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5 Tips for Deciding What to Do With Your Life

The most popular article in the New York TimesSmarter Living newsletter last year was an interview with Millie Tran of the NYT Global team sharing advice on one of the most important questions we face during our lives: What am I going to do with my life?

Tran explained that she had been sharing this presentation with all the women she knew, and at the urging of her colleagues, she decided to make it public in the hope that  it would be useful for others — especially those others who’ve been contemplating what to do with their lives.

Start by looking backward

It may seem impractical to forecast exactly what you’ll be doing next, but one important thing you can do is connect the dots running backward. Identify the common thread. What did you do? What did you learn? What are the themes? Let that be the compass for how to make future decisions.

“Your career is defined by your skills and how you’ve used them, not by any external measure of your progress,” argues Julie Zhuo, vice president for product design at Facebook. Julie commonly writes about leadership and design.

Titles, salaries and affiliations are impermanet, but your skills and experiences stay with you for a lifetime. Careers are also long, so think long-term. It’s not about the job you’re aiming for next, but what life you want. Ask yourself the immediate questions of what next steps to take within the context of your longer and larger career — and life — goals.

What does ‘meaningful’ mean to you?

One perspective that successful people find useful is to think of meaningfulness in terms of four categories: legacy, mastery, freedom and alignment.

Legacy and mastery refer to the body of work and what you hope to achieve, along with the skills you want to develop. Freedom is about the conditions you need to achieve the lifestyle you desire, including salary, benefits, flexibility and the like. And finally, alignment is about belonging, in terms of the culture and values of whatever organization you may be working with. You can learn more about each aspect here.

Do these three things right now

  1. Create a “personal board of directors” by choosing 4 – 5 people you trust to help you test your hunches and make decisions. This can even be informal. The main idea is to avoid making major decisions alone.
  2. Start creating a financial cushion by saving where you can and implementing a budget in areas where you don’t have one. “Having a financial buffer will make it more likely that when you find something meaningful, you’ll be able to act on it,” wrote Amy Gallo in the Harvard Business ReviewHere are a few simple tips for saving a few extra bucks.
  3. Make weekly reflection a priority. Schedule it in your calendar and make a space for yourself to think. You’ll make progress even if you only do this a couple hours each month (or every other week).

Find a sponsor, not just a mentor

High-potential women are overmentored and undersponsored. Sponsoring is a much more specific function and connects mentoring to advancement and getting the promotion. An important distinction is that a sponsor has to be highly placed, so she’s able to pull someone up. Take a moment to look into what sponsorship means here.

Collect experiences and be generous

If you only remember one insight for this, it should be that your career and life are long, but they’re not necessarily linear. You may also have one or many “callings” in life, and there will always be a number of paths to get there. Explore some of them, or all of them! Your path may include some combination of all of them. As an important mentor once told me: collect experiences and be generous.

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Emery Reddy