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Planning Your Future Is Pointless. The How And Why Of Embracing Uncertainty

By Leo Babauta

I had a 15-year-old write to me and ask about figuring out what do do with her life.

She writes:

As a high-school student I’m constantly being reminded to figure out what to do with my life, what career I would like to have and so on. I definitely feel huge amounts of pressure when my teachers and parents tell me to figure out something now. I’m young and I don’t want to make a mistake and ruin my future. I know what I like and what my interests are but when I read about a job related to those interests I always feel as if I wouldn’t enjoy it and I don’t know why.

What an extremely tough thing to figure out: what to do with your future! Now, I can’t really tell this young woman what to do, as her parents might not like that very much, but I can share what I’ve learned looking back on my life, and what I would tell my kids (oldest is 21 and still figuring things out, but I also have 17- and 16-year-old boys and a 14-year-old girl).

Here’s what I’d say.

YOU CAN’T FIGURE OUT THE FUTURE.

Even young people who have a plan (be a doctor, lawyer, research scientist, singer) don’t really know what will happen. If they have any certainty at all, they’re a bit deluded. Life doesn’t go according to plan, and while a few people might do exactly what they set out to do, you never know if you’re one of those. Other things come along to change you, to change your opportunities, to change the world. The jobs of working at Google, Amazon or Twitter, for example, didn’t exist when I was a teenager. Neither did this job.

So if you can’t figure out the future, what do you do? Don’t focus on the future. Focus on what you can do right now that will be good no matter what the future brings. Make stuff. Build stuff. Learn skills. Go on adventures. Make friends. These things will help in any future.

LEARN TO BE GOOD WITH DISCOMFORT.

One of the most important skills you can develop is being okay with some discomfort. The best things in life are often hard, and if you shy away from difficulty and discomfort, you’ll miss out. You’ll live a life of safety.

Learning is hard. Building something great is hard. Writing a book is hard. A marriage is hard. Running an ultramarathon is hard. All are amazing.

If you get good at this, you can do anything. You can start a business, which you couldn’t if you’re afraid of discomfort, because starting a business is hard and uncomfortable.

How do you get good at this? Do things now that are uncomfortable and hard, on purpose. But start with small doses. Try exercising for a little bit, even if it’s hard, but just start with a few minutes of it, and increase a minute every few days or so. Try writing a blog or meditating every day. When you find yourself avoiding discomfort, push yourself just a little bit more (within limits of reason and safety of course).

LEARN TO BE GOOD WITH UNCERTAINTY.

A related skill is thriving in uncertainty. Starting a business, for example, is an amazing thing to do … but if you’re afraid of uncertainty, you’ll skip it. You can’t know how things will turn out, and so if you need to know how things will turn out, you’ll avoid great projects, businesses, opportunities.

But if you can be okay with not knowing, you’ll be open to many more possibilities.Read more on uncertainty.

If you’re good at discomfort and uncertainty, you could do all kinds of things: travel the world and live cheaply while blogging about it, write a book, start a business, live in a foreign country and teach English, learn to program and create your own software, take a job with a startup, create an online magazine with other good young writers, and much more. All of those would be awesome, but you have to be okay with discomfort and uncertainty.

If any opportunities like these come along, you’ll be ready if you’ve practiced these skills.

OVERCOME DISTRACTION AND PROCRASTINATION.

All of this is useless if you can’t overcome the universal problems of distraction and procrastination. You might seize an opportunity because you’re good at uncertainty and discomfort, but then not make the most of it because you’re too busy on social media and watching TV.

Actually, distraction and procrastination are just ways of avoiding discomfort, so if you get good at discomfort you’re way ahead of most people. But there are some things you can practice–read more here.

LEARN ABOUT YOUR MIND.

Most people don’t realize that fear controls them. They don’t notice when they run to distraction, or rationalize doing things they told themselves they wouldn’t do. It’s hard to change mental habits because you don’t always see what’s going on in your head.

Learn about how your mind works, and you’ll be much better at all of this. The best ways: meditation and blogging. With meditation (read how to do it) you watch your mind jumping around, running from discomfort, rationalizing. With blogging, you are forced to reflect on what you’ve been doing in life and what you’ve learned from it. It’s a great tool for self-growth, and I recommend it to every young person.

MAKE SOME MONEY.

I don’t think money is that important, but making money is difficult. You have to make someone believe in you enough to hire you or buy your products/service, which means you have to figure out why you’re worthy of someone believing in you. You have to become worthy. And you have to learn to communicate that to people so they’ll want to buy or hire you. Whether you’re selling cookies door-to-door or an app in the Apple store or trying to get a job as a cashier, you have to do this.

And you get better with practice.

I worked as a clerk at a bank and then a freelance sports writer when I was in high school, and those were valuable experiences for me.

Protip: save an emergency fund, then start investing your earnings in an index fund and watch it grow over your lifetime.

BUILD SOMETHING SMALL.

Most people fritter their time away on things that don’t matter, like TV, video games, social media, reading news. A year of that and you have nothing to show for it. But if you did a sketch every day, or started writing web app, or created a blog or a video channel that you update regularly, or started building a cookie business … at the end of a year you’ll have something great. And some new skills. Something you can point to and say, “I built that.” Which most people can’t do.

Start small, and build it every day if possible. It’s like putting your money in investments: it grows in value over time.

BECOME TRUSTWORTHY.

When someone hires a young person, the biggest fear is that the young person is not trustworthy. That they’ll come in late and lie about it and miss deadlines. Someone who has established a reputation over the years might be much more trusted, and more likely to be hired. Learn to be trustworthy by showing up on time, doing your best on every task, being honest, admitting mistakes but fixing them, trying your best to meet deadlines, being a good person.

If you do that, you’ll build a reputation and people will recommend you to others, which is the best way to get a job or investor.

BE READY FOR OPPORTUNITIES.

If you do all of the above, or at least most of it, you’ll be amazing. You’ll be way, way ahead of pretty much every other person your age. And opportunities will come your way, if you have your eyes open: job opportunities, a chance to build something with someone, an idea for a startup that you can build yourself, a new thing to learn and turn into a business, the chance to submit your new screenplay.

These opportunities might come along, and you have to be ready to seize them. Take risks: that’s one of the advantages of being young. And if none come along, create your own.

Finally: The idea behind all of this is that you can’t know what you’re going to do with your life right now, because you don’t know who you’re going to be, what you’ll be able to do, what you’ll be passionate about, who you’ll meet, what opportunities will come up, or what the world will be like. But you do know this: if you are prepared, you can do anything you want.

Prepare yourself by learning about your mind, becoming trustworthy, building things, overcoming procrastination, getting good at discomfort and uncertainty.

You can put all this off and live a life of safety and boringness. Or you can start today, and see what life has to offer you.

Lastly, what do you do when your parents and teachers pressure you to figure things out? Tell them you’re going to be an entrepreneur, start your own business, and take over the world. If you prepare for that, you’ll actually be prepared for any career.

This article originally appeared in Zen Habits and is reprinted with permission.

[Image: Flickr user Evil Erin]

Why Believing – Really Believing – In Your Business Is So Powerful

By Sophia Amoruso

Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it. –Roald Dahl

Chaos magic is the idea that a particular set of beliefs serves as an active force in the world. In other words, we choose what and how we believe, and our beliefs are tools that we then use to make things happen . . . or not. Though this comes from a school of magical thought, it actually seems really practical and “no duh” to me. If you believe something, other people will believe it, too. You can’t convince someone else–whether it’s a potential employer, a loan officer at the car dealership, or someone you’ve been crushing on–that you’re amazing and terrific if you don’t actually think you are. This isn’t the false confidence that comes from getting a bunch of “likes” on your Instagram selfies, but a deep-down, unshakeable self-confidence that persists even when things aren’t going all that great.

A big practice in chaos magic is the use of sigils, which are abstract words or symbols you create and embed with your wishes. To create a sigil, start by writing out your desire in a single word, a couple of words, or a short sentence. Then remove all the duplicate letters, then all the vowels–basically, you can do whatever you want here–until you’re left with a bunch of lines that you can combine into one symbol. Then you put the piece of paper in a book, in your wallet, or some other place where it won’t get lost, and just forget about it.

The real “magic” of sigils is that you’re only forgetting about it on the surface level. Taking the time to think about what you really want and doing something about it, even if it’s just drawing some lines on a piece of paper, embeds these wishes into your subconscious, and then your subconscious makes it happen, even when the conscious part of your brain is busy doing something else.

I treat my Internet passwords as modern-day sigils, embedding them with wishes or promises to me, or even financial goals for the company. (Hey, I never made any claims to be normal here.) That way, every time I go to log in anywhere, I’m subtly reminding myself of what I’m working for. This kind of intention setting has worked for me. Dozens of times a day, as I tap out a few strokes on the keyboard, I’m reminding myself of the bigger picture. This ensures that when I’m bogged down with day-to-day bureaucracy and details, I don’t lose sight of what I really want.

I’m not trying to say that this kind of intention setting will always work, because you can’t just type “abajilliondollars” whenever you log in to Facebook and all of a sudden become Warren Buffett. It is, though, a heretic’s version of kneeling by your bed and saying a prayer every night. It’s intention setting. It doesn’t have to be as hard and fast as saying “I want a job at a fashion company,” but it can be something like “I want a creative job” or “I want to have fun at work.” Keep reminding yourself over and over that this is what you want, and you’ll soon find that the more you know what you want, the less you’re willing to put up with what you don’t.

One of the best things about life–a reason not to go blindly after one goal and one goal only–is that sometimes it will take you to something that is way cooler than anything you would have consciously set out to do in the first place. I never had one particular goal or dream that I was working toward; all I knew was that I wanted to do something awesome, and was open to whatever shape or form this awesomeness took. I wanted to be a photographer; I wanted to go to art school; I wanted to play in a band; and when I started the eBay store, all of this came in handy even though I would never have associated these things.

My interest in photography gave me an advantage over other sellers who didn’t care about lighting or composition. My days of being the tardy employee at the record store gave me a cultural and musical understanding that was more unique than if I’d just listened to garbage-y pop on the radio my entire life. None of these were things I ever expected to add up to something called a brand, but they contributed to all the ways in which Nasty Gal is just a little off and a little surprising. All of that flailing about, trying new things and finding out that I liked some of them and hated others, ended up amalgamating into something very real and very meaningful, and in the end, made me capable of providing a life for myself.

While I truly believe that you must have intentions to fulfill your dreams, I also think you have to leave room for the universe to have its way and play around a bit. Don’t get so focused on one particular opportunity that you’re blind to other ones that come up. If you think about one thing, and talk about it all the time, you’re being too obsessive. You might ruin it. If you let yourself meander a bit, then the right things and the right people fall into place. Some things are worth fighting for–don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely a fighter–but I really think that what is right should be easy. My dad has always said that the definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, and it’s so true. If something’s not working out, but you keep hammering at it in the exact same way, go after something else for a while. That’s not giving up, that’s just letting the universe have its way.

–Reprinted from #GIRLBOSS by Sophia Amoruso with permission of Portfolio/Putnam, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright (c) Sophia Amoruso, 2014.