Lining things up

How do you choose your next project?


Life often feels like it’s made of a series of chapters. Moving from one to the next you almost wish you could read the “In which our hero…” chapter title in advance, so as to avoid the inevitable mistakes. That’s not possible, but it’s at these points of transition where you get to apply what you’ve learned and hopefully gain something in the next.

I’m at one of those points right now. Some of the projects I’ve been working on are flying the nest and I’m thinking about my next. It’s at times like this that I come up against a surprisingly difficult question:

How do you decide what you should work on?

Opportunity drift

In writing this article I realise that it’s clear that I am very lucky — I have several opportunities and potential directions available to me, and many people aren’t afforded that luxury. Being mid-career, with a good network of people around me, and some sense of having had past successes mean that when an inflection point comes along, some quite niche problems come to the fore. Chiefly among them is that there are a great many opportunities available at any one time so how do you choose where to spend your time?

Instinct tells me to be open, speak to the people I trust about what my next focus should be, but also to cast the net slightly wider. Have conversations with people who are doing work in areas where I can see there is a potential project, business opportunity, or where there is clearly something interesting going on.

This is what I’ve been doing of late, akin to Peter’s fifty coffees idea. A third along the lines of “I’ve got an inkling of an idea around x — what do you think?” A third around “I’d really like to work with you in some way — but what would we do?” And another third on “I’d like some thoughts from you about my next focus. Coffee?”

The danger to avoid here is opportunity drift. By deliberately putting yourself in an open mode, you’re going to end up with several ideas from other people about what you might want to be involved in. That can be a great thing, but you may find that because something sounds kind-of interesting, and someone who you admire is telling you about the opportunity, that you will drift towards something rather than instigating an opportunity of your own.

I’ve been guilty of this many times, even in my current business. It’s very easy to allow “That sounds like a good idea” to get in the way of “I have an idea…”

What you love

“Do what you love” is the mantra for many of us who are privileged enough to do so, and it’s advice that is handed down to others — “just do the thing that you love, and money, sustainability and happiness will come”. Much has been said by way of criticism of this idea, and I’ve come to a more nuanced position on this, particularly when presented with the vast array of opportunities around.

I’m not sure that you can really say “do what you love” is the right way to approach work. Work is often not what you love. It’s often what you do to pay for the ability to live somewhere you want to, to do other things you love that aren’t income-generating and to spend time with the people you love knowing you have the basics covered.

What lines up

“Do what lines up” is more sensible for me. I’m going to spend some time thinking about the things that I am interested in, that I get excited about, that I can see a fascinating future in my being involved, that are robustly defended when asked “how does that make the world better?” and then I’m going to write a list. A list of the things that matter to me. And when I think of something that I think “that’s a great idea”, or someone approaches me with a collaboration, I’ll evaluate it against how well they line up against those areas of passion, interest and purpose.

I see too many people working on projects that just don’t seem to be solving interesting or important problems, and I’ve realised in conversation with friends that I’ve been applying my time to collaborations or other people’s projects for too long, without really considering what would totally line up with me as a person.

I suspect focussing on a more personal approach to work could mean some closed doors, but also I’d suspect that it could lead to greater clarity when choosing to invest time in a project.

A useful tool with which to divide up the set of opportunities available, therefore, is to whittle them down into the ones that fulfil this simple statement:

“I know why I should work on this — it lines up a challenging problem with something I’m passionate about and an opportunity to apply what I’m best at”

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Image credit:
Magdalena Roeseler