Why It’s Valuable, and How to Figure it Out
One of my favorite podcasts is American Public Media’s “The Dinner Party Download,” known as “public radio’s arts and leisure section.” A question the hosts always ask of their guests is, “If we were to meet you at a dinner party, which question should we not ask you?” As you can imagine, there are a variety of responses. Sometimes, people aren’t quite sure what question should be avoided. Not me.
If I were ever a guest on this podcast (co-hosts Brendan Francis Newnam and Rico Gagliano, if you’re reading, my schedule is wiiiiide open) I would practically shout my answer. That’s how certain I am that if I were never, ever asked the following, I’d be more than okay: “Where do you see yourself in ten years?”
It’s not that I don’t have an answer, it’s that at twenty-six years old, I don’t have the answer people want to hear. “I’m not sure,” is my honest, go-to response. And it’s usually met with quizzical looks.
The Benefits of Having a (Somewhat) Blurry Future
I currently have a good job, and am surrounded by loving family and friends, but I don’t have a detailed description of what my life looks like at thirty-six – what city I’ll be in, what my job title will be, or if I’ll be married and have kids. Do I really need to know all that right now, today?
I know I want to be happy, to be creatively fulfilled and to have meaningful relationships with good people. That is where I see myself, and I’m excited about it! But there is this intense societal expectation that we must know our life plan at all times, constantly gauging if things are progressing properly so that we achieve the ultimate goal (whatever that is). Whew. That’s a lot of pressure. And it also can create a lot of limitation by being so narrowly focused on one result.
Of course, there’s value in knowing what you want (and for those of you who do know, rock on!), but I’m of the ilk that knowing what you don’t want is equally important. Why? For people who are indecisive (me!) or who enjoy doing a lot of different things (me again!), it can be easier to cross off things or places or people we don’t enjoy, to help us direct our skills and passions towards more productive and energy-efficient channels.
Amy Poehler agrees. In her smart and wonderful book Yes, Please she comments on looking at things differently when it comes to life’s plans:
“I think we should stop asking people in their twenties what they ‘want to do’ and start asking them what they don’t want to do. Instead of asking students to ‘declare their major,’ we should ask students to ‘list what they will do anything to avoid.’ It just makes a lot more sense.” Amen, Amy.
The Reverse of a Bucket List
So, here are some easy, low-risk, low-pressure ways to figure out what you don’t want:
1. Say Yes. You have to say “yes” to a few things first to then be able to say “no” for good. Yep, that means there may be a bad date here or there or a weird club you accidentally joined. Just think, it’s all part of the process – you’re finding more “no” things!
2. Be Self-Aware. Can’t stand living on a busy street? Hate details and busy work? Know the things, people and situations that you need to stay away from — then stay away from them!
3. Volunteer. Be a board member for that local non-profit you’ve heard about, volunteer at a hospital, or donate some time mentoring elementary students. Give back to your community while taking note of your level of engagement during each of these activities. Not into it? That’s fine. That means these things will decidedly remain in the “volunteer” category.
4. Job-Shadow. I cannot stress this one enough. Even if you’ve been out of a college for a while, it’s more than okay to shadow someone with a different role within your office or in an entirely different field. It’s a pretty safe way to get the feel of a job without completely abandoning the one that pays your bills. Can’t imagine sitting at a desk all day doing that? Take a permanent marker to that idea, then keep on keepin’ on.
5. Seek out Mentors. Remember that awesome professor you had in college? Shoot him an email and ask how he got to where he is today. Learn from his mistakes, heed his advice, and speak aloud the options you’ve been considering! You may not need to get that master’s degree, after all, or maybe you do. The point is, pick his brain. (And then buy him a coffee to thank him for his time.)
6. You Can Always Have Passions and Hobbies. This is one of my favorite pieces of advice a mentor of mine recently told me. Instead of becoming paralyzed by possibilities and feeling like you could pursue it all, realize it’s not all or nothing; you can continue doing the things you enjoy (in fact, you should) – they just don’t have to be at the center of your life.
So no, I won’t answer the question du jour at dinner parties of “where do you see yourself in ten years,” and I’m more than okay with that. However, I can definitely tell you where I don’t see myself: living on a boat, auditioning for a reality TV show, working in medicine, practicing law (or really, doing anything that involves science or numbers) — and knowing all that will save me a lot of time, money and anxiety. And it also won’t limit my choices or place pressure on the daily decisions I make.
Now, if only people listened to Amy Poehler’s advice, and started asking me where I won’t be in ten years…that’s a question I’d love to answer.26