What Should I Do With My Life?: Six Steps to An Answer

What Should I Do With My Life?: Six Steps to An Answer

thinkerFor the past two years, I've been heads-down working with my business partner (Amy Katz) and our team of contributors to build Nine Lives Media Inc. Our mission: Define emerging IT markets and disrupt established markets. But I haven't always been this focused. Every few years I go through a career crisis and ask myself "what should I with my life?" I suspect many VARs and MSPs ask themselves that same question every day. Here are six ways I ultimately found the answer.

First, a little background: This blog entry isn't about my family life. Fortunately, my wife and three sons are pretty awesome and deal with my career lunacy very well. I spent most of the 1990s working for IT magazines (InformationWeek, Windows Magazine, Smart Partner, etc.). But by 2001 the writing was on the wall. Ad pages were drying up and I realized it was time to get out of the print magazine game. (Side note: InformationWeek successfully reinvented itself and pushed into conferences and online media.)

But where would I go, what would I do?

The answer to that question was always in front of me. I just didn't see it at first. For years, I had admired Mary Jo Foley's transition from Microsoft print journalist (working for PCWeek, among other brands) to Web journalist (leading AllAboutMicrosoft.com). My transition wouldn't occur as quickly. It required six steps:

1. Get Re-Educated

To pay the bills and acquire some new skills, I joined NYIT (a college in New York) as editorial director in 2002.

Tip: Working for a college can be the perfect place to regroup and refocus. The people are pleasant, the workload is reasonable and you have plenty of time to reinvent yourself for The Next Big Thing. I made some great friends at NYIT and also managed to work with top professors, faculty and staff members. While at NYIT, I also worked with Amy a bit on some freelance projects for Fortune, Fortune Small Business and other big brands. It was the perfect way to stay in touch with Silicon Valley.

My point: There's nothing wrong with taking a lesser position to regroup and refocus. Sometimes you need to call a time out or scale back your hours in order to figure out what to do next. You need "think time." NYIT gave me a forty-hour work week, a rare offering these days.

2. Live Below Your Financial Means

I took a serious pay cut when I transitioned from IT media to NYIT. But my family didn't go broke because we don't carry big expenses, big leases, etc. When you live below your financial means it buys you flexibility and time. The flexibility to answer to yourself. And the time to research your next move.

3. Find New Ways to Network

By 2004, Ziff Davis Media (my former employer) came calling. They were building a face-to-face conference business for CIOs. The big question: Was I willing to live on the road and moderate CIO events five days a week? Frankly, I hadn't done much public speaking. And Ziff wasn't exactly on firm financial ground.

But I saw the bigger picture -- shaking hands with CIOs in a new city each day would be a great way for me to build industry relationships. The job was high-stress but it ultimately got me back in the IT media game. And along the way, I'd be making connections that would last a lifetime.

Network like crazy and you'll find new paths to pursue.

4. Find a Real Mentor

Frankly, I'm not a good listener. I march to my own beat. But when I meet someone brilliant I do tend to listen closely. Such was the case when I met Gary Bolles, a journalist-turned-consultant. I could tell you a lot about Gary. But I'll offer just this: Even Google calls him for guidance.

Gary and I have worked together three times (1998-2001; 2004; 2005-2007). Gary trusted me with a few web projects when I knew nothing about the web. But I learned. And I listened. And gradually, one mentor became three mentors. Gary has worked closely with Ziff veterans Al Perlman and Mike Perkowski over the years. Amy Katz and I tapped into their expertise running larger media brands.

By late 2007, Amy and I were talking about launching our own company. Amy had the business and leadership skills. And I had the confidence (arrogance?) to think we could build media brands on blog platforms. Sometimes, arrogance pays.

But back to that point on finding a mentor. I don't really think you can "find" a mentor when you're looking for one. Instead, I spent a lot of time listening to smart people. Somewhere along the way, those smart people served as mentors. Bottom line: Hang out with people who are smarter than you. One of them may emerge as a mentor when you least expect it.

5. Don't Do It All

Whether you're starting an MSP business or jumping into a new company you can't do it all. On the media front, I've seen numerous start-ups fail because they depended purely on editors with no sales/business expertise, or they depended on sales pros who didn't know how to build community and content.

Regardless of your career move you can't do everything. Don't try to. You'll fail.

Fortunately, I didn't have to go out on my own. I put my faith in Amy and she put her faith in me. At first, it wasn't easy. We spent a lot of time speaking with lawyers about the business partnership structure. But it was a healthy, necessary conversation.

6. Break Your Own Rules

In the 1990s, I was a print journalist. Earlier this decade I was a custom media and IT event expert. When Amy and I launched Nine Lives Media Inc., people assumed we would always be a blog company based on our first three media sites (MSPmentor, The VAR Guy and WorksWithU).

Over time, you could see some additional blog sites from us... yada, yada, yada ... but we break our own rules.

In October 2009 we started beta testing MSPtweet and VARtweet. You'll see the completed sites in early 2010. They're not blog sites. They're microblog sites that provide a direct connection between industry leaders and readers.

Remember: Microsoft could have stopped at BASIC and MS-DOS. Red Hat could have stopped at Linux. Disney could have stopped at Steamboat Willie. Take the best of what you have and push into new markets. Reinvent yourself. Constantly. You'll never get bored.

Why Today?

I'm not sure what inspired me to write this particular blog entry today.

Perhaps it's the economy. Perhaps it's hearing stories from so many people who dislike their jobs. Perhaps it's the fact Amy and I were pretty stressed this week. But at the end of each week we come to the same conclusion. We're having a blast. And we can't thank you enough for supporting our journey over the past two years.

Getting up, working on our blogs and microblogs, and interacting with all of you each day is a privilege. We promise to keep reinventing ourselves. I hope you do the same.

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