How to Find Clarity on Life’s Big Decisions — Before You Fully Commit

In 2013, I dropped out of university to start my first business.

It was an online farmers market which made it easy for people to buy food from local producers in Glasgow.

The model was simple.

I would build relationships with the farmers, list their products on my website, people would order, and I would deliver.

After the initial novelty had worn off, it dawned on me that I had made a major mistake by starting this.

The profit margins were tiny, the hours were long, and I was spending the vast majority of my time doing things I had no interest in.

E.g. packing veg boxes and driving around Glasgow all day to deliver them.

I had wanted to start my own business for years because I thought it would be a source of purpose, freedom, growth, and creativity in my life.

And that I’d be jumping out of bed every morning, excited to start the day.

Unfortunately, my expectations were not met by reality.

I had essentially created a job for myself.

One with low pay, long hours, and a lot of mundane, boring work to get through.

The root of the problem was that I had blindly committed myself to a path without first getting clear on the concrete realities of what it would actually involve. Now, after building a steady customer base, and as my identity became increasingly “merged” with the business, I felt trapped in a prison of my own making.

When I reflect on the situation — knowing what I now know — I realise that it didn’t have to be this way.

The mess I found myself in could have easily been avoided.

If you are considering a major change in your working life, the two strategies that follow are effective ways to “test the water” before fully committing, so you can avoid going down paths you’d be better off avoiding in the first place.

Strategy #1 – Clarity Conversations

In “Stumbling On Happiness“, Harvard Psychologist Daniel Gilbert explains that the best way to understand what a new path might be like, is to speak to someone currently experiencing it as their day-to-day.

Not someone who did it in the past, as they are likely to be nostalgic and forget about the everyday realities.

You want someone currently in the thick of the action.

Before I began my masters in psychology, the paths I was considering after graduating were: clinical psychology, coaching, lecturing, or writing and entrepreneurship. I already had a taste for writing and business, but had no clue about what it might be like to work in a university or as a coach or clinical psychologist.

So, after reading Gilbert’s book, I arranged phone calls with individuals currently in these roles, and asked them the following questions:

1.) What does a typical working day look like for you?

2.) What about it do you find most rewarding?

3.) What are the worst parts of it?

4.) If you went back to before you started, is there anything you know now that you wish you knew back then?

5.) If you were starting from scratch, how would you approach your education?

What I learned in these conversations was enough to significantly alter my trajectory.

I realised that working at a university wouldn’t give me enough freedom to explore my curiosity. Nor would it enable me to do deep, creative work because I’d be spending a lot of my time doing admin.

And, as I learned more about the day-to-day of clinical psychology, it too became less appealing.

These short “clarity conversations” helped me to realise that these paths weren’t for me and saved me years of time, money, and stress by avoiding them.

What about you?

Who in your network is currently experiencing a potential future you are considering as their day-to-day?

And how might you go about arranging a clarity conversation with them?

Strategy #2 – Minimum Viable Work Experiments

In the startup world, a minimum viable product (MVP) is the most basic version of a product or service that you can release to the public.

The aim is to get feedback from real customers early to see if it’s something people would actually buy — before you invest a huge amount of time, money, and effort into something that nobody wants.

If people buy it, then you can be confident you’re on to something.

If it’s a flop, then you know you need to make some changes — or drop the idea completely.

This allows entrepreneurs to test ideas in a low risk way, with the smallest possible investment of time and money.

The good news is — a minimal viable work experiment enables you to take a similar approach with a new path you are considering.

It involves designing a small, contained experiment, which will give you just enough data to give you a feel for the realities of it, without investing a huge amount of time and money up front.

For instance, if you’re considering starting a podcast, your experiment could be to record six episodes.

Or, if you’re thinking about writing a book, you could publish six blog posts on the topic you are thinking about writing the book on.

Or, if you’d like to start a business in a new industry, you could volunteer to work for another business already in that area. Maybe you could even request to “shadow” the founder for a short period if you have a personal connection.

You’re looking for a low risk, low-cost experiment that will provide just enough data to give you a sense if it’s the right direction or not.

Although it might take effort to set up, this will pale in comparison to the money and time you’ll save by avoiding going down the wrong road.

So view it as an investment, rather than a cost.

An added benefit is that because you are only committing for the duration of the experiment, you won’t feel any shame about quitting if you learn that it wasn’t for you.

Conclusion

I ended up closing down my online farmers market in April of 2014.

Although it was difficult to walk away, I realised that the best thing to do (in the long run), would be to cut my losses and go back to the drawing board.

Fast forward ten years, and I now find myself with a working life that brings me the purpose, growth, and freedom that I was looking for when I first started.

And most days now I do wake up feeling excited about the day ahead.

It just took about a decade longer than I originally anticipated and many wrong turns along the way.

If you’d like to get there sooner, and avoid the pain of taking the wrong road, clarity conversations and minimum viable work experiments are two of the most effective ways to go about it.

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Niall McKeever

Writer and Founder of The Weekend University. Passionate about making great ideas more accessible.

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