As an entrepreneur, finding a purpose that will keep you going through long nights and challenging days is the most important first step you can make. But what if you’re feeling lost, unsure of what your purpose is? Maybe you’re looking to make a career shift and you’re unsure of the path forward.
Enter Megan Hellerer. She had eight years at Google under her belt when she realized something was wrong: she didn’t want to go to work. She wasn’t lazy — she was unhappy. After leaving her job to embark on some soul searching, she decided to take a career coaching class.
These days Hellerer helps other “underfulfilled overachievers” like her former self figure out how to move forward in their careers, whether they’re just starting out or looking to be their own boss after several years on the job. (She counts Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as one of her clients, who came to her before her 2016 run for Congress was even on the horizon.)
Hellerer wants you to know that you don’t need to know right now what you want to be when you grow up, you just need to know the direction you want to go.
Here, she offers six tips for creative professionals in search of their paths.
“Sometimes we need to let things fall apart, so that we can see what's really going on, so that we can figure out what are the things that we want to reinvest in,” Hellerer says.
The uncertainty Hellerer experienced post-Google, though painful, gave her clarity. It allowed her to assess everything she was doing in her life and whether or not she wanted to continue with it.
Your experience might not look like Hellerer’s, but she urges you to look at times of struggle as an opportunity to make a change in your life. “It doesn't mean it's going to feel good, but the breakdown is the breakthrough,” she says.
A misconception that many of Hellerer’s clients deal with is that success and fulfillment are at odds. Hellerer disagrees. “And I would argue that they actually are best friends... The more fulfilled you are, the more successful you can be. The more energized you are about your work, the more alignment it is for you.”
So let’s say you’re at the “breakdown” stage — you’ve encountered or have decided to make a life-shifting change. Maybe you’re ready to finally launch a business you’ve had in the back of your mind for years. Where do you go from there? Hellerer likes to ask people in this position to take an audit: think about when you’ve felt your best or most alive. What are the steps you can take to start moving in that direction?
Hellerer says that the old method of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is out of date. We can’t make decisions for who we will be, and what the world will be like, in 10 or 20 years in the future. Instead, it’s about seeing what’s in front of you now and taking small steps in the direction you want to go.
Hellerer likes to use a road trip analogy: “If you're driving in the fog at night, you don't have a choice of [being] able to see further. You have a choice of staying where you are and not making the journey or trusting that there is a road and that it's going to lead you where you're going,” she says.
“And if we take this another level further, you have a working and functional GPS in the car that is going to help you make decisions based on all of the data points that you're accumulating as you go. You can start to learn to trust this inner GPS, if you will, that we all have [inside] us, and can learn to calibrate.”
That inner GPS is akin to a method Hellerer uses to help her clients find their purpose and move forward from there — a process of following their intuition towards “warmer” feelings vs. “colder” feelings. Warmer feelings are aligned with fulfilment and your true sense of self, colder feelings are the “shoulds” and obligatory actions that take us away from our actual purpose.
“If I can continue to make warmer decisions, I'm going to end up in the warmest place possible. The idea here is go where it's warm,” she says.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was BU grad working as a bartender to help support her family, when she met Hellerer. She arrived with a curiosity about public service, but didn’t know what direction that would take.
Eventually, she decided to get in her car and drive to Standing Rock Reservation, the site of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. That experience ended up leading Ocasio-Cortez to the people who would encourage and mentor her as she ran for Congress.
“Fulfillment and curiosity are like hunger,” Hellerer says. “Hunger cues are there to show you where the nourishment is.” And we have to learn to trust that, she says.
To apply this to a career path, Hellerer encourages her clients to follow their own curiosity clues. What are the “cool jobs” you had no idea that existed? What is a thought or interest you’ve always returned to, and how can you begin to redirect yourself toward it?
“Follow your curiosity every single time,” Hellerer says. “I think there's a real humility in that actually, because the biggest thing we need to do is get out of our own way.”
Everyone has a self-critic, an internal voice that persuades them from taking risks that can lead to growth. Hellerer says these “saboteurs” take several forms, from a barrage of “shoulds” to scarcity mindset (i.e. there is not success or resources enough to go around) to self-criticism. Each can prevent you from figuring out your purpose.
Sometimes, though, it’s hard to tell the difference between your real thoughts and the saboteur. (How many times have we told ourselves, “I’m too ____ to try something new?”) Hellerer suggests getting very familiar with your inner self-saboteur:
“What does my saboteur sound like? How do I get to know that particular brand of my own saboteur with all of those shoulds, with all of those tos, with all of the scarcity and exceptionalism? How do I get really familiar with that voice so that it doesn't sabotage me, so that I can move forward knowing warmer and colder?” she says.
If you’re an entrepreneur looking to find a more authentic path, Hellerer suggests starting by doing what she calls “screenshotting your downloads.” In other words, start capturing your ideas. Next, say it out loud (or write it down). That can be to a friend or therapist, business partner or trusted collaborator — the goal is to put it into words.
Once you have it written down, do some research. Want to leave your current career to start a podcast? Google “how to start a podcast,” research the best equipment for home studios, or search for an online course.
Next, seek out people who can share more info. Maybe you have a friend with a podcast you can tap for advice, maybe you know someone who’s worked with an audio engineer. “Our only job is to move the plot forward, not to get it right, to move the plot forward,” Hellerer says. “Headlights in front of us, right?”
The last step is to take action. “It could be the simplest thing,” says Hellerer. It could be writing more about your idea, reading a book about the topic, or watching a video. The goal is to continue to move your journey forward little by little in order to inspire additional ideas and actions.
And now your trip is in motion.
Just as your car’s GPS will reroute you if you miss a turn, rely on your inner GPS to recalibrate as you continue to move towards “warm” decisions. With time, you should start to feel more energy as you start down the path of alignment.
“There's an Ann Truitt quote where she says, ‘You know that something is in line with your personal development when it feels like laying down a burden and picking up organic responsibility,’” Hellerer says. “Take the path of most joy. And that is always the path to the most success.”
Watch the full interview with Megan Hellerer here and join the Parsons Entrepreneur Academy Network to hear more stories about building a business around your art.
Meet the author:
Maura M. Lynch is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in Brooklyn, NY. In her free time she co-runs STET, a site dedicated to emerging writers and storytelling, and plays guitar and sings in Blush.
The Parsons Entrepreneur Academy--Powered by the Parsons School of Design--is an online platform dedicated to helping creative professionals learn and master the business side of their professions. We provide community, mentoring and courses created for and by people in the creative fields. Sign-up for our emails and learn how to turn your art into a business.