“Follow your dreams” is the worst advice you can give. It’s impossible to do without self-knowledge, which takes years. You discover your dream or sense of purpose in the very act of walking the path, which is guided by equal parts choice and chance”. - Maria Popova
Can you remember where you were exactly ten years ago? Take a few minutes, close your eyes and try to answer these questions. Where did you live? How did your home look like? How did you look like? What job did you have? What colleagues and friends did you have? What music were you listening to? Where did you go out and what was your favorite drink? How did a normal day look like, from the moment you got up in the morning, until you went to bed at night? I guess there are a few things that didn’t change a lot. But I bet some of them changed completely.
When we think about the future, we often expect this upward path that will take us from where we are now to where we want to be, in a linear way. The environment that surrounds us might change. The people around us might change. But not us. Because we know who we are, and we know what we want right?
But is this true when we look back to our last ten years? Dan Gilbert, Psychology Professor at Harvard, calls this type of bias, the end of history illusion. Looking back, we all recognize that our desires and motivations changed a lot in the past but believe they will not change in the future. In Gilbert’s terms, we are works in progress claiming to be finished.
When only 27% of people nowadays have a job that is directly related to the field of their studies, and many of the jobs that our children will have don’t even exist today, how do we learn to be flexible and adapt to an unpredictable future?
Should we spend time introspecting and planning until we find our true calling or rather start doing more of the things we already like, and trust that our true calling will be inevitably revealed along the way?
Being a parent, I often think about how I can recognize talents in my child and how I can support him in developing those talents. If we think about peak performance and that it takes 10.000 hours of deliberate practice to master a skill, we should start early, right? Well, yea and no. Unless children have a strong calling for a certain field and enjoy the practice, it’s not always a good idea to force them into something that we, parents, think is good for them. Encouraging children to have a broader range of experiences while nurturing good values, principles, and discipline, will help them find what they enjoy most, on their own. And it’s not so different for us, adults.
Foreclosure and Dark Horses
Adam Grant, Professor of Organizational Psychology at Wharton School, writes about the risk of foreclosure, which happens when we decide too early in life, what we want to do. When we are determined to follow one path too early, it gives us tunnel vision and focus, but it also makes us blind to alternative possibilities. Imagine you decide to follow medical school and six years into the journey, you realize you don’t find any joy in the hospital environment and that working with patients is not really your thing. After so many years invested on that path, the stakes and costs of change become high, and we fall into the trap of the sunk cost fallacy. This means that we are more focused on our past investments than on our present and future benefits, so we decide to stay on the same path and find reasons why it makes sense. We make our own stories and self-justifications, and we think of ourselves as being determined and gritty. But as Grant puts it, “there’s a fine line between heroic persistence and foolish stubbornness”.
During the last year, I started to read more biographies and life stories of people who are considered dark horses and underdogs. These are people who created something unique and stood out from the crowd, against all odds and despite what other people thought of them. Like Marcel Proust who tried and failed at many artistic endeavors until he started to write In search of lost time at age 38 and dedicated his entire life to it. Or Albert Einstein who could not meet the rigor and academic expectations of the scientific community of his time and had to find his own way to discovery and scientific breakthroughs.
In one contemporary project called The Dark Horse Project, social scientists Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas study people who found success and a fulfilled life by embracing their individuality and using the combination of their skills and talents in a unique way.
The question is not “What is the best way to achieve success?” but rather “What is the best way for you to achieve success?”
They looked at a wide range of professions and found self-made individuals who got to master their field, by creating their own path. These “dark horses” got where they wanted, by following their own motivations and not by comparing to others or doing what others expected of them. They focused on “Here’s where I am now, here are my motivations, here’s what I’ve found I like to do, here’s what I’d like to learn, and here are the opportunities. Which of these is the best match right now? And maybe a year from now I’ll switch because I’ll find something better.” What dark horses have in common is short term planning, while having a long term purpose.
We would all benefit from acting and thinking more like scientists or designers and experiment the ideas that appear interesting to us. More interesting things will show up on the way and if we stay open to connect the dots and find meaning in what we do, the long-term puzzle will slowly come together.
Prototyping Our Future Selves
Lately, I played a lot with the idea of imagining different future scenarios and using the concept of prototyping as a framework. A few months ago, a friend of mine recommended me this book called Designing Your Life, by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. The core idea is that a well-designed life is a life that is constantly creative, productive, evolving, and often, full of surprise. While the ideas were not new to me, I liked this framework borrowed from the world of design thinking.
There are eight main steps in the Designing Your Life (DYL) discovery process and while it sounds easy, it takes a few weeks of journaling and trying things out. We need to use our brains and think about what happened in the past, so we can learn and avoid the same mistakes in the future. But when we want to grow and broaden our experiences, acting must come before thinking. As Herminia Ibarra, Organizational Behavior Professor at London Business School puts it: “we learn who we are just by living, and not before.” Experience, expand your network and then re-adjust your personal narratives. Introspection alone is not enough. A quiz and a course that will magically reveal our talents and ideal career, will not help us find your dream work. Themes emerge while we are doing stuff.
In the next blogpost, I will be sharing my own experience with testing the Designing Your Life framework and I will cover each of the main steps of the journey. Until then, never stop playing!
Designing Your Life [BOOK], by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans
Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fullfilment [BOOK], by Todd Rose, Ogi Ogas
Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader [BOOK], by Herminia Ibarra
How Can You Uncover Your Best Self? Start by Judging Other People- Really [ARTICLE], ideas.ted.com
A Playful Way to Problem Solve [ARTICLE], by Ingrid Fetell Lee
What Frogs in Hot Water Can Teach Us About Re-thinking [TED Talk], Adam Grant
The Surprising Science of Happiness [TED Talk], by Dan Gilbert
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