How to figure out what to do next

This blog post could also be called, “How to brainstorm,” “How to choose a new career,” “How to come up with some new ideas for projects,” or “How to create something successful by creating something that only you can uniquely create.”

Back story:
I’m an entrepreneur and creator at heart, and I have a number of business ideas that I’m currently trying to prioritize. My ultimate goal is to develop a few diverse sources of online income. And while I don’t mind doing the hard work of creating content (like writing blog posts and e-books, creating webinars and courses, or making videos), I’d like to try and avoid sinking too much of my time and energy into a project that would have a low return on investment.

Tools of Titans (a book by Tim Ferriss)
Then I started reading Tim Ferriss’s Tools of Titans at the beginning of December. (If you’re curious about who Ferriss is, and what the book is about, I’ve included more information at the end of this post. Let me just add here for context that I love this book so much, in the last six weeks that I’ve been working part-time at Indigo Books and Music, I’ve been recommending it to anyone looking for a business-themed book for themselves, or for a gift.)

In the book’s section about Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams (arguably one of the most successfully cartoonists in the English-speaking world), Adams offers this career advice:

If you want an average, successful life, it doesn’t take much planning. Just stay out of trouble, go to school, and apply for jobs you might like. But if you want something extraordinary, you have two paths: 1) Become the best at one specific thing. 2) Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.

The first strategy is difficult to the point of near impossibility…The second strategy is fairly easy. Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.

How I adapted this advice
I was so inspired by this quote that I immediately started making a list on my iPhone, of all the activities I where I could reasonably be in the top 25%. They included things like writing, illustration, and making videos, but also included topics like breast cancer, eco-friendly cleaning, and nonprofit communications and marketing.

The list quickly became quite long. Which I didn’t see as a bad thing, but rather an exciting one. It gave me the idea for the exercise I describe below.

Try it yourself
I took a pack of blank index cards, and started writing down the activities and topics – one per card. I used Crayola markers because I like lots of colour. As I wrote, I put the finished cards on the table in front of me, spread out so that I could see them all. (This was also great fun for my cats. Just saying.)

Then when I was done writing all the words from my list, I sat back and looked the colourful cards. I didn’t try to force connections, but it was definitely connections I was looking for. Things like “writing / cooking / cleaning”, or “video / breast cancer / curly hair care”, or “illustration / crayon art / social justice”.

Or try this…
There are a few different ways you could use the cards. You could lay them all out at once the way I did, or you could separate them into random piles and start dealing yourself “hands” of two or three cards at a time. (I just did this with my cards, and came up with “drawing / strategy and planning / minimalism”, and “knitting / Gen X / aikido”.)

My mom came home, saw the cards all over our dining room table, and asked, “What game are you playing?” Exactly, I thought. It was a game!

Now I have a pack of cards that I can use over and over again to come up with new project ideas. The second part of the exercise (i.e. discernment, or choosing the best ideas to move forward with) looks something like this: Record the combinations that show up, and then when you have a number of combinations, compare them to each other. Ask yourself, Do I know someone who’s already doing this really well? (For example, I know plenty of people who are killing at “knitting / blogging / Millennials” or “sewing / DIY / videos”, so I wouldn’t personally prioritize those. But “video / breast cancer / curly hair care”? I haven’t seen anyone doing something like that yet, so I would prioritize that as a worthwhile project.

I’ve always loved brainstorming and mind mapping, and I can think of many ways to adapt this notecard brainstorming exercise. I remember I used to be so inspired reading Sue Grafton’s mystery novels, when Private Investigator Kinsey Millhone would jot case information on index cards and shuffle and re-shuffle them, trying to break a case. What you’re looking for are the unusual juxtapositions that you might not have otherwise thought of. I’ve suggested some variations on this exercise, below.

If you’re trying to figure out which career to follow
Write down as many jobs (e.g. doctor, teacher, accountant) or activities (e.g. horse riding, singing, photography) that you can think of, where you could conceivably be in the top 25%.

If you’re trying to come up with a new idea for a project
Write down as many topics as you can think of that interest you, that you’d be excited every morning to get up and work on.

If you’re trying to come up with some blog posts for your website, or a topic for a newsletter
Write down as many characteristics of your audience as you can think of… Then write down as many topics that might interest them that you can think of.

More about Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss
I love this book. It’s a (huge!) compilation of the best tips, tools and advice from some of the most successful entertainers, business people, scientists and athletes in the world today. Ferriss has taken the best content from his several hundred hours of podcast interviews and collected them in one tome. Podcast guests include comedian Margaret Cho, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Foxx, Tony Robbins, shame researcher and author Brene Brown, surfer Laird Hamilton, former pro volleyball player Gabrielle Reece, marketing and business guru Seth Godin, Brain Pickings founder and blogger Maria Popova, and CD Baby founder Derek Sivers, and the main topics are “healthy,” “wealthy,” and “wise.”

Ferriss is also the author of The 4-Hour Work Week (the first book about lifestyle design), The 4-Hour Body, and The 4-Hour Chef (which is ostensibly about cooking, but is really about understanding the learning process). I highly recommend his podcast, which you can find here.