Here’s a question:

“Alright Lauren, I’ve been reading your stuff. A lot of what you say resonates with me. You talk a lot about going after what I REALLY want. You talk about living according to my own deep values. Great! I agree! Here’s where I’m struggling. I don’t know what I really want. How do I figure it out?”

Fantastic question.

When I talk about overcoming mental illnesses, dealing with procrastination, saving money, leaving abusive relationships, changing my own toxic behavior, buying a house and investing, I’m talking about things I’ve done. And I’m talking about things that I was very intentional about. I didn’t just take these actions, I took them step-by-step, in exactly the way I suggest others take them.

Not only that, but as a tax professional and a financial advisor, I’ve seen plenty of variations of financial struggles and success stories. I’m also a pastor at churches that are specifically aimed at ex-convicts, addicts, those leaving abusive relationships and the mentally ill. So I’m not just speaking from my own experience. I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t in many peoples’ lives other than my own.

So, how did I discover my own deep values? How did I figure out what it is that I really want? Well, now we have a problem. Because unfortunately for all of you, the answer is that I discovered my own deep values largely through luck. And I’m not sure how to tell you to replicate that luck. Especially since, in my careers, I’ve never really helped other people discover their own deep values either. Those aren’t the struggles people come to me with.

Here’s the story of my own luck. In 2009, I was a financial advisor working with my aunt. That situation had grown untenable. So I quit. Well, this was during the bottom of the recession, and no one was hiring financial advisors. I simply could not get a job.

So, I answered an ad on Craig’s list from an advisor/CPA who had an office for rent. He was interested in working with someone who wanted to start their own business doing taxes and working with clients on passive investing. He said that he had increased his client list, even during the recent downturn. Since he mentioned passive investing I knew that we had the same investing philosophy. Further, I always wanted to combine tax and financial advice, since one of the most common complaints I heard from people was that their financial advisors knew very little about taxes. So I decided to give it a shot. I started my own business, and I rented an office from that CPA.

At that time I didn’t even know how to do taxes yet. I had to learn all that while living in the pressure cooker of trying to get clients. I have never done anything in my life that was more stressful. I literally had nightmares, for the first time since I was a child. But somehow, thanks to some early clients, I made it through.

Starting my own business was the single most important step I ever took towards living my own deep values of independence, order, loyalty, truth and ethics.

It was only when I started my own business that I could tell the truth absolutely all the time. I could be ethical, absolutely all the time. I had to take responsibility for all of my mistakes, and I could not pretend that anything was anyone else’s fault. I could be completely loyal to my clients. And I could finally run a business in the orderly, organized way I thought a business should be run.

I loved the fact that I no longer had to appear busy for the sake of appearances. I loved the fact that I simply did, each day, what really needed to be done, instead of mindlessly following some job description (or some crazy boss’s ego.)

Starting my own business gave me true independence. And to this day, I’m still not particularly ambitious, competitive, or concerned with status. But partly as a result of that lack of ambition, I had never before seriously considered being an entrepreneur. It just didn’t seem like the kind of goal I would be interested in. I hadn’t really thought clearly about how entrepreneurship might be about other things, like loyalty, order and freedom.

In 2009, right before I started my own business, I was 33 years old. And at 33, I still had no idea who I really was. I was miserable because I was not living according to my deep values. I was also making everyone around me miserable.

And I had no idea.

How did I stop being miserable and making everyone else miserable too? I got lucky. It sure didn’t look like good luck that I couldn’t find a job. But that’s exactly what it was.

So here’s the thing. I could give you suggestions on how to figure out your real values. For instance, I could tell you to read Mark Manson, who is probably my favorite blogger. I could tell you to check out the book “Who am I? The 16 Basic Desires that Motivate Our Actions and Define Our Personalities“, which I think is brilliant.

Mark Manson’s article is probably the best piece I’ve ever read on the subject of finding your life’s purpose, but I have to be honest. It wouldn’t have helped me during any period of my life before I started my own business. I was too arrogant. I wouldn’t have listened, not even to that voice deep inside me that was telling me that I was screwing up absolutely everything.

So the best advice I can realistically give is the advice that has always worked for me when approaching truly complex problems in both mathematics and real life:

Guess and check.

I think that’s what you have to do. Guess and check. Take some guesses, try them out, check the results. Go out and do whatever you feel you need to do. See what the results are. Be honest about whether things are working or not. By process of elimination, perhaps you will get to the truth.

Good luck!