Finding The Center

There’s an image that’s been floating around the internet for several years in one of a dozen different variations. I think it’s a very helpful thing to think about, so I’m going to share it and analyze it a little with you. They’re all the same with different phrasing, so here’s one I like:

Those circles represent various things you can do with your time. I think it’s great, but it warrants some explanation, and then we’re going to see how we can make this concept work for you.

So first, let’s look at each of the three main circles.

Things People Get Paid To Do: People get paid for all sorts of stuff, from bio-chemical engineering to early childhood intervention. People make each other coffee and shoes, they tell each other about Egypt and meditation, they take each other places and give each other tools. Human wants are infinite, so there are a whole lot of things you can get paid for.

What You Really Enjoy Doing: I love playing with my kids. I love singing, despite my utter lack of proficiency and frequent requests that I stop. I love helping others succeed. I love driving and listening to music – I love each of those things separately, but I especially love them together. I love movies and writing and designing organizational systems. Hopefully you have quite a few things you love, too – there are more things to love than there are stars in the heavens.

What You Are Good At Doing: People can be good at large groupings of skills or individual tasks and everything in between. Someone can be good at “construction” or someone can be specifically good at one particular aspect of it. Someone can be very tech-savvy in a general way or be amazing at one specific program. You can be good at something very concrete like calculus, or you can be good at something harder to measure like leadership. You can be amazing at flicking paper footballs through goalposts made of pencils stuck in erasers at your desk.

So what happens when these things overlap?

Dream.” When you have an activity that is something that (some) people get paid for and that you really enjoy, but isn’t something you’re good at, you get the Armchair Activities. If you’ve ever been called an Armchair Quarterback or Armchair Economist (or called someone else that), then you know what I mean. It’s being an amateur. I don’t love the term “dream” because something might not necessarily be your dream just because you enjoy doing it, but it works in one sense: If you don’t do anything to improve, it will definitely stay firmly in dreamland.

Hobby.” When you combine something you enjoy with something you’re good at, but it isn’t something people get paid for, we tend to call that a “hobby.” Some things don’t really feel like hobbies – for instance, I love playing with my kids and I like to think I’m a pretty good dad, but I wouldn’t exactly call it a “hobby” – but you get the idea. These are valuable things in your life and worth embracing, but they’re generally things you’re paying for in one way or another, not things that are paying you.

Drag.” Hahaha, I don’t love “drag” for this category, but I’ll admit that this is where most people’s jobs end up. Stuff that people pay for and that you’re good enough at for them to pay you, specifically – but that you don’t necessarily love. I don’t like “drag” because honestly I think many people can just do their job and find happiness in other areas of their life, but I’ll also admit that most people doing that don’t reach any sort of exceptional heights in their profession.

And then there’s that middle section. The fountain of youth, El Dorado, Atlantis. Except it totally doesn’t have to be fictional. So let’s look at some actionable advice for how to find a career that puts you there!

One way is the direct approach. Take those three big circles and make them into lists for yourself. Don’t do it all at once – brainstorming is a process that’s hard to force. But make a list for each of the three, put 3-5 things on each list, and then over the next week or two, keep putting stuff on them each time you think of one. Each time you get a compliment on something you’ve done, put it on the “stuff you’re good at” list. Each time you find yourself smiling or whistling, look at what you’re doing and put it on the “stuff you enjoy doing” list. And each time you meet someone cool, interesting, smart or nice – find out what they do and put it on the “stuff people get paid for” list. The lists will grow quite a bit over a few weeks.

Once you have some pretty sizable lists for each circle, look for any overlap. Any tasks that might meet in the middle. For instance, you might have found yourself smiling while you were fixing a leaky pipe under your sink, making you realize that you actually enjoy working with your hands. And someone may have thanked you for doing such a great job helping them assemble their kid’s new go-kart. And then you met someone at the bar who you had a great conversation with that turned out to be in fabrication. Those might have been separate incidents that didn’t really connect until you were looking at them in this way, but now all of a sudden the pieces fit, and maybe you really weren’t meant to be an accountant and that’s just what your parents told you would make you “successful” twenty years ago.

Beyond that, all the technical stuff is easy. Jumping in and figuring out how to go into that industry is a piece of cake compared to deciding to do it. Start with a Google search of “how do I work in fabrication” and go from there! Or heck, just talk to that friend that does it and follow the threads from there.

So that’s one way. But there’s another way that can be just as good. Take one of your existing activities in the Dream, Hobby or Drag categories and upgrade it!

How do you upgrade it? It’s different for each category, but not hard to understand:

Dream: This is pretty simple – practice! You already love this and it’s already something people pay for. You just have to get good at it. Chances are really, really good that the only things holding you back are some combination of A.) the belief that you can’t and B.) an unwillingness to pay the cost in time and effort. Well, A is complete hogwash and B is a switch you have to flip for yourself, but just know that it’s 100% possible to do this.

Hobby: Monetize! For almost every possible hobby, there’s a way to turn it into an enterprise. If you’re good at something and you love doing it, guess what – other people love doing that thing too, aren’t as good as you but want to be, and are willing to pay to make up the difference. Consider – for your hobby, have you ever read a blog, watched a video series, bought a book, etc.? Well, someone made those things – and in one way or another, someone is probably making money from it. Follow the threads!

Drag: This is probably the toughest one, but it’s possible. If you’re good at something and people are paying you money to do it, figure out what you hate about it and see if you can eliminate that aspect without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Maybe you’d love what you’re doing if you had a different boss or a slightly different spread of workload. I made a lot of incremental improvements in my career by figuring out which specific aspects of my job I didn’t like and then moving into something that was really similar but with some slight tweaks. You’d be surprised how much even small tweaks can improve your enjoyment of your task. Try a transfer to a different department, a different schedule, or even the same industry but a different company within it. Then see what’s changed. If you still want to pull your hair out, you can still bail out – but at least you’ll know more.

You might not ever reach the perfect center; the apex of perfection probably doesn’t exist. But you can be constantly moving towards the center, doing more and more stuff that you enjoy, makes money, and you’re good at – and less stuff that doesn’t fall in those categories. That’s the path to a happier life.

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