I was a tinkerer as a kid, thanks to my father, who introduced me to the pleasures of fixing things, so I majored in mechanical engineering. After college, I wanted to get a different perspective on the world so I went to China to teach English and study Chinese. I loved teaching but wanted to try some other things. I tried management consulting but that was not a good fit.
Then I connected with an old friend who had started a computer networking hardware company. I joined him and helped him grow two companies. I learned how to act like an entrepreneur. Act now and ask questions later. Seek forgiveness rather than permission. Along the way I got married and we have two children, now 9 and 11.
Then, I founded GreatSchools. My engineering background has helped me to lead a technology organization. My writing skills have helped me develop grant proposals. My experience in China has given me perspective to help American parents understand and tap into the best of Eastern thinking about education. My entrepreneurial background aids me in running a nonprofit in a way that is sustainable. And perhaps most important, my experience as a parent makes it all real.
Don’t forget to challenge yourself to explore beyond your comfort zone, to jump headfirst into things for which you are wholly unprepared. Have a fear of public speaking? Try out for that college drama production! Don’t like math? Freshman calculus here we come! And if possible – go abroad.
Second, make commitments.
If you’re like me, you’ll feel unsure about what to commit to.
As you explore, you’ll discover that you respond to some ideas and experiences more than others. You’ll be thrilled by a scientific concept. You’ll be angered by an injustice. You’ll feel compelled to help solve a problem.
Respond to these clues and make small commitments first.
Third, connect the dots.
As you get more experience and make more commitments, you’ll begin to see how to “connect the dots.” Over time, you develop your own combination of skills and perspectives. Use that special combination to create unique value for the world!
Think ahead five years. You’re the only female member of your community’s volunteer fire department team and you love that and it’s rewarding to serve your community this way. You also have a knack for computer technology. You figure out how to use your IT skills to make things work better at the firehouse. And all of a sudden you’re growing a consulting services company based on your ideas.
Think ahead 15 years. (Seems like forever far away, but it’s not!) You’re an entrepreneur, husband and father, and you have a job you don’t love. Your wife does have a job she loves. You cut down to half-time work and get really involved in the lives of your children. It’s a blast and you’re the volunteer of the year at your child’s school and you know more moms and dads at school than anyone else. And that’s where you find your business partner for the new company you co-found when your children are older.
Connecting the dots is a lifelong endeavor. We don’t first “discover who we are” and then “plan our lives.” Rather, we explore the world and discover the challenges and opportunities that speak to us. Over time, as we make more commitments, the strength of our commitments grow. We connect the dots in ways that take advantage of the skills, perspectives, and commitments we already have.
So keep exploring. Be patient with yourself. Over time, you’ll discover which small commitments you want to grow into bigger ones and you’ll connect more and more of those dots!