Life Lesson #4: We suck at knowing what we’ll enjoy

My coworker just turned to me to tell me a story about his wife. She’s been teaching at Northwestern University for almost a year. This is after putting in half a decade earning her PhD. And get this: She hates it. “It’ll probably get better,” I told him. He agreed. But then he added she “realized she hates talking in front of people.”

Oh. That won’t get better.

This is not a weird story.  If there’s anything weird about this phenomenon, it’s that we’re all guilty of making the same mistake all the time, but somehow can’t seem to learn from it. Research strongly supports my assertion. Now that I’m almost 43, I can look back at my own life and validate this research without even thinking that hard. For example…

I thought I wanted to be an actor. I was a good at it and I really liked it. So no-brainer, right? But I also I hated auditioning and doing shit-stupid work I didn’t care about. And guess what? A lot of an actor’s life is about auditioning, and usually for shit-stupid work they don’t care about. Next!

I thought I wanted to be a grant writer for a theatre company. I’m a writer. I loved theatre. This made a ton of sense. But grant-writing is effing boring and mostly involves researching and cutting and pasting. I did it for 3 months and hated it. Next!

I thought I wanted to be a journalist. I ‘m a writer. I enjoy learning about new things and then finding ways to share that information with people. But then I sat next to a reporter when I was an editorial assistant and learned that most of her job was calling people up and pissing them off. No thank you. Next!

I thought I would hate being a technical writer. I write but there is such a thing as boring writing, which I learned as a grant writer. And this seemed worse than grants for arts organizations…this is about describing how to use features in software. Yuck! Well, unemployment will make you try anything, and when the opportunity arose, I needed it desperately enough to try it. And guess what? I really liked it. Turns out there’s a teacher-y and technical side of me that I didn’t know about. I enjoyed figuring out complicated problems and then making them easier for people to understand. I even enjoyed the methodical, non-inspired, repetitious writing of the steps. Go figure. And while I’m no longer a tech writer, and am doing work I enjoy even more, I’m still at the same place that hired me for that.  And I never would be here, if I hadn’t taken that risk.

These were so easy to come up with and I deleted some of them because I feel like I’m belaboring the point. (And this isn’t all about career decisions, either!)

Did you notice what they all have in common? You think you want a thing. You’re even rational and reasonable about it. It’s not like “I’m gonna rent a truck and drive it into Lake Michigan.” These are decisions that make a ton of sense. Like if you told me you were going to major in art or animal science. That kind of sense. Anyone listening to me would have agreed with any of my above expectations.

But what else did they have in common? The doing was nothing like the thinking-about-doing. Nothing at all. That’s the part that humans suck at.

And that’s the lesson. That’s the key. I would argue it’s the single most important career lesson I ever learned.  Do make plans. Do have expectations. (Life falls apart without them.) And occasionally life really does go according to plan.

But hold those plans loosely in your hand and always stay more tuned in to the realities of doing. Because ultimately you will not think your way through your life decisions. You will act your way through them.

If you think and don’t act for too long, you will be stuck. (Oh, and if you act without thinking for too long, you’ll self-destruct.) Not knowing what you want to do isn’t really an excuse not to act either. It’s a little like not knowing what kind of lover you’re looking for. Without dating your way to clarity, you’re wasting your time thinking about what you’re looking for.

Bottom line: the more you act, the more you will learn. The more you push yourself to try things that you’re not even sure you’ll like, the more you will learn about yourself–and you may be surprised. In that sense, action becomes your greatest guide.