How do you know you are on the right path in your life?

1.      You spend your time doing things that give you energy rather than deplete your energy. 
I took a class titled “Power and Glory in Turbulent Times” with Nancy Koehn.  We studied all types of leaders from Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill to Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs to Oprah and U2.  Nancy Koehn was insane – so much exuberance and intense knowledge of a wide variety of topics.  She’d recite David Foster Wallace passages and Abraham Lincoln letters from memory on a whim.  She’s the most bad-ass person I’ve ever known.  I’ll be watching a documentary about Henry Ford, and think, “Why is this voice familiar?”, and then realize it’s Nancy Koehn.

At the end of the semester, a group of students had lunch with Professor Koehn.  After telling us about a PBS documentary she was interviewed for, all of these New York Times articles and books she’s writing, and her love for horse-riding, I asked her, “How do you decide how to spend your time?”

She responded, “I just do things that give me energy.  Last week, I was recording for a PBS documentary in New York, and I was so energized afterwards that I skipped all the way to Penn Station.  I thought, ‘Hmm, I should do more of these.’  After I record our show for NPR, I’m so excited that I jingle my keys on the walk to my car.  Writing is so hard for me.  It’s so solitary and so gut-wrenching, but when I finish, I’m so excited and so glad I did it.  I just pay attention to what gives me more energy and just make sure I do more of those things.”

2.      You consistently take the option you care about more.
Another bad-ass professor I had at HBS, Youngme Moon co-taught a class titled “Branding + Different”.  A lot of her business insights are included in her book “Different.”  I figure if I am plagiarizing people, then I should at least plug their books.

On the last day of class, all HBS professors do a final lecture, a revered tradition in the school where professors share deeply personal stories and heartfelt advice on personal and professional success.  Professor Moon dropped a lot of knowledge on us, but one thing she shared that seems relevant here is a story about her son.

Her son one day said, “You always tell me to do something I’m passionate about, but what if I’m not passionate about anything?”  She responded, “If at every choice you come to in life, what job to take, what subject to major in, what city to live in, if at every fork in the road you take the option you care about more, the option that gets you excited and whets your curiosity … then you’ll come to the next fork in the road and you’ll take the option you care about more… then you’ll come to the next fork in the road and you’ll take the option you care about more … you’ll keep coming to these forks and keep taking the options you care about more, then one day, you’ll wake up and realize that you’re doing something you’re passionate about.”

3.      You find your sweet spot.
Find your sweet spot where what you love, what you’re good at, and what society values intersect.  I stole this and am doing a terrible job paraphrasing it from the class “Authentic Leadership Devleopment.”  We had the book “True North” by Bill George, so maybe I am stealing this from that book, but I’m too lazy to double-check.

This is the framework I found particularly helpful for making sure one’s on the right path in life.

Pulling this all together.
For me, making sure one’s on the right path in life is not a simple checklist or a one-time litmus test, but rather the result of a series of good decisions.   Or maybe it’s not even the series of good decisions but rather amassing diverse experiences and later piecing them together, as illustrated in Steve Job’s famous connecting-the-dots Stanford graduation speech.

Either way, if at every decision point – taking a new job, moving to a new location, starting new hobbies, teaching a class – you take the choice that gives leaves you more energized, tempts your curiosity more, and is at that intersection of what you’re good at, what you love, and what society values, then I imagine you’ll be well on your way to your right path in life.

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