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How To Map Your Ambitions And Navigate Your Career

By The Foundation for Economic Education. Originally published at ValueWalk.

One of my deepest fears is waking up one day and living a life that I did not create. I’ve met far too many people – young and old – who realize they are living a life that they fell into rather than one they consciously created only too late to do anything about it.

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I’ve written about the dangers of lifestyle inflation and the golden (and copper) handcuffs for this reason and worked with people from dropouts to Ivy League grads for whom this is a problem. It doesn’t need to come as waking up as a homeless person on the street or as an overworked executive, either.

The ambitious, hardworking high achiever is particularly apt to fall into this trap as he often has more doors open to him and more choices available than the passive slouch. His labor and time are of higher value to all parties at the table so they expend more resources to get him to work for them and to convince him that it’s in his own best interest.

Large established companies – from Apple to Goldman Sachs – pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into recruiting a handful of candidates from specific campuses, convincing them that their paths together are the candidates’ destinies.

Until they’re not.

Otherwise happy and successful, a person living this life is by all means better off than somebody fending off feral cats under a bridge somewhere but lives a life of sacrificed opportunity. Going by salary or by earning potential, things look cheery. Going by unique contribution and autonomy expressed through work and life, a gloomier picture emerges.*

How does this happen?

The Labyrinth of Life

To get an idea, imagine a labyrinth full of doors. This labyrinth has plenty of exits and different paths you can take. Some paths even lead to the same exits as others, although it may take a little longer. As you progress down the labyrinth, you get the option to keep on the given path or to take a door as you pass it. You can always go through a door again later but only if you can find your way back to it in the labyrinth. You also have an idea of who else has gone through which doors but only when you get to the door. You may see that John, your friend with the fancy investment banking job, has gone through door 6 when you get to it, but you aren’t told which doors he went through beyond that until you get to one.

In itself, getting to a specific outcome is difficult enough. When you come upon a door and you see who else has gone through it, you’re tempted to take the door for fear that you won’t have another, higher-value door open to you later upon the path. You see people you admire (or worse yet, envy) on the door as past entrants and figure, “that’s pretty good,” and pass through.

There’s nothing inherently bad in the labyrinth of life.

Eventually, you get an ad hoc collection of door choices. Doors 1, 6, 26, 367, 368, 391, and 503, for example. The only thing they have in common is you. In and of themselves, they each present a decent life or set of possibilities for what you want but they are certainly not actively chosen.

If this were how life plays out and how we can make choices for our future, there’s nothing inherently bad in the labyrinth of life – but it isn’t how life plays out and it isn’t an accurate way of thinking of your choices.

“The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood.” – Carl Sagan

Life is more akin to a labyrinth with a map. If you’ve ever played a maze game in a magazine, you know that in order to win, you have to start at your destination and track back to the starting location. Unlike most maze games, your starting location in life is different depending on your circumstances, so it may take a few attempts at tracing backward from the destination in order to get to where you are.

If you watch a child or somebody unfamiliar with maze games try to solve the maze, they start where they are and then work forward, guessing and inferring what the best directions are in order to get to the destination. Ultimately, they get frustrated, give up, and say how playing a maze game is stupid anyway. When you’re playing with a magazine, you can throw the game down and walk away, but when you are playing in life, if you walk away, you stay the course with the path you are on.

Everybody else just takes the choices available to them like the child playing through a maze.

This is how far too many people play through the labyrinth of life. For planners and over-achievers, they base their path off of other people (who often base their path off of other people basing their path off of other people basing their path off of other people…etc.)**, for everybody else, they just take the choices available to them like the child playing through the maze game.

But what if you had the map?

Ambition Mapping

If you had a map to navigate a labyrinth, you know you should trace your way backward based on your destination. You adjust your path based on where you start relative to where you want to go. People know this when playing a game and know it in general when choosing a career (i.e., if I want to be a doctor, I should go to medical school) but rarely re-examine their path using this through their careers.

This process of regularly looking at where you want to go, evaluating where you’re starting, and working backward from the destination to where you are now is what I call ambition mapping.

Ambition mapping is the process of continually reevaluating where you are right now relative to where you want to go. Rather than starting where you are, though, you have to start with the destination and work backward. Unlike conventional mapping where you have nicely labeled doors, exits, freeways, and street signs, other people who have gone before you are the closest things you’ll get to a guidepost. You end up using a process known as reverse induction to figure out what turns and twists you should take.***

You have to constantly ask, “What do I want to be when I grow up?”

The problem is that most people only do something like this once or twice in their lives. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a question asked of young children and people getting ready to leave school. “What is your major?” becomes a heuristic as you get older, but after college, this question is never really asked again.

You have to constantly ask yourself, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” if you are going to get to the right destination in the labyrinth. Unlike a maze in a magazine, this labyrinth has different destinations and is constantly changing. The map you put together upon entering graduate school may

The post How To Map Your Ambitions And Navigate Your Career appeared first on ValueWalk.

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