If today were the last day of your life, would you want to be doing what you’re doing?
Every day of his working life, Steve Jobs looked in the mirror and asked himself that question, he told a Stanford graduating class in a justly famous speech. “Whenever the answer has been no for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something,” he added.
He lived by his word. At Apple, then NeXT, then Pixar, then Apple again, the answer was most often yes. So much so that he spent much of the last two or so years of his life continuing his work at Apple despite being desperately ill with pancreatic cancer. He worked right up to the day before he died.
We should all ask ourselves the same question. If you knew you were in the last day, the last month, or the last year of your life, would you want to be doing the work you’re doing now? Would you want the life you’re living? If the answer is no, should you change something? How would you go about it?
There aren’t any easy answers, but asking the questions may help get you closer to a career that you love as much as Jobs loved his. So if your work can’t pass the Steve Jobs test (most people’s can’t, most of the time), consider trying some of these steps.
1. Decide if you would choose the career you already have.
I recently began coaching with executive coach and author Wendy Capland. The process began with a survey that included this thought-provoking question: “Did you choose your career or did it choose you?”
For most of us, including me, the answer is a combination of both. But ask yourself this: If you were starting from scratch, would you choose the career you have now? Or would you go in a completely different direction? If so, what would that direction be? Would having a career that is closer to your dreams mean making a complete change, such as quitting your job and going back to school? Or are there elements of your ideal career you could bring into the job you have now?
2. Figure out what fear is stopping you from doing.
Embarrassing as it is to take career advice from a tchotchke, I was very much struck a few years ago when I saw a small decorative sign hanging in a friend’s house that read: “What would you try if you knew you could not fail?”
That question is worth really thinking about. Would you swim the English Channel? Join the space program? Launch a startup? Write a novel? Now imagine yourself actually doing some of these things. Does it make your heart sing? Would you love doing it enough to put in the time and effort to do it well?
If the answer is yes but you’re still not doing what would make you happy, then it could be that fear of failing is holding you back. We all give in to fear of failure some of the time–I do, more than I like to admit. But the truth is that when we let that fear hold us back, we’re robbing ourselves. Because, as Jobs knew even at a young age, one of these days really will be our last. And when that day comes, we should be able to look back on a life built on the choices we made and the things we dared, not the chances we missed because we were too afraid to grab at them.
3. Imagine your ideal life.
This was another question from Capland’s survey, and it’s a great one. In your ideal life, where would you live? What would you do all day? If you were working, what and where would that work be? Why would the work be important to you? What would you enjoy about it?
Now comes the hard part: Compare that ideal life with the life and career you currently have. If they’re a close match, congratulations–you can stop reading this column. For most of us, though, there’s some distance between the life we would consider ideal and the one we actually have, and we need to decide if we’re willing to make the changes required to close that gap. But before we can start that process, we need a clear idea of what we want, so take some time over this one. It’s a good idea to write down some thoughts, and get as specific as you can.
4. Figure out the steps between here and there.
The huge distance between our current lives and our ideal ones is often what holds us back–at least that’s how it works for me. Like any long trip, you can’t just jump from one place to the other. You need to figure out what steps you’ll have to take along the way, and what intermediate goals you’ll need to reach.
Do you need further education to have the career you really want? If so, can you take some time off to attend classes? Take evening classes? Your first steps will be to figure out where and when you want to study, and then applying to the program you’ve chosen.
If you’re not sure what your first step is, good! Now you know what questions you need to ask. Find some people who seem to be living the life you want and ask them how they would recommend getting started. Knowing where you want to go is the essential first step toward having work that you love so much you would do it on the last day of your life. Knowing what you need to do to get there is almost as essential.
5. Now take that first step.
Right now, there’s something you can do that would move you closer to your ideal life. It might be something small. It may be as simple as looking up a website with information about your profession, or making a phone call, or buying a book.
Whatever it is, do it today. And you’ll be one step closer to the life you really want.