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Daniel Gulati

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Diversify Your Dreams

Posted: 03/01/2012 8:20 am

If you ever want to lie awake at night, go ahead and think about your "one thing" -- the one thing you were born to do, the one career you were built to succeed at and the one person you were destined to spend the rest of your life with. Attempting to solve these impossible optimization riddles is a sure path to emotional turmoil, an unsatisfying professional life and, well, a pretty bleary-eyed morning.

In writing Passion and Purpose, I learned that smart, well-intentioned individuals have a destructive tendency to oversimplify their passions and dreams, distilling them down to a series of these "one things." I saw a young accountant's elaborate plan to land his dream job of becoming CEO of a professional services firm, or else be considered a failure. I witnessed one of my peers who, just days after her wedding, became absolutely angst-ridden about whether she had married her one universal soulmate. Still others float from job to job, from life tragedy to triumph, in the never-ending quest to discover their one purpose.

If you're smart, well-intentioned and under 35, you're particularly at risk. After analyzing our survey of over 500 business school students, this much is clear: You're a generation of idealists. Free from the traditional shackles of perceived prestige and financial compensation, you rate intellectual challenge as the most important reason for choosing a job. Not content with mere intellectual idealism, you also demand geographical optimization. You travel from country to country (an average of 4.6 times within 10 years of graduation), with 92 percent of your peers agreeing that more gender, professional, functional, sexual orientation, racial (and you-name-it) diversity is better. You're cross-pollinating industries, with 84 percent agreeing that it's essential for business leaders to understand the public and nonprofit sectors. And you're aggressive connectors -- on an average of 2.4 social networks and rising. In short, you're feeling the unrelenting pressure to optimize amongst the vast array of choices available to you, and you won't stop debating, traveling, pollenating and connecting until you hit on your "one thing." You've been told all your life not to compromise, and you're doing what you're told.

But there's a dark side to this behavior that applies to everyone. In the process of trying to hit life's elusive "home runs," at least two negative things are happening to you. Firstly, you're focused obsessively on the things you desperately want and probably haven't got. Clinical psychologists have long warned against the dangers of excessive introspection, arguing that when people are already down, ruminating on their problems makes things worse. But more importantly, you're putting all your eggs in one basket. The irony is that by convincing yourself that there's one dream job out there for you, and questing for one dream job only, you're jeopardizing your chance of realizing your dream and setting yourself up for deep regret and unhappiness if you eventually fall short.

There is an alternative, and that's to diversify your dreams. You wouldn't invest all of your savings into one stock, because, for a variety of reasons both in and out of your control, that one stock might never generate a return. Why treat your dreams and passions -- arguably your most valuable assets -- any differently? Let's embrace the entire portfolio of our passions and diversify our dreams, and avoid designing our lives around ever-elusive silver bullets.

The time to diversify is now. With permanently new dynamism in the job market and the elimination of the career ladder, the days of signing up for a 20-year, pre-configured journey to the top are over. Instead, success will be marked by flexibility and agility -- how quickly you can adapt to the world around you, and how quickly you can seize exciting new opportunities. Having multiple paths and career dreams up your sleeve is a more effective way to navigate this exciting, but riskier, world.

More good news -- the information technology revolution just lowered the cost of experimentation. If you've ever wondered what it would be like to be a headhunter in Hong Kong, there are more than a million published resources online that can inform your decision. Your social networks are a valuable asset and your connections are waiting to be tapped. Best of all, this buffet of content and connections can be accessed at anytime, at record speed. Technology makes diversifying your dreams more achievable than ever.

So how do you start moving from one dream to many? A practical tip I've seen work well is to develop a "Folder of Gratitude," a constantly-updated list of all the things in life you're grateful for. Chances are, many of the things on your list correspond neatly with your underlying passions. Then, take your list and amplify these passions with intelligent experiments. Test and invest in your areas of interest, and cultivate the joy of learning from failure. Finally, just like any investor worth their salt: Double down on winners. If something strikes a chord, reallocate more time and energy to it. View your dreams as organic and ever-changing, and you're much more likely to be pleased with the outcome.

There's no reason to put all your eggs in one basket and cross your fingers. Your dreams are precious enough to diversify.

This post was originally published on HBR.org.

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