It's been about a year since I decided to quit a software development bootcamp and turn my back on the coding, digital marketing, and any other career that would keep me chained to a desk for the rest of my life. I wanted to find a job that felt rewarding, meaningful, and fun enough that it would be worth putting up with any and all bullshit that invariably accompanies work. To one person, that job might have been investment banking. To another, it might have been software development. And to me, for now, it is fitness coaching.
Have you ever gone out to dinner with a bunch of friends, and someone asks you what you want to eat, and you answer that you don't know? So then they start suggesting all kinds of things on the menu, and you keep saying things like, "Nah, I'm not in the mood for that," or "Ew, that sounds gross?" That's what its like when you're trying to figure out the answer to the question, "What should I do next?" It's easy to rule out some obviously wrong answers. You're never going to have a hard time choosing between "become a meth addict and die homeless and alone" or "blow your remaining savings on chocolate and move in with your parents for the next twenty years." But it's hard to figure out what you really, truly, deeply want. Sometimes you just have to choose something from the menu that doesn't sound too great, but doesn't sound too bad either, and see how it tastes. Wouldn't it be better to just go with your gut and order something delicious?
When I decided to make a change, I put a lot of work into deciding what to do next. I started by trying to remind myself of who I was and who I wanted to be. I went for long bike rides, hiked alone, took classes, read articles, attended talks, and tried to do as many different activities and odd jobs as I could. I pondered questions like, "What makes me happy now? What made me happy when I was a little kid? What had I wanted to be when I grew up?" People don't change that much throughout their lives, and if I could remember what had made baby Martha Jean tick, maybe I could determine what grown-up Martha Jean would tick best at.
When I was little kid, I had two favorite games that my friends and I played: "Teacher" and "Playing Pretend." As the oldest kid in the group by at least a year or two, I was good at persuading younger kids to do what I wanted, so I got to orchestrate a lot of the play. You may call that "being bossy," but I call that "developing leadership skills at an early age."
The game "Teacher" was actually a subcategory of "Playing Pretend." We took turns pretending to be teachers and students in a classroom. We conducted actual lessons and had real assignments and grades. I loved teaching, not just because I got to boss the other kids around unchallenged for five minutes, but because making the connection between you, a piece of knowledge, and another person feels like magic. The learning process is the closest thing to real magic that we can ever experience. One minute, you know nothing, the next, BOOM, you know something, and that changes you forever, just like a magic spell.
"Playing Pretend" could mean all kinds of things, but I usually tried to turn it into some kind of obstacle course or adventure race. We'd all agree on a basic storyline like "steal the treasure from the monster in the castle" and then I'd set up a a matching chain of events, like "swing across the monkey bars to avoid the lava, scale a tree to get into the castle, and crawl through some plastic playground equipment to reach the tresure." We were the happiest, most enthusiastic spartan-racing ninja warriors you've ever scene.
So, what's the point of looking back on these childhood memories?
By distilling the happiest moments of your past down to their core components and identifying patterns among them, you can deduce what will make you happier in the future. For example, I considered those games alongside other times when I felt happiest as a kid: in Taekwondo class, doing ballet, running around outside at my Grandmother's house, learning gymnastics and cheerleading, reading and writing. I don't have any fond memories of sitting in front of a computer screen or playing video games. I don't like sitting down. I like moving. I like teaching. I like working with people and leading groups. I like` learning new skills and sharing them with others. I like living a life full of magic.
This careful, strategic analysis is what led me to decide that I didn't want to pursue a desk job anymore. I didn't just have an existential crisis. I had an existential awakening. It led me to look at careers that involved something I'd always been passionate about: movement and fitness. It also led me to rediscover a skill that I had forgotten I had: teaching and coaching. And it led me down a new path, one that is difficult but immensely rewarding.
If you're stuck and can't decide where to head next, take some time to remember who you were and what brought you joy before all your magic was "churched out, spanked out, washed out, and combed out." Try that, and see if it doesn't lead you where you need to go.