When I started my first job in consulting, I went in with soaring expectations and a shiny new collection of Brooks Brothers suits. I'd studied hard for my case interviews, researched the firm at length, and knew in my soul that it was the ideal place to build my career.
I utterly despised it within a week of my start date.
And by 'utterly despised,' I mean sleepless nights, mid-day tears in the bathroom, and an unshakable urge to flee. And, if I am being totally honest, a confidence-shattering case of doubt in myself and my ability to make big decisions such as choose a career path. I couldn't put my finger on exactly what it was that drove such a deep emotional response in me, but I didn't want to suffer through the time required to reflect. I wanted out, ASAP.
I began frantically applying for jobs, ranging from Starbucks barista in Chicago to operations analyst for a company in Japan. One day after I accepted a role that would take me far from Washington, D.C., my friends and my relationship with my now-husband, I met a woman at my firm's office who sensed my distress and gave me the best career advice I've ever received:
"Colleen," she said, "Never run from, only run to a position. You need to figure out what you want, and then take logical steps to get it." She asked me to slow down and take time to complete a simple exercise in structuring my thoughts, and if I still wanted that job afterwards, I should be confident moving forward.
Taking her advice helped me to make the right decisions to design a life that I really wanted, and I'm convinced that my life would be dramatically different today if I hadn't completed this honest assessment of myself. In fact, I saved my original notes and revisit them periodically to see if I need to refine anything. It's strangely comforting how little has changed.
So, without further ado, here's the simple method I used to design the life I wanted:
#1 Get three sheets of plain white, eight-and-a-half by eleven inch computer paper out of your printer.
#2 Label one page "Things that I dislike."
#3 Set a timer for 60 minutes.
#4 Without judgement, list every possible thing that comes to mind in that hour when you think of your dislikes.
These can be aspects about a job, a boss, a city, an apartment, relationships, you name it. If you feel like you can go for longer than an hour, feel free to keep writing.
My list included things such as "Sitting in traffic," "Being micromanaged," "Laziness," "Negative attitudes," "Downtime and boredom," "Making pivot tables," "Sitting in a cubicle all day long," "Talking on the phone," and "Feeling like I need to fit a mold."
#5 Set that list aside, and take a second clean white page and label it "Things that I love."
#6 Set a timer for 60 minutes.
#7 Same as with your dislike list, absolve yourself of judgement and list every possible thing that comes to mind in that hour when you think of things that bring you joy.
Again, if you feel like you can go for longer than an hour, feel free to keep writing.
My list included things such as "Having time to spend with Wes every day," "Interacting with positive, thoughtful people," "Exploring new places," "Being challenged and pushed to my limits," "Feeling like the work I do matters," "Bikram yoga," "Helping clients to solve their problems," "Being friends with my co-workers," and "Making lots of money." (She said don't apply any judgement!)
#8 Set that list aside, and take a break from both lists for a day.
#9 After taking some space, get your "dislikes" list and a red pen.
Go back through each item on your list, and ask yourself: "Is this non-negotiable?" If yes, circle it in red pen. This is something you absolutely CANNOT have in your ideal career/life/relationship. It's a subjective assessment, but be as honest with yourself as possible and pay attention to how you're feeling when you're making that call.
For example, "Being micromanaged" is something that I absolutely cannot stand and would not be able to tolerate in a job. That's circled on my list. "Sitting in traffic" is something that's negotiable on my list, because I don't have the same abhorrence towards it. (Thanks largely due to books on tape and really great coffee travel mugs…)
#10 Next, get your "loves" list and a red pen.
Go back through each item on your list, and ask yourself the same question: "Is this non-negotiable?" If yes, circle it in red pen. This is something you absolutely MUST have in your ideal career/life/relationship.
For example, "Being challenged and pushed to my limits" is circled on my list, as is "Feeling like the work I do matters," and "Interacting with positive, thoughtful people." These are all aspects of a career and life that I absolutely needed.
#11 After identifying the non-negotiables on each list, take your final sheet of paper and label it: "My Life Filter."
Draw a line down the center of the page. On one side, write "NO" and on the other side write "YES." Copy each of your non-negotiable items from your "dislike" list into the "NO" column. Each of your non-negotiable items from your "love" list goes into the "YES" column.
This is your life filter, the facts that you'll use to evaluate any step in your life that you're not quite sure about. It's a structured way to understand yourself, your needs and wants, and eliminate some of the noise that tends to distract us into decisions that might not be quite right.
I took my filter and applied it to the job I'd verbally accepted, and realized that it would lead me to a position that had many aspects listed in my "NO" column and just a few listed in my "YES" column. So, I turned the job down - confidently. This filter helped me to not only have the resolve to stick it out until I found the right fit (the firm and group that I'm still working for, years later), but has helped me to make many big, life-altering decisions.
My career, my relationships with husband, my family and friends, the city I am living in, and many other aspects of my life have been impacted by this simple exercise. The "Life Filter" might not be right for everyone, and I'm sure there are a lot of methods out there that people use to help design their lives.
If you've had a similar struggle, I'd love to hear what helped you through it and the methods that have worked well for you!
P.S. The "life inspiration" cards pictured are by one of my new favorite artists, Oorn. Her work articulates some of the themes on my life filter!