Have you ever wondered what to do with your life?
You have talent and skills. A little knowledge and experience. Maybe a job, maybe a few freelance gigs.
But what you don’t have is a Big Idea that fills you with passion and makes you want to leap out of bed in the morning. A mission that gives you a sense of purpose, a chance to change the world.
And without that, everything you do feels a bit disjointed. Interesting in fits and starts, occasionally exciting, but ultimately aimless.
So how can you find your Big Idea?
When coaching clients come to me with this question, I tell them about a writing class I attended years ago, with the famous poet Craig Raine.
The walls of his office were lined, as far as I could tell, entirely with 20th-century poetry. I was part of a group of undergraduates filling the room to bursting point, covering the floor as well as the chairs. And in that first lesson, he said something that has stayed with me ever since:
Writing poetry is like scraping wallpaper.
Pretty inspiring, huh?
Naturally, we were all curious to hear what he meant. When you start scraping out the wallpaper, he explained, a little tag flips up – when you pull the tag, usually it just comes off in your hand and you have to start scraping again. But sometimes you pull away a couple of feet of wallpaper, which saves you a lot of scraping.
Sometimes, as you get better at it, you get the satisfaction of pulling away a large strip of wallpaper that comes away all in one piece. And very occasionally, you pull one little tag and the strip of wallpaper snakes all the way up the wall and down again, round the corner and along the next wall, on and on until you’ve unravelled the entire room … and written Paradise Lost.
Now, all poets would love to write something as famous as Paradise Lost. But Raine’s point was that if you want a chance of unravelling the enormous long trail of wallpaper, you have to be prepared to do a lot of scraping, pull a lot of tags, and get used to most of them coming away with just an inch or two of wallpaper in your hand.
Pulling a tag, he explained, is following your curiosity, to see where it leads. In spite of the fact there are no guarantees. Even if, most of the time, it leads nowhere.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. Because to be curious, you have to admit that you don’t know what you’re doing, or where you’re going.
You probably have more pressing demands on your time, and plenty of more sensible options on the table. When someone asks you what you’re up to, it’s hard to justify doing something out of sheer curiosity.
But if you keep pulling those tags, and trusting your curiosity to lead you where it will, you are liable to make some interesting discoveries. Every so often, your curiosity will develop into interest, fascination, enthusiasm.
Once in a while, you’ll discover something amazing.
And if you keep following your curiosity, as the years go by, you’ll learn something even more remarkable than these flashes of insight. Bit by bit, as your curiosity brings you knowledge, skills and experiences, you’ll start to notice unexpected relationships and synergies between interests you thought had nothing to do with each other.
You’ll find other people with similar interests, and situations where your combination of skills and knowledge is exactly what’s required, even though you could never have anticipated it.
You’ll start to fit the pieces of the jigsaw together, and catch glimpses of an emerging bigger picture.
When you get to this stage, you’ll have a newfound respect for your curiosity. It will start to seem less like a will-o’-the-wisp and more like the prompting of your creative unconscious, intuition, Muse, higher self, personal genius or whatever else you call it.
Almost without realising it, you’ll have discovered your passion, and be well on the way to finding your Big Idea.
In the course of my career I’ve pulled all kinds of tags, including poetry, hypnosis, copywriting, psychotherapy, systems thinking, meditation, entrepreneurship, martial arts, foreign languages, intellectual property law, organisation theory, social media, internet marketing, business models, time management, public speaking, graphic design, improvisation, mythology, screenwriting, juggling and archery.
If you asked me what the common theme was, I’d struggle to tell you. A lot of my interests didn’t lead anywhere very much. I can barely juggle with more than three balls, and I hope my life never depends on my skills as a martial artist.
But when I look at the big picture, it’s amazing how many interests I’d written off as dead ends turned out to be really useful later on. For example, I thought I’d given up copywriting years ago, not realising how useful it would be when I was running my own business online.
And when I look back on my patchwork career, I don’t see how I could have created a business like Lateral Action without having had such a wide range of interests.
So these days, when a new idea piques my curiosity, even if I can’t see any relevance to my other activities, I give it the benefit of the doubt and follow it up. Just for the hell of it.
How Curious Are You?
How likely are you to follow your curiosity?
What discoveries has your curiosity led you to make?
Have you ever pursued an apparently irrelevant interest, only to find it really useful later on?
Photo by ilker ender.
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 26-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.