On the James Altucher podcast recently he interviewed Robert Greene, author of Mastery, and asked him what he says to people who tell him they don’t know what they want to be when they grow up.
I was making dinner as I was listening. I stopped chopping. I had been waiting for the answer to this question my whole life.
“This question always disturbs me because it tells me that these people haven’t been paying attention to their lives. Because if they had been, they would know what they should do,or be.”
I felt shocked. I felt shamed. I felt accused.
Wasn’t I paying attention to my life?
I surely was, but not in the way Greene was implying. He was saying: consciously notice your life. Notice what you do, and how you feel about it. Take mental notes. Cultivate this habit of noticing, and start early. Like when you’re 10. Then by the time you’re in your late 20s early 30s, you’ll know who you are and what you want to do.
So what do you do if, like me, you are getting to this game late?
I started by making lists.
What You’ll Need
Get a small notebook you can easily carry around with you.
You can also use the Notes app on your phone, too, and I do that a lot, but you’re still going to need a paper notebook.
Now make 2 Lists. A “What I like/love” list and a “What I dislike/hate” list.
100 Things I Love
Sit down and list out 25 things you love as quickly as you can. Nothing is too small, stupid, or trivial. If you love it, list it.
Think about foods you love, drinks, smells, music, places, objects, times of year, times of day, activities. Get at least 25 things down in this first session. Here are some things on my list:
Cinnamon toast; a Bombay Sapphire martini, up, with a twist; the smell of woodsmoke; the song of a thrush; the northern California coast, a new box of crayons; Groundhog Day, kids in line to see Santa, looking down at the ground from a plane. (You can check out my complete list here. Feel free to steal.)
Once you have the first 25, keep going and build this list to an absolute minimum of 100 things. This could take a while. Give yourself some time, but no longer than a month.
Being on the lookout for things to add to your list will force you to pay attention to your life. It’s hard to get to 100 things.
If you’re really struggling, go out and do things. Put yourself in the middle of life traffic. Be active in the world and notice the things that make you happy and the things that don’t.
50 Things I Hate
Then do the same thing with Things I Hate. You only have to list out 50 things for this one. (Sadly, sometimes this list comes easier.)
A lot of time I’ll be thinking of something I like, like brie cheese, for instance, and it will remind me how much I don’t like feta.
List foods and music and societal conventions. List hated chores and behaviors. List things that piss you off, aggravate you, repulse you, frustrate and annoy you.
Some examples from my list include: parallel parking, shaving, scotch tape, croutons, vacuuming, the cereal a the bottom of the box. (More here.)
Why Do This?
You are what you love. It’s as simple as that. The more things you love, and are aware that you love, the more clear you will become to yourself and other people.
Each time you add an item to your “I love this” list, you become clearer. It’s like watching a Polaroid develop.
And if you tend this list for the rest of your life, adding to it and subtracting from it as you change and grow, you will will soon notice how complex you are, how unique, and how you add value.
Even when you add to the hate list you will know a lot about yourself and avoid making mistakes and sabotaging your happiness. If you can create strategies to avoid doing things you hate, and promise yourself never to do any of the things on your hate list as a job unless at gun point, your life will become incredibly better.
Whenever you have a difficult decision to make: marry this person, take this job, move to this location, have a baby– before you decide, take out your lists. Review yourself. Remind yourself who you are.
So many times the problem isn’t that we don’t know who we are, it’s just that we forget. If you have your lists, and you start feeling lost, you can always refer to your maps and find your way home.