The Best Piece of Advice I Never Understood

Emily Woodhouse Adventure Careers, Comment and Opinion, Living Adventurously

It’s only March, but it’s the time of year when people in education are starting to look forward, beyond the end of things. It’s nigh on university exam term. It’s only a couple of months until GCSEs and A Levels. And if you are even a year or so from leaving full time education, you’re probably staring at the great big abyss of the unknown once you leave. That can be both exciting and terrifying – or probably both, depending on how much pressure has been put on you. Personally, I couldn’t wait to finally see the end of university. I had no clue what on earth I was going to do afterwards beyond put as much distance between myself and university as possible. And yet somehow it felt like I was supposed to step out of education and know exactly what I was going to do with the rest of my life.

The ironic thing is that I did actually know, even then. I just didn’t know that I knew.

How to Decide What to Do in Life

In those weird few months after graduation, I was given some of the best advice in my life. I’m going to tell it to you now. But it is most effective if you do it yourself without reading the twist first. So I’d encourage you to grab whatever note taking device you have and do this as we go along, without skipping ahead. It’s really simple.

The List

Step 1: Write down a list of 20 things you want to do in your life. They can be big or small. Try to be as specific as possible.

That said, if you genuinely want to climb a mountain and don’t care which, write that down. If you just want to write a book, any book, for yourself and not publish it, then Write a Book counts. But if really you want to get the book you’ve been dreaming about since you were 10 traditionally published, then you’d better write that down. Or do the Cullin ridge in under 24 hours with a group of friends. Or read the entire works of Shakespeare. Get it down.

If you’re struggling to get 20, then you need to write down 25. Yes, honestly. The point is to get anything and everything down that you might be inclined to do one day. Clear out all the ideas you’ve had or been putting out. Clean out the corners of your brain until there’s nothing important you could have possibly missed.

You should be left with a list of everything the person you are right now would like to do.

An Example List

It occurred to me, as I was writing this post, that I probably actually still had my list somewhere. The one I wrote in the weeks after finishing university. I was so lost. I was disillusioned with everything that had happened in the last four years. I certainly didn’t like my list. But here it is, scrawled in a notebook in black biro: “What I would quite like to do – not end of the world if I don’t” (in no particular order).

  1. Become a published author
  2. Run my own business
  3. Visit Machu Picchu
  4. Do the Mont Blanc Circuit
  5. Get my Mountain Leader award
  6. Set up something like <walking group I was in> wherever I go
  7. Be a millionaire
  8. Be self-sufficient
  9. Keep ducks
  10. Have more rhubarb than sense!
  11. Be an extra in a film
  12. Play the piano well
  13. Play the clarinet
  14. Help other people understand maths
  15. Discover something wonderful about prime numbers
  16. Work on an archaeological dig
  17. Be able to fence brilliantly
  18. Have a library
  19. Plant a maze in my garden
  20. Create a herb garden in Da Vinci’s knot shape
  21. Understand the Riemann Hypothesis
  22. Study magic
  23. Find treasure / something of historical significance
  24. Live in the countryside near a national park
  25. Be proficient at another language
  26. Be able to read foreign novels
  27. Learn to design and make my own clothes
  28. Paint what I see

So there you have it. I’m not asking you to share your list. Write it to yourself, in secret. Write things you’d wince at sharing with other people. I certainly wouldn’t have shared this list when I wrote it. Stop everything and do this now, before you read any further.

The Important Next Steps

Ready? Okay, here comes the magic.

Step 2: Circle the top five things on your list. The things you really want to do. You can only pick five.

Got your five-ish items on the list? (Yes I see you circling six…) Now for the most important step of all.

Step 3: Out of those five, pick the one thing that you want to do most right now. The thing that, if you got to the end of your life and hadn’t done it – or even tried – you’d be really disappointed. Only one. Put a star next to it.

This is absolutely critical. You might not feel a burning desire to do that thing especially, but out of all of the things on the list, it’s the one you’d most regret not having a go at.

Step 4: Put aside everything else on the list. That one thing you just picked? Go do it.

Wait! Don’t close the window in disgust. Let me explain.

Here’s where I went wrong (so you don’t have to)

Now, if you’re like me, you just felt revolted or cheated. “You just made me open up my heart about things I care about, then told me to abandon all of the hundreds of things I want to do.” No. That was my mistake too. I was given this advice and what I heard was “Do this one thing and never do any of the other things.”

This is NOT what the exercise means or tells you.

You’ve actually just tricked yourself into finding a direction for the next few weeks/months/years. I’m not telling you to never do all the other things on your list. But if you’re looking for what to do next in life, then focussing on the one thing you secretly care about most is absolutely the way to go. Because your options are:

  1. Spend the next 10+ years of your life doing things not on this list at all. (Doing what you “should” or following others’ dreams)
  2. Do some of the things on this list, but nothing that you really really want to do. Just things you kind of wanted to do. You’ll probably be kind of happy.
  3. Do a huge number of things on the list but never that one thing with a star next to it. The thing that you just said mattered most to you at this moment in time. You’ll probably be kind of happy too, but you’ll always wonder.
  4. Turn to face the thing you starred. Pursue that idea for as long as you can manage. It might be a small thing, comparatively, like climbing a particular mountain. Great. When you’ve done it, come back to the list (or write a new one) and do the next top item. You are not saying you’ll never do all the awesome things on the list, you’re just choosing what comes first.

The Cost of My Mistake

So I got this advice and I did the exercise and I circled what I’d written down first in the list: become a published author. That’s not really what I meant when I wrote that. I wasn’t specific enough. What I really meant was become a traditionally published author of children’s fiction. But I misheard “choose one and ignore the others” as “only get to do one thing on the list”. And I said no, I want all of it (!) – or at the very least most of it. I want to do lots of things with my life.

So, I put the list aside and forgot about its contents and went off on some weird rambling path of trying to work out what I was supposed to do next. Or what I was going to do with the rest of my life. Trying to have it all laid out in a clear path right into the distance. Yet at the same time sporadically saying yes to things that were kind of fun and I did enjoy but weren’t things I deeply cared about. Until I got so lost and distracted that I had to stop and, in resetting, came to terms with what I really wanted to do after all. That I’d always known.

It’s like you see in running races. If the competitor turns to the side, to look at the person next to them, they get overtaken. It is far more efficient to focus on one thing, run that race, then run the next race and the next. But to do that you have to be prepared to commit. To act even for a year like this is the only thing that matters and see where it takes you. You can always change your mind later. That way you don’t have to get to 30 with ten years behind you full of things that were kind of fun but honestly you never cared that much about.

It takes bravery to do this. To willingly walk into the fog and find out what’s there. But like navigating in the fog, you can always walk in vaguely the right direction until you hit something that tells you the way to go next. But to do that, you have to know where you are going.

So here it is again. Step 4: Put aside everything else on the list (for now). That one thing you just picked? Go do it.


I really hope that helped. I’m always open to emails about this kind of stuff – or drop something in the comments. It’s something I feel very strongly about because careers advice was so poor for me. Or while you’re here, you’re welcome to have a read of some of my adventures. If you’re new to the blog (hello!) you might want to start here first. I’m a female adventurer based on Dartmoor in the UK. Fed up of my sporadic use of social media? Then you need to be in the Adventure Squad!