This is the second in a series of posts about travel, work, and living on your own terms. I recently wrote about living A Radically Different Life. On the advice of the wonderful Ellen Chisa, I’ll be using Medium as my new home base. Welcome!

As a “product person”, my job is to help businesses figure out how to reach their goals. Maybe they want to do $X more in sales this quarter. Or maybe they want Y% more users. Or maybe they’re starting from scratch and their goal is to “Solve Problem Z for This Group of People.” My task is to take that goal or vision and figure out the steps they need to take to reach it.

What resources do they have to work with? What factors come into play to affect that particular part of the business? What are the constraints or hurdles that might get in the way of reaching that goal? What things matter most to this particular company?

Figuring out the answers to those questions and breaking them down into a series of steps that will hopefully lead them to the promised land takes a fair bit of creativity, strategy, and a healthy dose of realism. Sometimes you have to make tough calls, sometimes you have to hack things together in the short term to get to the long term, sometimes you just have to take a (somewhat educated) leap of faith and hope for the best. But it all has to start with a clear vision.

It only occurred me a few years back that I’d been subconsciously product managing myself. That’s when I decided to do it properly. People are a product of their inputs. What gets measured gets managed. Setting goals and reaching them works nearly the same on a business level as it does on a personal level. That’s when I finally sat down and took a long, hard look at my life and where I wanted it to go. What would happen if I treated myself like I would treat one of my products? What if I took myself, as a person, through the same process I take my clients’ businesses through? I took stock of what I had to offer. I figured out all of the resources I had available to me, and I tried to identify the levers that I needed to move to get myself in the best position possible to make it all happen.

But first I had to figure out what “it” was. I vaguely knew the direction, but what was it exactly? How would I figure out how to get there if I didn’t know where “there” was?

This was the tough part: Figuring out the particulars. “Travel,” “location-independence,” “self-managed,” “photography,” “lifestyle design” were all words that floated around in my head but they didn’t form any sort of shape. It’s hard to figure out how to reach a group of disconnected words. All good products have a well-defined vision. I had a bunch of words.

Sometimes product development requires some brutal honesty. Often businesses, especially of the early-stage startup flavor, don’t exactly know what their product looks like or how to get there. At the start, they have a vague idea of the problem space and the direction they want to move in. They get suggestions and ideas from all sorts of places — advisors, friends and family, business books, Google, some guy on Twitter. Everyone adds their two cents about what the business should do to succeed. “Snapchat did this and got tons of users, so you should do it too!,” “All the biggest companies use This Tool, so you should too,” “Obviously having free snacks and ping pong tables is the key to success! You should definitely buy those before you buy desks.”

The thing is, the definition of success and the path to get there is unique to each business. The companies that rocket past everyone else do things their own way. They take stock of what matters to their company and their product and they do that with gusto, forsaking what everyone else expects them to do. They are brutally honest with themselves. They know what their vision is, they know what matters most to them, and that’s what they pursue.

This is exactly true for us as individuals. Each of us has our own definition of success and our paths are unique. There’s one hitch: it’s a lot easier to be brutally honest with a business than it is to be brutally honest with ourselves.

Figuring out exactly what it is you want to do or be is no easy task. Some people are born with it. They know by the time they hit kindergarten that they want to be a doctor or a teacher or a nuclear physicist. Some of us flap around for decades before we figure it out. Some of us think we know, go down that path, and then realize we were sorely mistaken, or fooling ourselves.

Personally, a lot of the decisions I made in the very early part of my adulthood were based on what I was supposed to do. Go to a good school (I don’t regret that), get a good, stable job (check!), get a nice apartment (yep!), etc. There’s nothing wrong with those choices. They’re the right choice for the vast majority of people.

But I would start feeling claustrophobic. I would change jobs, move, or leave and go travel in hopes that maybe I’d find a combination that worked. It took a good 5 years of trying that same recipe over and over to realize that it just wasn’t for me. My vision for my own future, however fuzzy it was, just didn’t include these things. At least not right away.

That’s when I had to take a stock, look at those words that had been floating around in my head, and figure out what they meant. I would do a lot of writing in notebooks about what felt “off” about my life, my choices, and my circumstances. I would also write about feeling particularly happy or at peace. For each item that came up as a point of friction or happiness or aspiration, I would ask “Why?” And I would keep asking “Why?” until I got to the bottom of it.

I basically had a conversation with myself, but on paper.

For months on end, I would write whatever came to mind (sometimes totally off-topic) until I didn’t have anything else to say. Whenever the urge struck — usually when I was particularly happy or frustrated or overwhelmed about something — I would grab my notebook and start writing. It took a while for me to be able to mute the shoulds, but with practice, you learn to keep them out.

The most important part of this exercise is the brutal honesty. Sometimes you won’t like the answer to your own “Why?”s, sometimes your own answers will surprise you. Just keep writing.

It’s important to leave all of the other voices in your life out of it. Everyone who cares about you (and even those that don’t even know you) will have an opinion about how you should go about your life. It’s just natural. And even though you don’t want to make those people angry, or upset, or disappointed, this is the time you need to figure out what works best for you. What you choose to do with that information afterward is your choice.

Just keep writing. Eventually, themes start to emerge. And that’s when the magic starts to happen. The “will”s are just as important as the “won’t”s. Knowing what you don’t want in your life is just as important as knowing what you do want. From all of these themes, figure out how they piece together. Form a statement about your future self. That’s your vision.

The themes that emerged from my writing exercises became pretty clear, especially the more I did it. I know I want to travel as much as possible. I want to build a business of my own. I want to learn about other cultures and use that to bridge the gaps and misunderstandings we seem to have about each other. I want to communicate through writing and photography. I want to inspire others to travel. I don’t want to have a 9–5 office job. I don’t want my entire livelihood in the hands of a particular company. I don’t want to have a home that I stock up with stuff that I don’t need. I want to prioritize experiences over material things.

I put the most important of my themes together into my vision statement. This is the target I am for.

I travel, live, and work around the world, funded through my own entrepreneurial endeavors. As a global citizen, I use my experiences to inspire and bridge together people and cultures through writing, photography, and personal interactions.

There are plenty of ways to go about identifying your vision. There are whole sections of bookstores dedicated to these sorts of exercises. I started out with a wall of Post-Its that had my floaty words and eventually broke them down in my notebook. Try a few. Find the one that works best for you.

When a company defines their vision, they don’t worry about how they’ll get there. The big vision is meant to inspire, to provide a “north star” for everyone to orient around. It’s the foundation upon which the empire is built. Here are some vision statements for companies you might recognize.

Defining your vision is about dreaming big. You might not have the time to make it happen (yet). You might not have the money to make it happen (yet). You might not even have the skills you need to make it happen (yet). But that’s a challenge for another day. In order to know where we’re going, we need to know where there is.

Figuring out how to get there is a challenge for another day.

What’s your personal vision statement? Share it with me on Twitter @jennjenn. If you liked this post, please 💚 it and share it with one of your favorite people. I’ll be posting the next installment soon, so follow along!