When you’re in the midst of a career change, sometimes it can feel like you have no idea who you are or where you’re going.
It’s disconcerting to look ahead and see a big question mark.
We often feel grounded by what we do for a living—we hook our identity onto it.
This is encouraged by a culture where the question “So, what do you do?” is often the first point of connection after “What is your name?” when meeting someone new.
Similarly, your whole internal identity can feel called into question when you’ve just ended—or are considering ending—a long-term relationship.
Even if you consider yourself a pretty independent lady or fella, putting a big question mark next to a human constant in your life can start the identity wheel spinning.
When you’re feeling confused, unrooted, and uncertain due to a huge looming question mark, here’s a little game you can play, inspired by one of my favorite TV programs growing up.
The show was called Square One–a creative and delightfully nerdy and educational PBS math show.
One regular segment was called “Mathnet.” “Mathnet” was a spoof on the crime drama Dragnet, and featured two math detectives, George Frankly and Kate Monday, who solved crimes using math.
Because it was a serial segment and they needed to remind viewers of the information collected in previous weeks, the detectives sometimes played a game called “What Do We Know?” In this game, George and Monday would review everything they had discovered so far.
[“Game” is a generous term for this exercise. When I was a classroom teacher, I toooootally tricked kids into thinking they were playing a game when they were really just reviewing information.]
When you are feeling really untethered, try playing “What Do We Know?” with yourself.
Here’s how: for whatever huge question you’re tackling–whatever it is you don’t know–make a list of everything you do know about the topic.
Take a page from George and Monday’s book, and be blindingly obvious if that’s all you have:
We know that I want a job that pays me money.
For career transitions, “What Do We Know?” could look something like this:
We know that I don’t want to be a banker anymore.
We know that I am unwilling to move out of Philadelphia.
We know that I must make at least $xx. Or, we know that I want to make more money.
We know that I want to do something with people.
We know that I’m committed to figuring it out.
We know that a predictable schedule is important to me.
We know that I want a steady paycheck.
We know that I’m really good at _____ and struggle with having to _____.
For relationship challenges, “What Do We Know?” could look something like this:
We know that we disagree about how to solve problems.
We know that you want to talk it out.
We know that I want to run for the hills.
We know that we don’t communicate well when we’re tired.
Even if the things you know seem extremely basic, it can be comforting to realize that you have ANYthing figured out. When you say “I have NO idea what I want to do” or “I have NO idea what life looks like without her” or “I have NO idea what’s wrong with our communication,” that’s probably not strictly true.
Even if your list is a list of careers you don’t want (or qualities you don’t want in a relationship), that’s something. Because the next step is, what about those jobs doesn’t appeal to you? And THAT information could actually help guide you.
Be silly, even.
We know that I don’t want to be a lion tamer. [Safety is one of my highest values.]
We know that I don’t want to work in this office. [I can’t stand to be cooped up in a cubicle all day.]
We know that I don’t want to be a painter. [I have zero visual art skillz.]
We know that I don’t want to be a recruiter. [I hate the idea of traveling all the time.]
From this, you can find the positives—what you do want.
(In this example, safety, work that involves moving around and getting outside, something that uses your skills, and something that allows you to stay at home rather than traveling around.)
And THAT is actually information that can help you start to paint the picture of the work you want.
Even when that big question mark is still looming over you, realizing that you do know some very, very rudimentary things can be strangely comforting.
When a lot of the key components of my own life were up in the air, I remember my own huge comfort when I acknowledged, “I know I don’t want to leave Philadelphia.” It felt so good to have one piece of the puzzle complete.
Plus, if you have George and Monday in your head when you do it, with their 80s blue suits and their chalkboard, it can help you lighten up a bit.
So: what do YOU know?