Having reinvented what I do several times now, I've figured out how to do a search for "what's next," one that leads to clarity and momentum:
A. Name Your InvisiblesSeveral years ago, I was shutting down a company I had grown from scratch to be a several million dollar business. This meant starting over, which I conceptually had no problem with. I was, however, missing clues about what I could bring to a brand-new situation. I made a list of 10 people from varied backgrounds whose opinions I respected. Most of them had known me for some time, but not closely, which gave them perspective. I asked them to help name the things I was good at, or attributes they had observed. They named many things that were largely invisible to me—things I had taken for granted. For example, many of them pointed out my economics background and how I was often the person who spotted early the little things (the micro, in economic terms) that were signs of bigger trends (the macro). Some insights were positive, like "You honor the dignity of each person" and others less so, like "You are impatient." Their comments illustrated different aspects of what made me utterly me. You see, each of us is standing in a spot no one else occupies. That unique viewpoint is born of our accumulated experience and perspective and our vision. This is your onlyness—the thing that only you can bring into a situation. You are getting others' help to see and describe what you naturally bring to any situation, independent of prior roles.
B. Ask for Advice (Knowing Most of It Will Be Wrong)When I asked people to suggest what I could or should do next, I got a wide range of responses. Many pointed me to their own career choices, like venture capitalism or academia. If I'd simply pursued those suggestions, I was going to let their truth become my truth. Instead of dismissing an idea that didn't feel entirely right, I became interested in why they thought that career choice was right for me. That led to better discussion. This kind of exchange is necessary because it lets you ask better, deeper questions, getting your informal adviser to spell out what specific ways you can add value. One thing I previously never considered (corporate directorship) ended up being a great match and is part of the portfolio of work I do now.
C. Ignore Those Who Do Not See Your Future (for Now)About 40 percent of the people I talked with simply couldn't imagine me doing something I hadn't already done. I found this disheartening, to the point of tears. It was as if they couldn't imagine me doing anything besides what I’d already done. It felt as if they were defining my future only by my past. They insisted I provide evidence or data as proof that I could take on new roles. But the thing about any of our aspirations or dreams is that they are always—as of yet—unproven. So of course this is impossible. To go towards a new future, action is the thing. I knew writing would be key to whatever I did next. Without knowing how exactly that pursuit would play itself out, I started writing every day and publishing content on my own blog (which virtually no one read back then). After about six months, an editor from Harvard Business Review approached me to write for them. A year later, a book was in early drafts, and a year after that, it was purchased, published and ultimately named a "best business book" of the year by Fast Company. The world will give you feedback on what works and what doesn't. But first, you must do the work, relentlessly being yourself. If you wait for someone else to first give you permission to pursue a new direction, then you are, in effect, seeking permission to be yourself.
We become what we do (and do not do)—so what will you do next?
Nilofer Merchant is the author of 11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era and The New How. She's also a TED speaker. And, of course, she's a corporate director for both public and private companies. She can be found on Twitter at @nilofer.
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