If you're trying to figure out what to do with your one and only life, you need to stop thinking rationally—and go a little wild. Martha Beck offers a powerful technique for discovering your next move.
At first I trusted my car's global positioning system—why not?—but soon its smooth voice began sounding like the homicidal computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. "Turn left now," the GPS would command as I drove along a freeway, with concrete barriers to my left. "You have reached your destination," it would assure me after leading me to a warehouse full of prostitutes and crack dealers. Once my kids programmed it to speak French, the GPS abandoned all pretense of helpfulness and began directing me southward in any and all circumstances. Presumably it was heading for Mexico to escape fraud charges.
These days, listening to my clients talk about their careers reminds me how bewildered I was by my demon guidance machine. People wander aimlessly because the well-worn paths of yesteryear—and by that I mean 2009—are disappearing, while strange new career options pop up before our frazzled brains can map them. The more new technologies and job descriptions have entered everyday life, the more my clients tend to become confused and overwhelmed, finding themselves facing a dead end. Like most of us who have no clue about how to get to where we want, they long for a voice of authority, a career GPS, that will spell out the exact route to a thrilling and fulfilling position. Although they keep beavering away at a solution, researching their options and seeking the advice of people with hot new ideas for them ("Use this career-finder app!" "What you need is a website!" "Blog, blog, blog!"), people end up in my office more muddled than ever. They tell me things like:
"There's so much going on, and it sounds exciting to me, but I feel paralyzed about which new thing to follow up on."
"I keep reading about all these new opportunities, but I don't really understand them, and I'm afraid I'm being left behind."
"I'd be happy to follow my passion...if only I knew what it was."
"I worry that if I commit to one career, I'll lose out on something better."
If any of these sound like you, don't bother with classic career guides; like my GPS, they'll have you meandering in circles, stumped at dead ends, or just profoundly lost. The fact is, as we've become accustomed to our overmanaged, overstimulated 21st-century lives, we haven't realized that there might be another—decidedly low-tech—way to get onto the right path.
I suspect you've been advised to think rationally about your career decisions. That would be a big mistake. You might expect people with damage to the emotional parts of the brain, presumably free from the distractions of emotions, to be brilliant decision makers. Quite the opposite. Though they retain full use of their rational faculties, such patients are tragically indecisive, endlessly debating logical pros and cons, unable to choose any path. Their brains send out random, contradictory, and confusing directions, like my rogue GPS. It turns out that, as Jonathan Haidt writes in The Happiness Hypothesis, "it is only because our emotional brains work so well that our reasoning can work at all."
Although humans are the only beings on Earth with advanced linguistic skills, any animal with a brain has the automatic capacity to form preferences. It's an irrational sense of "Yes, this!" that takes a migrating goose a thousand miles to its perfect nesting ground, or a whale to its calving waters an ocean away. To find—or rather, design—your perfect career, you have to let your animal self lead you through a wilderness of choices. The way to do that is to make your rational mind not the master but the tracker of your own irrational instincts.
Tracking Your Inner Animal
I was trudging down the traditional career path of academia when my students, weirdly, began offering to pay me for advice. I didn't think of it as a career path; I'd never heard the phrase "life coach," and if I had, I'd have gagged like a sommelier drinking Kool-Aid. But I loved my students, and I loved helping them build happy lives. My emotional self trotted cheerfully forward, enjoying the scenery, while my rational, verbal GPS argued, puzzled, and worried:
Animal brain: Me like this!
Rational brain: But what are you doing?
Animal brain: Me like this!
Rational brain: Is it secure? Is it respectable?
Animal brain: Me like this!
Rational brain: Get a job, dammit!
This process continues even now, with my animal self migrating through unknown territory as my logical mind struggles to make sense of where in God's name I'm going. How grateful I am to be familiar with what one expert describes to me as deductive/predictive animal tracking. It's helped me calm my nerves and follow my animal into a thousand joyful and productive career events I never dreamed possible.
Deductive/predictive tracking goes like this: Locate a clear footprint left by an animal you're trailing—a so-called hot track. Make an educated guess, based on the animal's previous behavior, about where the animal would probably have gone next. Proceed to that spot. Look for more tracks. If you find no tracks—if the trail runs cold—return to the last hot track, make another educated guess, and repeat. Using these steps, you can follow your wild self as it instinctively migrates toward your perfect career:
Step 1.Discover your hot tracks.
Grab a pen and make a list of every time you remember being utterly, happily absorbed in an activity, no matter how odd. This focused attention is the hot track you're looking for, evidence that your animal self was here.
For example, my client Adeline loved helping her mother bake, playing doubles tennis, assisting her husband as he built his business, and raising money for AIDS research. Dora was happiest while shopping, throwing ceramic pots, and gardening. Lily loved singing in her church choir, going to parties, volunteering for political candidates, and working at a large marketing firm. Write your own list of hot tracks from the past.
Step 2. Predict the next track.
If you were tracking bison in the wild, you might notice they migrate along predictable grassy routes. Geese, by contrast, follow a route from one marshy area to another. To predict the next likely step for your inner animal, scan your environment for conditions that seem likely to foster that happy state of absorption, but are just outside your regular routine. Try an activity within that sphere to see if it's a hot track.
Warning: Many people assume that a hot track is leading them toward a job directly related to that track. Unwittingly, they start heading to the nearest "logical career." For example, Adeline's love of baking initially led her to train as a pastry chef. Dora's shopping passion convinced her she should work as a retail buyer. Lily decided to run for office. Perfectly reasonable predictions—but all these trails froze. Adeline found culinary school boring, Dora loathed working with retailers, and Lily became exhausted and disillusioned running for city council. The lesson: Even if you're pursuing a course that's perfectly rational—a job that makes total sense on paper—emotions like boredom, hopelessness, anger, or anxiety mean the trail's gone cold. Step 3. Return to the last hot track and repeat step 2.
Many of my clients continue endlessly on cold trails. Some cling to established career paths, imagining that the next promotion will bring happiness, despite the obvious lack of clear hot tracks such as enjoyment, fascination, or any heartfelt desire (apart from the wish to bang one's head against a wall). Others gallop along any path, without pausing to check whether it's one their animal prefers. Still other clients give up hope and plod along in so-so jobs. I can't say it enough: If your trail runs cold, return to your last hot track and test a new prediction.
When Adeline went back to her hot tracks and focused on the elements that connected them, she noticed her animal had left a trail of relationships. She loved working with strong, decisive partners. Dora's hot tracks always related to arranging colorful objects. Lily's hot tracks led to large, active groups; teamwork, not politics, was her bliss.
Step 4. Follow your tracks wherever they lead.
You have to commit to following your animal—even if it seems to have the directional ability of my poltergeisted GPS. Trust me, your animal will eventually bring you to the job you were meant to do. Once Adeline realized her strong-partner theme, she teamed up with a friend running online boutiques for custom-designed clothing. Dora discovered that computer graphics let her assemble gorgeous color combinations with a few clicks. She's now a website designer. Lily agreed to organize a conference for an ex-coworker's business and enjoyed it so much, she began freelancing as an event planner.
Note that all these careers use new technologies, but technology was not the track. Adeline went looking for a business partner and just happened to find one with a "virtual" shop. Dora was surfing websites when she noticed that the colors of the sites themselves attracted her. Lily hated computers but loved using social networking to connect with people. All began with "What do I enjoy?" and proceeded to beat the bushes for their best-loved activities. New technologies simply facilitated their passions, which, as I used to tell my GPS, is what technology is meant to do.
As you track your career, remember that your inner animal is following primal instincts, not established paths that will necessarily impress your parents, spouse, and friends. Their expectations—and yours—are an outdated guidance system that will only send you sideways and, in my experience, due south. We live in an increasingly civilized, rational-minded, tech-obsessed world. It's time to break out: Let your wild self explore wild career ideas. Of course, if this makes you nervous, you can always go grovel for a low-paying version of that civilized job you loathed. But as the poet Mary Oliver puts it, "meanwhile...the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—over and over announcing your place in the family of things." Answer that call, following your instinct through the wilderness of career options, and your inner tracking system will take you to exactly the terrain that's right for you. Me like that!
Martha Beck is the author of six books, including Steering by Starlight (Rodale).