You just finished college or graduate school and are looking for your first job. You’re in a job you hate. You’re in a job you love, but with no upward mobility. You’re thinking about going back to school. You tried to start your own thing and it didn’t work out. Or you’ve been traveling or having children and are trying to re-enter the workforce.
Whatever situation you’re in, at some point you’re going to wind up asking yourself: “What do I do next? Where do I go from here? How do I figure out my next step?”
In my experience, there are three distinct stages you must pass through in order to be able to answer these questions: turning inward, seeking external inspiration, and then taking action. The first two stages instruct you to basically stop everything. Because figuring out what to do next is like needing to tie your shoelace. You can’t do it while you’re still running; you have to pause and do it properly.
But you also have to keep running eventually. You don’t get anywhere in life by pure philosophizing — you get places by doing, and that’s where the last stage comes in. You’ve given yourself a chance to catch your breath, which you’ve done while honoring the crucial balance between internal reflection and external inspiration, and now you’re well-equipped with the information and confidence you need to make a decision.
Here’s a break-down of the 22 steps I recommend for getting “unstuck” and moving forward with conviction in your personal and professional life.
STAGE 1: TURN INWARD
1. Give yourself time in silence. Spend 15-30 minutes every morning without any noise or distractions. Ask your heart questions (“What is my next step? What would I really be happy doing?”) and listen to what responses come from your intuition. We spend so much of our days doing that we don’t give ourselves any time for just being.
2. Travel. This doesn’t have to be the whole “lose yourself to find yourself” line because I know from 3+ years of traveling that it doesn’t actually happen like that. What I mean is to seek movement and exploration: a long car ride, an afternoon in a place with good people-watching, a short weekend away. A change of scenery is hugely inspirational, as is problem-solving and demonstrating self-sufficiency.
3. Think about your childhood. What things were you naturally good at? What are your happiest memories? What did you dream of doing before the world starting pushing and pulling on you? Let your past successes help inform your future.
4. Record your dreams. Dreams are an incredible window into your subconscious mind. Before you go to bed, spend time reflecting and asking yourself for clarity about your next step. Leave a notebook under your pillow and, upon waking, write down your dreams before you move, look at the time, or check your cell phone. Reflect on reoccurring situations, symbols, people, and places.
5. Go for a daily walk. Many great creative and powerful minds swear by walking (no music, no distractions) for inspiration and introspection: Gandhi, Stephen King, Thich Nhat Hanh, J.K. Rowling, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Beethoven. “Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “my thoughts begin to flow.” A 2010 study found that walking for 40 minutes 3 times a week enhanced the connectivity of important brain circuits, reduced declines in brain function associated with aging, and increased performance on cognitive tasks.
6. Journal about everything, but make sure you tackle these questions in written format:
When do I feel most successful/proud/motivated/joyful? Why?
What have I enjoyed most about my life and career to date? What has caused me suffering? Why? (The “why” is an oft-forgotten piece of the puzzle and we don’t often dig deep enough and keep asking ourselves the “whys”.)
If I could only change one thing about my life right now, what would it be? (And why?)
What do I love about myself? What are my talents?
7. Have purposeful dreaming time. This is different from time in silence or time spent journaling. It’s time to actively engage your imagination by visualizing alternate possibilities for your life. The human mind’s capacity to imagine the future with nearly as much sensory details as real life is one of its most precious – and sometimes paralyzing – capabilities. Use it to your advantage!
8. Take money out of the picture. You can put it back into the equation later, but it’s important to spend time really considering what you would do if you didn’t have to worry about finances. This mental exercise also lets you take a step back and see how much money does influence your decision-making, and if it has to influence it to the extent you allow it to.
STAGE 2: SEEK EXTERNAL INSPIRATION
9. Spend time with inspirational people. Ever heard the phrase “You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with?” When you’re looking to make a transition in your life, surround yourself with the kind of people you aspire to be, ones who can provide insight, connections, and new ideas.
10. Have deep conversations with family and friends. After a period of meaningful (and ongoing) introspection, you can begin to share what you are discovering about yourself and the world with others. Talk openly with the people closest to you and probe deeper than you normally would. Sometimes sharing your thoughts and desires out loud helps clarify — or discover — them for yourself.
11. Don’t ask for advice the usual way. Instead of asking others what they would do in your shoes, ask them how they would decide what to do if they were you. The “how” provides decision-making frameworks that keep YOU in the driver’s seat while still allowing a helpful degree of outside opinion.
12. Read a lot. I recommend autobiographies of people you find inspirational, as well as a few personal development books specifically oriented around career and purpose, such as Body of Work by Pamela Slim and The Work We Were Born to Do by Nick Williams. Also, read widely about topics of interest to you. By following your intellectual curiosity, you can discover new fields you might like to explore.
13. Take up a new hobby. This related to curiosity, too. Learning something new is inspirational, and it also grants you the ability to see yourself succeeding in new frontiers. Not to mention that it often leads to meeting different kinds of people who can enrich your life and open up unforeseen pathways.
14. Do some “productive” stalking. Spend time on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Google and create a spreadsheet of all the people and careers you find inspirational. The goal is to answer the question: Who do you admire and why?
STAGE 3: TAKE ACTION
15. Work on your health and physical well-being. It’s easy to forget that the body and mind are intimately connected. Nourishing yourself with daily exercise and a healthy diet will hugely impact your self-esteem — and there’s nothing better for plotting a career move than feeling great about yourself!
16. Reach out. Remember all that “productive” stalking? Now you are going to use that information! Start reaching out to people on email, LinkedIn, and other social media and request short Skype or coffee meetings to pick their brain about their career path (what I call informational interviewing).
17. Set up 5 job interviews. For any jobs at all. It’s important to get out there and hear yourself communicating about your talents and experience. It’s even better to start “practicing” by doing interviews where you are relatively unattached to the outcome so you can still perform well, but feel confident and relaxed. This approach can also lend you new ideas: perhaps you never would have considered a certain position or company before, but casting a wide interview net opened up new realms of possibility.
18. Work for free. This is the greatest test of your talents, experience, and ability to contribute. Those people you reached out to for informational interviews? Do something helpful for them for free. Send them a deck of research on a new market they might be interested in. Connect them to someone you know who could help their business. Make a small database of potential new clients for them. Get creative! Or boldly ask a company you admire if you could work for free for them for 3 months for the sake of exposure — and to prove yourself.
19. Brainstorm all your options. Sit down and make a list of every conceivable next step you could take: grad school, sabbatical, joining a friend’s start up, creating an online business, staying in your current role, asking for a promotion, making a lateral move, changing fields entirely, etc. Once you’ve brainstormed every route you would possibly want to consider, narrow it down to a list of 2-4 options that seem most interesting to you.
20. Focus on the first step. For your short-listed options, figure out what the first logical step to accomplish them would be. If you think grad school could be the right transitional move, then the first step is to identify programs of interest. If you want to make a lateral move (say you like your position but dislike the company or industry), then you may want to attend a networking event in your field to meet representatives of different companies. The idea is to take small, non-committal steps in a few directions to get a feel for those paths.
21. Try something. The key to making a transition in life is to avoid paralysis at all costs, because you won’t get anywhere through contemplation alone. It’s important that, once you’ve examined all feasible options and tested the waters with a few short-listed options, you take action! Of course, your actions should be accompanied by an understanding that nothing in life is perfect, nor is anything entirely permanent. You’ll never know until you try, so you simply have to try.
22. Choose to focus on the best case scenario. When change is upon us, we naturally focus on and plan for the worst that could happen, which is a natural part of our survival-based biology. Instead, try making a decision based on the best thing that could happen and see how that inspires confidence in making your next big move.
In the end, it’s paramount to realize that your next step does not have to define the rest of your life, it just has to provide momentum. It has to retain your happiness of today and offer an incremental growth in your happiness of tomorrow, but it doesn’t have to account for your happiness 5 or 10 years from now.
Think about how much time and energy you probably waste trying to project yourself 3, 5, 7 years into the future and surmise what “future you” would want and base your decision-making today on that hypothetical person who may or may not ever come into being.
Taking the next step or changing direction doesn’t have to be a long, complex, and emotionally draining experience. In reality, practicing the above steps on a regular basis can actually help to sustain momentum and naturally offer opportunities for personal and professional advancement, allowing you to live a life of seamless transitions and self-assured navigation.