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It’s not uncommon to reach your 30s, 40s or even 50s and still wonder, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” Few people are fortunate enough to be certain of their destinies early on and the rest of us are forced to do some soul searching.

The desire to own a business is becoming more common as workers grow more frustrated with the economy and working in corporate America. If you’re thinking about a business of your own but you’re not sure what to start, here are several exercise to spark some ideas.

Start by Making Lists of Your Interests, Talents, and Skills

Write down what you like and don’t like about your current job and jobs you’ve had in the past. Do you love writing business documents? Do you hate calculating numbers? By listing your likes and dislikes, you can see with more clarity where some of your interests lie and which tasks you want to avoid.

The trick is to brainstorm business ideas and find one that you will be passionate about, one that will meet your desired standard of living and your lifestyle criteria. Someone who doesn’t like being chained to a desk should not choose a business that requires her to be stuck in an office all day.

The good news is that as an entrepreneur, you get to make these decisions for yourself. Perhaps you are good with numbers and you’re thinking about becoming a mortgage broker, but you don’t want to be stuck in an office all day. If you are serving clients in your area, won’t you also be required to meet with them? Could you find a way to meet with them at their place of business or over lunch?

This list should also help you identify your weaknesses. If you hate to write, then you probably shouldn’t start a local newspaper (although if you have the right budget, you can hire writers and focus on other aspects of the business). If crunching numbers makes your brain hurt, then you won’t find joy in running a bookkeeping business. For that matter, you will probably dread keeping your own books and should build a bookkeeping service into your business budget.

Spend some time with this exercise and look for a theme in your lists. If you identify a business that interests you, but it doesn’t meet your lifestyle requirements, then expand on the idea and see if there is a different type of business in that field that would suit you better.

Imagine You Have Just Won the Lottery

So you’ve just won a lottery for $500,000. It’s not enough to retire on, but it’s enough to make some decisions about your future. Consider what you would do if you won a large chunk of money. Of course it’s fun to imagine paying off your debts and sharing your good fortune with the people you love, but what do you do with the rest of the money? What does your ideal work life look like? What kind of business would you start if you had endless resources?

Could Your Talent or Hobby Net You Some Profits?

Whether you are a musician, an artist, a writer, a crafter, an athlete, an entertainer or a chef, you may be able to find a business that takes advantage of these talents. Think outside the box. Use the internet to search for ideas. For example, if you are a sports fanatic, you could search for “sports business” or “sports industry” and see what kinds of topics are returned. Perhaps you could become a sports writer, sporting goods store owner, coach, trainer, statistician, or memorabilia sales.

Ask Your Family and Friends

By asking the people closest to you for input, you may gain some surprising insight. Perhaps your best friend will remind you of your culinary talents or your grandmother will admire your decorating skills. Maybe your brother will tell you that he always thought you would end up working with animals because you rescued all the neighborhood strays. If for nothing else, asking those closest to you will breed discussion about your future and may lead to the spark of inspiration you are seeking.

Start Looking at the Business World Through a New Set of Eyes

Every business you see started somewhere by someone. The dry cleaner you visit weekly, the grocery store where you shop, the quaint coffee shop on the corner and your favorite take-out restaurant all were born from somebody’s dream. Pay attention to every business you encounter. Is the owner present? If so, does he or she look happy? Tired? Frantic? What are the pros and cons of running each kind of business? A retail business is typically a 6 or 7 day per week effort. Restaurants require long hours, food spoilage management, health department inspections and a lot of staff. Service businesses are often started by an owner providing the service.

Talk to business owners that you encounter. Ask them about the pros and cons of what they do. Who better to advise you on your future than those who are actually living some version of it?

Go to the Bookstore or Library

I personally believe that books give you the best opportunity to self-educate. You can learn about virtually any topic under the sun just by reading a book. Spend some time in the business section and read some of the books suggested in the appendix of this book. You never know where you will find inspiration. Many business books list examples from real entrepreneurs. Perhaps one of these examples will spark your interest or cause you to think about something you hadn’t considered before.

You’ve Done Everything Else and Still Don’t Know What to Do

Don’t give up! Keep at it. Carve some time out every day to focus on your life plan. Get up an hour early in the morning, take time out of your lunch hour or stay up an hour late, but whatever you do, devote some time to mapping out your future. If you are serious about moving forward, you will have to make the time.

Keep doing the exercises listed here. Spend time reading business message boards, websites and magazines. Jot down topics that interest you and learn more about them. The process may take some time, but the end result should be well worth it.

About the Author: Stephanie Chandler is the author of “The Business Startup Checklist and Planning Guide: Seize Your Entrepreneurial Dreams!” and founder of a directory of resources for entrepreneurs. Subscribe to the newsletter for hot tips and small business tools.

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This Financial Services article was written by Stephanie Chandler on 8/19/2005

It’s not uncommon to reach your 30s, 40s or even 50s and still wonder, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” Few people are fortunate enough to be certain of their destinies early on and the rest of