I need some personal information from you before we begin. You don’t have to give it to me, I just need to prime your memory. I’d like you to think of a separate point in your life for each these circumstances:
- You had no direction and no idea what you wanted to do.
- You felt completely helpless.
- You didn’t care about your career prospects.
Now think of a point in time when all three existed simultaneously. When you have yours, keep reading.
I was sitting at a bar in September 2012. That’s almost too cliché to be true. I was sitting at a bar drinking a glass of red wine, being served by a friend whose upbeat dialogue served me not. I was inconsolable over where my life had gone. I was a 25-year-old white male, living in Miami, thinking about privileges. The privilege afforded to me through my affluent family, want-for-nothing upbringing, and almost limitless opportunities afforded me. It started when I spent four years at college basically avoiding the decision of what to do or where to go.
About six months before graduation, I decided it would be wise to look for a job. With a whopping 2.3 GPA and next-to-no extracurricular activities (forget an internship or study abroad), I decided to visit Los Angeles, where my sister lived, to seek out some employment. Los Angeles, as a single unit, decided it was not interested in my skillset, or lack thereof. Discourage, I gave up right then on the US job market. After a five-hour flight home and three Google searches, I decided to move overseas to teach English to Czech people. Remember: I had no direction, so any direction was better than standing in my puddle of self-pity.
Einstellung Effect: Solving a problem in a specific way that was used in previous experiences, regardless of a better solution.
I ran into an issue of my work visa being renewed too late; without much thought, I decided to leave the country and try something else. Different problem. Same solution. After an eight-hour flight and a few phone calls, I was the new bartender at a local country club.
It’s now March 2009. Bitterness over having to take such a job created a lot of dissonance inside me. In next three-and-a-half years, I moved from one bar to another, rationalizing that each one was temporary. Over time, from the start of college until that day at the bar, I had just stopped looking for anything to do with my life.
Unmonitored, rationalization breeds apathy.
My adversity was self-inflicted. To be sure, in high school I was ranked 8th out of 400+ students. In college, I was a few GPA points away from academic probation by graduation. Self-inflicted, indeed.
So, where does this story turnaround? It just seems depressingly uneventful thus far.
As I sat at this bar, staring at my red wine, I realized I am a textbook example of self-service bias (Despite my low GPA, I do remember a few things from all those Psych classes). It’s where you blame others for your failures and take credit for your successes. Successes weren’t an issue, but failures? I couldn’t blame enough people: “My college didn’t help me find a job. The economy sucks. I’m a white male and everyone wants diversity. None of my friends will help me. Nobody hires a Psych major. I was forced to go to college and I wasn’t ready.” They weren’t even creative.
No more jumping in the puddle of self-pity. Time to work.
But where should I start? It was a positive sentiment, but the world didn’t change just because I had a revelation. I had to change myself by developing some kind of plan. It wasn’t extensive or exhaustive, and it evolved as I completed more and more of it, but the most important step was starting.
The Architecture of Improvement:
- How you do one thing is how you do everything. I wrote down everything that I wanted to improve, and not just in my professional life. Everything from debt to weight gain to a lack of relationship. I have tackled almost everything on my original list, but have since added new items as my passions and interests have changed. I went back to school to get my MBA and have changed my career prospects to education and management consulting.
- Crawl before you walk. This is not the time to eat the biggest frog first. In trying to regain a feeling of control, I needed a snowball effect. I started with something that relied on absolutely nothing else: my fitness. I decided to get in shape and eat healthy. I’ve lost over 30 lbs and 10% body fat. I still struggle with pizza, but my doctor visits don’t stress me out anymore.
- Reading is fundamental. School was over, but learning was still on the table. With a book recommendation from a friend, I started on my journey of self-improvement through reading as many books as I had time for (For the curious few, the book was Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box). I read fiction, non-fiction, business related, textbooks, and everything in between. Every time I finished a book, I discussed it with someone to solidify it in my memory. I read 24 books in 2016 and set a goal to read 100 in 2017, of which I’ve finished 60 at the time of this writing.
- A penny for your thoughts. There are (literally) billions of people who are complete strangers on this planet and they all do something. Since I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I turned to some of them to find out what path they were on. I wanted to have as many conversations as possible until I heard something, or a combination of somethings, that sparked my interest. I ended up teaching myself graphic design, learning the basics of marketing, communications, accounting, and effective management. At my last job, I created three positions that didn’t exist by expanding my interests and developing the business.
- Don’t stop when you’re tired, stop when you’re done. I woke up every day and started a short routine. Exercise, eat, read, shower. All things that are totally in my control. With that, I built up perseverance to stick with my goals. I still do that morning routine today. It has led me to practicing my language skills and I now have regular conversations with new friends in foreign countries in two other languages.
- No one is an island. No longer being an empty shell of a person, I decided it was time to relationship hunt. I’m not limiting the definition only to the romantic type. I needed healthy relationships with friends and family too. But if you want people to hang out with, you have to listen to them and care about them. Listening became my new drug. I reached out to people I hadn’t talked to in years, including my estranged biological father with whom I hadn’t spoken in over 13 years. We now talk on a regular basis.
Now back to those points in your life I asked you to think of at the beginning. At some point during all this, with those thoughts readily accessible, I’m hoping you thought about what you did, did not do, could have, should have, and would have done in those circumstances. What’s been done is a sunk cost. You can change today, as soon as you stop reading this article. So as a favor to you, I’m going to stop writing and let you get on with your day.