Remember last week when I explained why it’s so difficult for abstract thinkers to figure out what to do in life and promised to tell you the best way to find the answer?
Well, here it is. It’s deceptively simple, but this one important perspective shift can change everything.
Go deep, my friend.
Or rather, go abstract…
Stuck in a ‘bottom up’ world?
See, the problem is that we live in a world where we’re taught to make choices based on concrete parameters.
(Do I like this? Does it pay well? Does it fit with my strengths? Does it fit with the image that I have of myself? How will others perceive me? Will I enjoy the lifestyle?)
You’re told to make three interlocking circles of your Interests and Skills and Opportunity and then Find The Sweet Spot Where They Intersect. (Umm … can I have more paper, please?)
This all works relatively well for concrete thinkers, since it parallels the way their brains tend to process information and experience.
But it puts abstract thinkers at a distinct disadvantage. Our brains are longing for big-picture, consequential meaning … and the breadcrumbs of concrete reality feel really incomplete, like they’re leading nowhere.
…make wine in Napa?
…save starving children in Africa?
…become a professional kite surfer in Spain?
I dunno. I mean, they all have things going for them….
We spin our wheels trying to figure out what to do because we’re searching bottom-up, rather than top-down.
While I’m a firm believer that ALL of your jobs will ultimately help you, I also know there’s a better way.
Adopt a 'top-down' perspective
When you think top-down, you start with the bigger meaning and later focus on how that might manifest itself concretely.
As they say in the military, you need to "get out of the weeds" in order to see better.
The great news about this approach is that even if you decide to pivot directions or tactics down the road, you’ll still feel fulfilled knowing that you’re consistently working on the thing that brings your life meaning. No more kicking yourself for wasted time.
The other great news is that your enhanced clarity and passion will likely make you much more successful more quickly, and success breeds satisfaction.
So how, exactly, do you figure out this bigger meaning? (A very concrete question, by the way.)
It’s absolutely doable, but of course it takes work. Here are my three favorite prompts to get you started:
How big-picture, abstract thinkers can find their purpose:
1. Ask why.
You can’t get to your deeper purpose - your ‘why’ – without asking a lot of why-type questions.
You can start with a concrete question (find my Top 5 here). Answer it, and then ask yourself to go deeper. Why? Why did you answer that way? What about that is meaningful to you? What does it say about how you want your life and the world around you to be?
Keep asking “Why?” three to five times, distilling your answers each time.
2. Search for historical themes.
Think back over your life, paying attention to the things that you found most moving, both the positive and negative.
Write down what made you most excited, what felt the most fulfilling, what brought you the most peace … but also the things that made you burn, that made you sick to your stomach, that brought you to tears.
This works best if you’ve kept consistent journals, but you can also look back through correspondence with close friends and loved ones. As a last resort, rely on your memory. Work chronologically.
Once you’re done, review your notes looking for recurring patterns, for themes. Write those down on a separate sheet of paper. What do those themes have in common? Use a separate sheet. By whittling this down, you’re actually moving from the concrete into the abstract.
Keep distilling these until you’ve arrived at ten or so primary themes or motivations. Then go through the practice of asking “Why?” described above. Sometimes positive and negative experiences are fundamentally related. They’re just two sides of the same coin.
3. Break out your passport.
The hard truth is that nothing pushes you outside your comfort zone and makes you question your values more than … tragedy.
Since nobody wants to voluntarily undergo tragedy, the next best (and much more pleasurable) thing is travel.
But not just any travel. This has got to be mildly uncomfortable if you want maximum effect. A quick jaunt to a 5-star resort in Bermuda just won’t cut it.
You need to go somewhere for an extended duration (the amount is different for everybody), and you need to feel like a fish out of water.
Major bonus points if you don’t speak the language! Give yourself limited resources so you can’t easily buy yourself out of discomfort. Ideally, you’ll do things like get on the wrong bus, eat a meal of bread and fruit because you’re too overwhelmed / disgusted to try anything else, and finally stand up to that flying spider-thingy on the wall.
Along the way, as you make some of the best friends of your life and can reflect on these things in good company, ask yourself why. What is it about X that you find so achingly beautiful? Why did you get so upset over Y? Why do you keep thinking about how you could change Z? Once you have the answers, ask why all over again.
Last week I used the hypothetical case of a travel-lover to show how someone could get led astray if they merely focused on the concrete. Just because you love travel doesn’t mean that you’ll be excited to be a travel agent, or feel uplifted as a travel blogger, or won’t be tearing your hair out as a flight attendant.
But if you keep asking yourself why you love travel, and figure out that it’s because you’re mesmerized by how people choose to adorn themselves and their surroundings, and that more than anything you want to awaken that appreciation of beauty in everyone you can – especially those living in a relatively gray, industrial world … well now you’re on to something!
That realization will lead you in a totally new direction. Instead of a travel agent, maybe you’ll become an entrepreneur that organizes tours specifically focused on beauty and artistry. Maybe you’ll launch an inner-city street art project. Or you’ll become an artist.
The principal difference is this: Rather than bouncing around in jobs that might eventually feel fulfilling, you’ve got purpose from Day 1. You’ll know that you are devoting yourself to something that is quintessentially ‘you,’ yet something bigger than one person.
And that, my abstract-thinking friend, really means something.
Here’s to the power of abstraction,