Stop leaving doors open. Start burning bridges.
There’s an idea that keeping doors open is inherently good. I’ve written before about how obsession with options can blind you to opportunities. I’m going to make an even stronger claim: Not only do you need to stop looking for so many options, you should begin actively slamming doors to ensure you can never again walk through them.
If you know a door leads you to a life that would make you unhappy shut it.
If you’ve peeked through a particular portal and seen something that makes you a little dead inside slam the door and burn it behind you. Otherwise you might be tempted to go through it later if someone dangles the right price in front of you. You might be tempted to say yes to something you hate, which might be the saddest of all fates.
I’ve met a number of young people who spent a summer interning in Washington, DC and told me after the experience that they hate the entire political scene and would never want to become one of those people. Many of these same young people, when the fantasyland of subsidized education comes to a close and the need for a steady job begins to weigh on them, confide things like, “I can’t publish that blog post or I would never get hired by policy group X in DC!” They are careful not to burn bridges, “just in case”.
But if the bridge takes you someplace you know you don’t want to go burning it should be a top priority! There’s a reason Odysseus had himself tied to the mast.
How many people live lives they hate because they couldn’t say no to the salary? How many wallow in misery because they left the door open too long? How many knew a particular path wouldn’t make them happy but they failed to cut off the option and when push came to shove they couldn’t say no to the status or short-term gains in the moment of weakness?
Go try things. Lots of things. Be open minded before you try something. The minute you stumble on something you hate, slam the door. Cut off your return route.
Realistically you’re not likely to arrive at a life you love by picking the one thing that’s perfect for you and going at it. Instead, try stuff and shut down everything that’s not it. Arrive at the good life by eliminating the bad. I’ve written about this frequently and it’s something of a life motto for me. Just don’t do stuff you hate and the rest is fair game.
I have a friend who says the only reason he does what he does is because there is nothing else in the world he can stand or is good at. It might not sound noble to you, but I think this is one of the best reasons to do something that I can think of! Some of the best entrepreneurs admit they have to keep starting companies if for no other reason than that they hate being an employee so much. Find what you love by getting to the point where there’s nothing else left. If you keep slamming doors behind you it will be easier to narrow your field of options. Eventually, all that’s left will be perfect for you.
As soon as you realize something makes you dead inside, saps your energy, or kills your joy make an escape plan and get out of there ASAP. It doesn’t matter to where, just anywhere but the bad place. As soon as you realize it again move on again. It might take two days it might take five years. It can be hard to exit a bad situation. But when you know it’s not working blaze a trail and don’t leave breadcrumbs.
Maybe you’ll die with an incredibly wide range of things still on your list of potentially good ways to spend your life. Maybe by age 20 they’ll be almost nothing left. It’s different for everyone. But if you’re like most, you never could have found your “bliss” or “passion” if you set out to or treated everything as perpetually possible. You only find it by slamming doors on what it’s not.
This is going to sound repetitive but it bears repetition. Don’t do stuff you don’t like doing. Not only don’t do it, don’t even leave yourself in a position where you’re tempted to.
If you discover you hate law one month into an internship or three years into law school, stop right there. Leaving the door open, finishing “just in case”, is the surest way to end up with a life that bores you. “Yeah, I realized I don’t like law, but I can always fall back on a life I’m guaranteed to dislike if nothing else works out.” If you leave yourself the option you’ll take it.
Close the door and burn it. You know what’s behind it. There’s no question. Everything else may or may not lead you to happiness, but not this. You know it sucks. Leave the other doors open until you peek through, but not the one you know is wrong. Knowledge of what you dislike is profoundly valuable, but only if you act on it. Inaction – not doing those things – is often not enough. You need to prevent yourself from ever doing them.
This is not about being closed minded or rushing to judgment. Be open minded about what may or may not make you happy. You might be surprised. Take the time to try things out, don’t just look at some stupid career guide or list of college majors and claim you know what’s a good fit. But once you’ve tested something and you really know you hate it, slam the door.
The more possibilities you can eliminate quickly the faster you’ll get to a life you love.