I quit my marketing job back in January with no plan, no ideas, no backups.
You know this story already—or one like it. College-educated-restless-soul quits cushy tech startup to pursue what they love out in the great unknown (in a van). I even had the cliche dramatic moment sitting in a side room across from my boss after giving notice. She asked, “What are you going to do next?” and I looked out across the WeWork hallway space and said, “I don’t know yet—but I’ll figure it out.”
Cue 80s montage of me scrappily working odd jobs until landing my dream gig.
Which, okay, is kind of how it went. I didn’t have a van, I had a tiny Prius. I didn’t have any savings to fall back on (or the luxury to go soul-searching out in Thailand). I had cashed out my PTO, and my rent was due in a matter of weeks.
Still, I took the leap.
I think it’s worth noting that no one talks about the deep, soul-crushing existential panic that comes from not having a job and not even knowing what you want to do in place of it while the bills keep rolling in.
Do you become a cat stylist? A personal assistant to a pop singer in LA? A cosmetologist? Do you move to New York so you can live out the realities of that Sara Bareilles song you’ve been singing since you were 20?
You don’t fucking know—and everyone keeps asking.
So, what’s YOUR next step?
As someone who had to realistically make the harrowing transition from comfortable and steady to impassioned but unknown, I know firsthand how impossible that moment can seem. But it’s entirely doable. It all comes down to a few steps and a lot of courage.
1) Make a List
Maybe it’s bad form to start a list by telling you to make a list.
But seriously though.
Making a list of things that get you excited about life is a great way to narrow down your next path of exploration. And don’t feel like you have to limit yourself to things that will make you money—not at first. Remember: we’re just trying to figure out what will spark the fire in your core.
When I first quit my job, I was the most excited about libraries, museums, and books.
A librarian friend told me over coffee to try volunteering in a library or museum to see if I liked them before committing in a panic. So I did. I spent a day helping at the check-in desk during the Lunar Festival at the Oakland Museum of California. And I got lucky enough to share the table with a woman who’d worked her way up the ranks of the museum and had a lot of insight to share about the day-to-day operations.
Volunteering is a no-cost and flexible way to test the waters of a field you know nothing about. You’ll meet people working in it already, see what it’s actually like behind the scenes, and you can get a little insight along the way. Not to mention you’re helping your community at the same time.
3) Ask Questions
The best advice I was given in college came from one of my favorite media professors: “Find the person in the room who’s the best at what you want to do, then buy them a beer.”
Essentially: Find people who are doing something you admire and then ask them for an informal meeting (it doesn’t have to be beer). It took me a few tries to discover this is a normal professional networking technique and people are generally happy to chat with you about their work for a few minutes. They love what they’re doing and want to share that.
And don’t be afraid! Passion requires courage and everyone has been where you are now.
4) Wait On Your Grad School Application
I have so many grad school pamphlets on the floor next to my bed, I could mold them into an end table.
It may be tempting to go back to school for a “do I actually like this subject” round 2, but remember that going to college costs money—it doesn’t save or make it. If you decide your heart is deep in a field that requires a masters or PhD—or the world of higher ed is calling to you—then, yes, of course, go for it.
But don’t go back to school because you don’t know what else to do. The goal is to avoid going through the motions simply to keep moving.
5) Try New Things
Similar to making a list, you should be introducing yourself to new experiences at a voracious rate—and taking notes along the way.
Eat new foods. Read books outside your usual genres. Watch movies that initially look boring. Then see what happens. If anything in particular calls out to you while you’re broadening your horizons, add it to your initial list.
And remember: you don’t exist in a vacuum and neither does the rest of the world. Engaging with something new will help you grow personally in a way you can leverage in your professional life.
6) Interview Yourself
Make a list of questions to ask yourself—and then answer them.
What was the last job you had that you really liked? What was it that you liked? What was the last job you hated? Why? If you could live anywhere, where would you go?
Use your answers to set some guidelines as to where you’re looking and for what. See if you can’t find opportunities that match up with the things you liked and avoid the things you hated.
You don’t have to do this one out loud, but it can be fun to pretend you’re a guest on Jimmy Kimmel.
For me, making my passion my line of work was something I only had the courage to do after quitting. It took the better part of a year, and things were tight and scary and hectic for much of that time. But after spending my short-lived marketing career jotting down story pitches in the bathroom and writing drafts on my BART commute, I at least had a sense of what I should try first.
Now, I write full time.
Finding what you love is the first step. Everything after that will feel less like sprinting and more like dancing—and you don’t have to live in a van to figure that out.