Create Your Path
PART 1: Looking Back to Look Ahead
Sunday Night Illness, and How to Eradicate It
After I graduated from college, I came down with a case of “Sunday Night Illness.” It was that terrible feeling you get when the fear of Monday morning makes you sick the night before, because you are not at the right place in your career. You feel it when are not living within your strengths, passionate interests, and values – you are doing something unnatural to you. You are on a path moving in the wrong direction, or you are on somebody else’s career path when you really want to be creating your own unique path in life. We want to prevent that “Sunday Night Illness,” or treat it if we already have it.
It was after feeling this that I decided to create my own path in life. I developed my own vaccine for the “illness,” and now Sunday evenings and Monday mornings are my favorite time of the week! After all, we spend most our time in life working, so that work should feel good and be meaningful to us, others, and society. We should feel like we are in a state of flow and be happy doing it. This is possible if we can be innovative, thoughtful, strategic and approach life much like Apple would approach developing their next amazing product.
Along our path toward personal and professional growth, we find ourselves needing different things at different times to help us move forward happily, successfully, and in a meaningful way.
When I asked students at Dartmouth College what they needed in their life now to create their own path, I heard three themes: Discover, Integrate, and Focus. Depending on the state we are at in preparing for our future, some of us want to discover, some want to integrate, others want to focus. I have found that it is best to do all three. A career is so important that we should devote a great deal of thought, strategy, and action to it. Discover, Integrate, and Focus is a good way to approach preparing for our future.
Many of us have not yet discovered precise things about ourselves (like our strengths, passionate interests, and values), or where we would like our paths to take us. For these people, we must discover that direction and create our path. Based on the insight we unearth about ourselves, it could be discovering a major, choosing a school, figuring out if grad school is the right choice, deciding to build a business, or picking meaningful challenges to tackle.
People have a lot of versatility, and it can be exceedingly difficult to make a choice between two of our skills or passionate interests. For these people, it may be important to find clever ways to integrate their skills and passionate interests to create a path that is the unique intersection of the two. These are the opportunities to innovate in our own life by combining things together – mashing them up.
Lastly, we need to learn to focus in on the areas in which we have already worked toward creating a path. How can you hone your skills and find the best niche for your unique set of skills? We all have the potential to be experts in an area if we focus our path of learning and experience accordingly.
Regardless of where you are in the quest to create your own path, it is important to build upon the key meaningful experiences and resources you already have under your belt. To do this, we will focus on integrating the academic, the professional, and the personal to make the most of what those worlds have to offer. If you are a student, think about the ways in which you can take advantage of campus resources, programs, courses, student organizations, professors, and fellow students.
In your career, think about the ways in which you can learn from leaders in the field, projects, online communities, assessments, professional development programs, associations, and co-workers. In your personal life, think about the ways you can network with mentors, friends, family, and people whose skills fill a gap in your knowledge. Utilize free tools like Google, YouTube, and social media to connect to new forms of learning and experience.
One of the first people to go through the Create Your Path experience was a young woman named Sarah-Marie. After the program, she came to me to ask if I knew anyone who could help her enact some of her ideas for experiences that would help her realize an intersection of her academic, professional, and personal vision. I connected her with some people, and within weeks, she had arranged an internship in Nepal.
This goes to show that creating your own path by finding the cross section of your unique strengths, passionate interests, and values can bring rapid results if you take action on your vision. You don’t have to see the end of the path, but you do have to take a first step. The journey is more fun than the destination anyway.
How to Reflect to Improve and Learn from Life Experiences
There is so much we can learn about ourselves through our past, and namely, through our specific, unique life experiences. Many of us, though, are just letting this past be buried, and our experiences go by without gleaning any meaning from them.
Reflection is the process we take to make meaning and learn from our experiences. If we can deconstruct those key experiences, there is so much to learn about who we are and the path we can create for ourselves in life and work. Meaning is there for the making. Journaling is a great ongoing activity that we can do to reflect on our life experiences.
On the journey to create your path, it is important to build, grow, and adapt continuously. To do this, we need to innovate ourselves and experience things that will help us to grow, learn, develop, and create! Growth is gaining experiences and learning from them – both experiences that are targeted and aligned to the essence of who you are, and new experiences that may tell you something about yourself.
Create more key meaningful experiences in your life that are the unique intersection of your skills and passionate interests, and also branch out into the infinite possibilities presented by the new and emerging experiences you can live. Maybe there is something about you you haven’t discovered yet, but a new experience will show you.
Discovering the importance of what you bring to the world that no else does is a necessity. A reflected-upon experience can do this for you! It isn’t enough to just have an experience; you need to also reflect on it to make the meaning, learn, and accelerate your improvement.
Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle is a wonderful tool to do exactly that! Following the model below, you can learn by doing and turn an event into an active, learning experience.
Concrete Experience. We have an experience. It could be a visit with a campus adviser, a meeting with your boss, an interaction with a friend or family member, etc.
Reflective Observation. Here, we reflect upon the experience and observe exactly how it made us feel. Did the experience feel so-so? Perhaps some parts were good and some parts were not.
Abstract Conceptualization. We come to a conclusion based on our observations. Why was that experience important, and why did it make you feel the way it did? What does it mean now?
Active Experimentation. If we were to do it again, what would we do differently? You can run a new experiment. Perhaps next time, you’d ask more questions. The key is to do something different or new with the information you have gained from the experience. Let the experience inform your choices to do things differently the next time.
Repeat. Use the Experiential Learning Cycle again and again. Meet with an adviser, mentor, or coach to discuss the things you realize you should have asked, but didn’t. Check up with your boss or mentor to see what has or hasn’t been working. Try something new again and again as you create your path.
Keep a journal and use Kolb’s experiential cycle to experience, reflect, and get better as a result. Now that we know how powerful reflection can be, we need to remember to keep having more and more diverse experiences to reflect upon, and let the learning and development happen for us.
Identifying Meaningful Life Experiences that Give You Insight into Who You Are at Your Best
Creating your path is all about experiences. Experiences help us to understand ourselves and learn. We create our path for the journey ahead by experiencing. We can take a look back at the path we’ve already traveled and see that it was paved with experiences.
An important step on the journey to create your path is to list those key experiences that have most affected your life so far. These could be projects, jobs, classes, relationships, victories, defeats, decisions, awards, serendipitous events, or anything.
Reflect and identify at least ten key experiences you’ve had. These can be academic, professional or personal. They can be as small as individual moments in time, or as big as entire courses. The key is that they had an impact on your learning and development. They were meaningful and memorable moments. These experiences have given you insight into who you are, they have helped you to learn and develop, or they have given you direction on your path.
Try to think about and list at least ten key experiences in a journal. If you come up with more, list them, too! These experiences will help us recognize the types of experiences we value and learn from most. Remember to unleash the power of your experiences by reflecting on them and making meaning.
It is not enough to just list, though. Dive deeper!
What life experiences stood out to you? Why did they come into your mind? Why did you select them for this activity? What was it about those experiences? If we can understand what makes a key life experience, we can be better at creating more of them in the future!
Identifying Key Tools and Resources for Personal and Professional Development
It is really difficult to do things on our own. It is even more difficult to do things on our own without any tools or resources. If you’ve ever tried to build or repair something, you know that tools can make all the difference.
The same goes for life. Tools and resources help us understand ourselves and create our own unique path. Sometimes, it may feel like you could accomplish your goals if only the right resources were there for you. The good news is that path creating tools and resources are widely available. You’ve already used some to great effect, and so have your friends.
Look back and see what tools and resources have already helped you, and gain more of them! I hope this Create your Path eBook is just one of the many, many tools and resources that will help you take your life to the next level.
I like to look at activities as tools or resources. The right activity can help get us into action and set a positive direction. This activity is geared toward identifying the key resources and tools that have already helped you on your journey to create your path.
There are more people and institutions available to help you reach your goals than you may realize, so it is important to step back and build an inventory.
How have you gone about finding your path in college, professionally, personally? How have you figured that out? What resources have helped you determine the experiences you have already gone after? Maybe it was a mentor, an advisor, a book, a website, a workshop, a program, an assessment, etc. What are the key resources or tools that you have used?
Take a moment to reflect, and list ten to twelve resources that are already available to you. Think about your possible resources as broadly as possible.
This will help you find how to best utilize those resources, as well as identify other potential resources. If you think of more than ten, list them all! Save this list in your journal to use as you create your path.
Dive Deep then Step Back: Tell the Story of Your Life to Understand it
To create your own unique path in life, you must first take a look at the larger story of your life. Zoom out on those experiences you’ve had already in order to make meaning, understand, and move forward with your path. It is important to view the key themes of your life, where you’ve been, and where you’d like to go.
Earlier, I helped you to identify your own key path experiences. You can envision these experiences as building blocks that are just scattered on the ground right now. What is the story amongst some of these blocks? Is there an order, a sequence, or themes that tie these blocks together? Is there a metaphor to describe them in the context of your life as a whole?
Once you’ve reflected on these experiences, you can put the pieces together and take an eagle-eye view of them. It is time to reconstruct. These are some important ways of thinking for this next stage of creating your path:
Find the story.
Share it. Tell it. Show it.
Connect the pieces.
Step back. Way back.
See the trees. Now get up high, and see the forest.
See the pattern.
Synthesize. Make meaning.
As humans, we love a good story. We’ve been telling them and listening to them for generations. You too can be a part of the collective – the historic, the epic. Find your story and tell it. You can do in the modern era what our ancestors have done around fires for generations.
From your experiences, and stepping back to see the forest from the trees, you are connecting the stories to tell your big story – the story of who you are and the path you have created for yourself. Diving deep and stepping back helps you to learn about yourself. Who you have become and who you are…and where you can go. It helps you to teach others.
Teach, learn, and story-tell so that others may understand or even be a part of your future path creating story.
Create Your Visual Journey Story
What is the overarching story of the path that you have taken thus far in life? Create a visual story to “show and tell” that journey. Think of it like a storyboard for your life so far with some of the best scenes and plot points. It should be something visual that others could see to understand the path you’ve taken.
You are making meaning of your key life experiences and communicating them to not only help yourself understand, but also others. Put the different blocks of your life experience together in an order that makes sense. Then create a visual slide, map, or video to make it ready-to-go for other people to see. You are the artist of how you communicate your own life. Show your story in a creative way that works for you.
You are marking the key things you’ve done on your path. You could make your visual journey story follow your life chronologically. Or you could focus it by telling the story of an aspect of your life, such as the academic, professional, or personal.
A thread may emerge that runs through your most meaningful experiences. For my journey stories, universities stood out to me. What are your key storylines for your path so far? You are the artist – create your own story.
You could focus on the academic. For me, it was the key elements of what I worked on in school. I mention the research I did in graduate school, and I include key moments along that path – graduation, accomplishments, my book, etc.
You could focus on the professional. Label your visual journey story with all the places you’ve worked. Mine would have the start-up I helped to grow at UW-Madison in 2004, the innovation trip program I helped develop, and where I am now with my entrepreneurial life.
You could focus on the personal. I would list the places I’ve traveled, how I got there, my personal goals, and more.
What is your visual journey story? Do you show it chronologically, focus on one aspect or theme, list your achievements, or take a completely different route?
Create and tell the story that makes the most sense to you. You no doubt have many stories to tell and many ways to tell them. Pick one to start with.
Your Life’s Epic Tale and Hero’s Journey
The Hero’s Journey or “monomyth” shows up in cultures throughout time and geographical location. It’s also known as the “hero with one thousand faces” or the monomyth, and it shares common elements that appear in myths stories everywhere.
You may recognize this thematic journey in movies like Star Wars and Avatar. There are different stages that hero’s must pass on their journey of transformation, to save the day, or make a difference.
Joseph Campbell, an American mythologist who studied the monomyth across many societies, often summed up his philosophy with the phrase, “Follow your bliss.”
Now I’d like you to follow your bliss, and apply the hero’s journey concept to create your life’s epic tale, to tell the story of your own most important journeys.
Perhaps you’ve seen that many of your most meaningful life stories have a common thread. Maybe you weave those stories together into one big story. Pick the larger story you want to tell about yourself. Maybe you’ll cover several years. Maybe you’ll cover a single month. You are the hero here, and the journey is toward transformation. You have an epic story inside of you.
For me, one of my hero’s journey story is one of transformation from small-town guy to global backpacker. Three other journeys include the transformation to a college student, a graduate student, and an entrepreneurial professional. You will probably have more than one epic story in you.
Use the framework or stages of the hero’s journey to help you understand and tell it. Identify those key stages in the hero’s journey diagram above for your story.
The Call to Adventure
Gathering the Allies
Crossing the Threshold
Belly of the Whale
Road of Trials and Adventures
At the Centre (The Transformation)
Master of Two Worlds
Life of Service
You become an ally for those who go through similar journeys. What’s yours? Maybe it’s the journey from high school to college, or some other journey or transformation. How do you see these themes or stages in your own life? Jot them down, and create some other work of art with them. You could create a collage, a spiral, a path – however you’d like to represent your journey.
Zoom in, Focus, and Deconstruct Yourself to Utilize your Positive Attributes
To Create Your Path, I want to help you identify your passionate interests (what energizes you), as well as your strengths (those things you are good at). We do a lot of zooming out and zooming in, looking through different lenses to focus on your life. First, we see the pieces, then the whole. The mouse-eye view, then the eagle-eye view. The trees, then the forest.
A key activity is to “deconstruct you.” Identify twenty different parts of “you.” They could be passionate interests, strengths or skill areas, or even values you hold dear. They can be academic, professional, or personal in nature. Maybe you’re relying on some research you’ve seen where they’ve identified skills in your field that you have. Maybe you’ve gone back to some of the tools or resources you’ve used.
Perhaps you have done an assessment or survey that tells you a bit about yourself. Lay out twenty different parts that fit in there. Use the ten you already have as a basis for your list, and put them all in your journal or portfolio.
Now that you have twenty skills and interests, use the tools available to you to get even more specific. The real opportunity here is to get as specific as possible. Many times, these strengths or skill areas are just broad categories, not concrete at all.
Make a mind map, where you take one of the more general or more important skill areas, and break it down to get more specific about what exactly you are good at. List skills within that area, and break it down further. Use mindmapping apps or write down your mind map in a journal.
Notice where your strengths and weaknesses are. This will be important as you build a portfolio of your specific strengths and passionate interests to create your path.
Passionate Interests: Don’t Just Follow – Unearth and Integrate
Now, let’s zoom in your passionate interests. What lights your fire? What do you love doing? What do you really, truly care about? What are you passionately interested in? Close your eyes, and identify at least five passionate interests. Go for ten. Better yet, write down 20.
Don’t judge yourself here. If you were to go to a library, what topics would the books you check out be about? What would you talk to a friend about right now? Your interests could be academic, professional, or personal in nature. Maybe you’ve had experiences in the past that gave you key insight into what your interests are. For example, I’m interested in leadership, innovation, higher education, travel and yoga.
Many of us think of our career success formula as “following our passion.” This is a good start. It is better than not following your passion or worse yet, not knowing your passion at all. If you have identified a list of your passionate interests and are willing to leverage them for your career, you are at least facing the right direction.
Listen closely though – knowing what you are passionate about or interested in is NOT ENOUGH.
Following your passion alone is not a clear path to success. If this were the case, I would still be trying to make it to the NBA as a professional basketball player who wasn’t particularly skilled in basketball, built to be a basketball player, or valued that basketball really made a difference in the world.
You also need to align your passionate interests with your strengths and values, and move forward in a direction where there is a future, a societal need, and hopefully resources to support you. This is why we take the time to do these activities to create your path – because we need to integrate many key things together.
We are each passionate or interested in many things. Focus on those that have a future. Good thing I was never passionate about typewriters, partially hydrogenated oils, 8-track players, fossil fuels, or lecture & multiple choice exam based education! Even if I was, there would be more passionate interests to choose from. They just need to be discovered or unearthed from within.
Discover and Use your Personal Strengths and Valuable Skills to Create your Life
I find a focus on personal strengths or “valuable skills” to be particularly valuable in life if we can build upon and use them in conjunction with our passionate interests.
You may have passionate interests that you’re not particularly strong or skilled in. For example, I loved basketball for years, but I wasn’t very good at it.
Making it to the NBA isn’t a path I should create. Luckily there are many intersections to choose from! Ultimately, you want to identify those areas of interest that align closely with your strengths. Identify at least five of your strengths, without judgement. Come up with them quickly. What are you most valuable skills? Think about those things you’re skilled at doing. Close your eyes, and see what comes to mind.
Now go for 10.
For me, those strengths come out when thinking about the experiences we looked at earlier in the Create Your Path program and articles. I remember specifically the strength or skill of group facilitation came to mind. Keep reflecting on and going back to those key life experiences you’ve already had to unearth your strengths from them.
In most of your peak life moments, you will see you were wielding your strengths and most valuable skills. If you reflect on the big picture of many life moments, maybe you see some strengths you utilized from your own hero’s journey that used again and again.
Just like with the passionate interests activity, it is not enough to create your path just based on what you are good at. You can be skilled at or strong in a particular area, but if you are not passionately interested in it, you will not feel happy or satisfied.
For instance, my first job out of college was as an account executive. It was a sales position. I was great at it and getting promoted rapidly and exceeding exceeding expectations. But I was not passionate about it. Nor did I feel that doing what I did was mattering in a meaningful way for society as a whole. So I created my path in a different direction.
Strengths + Passionate Interests + Values!
One is not enough! Creating your path is all about integration!
Tools for Self-Understanding: Inventories, Assessments, & Surveys
At some point, you have probably taken a survey, or maybe even used a fun app to help you gain a greater understanding of yourself. Maybe you played the “true colors” board game.
Perhaps you’ve done the popular Myers-Briggs (MBTI Personality Assessment) at a college workshop. When I did the MBTI I found out my personality type was ENFP (extroverted, intuitive, feeling, and perceiving).
There are a number of assessments, inventories, and questionnaires that can help you gain awareness about who you are and identify what categories you fit in best. These personality, strength, style, skill, and value assessments can be excellent starters and clarifiers for self-understanding.
It seems like you can do a quick survey to learn about yourself in almost any way – from fun things like which animal or Star Wars character are you, to things that will help you on your career path, shedding light on your behavior, psychology, satisfaction, intelligence, personality, leadership, group style, social style, or emotional intelligence.
Here are some assessments that are respected and widely used that you may have done or may wish to use in the future.
Positive Psychology Questionnaires (Character Strengths, Happiness, Optimism, etc.)
Myers-Briggs (MBTI Personality Assessment)
Enneagram Personality System
The real opportunity here is to continually get more specific. For instance, “ideation” is one of my StrengthsFinder 2.0 strengths. That is helpful, but not super helpful. I took that strength and listed twenty more specific strengths I have just within ideation, including group brainstorming, listing many ideas quickly, creating metaphors, improvising stories, etc.
If you would like to create a focused path, take the results of your inventories, and ask yourself, “more specifically, what about that?”
Finding & Building Personal Artifacts to Gain Wisdom, Perspective, and Direction
By listing or using the Mind Map activity, you mapped those interests and strengths out to create a visual representation of you. Now, we want to essentially zoom out in order to zoom back in and bring it all together.
The goal at this point is to identify which artifacts show your specific strengths, interests and/or values in action. We want to either find an artifact you have already created – perhaps without knowingly building an artifact – or create a new one that represents your experiences.
What is an artifact? Here is how the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it:
a: something created by humans usually for a practical purpose; especially : an object remaining from a particular period
b: something characteristic of or resulting from a particular human institution, period, trend, or individual
We can create our own artifacts that visually show our own lives. An artifact is helpful, because it helps both us and others to understand through the visual or object.
In our digital era, an artifact could be a webpage, comic, blog post, audio file, slide, or video. Artifacts like these are easy to create and equally powerful to help you understand and share your story.
At the next level, you can be purposeful about your creation and use of your personal artifacts. I recommend using your artifact to show and tell the story of your strengths, interests and values in action. They are great to include in portfolios, or to bring to interviews and presentations.
An artifact will make it easy to portray that story to others. The most important thing is to gain more insight and clarity into these aspects of you that are working together, how they fit together, and how they align to create a flow experience where you are at your best. Maybe your artifact showcases one of those key experiences we looked at earlier.