Few things cause more angst in your 20s than struggling to come to terms with what you want out of life. But the best insight often reveals itself the moment you accept that you cannot be anything you want. In a world that loves empty sentiments and the delusional advice that you will be great at whatever you set your mind to, it’s an empowering realization.
I recently received a LinkedIn request from someone fresh out of college whose headline read: “Experienced Project Manager, Thoughtful Leader, Aspiring Musician and World Traveler.” My immediate impulse was to send out the word that, at long last, we’ve found the next Leonardo da Vinci. But empathy set in soon after, as I realized I was this exact person for most of the past decade.
When you trick yourself into believing you can be anything it often leads to paralysis. You become unwilling to make a single move out of fear of closing the door on a potentially rewarding alternative. But the reality is that many directions in life are mutually exclusive. Only once you check your inflated sense of self, are you free to focus on a single direction and begin creating momentum.
To say I struggled to determine what to dedicate my time to during most of my 20s would be an understatement. It wasn’t that I had a shortage of interests, but the opposite–I felt like I had far too many. I wanted to be everything and as a result ended up unable to commit to anything. I convinced myself that I could balance dozens of unrelated goals. But meaningful progress proved impossible because I was unwilling to prioritize.
As I came to this realization, I discovered a thought exercise from Warren Buffett which he refers to as his “not to do” list. Rather than approaching my lack of direction and focus in the same way that I had for years, Buffett uses inversion to reframe the problem. And for me, this made a world of difference. It was only after I used this model that I was able to refocus and commit to the right things.
Here’s how to do it:
1) Write down your top 25 aspirations
List out 25 things that you want out of your life. 25 is general rule of thumb, go crazy. No matter how ridiculous you think they might be, get them on the page. My original list was all over the place and included things like publish a book, become a travel photographer, join/start a forward-thinking technology company, study Stoicism, and live near the mountains. Side note: There were far more ridiculous goals, but I’ve omitted those to avoid public humiliation.
2) Circle your top five
Ask yourself, which five aspirations are essential to having a good life. Which can you not live without? Which leverage your natural talents and allow you pursue more of what you enjoy? Remember, most of these are aspirations and goals for a reason. You’ll have to put in years of dedication and hard work to achieve them. Figure out which include a process you’re able to immerse yourself in and sustain for indefinite periods of time, because that’s what it takes.
There are certain goals that you should be able to cross off with relative ease, while others might require additional soul searching. “Become a travel photographer” was an easy one for me. That’s a dismal idea for someone who is average at photography and has no natural curiosity to further my skills in this area. All it took was a simple reminder to look beyond the romanticized end result and consider the process involved.
3) Avoid the other 20 at all costs
Once you’ve narrowed it down to your top five, bury the other 20. Buffett refers to these as goals to ‘avoid at all costs.’ They’re particularly dangerous because as long as you allow them to, they’ll linger in the back of your mind, distracting you from making progress where it matters. This can be difficult to come to terms with, but it’s essential if you want to contribute your best work to the world. You only have a small window of opportunity. Your focus must be dialed in to your top five if you have any hopes of accomplishing them.
This exercise demands a deep level of honesty and introspection, but can be done in a single afternoon if you’re dialed in. Don’t get too caught up in the specifics, you can adapt it however you see fit. But no matter how you approach the exercise, it proves to be one of the most valuable frameworks to help you negotiate your priorities and reflect on life’s more difficult decision.
My personal approach is to use the top five for larger aspirations which encompass dozens of smaller goals. One example that made my final list is publishing a book. I’ve broken this down further into its individual components, which I view as necessary to the success of the greater objective. These include growing my newsletter to 10,000 subscribers, writing shorter articles that cover a range of subjects to see which gain the most traction, and partnering with online publications that match my style to generate additional exposure.
There’s great value in using your 20s to try as many new things as possible and allowing your work to teach you as you go. In this trial by fire, you often learn as much about what’s worth sticking out by discovering what you don’t enjoy and what you’re not good at.
But you have to be realistic. The earlier you cross the irrelevant off your list, the faster you’ll be able to make meaningful progress and give your complete attention to the things you can’t live without.
Remind yourself that you don’t have to be everything. There will be things you suck at, and that’s okay. The only true responsibility you have in this life is to give something back to the world based on what resonates with you as an individual.