confronting an infinite number of career and life choices is paralyzing. What if I make a wrong choice, and what if that choice eliminates other choices? For me, it was easier to stay stuck in place, doing nothing or something not great but neutral, rather than face that kind of decision-making.
Fortunately, it’s not true — the possibilities are not endless. We have choices, but we also have limits. We just need to define those limits in order to move forward. In a recent NPR interview, psychologist Meg Jay offered this advice: “Part of being a twenty-something is realizing you’ve got to narrow your choices, that you don’t even have as many choices as everyone says that you do. But to really figure out: what six or seven things am I probably realistically choosing from in my life right now.”
To get to those six or seven things, you need to look back at what you’ve done so far. In Jay’s book, The Defining Decade: Why your twenties matter— and how to make the most of them now, she introduces the concept of “identity capital” — the “repertoire of individual resources that we assemble over time…the investments we make in ourselves, the things we do well enough, or long enough, that they become a part of who we are.” These resources are our “currency” in the “adult marketplace” of jobs, relationships, and self-esteem. Figure out what you’re good at, leverage it, and live a happy and fulfilling life.
Except it’s not that simple. What if, for example, you don’t like the six or seven options that your experiences so far have given you? You may have worked and interned in one field, but that field may not necessarily excite or inspire you. Or your experiences may be too scattered to give you a cohesive identity. To find new options, you need to explore. But as Jay writes, you can’t just explore — you also need to “make commitments” that will give you new capital along the way. In other words, you need to do some actual, relevant work for your exploration to count.
In author Neil Gaiman’s commencement speech at the University of the Arts this spring, he describes this process of balancing exploration and commitment as “walking towards the mountain”:
Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be — an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words — was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal. And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain.
Not all of us know what our distant mountain is, but we can probably narrow it down to a range of six or seven mountains. Then we can build our capital by doing work that will get us closer to those goals.
This isn’t always a fun process. Starting a career — whether from inside an organization or on your own dime — is never glamorous. When we choose a goal we think of the associated glory, not the drudgery we’ll have to put up with first. But if you love what you do, or find consolation in working with great people, or even find an unconventional way to transform it, it’s not as much of a burden.
For example, Jay cites a client who wants to start a career in journalism. She figures she’ll be “fetching coffee for higher-ups at the office at least until [she’s] thirty.” That’s one way to start a career in journalism, but it’s certainly not the only way. She could freelance, or publish articles online, or find her niche at a smaller news outlet. It still wouldn’t be glamorous work, but it would be exciting and great for her identity capital. As Gaiman says of reaching his mountain, “I tended to do anything as long as it felt like an adventure, and to stop when it felt like work, which meant that life did not feel like work.” Expect to work hard, but don’t settle for anything less than adventure.
We often need help from others to advance towards our goals. In The Defining Decade, Jay offers a few tips for getting that help:
- Weak ties are important. The people you know the least (e.g. acquaintances, employers, and teachers who never became close friends) are often great resources of information and opportunities. You can and should use these connections — everyone else does.
- Ask your weak ties for specific favors. Jay quotes Benjamin Franklin, who writes in his autobiography that he made a friend by asking to borrow a colleague’s rare book. The colleague is not only happy to share the book with a fellow enthusiast, but also eager to bestow more favors on Franklin. Weak ties who have done one favor for you will want to do additional favors for you. Jay calls it the “‘helper’s high’ that comes from being generous.” But make sure the favor you ask for is clearly defined and strategic, like Franklin’s.
- Always sell yourself with a story. It should be a compelling narrative that is easy to understand but also unique to you. Instead of telling your reader what you are, show them what you can do.
When we persevere and “be intentional,” as Jay says, we can bring that mountain range closer. We can’t wait for things to magically come together, or give in to the paralysis of too many choices. Instead, we have to actively define and pursue our goals. This is especially critical if we want to find adventure and happiness along the way.