By GGTW Co-founder and Contributing editor Tricia Yacovone-Biagi
We write often on this blog about knowing who you are and being true to yourself. But perhaps equally as important in knowing who you ARE is knowing who you are NOT. Doing so helps quickly eliminate options so you can begin to really focus on opportunities that allow you to excel and thrive.
For instance, people who know me know how much I dislike math. I mean, really dislike it, as in it makes my palms sweat.
I wasn’t always this way. I won a math commendation award in seventh grade for algebra. But by the time I reached and suffered through the first half of Algebra III, I was D-O-N-E! I decided right then that any career or college major that required math beyond that level was a no-go. Fortunately, my guidance counselor advised me that I had taken enough math to get into college and that was the end of math classes for me. Period. The end.
Of course, deciding I had eliminated math study from my life also meant that I would never have a career in science, which I love. But at that point, I was interested in enough other things that I figured I could let go of my childhood ambition of becoming a marine biologist so I could learn how to speak Dolphin. (Put a pin in that idea for now. I’m coming back to it later.)
Some of the who-I-am-not decisions are really easy and don’t necessarily have lifelong repercussions. For example: Ski jumping? No thank you. Working in a dental office? Not for me. Wingsuit flying? Seriously, how is that even a thing? And others are easy but may have an impact on a person’s life, like the story about our friend Shawna Hyde, who decided on her college major because it didn’t require a class in public speaking.
But sometimes ambiguity–real ambiguity–rears its head. And that can lead to sleepless nights at best, or really bad career choices at worst. Michelle Obama, for example, after years of schooling and training (and expense), decided she didn’t want to be a lawyer after all. But, when she DID decide to change careers, she eventually found a gig she loved. What’s most interesting to me about Michelle Obama’s story, it’s that she only went to law school because it was the next impressive thing to do on her checklist of accomplishments. It had nothing to do with what she really liked, which was working with people and improving their communities.
I hated being a lawyer. I wasn’t suited to the work. I felt empty doing it, even if I was plenty good at it. This was a distressing thing to admit, given how hard I’d worked and how in debt I was. In my blinding drive to excel, in my need to do things perfectly, I’d missed the signs and taken the wrong road. …
Somehow in all my years of schooling, I hadn’t managed to think through my own passions and how they might match up with work I found meaningful.Michelle Obama in Becoming (Crown Publishing, 2018)
Those times of ambiguity warrant a little soul-searching to be sure. But rather than starting with a ‘What I like to do’ list, which often can be really long, I challenge you to start with the ‘What I despise doing’ list instead. This is stuff you tried at least once and decided it’s not for you. For me, (you probably guessed) math is #1 on this column. By extension, any jobs or subjects that involve that task are also eliminated in this step (like my marine biology career).
Next, make another column for the things you won’t even try doing, no matter what. These are things you’ve heard of and immediately thought, “No way I would ever do that job!” I put wing suit flying and massage therapist here.
Congratulations! Now you are on the path to really knowing who you are NOT, and all the related careers that rely on those skills.
Next, reflect on careers that might interest you but merit further investigation. This is personally my favorite part of the process, because it allows me to explore all those things that pique my interest. Sometimes all it takes a conversation with a person in that field or a little research to figure out if the career is a no-go or not. For example, I thought being an interpreter at the United Nations would be a cool career until I discovered I had to be fluent in at least three languages in order to get my foot in the door. I only spoke two and wasn’t in a position to become fluent in a third at the time, so that career became a no-go fairly quickly.
If a conversation with someone in the field or research into the careers don’t satisfy your curiosity, you may need hands-on experience in order to decide what’s a keeper and what isn’t. That’s what led me, for example, to take classes in pottery, several different foreign languages, and geography. Because I wasn’t afraid to try new things, I even ended up with a minor in geography, which I never would have done otherwise.
Which brings us back to my story about wanting to become a marine biologist. What interested me in that field was actually not the biology itself, but the fact that dolphins communicate. I didn’t really want to learn about dolphins’ DNA and synapses and mitochondria, I wanted to learn their language. (You may have already guessed from my story here that learning languages is kind of my thing.) Identifying that the real reason I wanted to study dolphins was to learn more about their ability to communicate, stopped me from going into a field that would require me to master something I really despised and instead focus on the thing I really get jazzed about. That’s a win! And eventually, I did end up working as a translator and interpreter in various parts of the medical field, merging my love of foreign languages with a job that helped people get the health care they needed.
The moral of the story for me? Recognizing that anything that involved math was a dead end for me–or perhaps a dead start–meant that I could open my mind to other career possibilities without getting stuck having to do something that, well, makes my palms sweat.
You might be one of those people who knew at age 12 exactly what you wanted to be when you grew up. And good for you! I know people like this and they achieved their dreams exactly as they planned. But honestly, I only know maybe two or three people who fit in this category. Most of us, I think, journey through our lives and careers and need to reflect from time to time on where we’re going and where we’ve been. And that kind of reflection and focus can really help you go get the world!