I talk to a lot of young people who are unhappy in a job, a city, or a school. It’s a big step to admit you’re unhappy. The next step is where most people get lost. They think the best way out is to discover a situation that will make them happy, line everything up, and then make the transition. It rarely works that way.
Instead, just leave. Quit. Exit. Stop doing the things you hate.
Shedding the bad is the best and fastest way to find the good. A lot of people think this is a cavalier approach (or “crazy”, or “dangerous”), but most of the best stuff in life isn’t safe. Here are two reasons I think plotting a perfect path to a better life doesn’t work as well as just getting the hell out of a crappy, dull, soul-sucking situation...
You don’t yet know what makes you happy
You’re sitting at a desk unhappy, slowly becoming a shell of yourself. “That’s it, I’m getting out of here!”, you say, “As soon as I find out what I really want.”
How many hours of web browsing and thinking will it take? At first it seems pretty easy. You imagine yourself a surf instructor in a beach town and smile. Then you think about how much you hate getting sand in your laptop and unreliable WiFi and bad food, and…
Hmm. That might not make you happy either. You think about all kinds of jobs (based entirely on titles from course catalogs and majors) and try to picture the day to day. Images of office work from sitcoms fill your head and you’re not so sure.
You’re not a bad person for having no clear vision of the perfect future. You don’t need a concrete goal or a five year plan to live a full and happy life. You don’t need to know what will make you happy – in fact, you probably can’t. You are dynamic. So is the world. Even if you find the recipe for happiness today it may change tomorrow. You need to discover and rediscover it through trial and error. It’s probably hiding somewhere you never thought to look, in a job you didn’t know existed, or a project you’ll have to create yourself.
Finding that perfect next step won’t happen through hours of analysis and cost-benefit calculations. It will happen through a series of experiences, accidents, and experiments. The only rule: don’t do stuff you hate. Everything else is fair game.
You don’t have a strong enough incentive to find it
Do you really have to quit? Certainly you can discover something great even while you’re stuck in a lame situation. It’s possible, but unlikely. You are a human. Humans respond to incentives.
If your environment is relatively comfortable, even if dreary and numbing, you have little incentive to explore and do all the things necessary to find what you love. My favorite economist said discomfort is a precondition to human action. It’s got to be pretty significant discomfort to motivate you to do something significant. Your material means and prefabricated social scene might be slowly sucking your life-force, but they’re not uncomfortable, which is why they are so dangerous. Nassim Taleb calls a monthly salary one of the most harmful addictions.
Move to a new city where you know no one. You’ll be amazed how creative you can be at forging connections and venturing out. Quit your job and try to launch that project. You’ll be amazed how well you can sell when you need the money to eat. Drop out of school and build a better signal than a tired, uniform degree. You’ll be amazed how many more ways there are to succeed personally and professionally when you can’t lean on the old standby.
Put yourself in a pinch. Force your own hand. As soon as you know you’re in a really bad situation, leave it. You don’t need a next thing all lined up and perfectly positioned.
You’ll begin to discover what you really love and respond to an incentive structure that rewards hustle and innovation and growth in all the right ways.