Terrible isn’t it?
That gnawing feeling that time is running out.
The sense of impending doom. The thought that everybody else is living a life of passion except you.
And what’s worse?
You’ve given it a lot of thought, you’ve tried different things, yet nothing seems to work.
You’re sick of what you’re currently doing, but don’t have any alternatives and you’re beginning to think you never will. “I’m such a loser," you say, “I don’t know what to do with my life.”
Does this sound familiar?
There’s a massive societal expectation that you should have it all figured out by now. That by the age of 18 you should have a career in mind that you’re destined to fulfil. Your work should fill you with passion and engage you every day.
But this isn’t what research has shown.
Determining what to do with your life is an on-going task that changes as your circumstances change and as you grow and develop.
Moreover, the people who have it figured out by age 18 are scarce. Many of them launch into a career and end up bored and disillusioned by age 40. Even those who achieve their childhood dreams can end up a state of restlessness.
Don’t worry if you don’t know what to do with your life. Whether you're in your teens or early twenties and entering the workforce, at mid-life with a career and relationships under your belt, or you're approaching retirement and feeling uneasy, there are plenty of steps you can take that will help you understand your plight. Not only will they help you put your pain in context, but they’ll also make evident the actions to take.
Here’s the top thirteen:
1. Be Careful What You Read
Many “experts” stress having it all figured out and finding your passion.There have been hundreds of books written on the topic.
More and more people are trying hard to find work that is fulfilling and activities they enjoy. That’s a great thing. They’re not settling for a job that pays the bills but are looking for something more rewarding.
When people no longer find their work enjoyable, they re-train or try new ventures.
But the always-seeking attitude carries risk too. After all, work is not the only fulfilling thing in life. Often the kind of meaningful, purpose-filled jobs we aspire to are hard to find. We have no choice but to balance the need for money versus the need for daily satisfaction.
If money from a less-than-satisfying job allows you to do other things that are important in your life, then it could be worth it.
Hundreds of thousands of people settle for steady but often dull and frustrating work that allows them to pay the bills, raise a family and undertake some hobbies that they enjoy.
There’s no shame in that.
The advice in books, blog posts and magazines often boils down to the simple “quit your job and follow your dream.” And it is true that when looking back on life people regret the things they didn’t do - the careers they considered but did not pursue, for example. Yet the pictures these books and articles paint are rose tinted ones.
They capitalise on a common desire to work for yourself and be your own boss. Yet they seldom mention the hard-work, stress and uncertainty that being self-employed can bring.
Experts love to show you case studies of those who’ve made it, yet ignore the fact that one in six people who start their own business fail.
Moreover, they rarely encourage you to explore how you might bring freedom into working for someone else. Many firms pride themselves on how much autonomy they give their employees. Flexi-time and the freedom to choose your own daily task and targets all are becoming more common.
The point is not to give up on your dream of quitting if that is what is right for you, but to explore all options before you make a leap that you might come to regret.
2. Reframe Your Pain
Not knowing what to do with your life can be painful.
You can feel directionless and like you’re wasting time.
You may find your daily routine frustrating or annoying.
You feel called to do something else.
Before you quit your job, though, it’s worth examining the source of your frustration. Could it be that you think work should be easy?
Perhaps all you see is finished work, and you’re frustrated that you don’t have any yourself? Cars, toothpaste, and even the flowing water in your taps, all seem to appear effortlessly - when the reality is that it has taken an extraordinary amount of invention and labour to create these things.
To deliver clean drinking water in the part of England I live, for example, takes the efforts of 7,000 people, 52 weeks a year.
Cotton weaved in India gets stitched in Pakistan, buttoned in Thailand and delivered to its final destination. The final product, a high visibility safety vest, passes from lorry to port to ship and back to lorry again.
Getting it on a clothing rack involves how many people?
Your labours, too, are part of a bigger picture. They create products that meet needs. You’re contributing to civilization.
Pick any product in your local supermarket shelf. Hold it in your hand and imagine its journey.
How many other hands has it passed through to get to you?
When you reflect on your job, can you see how writing contracts, fixing pipes, or delivering parcels all play a part in helping others?
You may be several steps removed from the finished products your company creates. Yet the joint efforts of your organisation provide convenience to millions of people.
3. Get to Know Yourself
To find out what you find meaningful in life is going to take a bit of effort.
You’re going to have to draw on your life experiences so far.
Some of our earliest yearnings stem from childhood, and it can make sense to explore these.
- What did you enjoy doing as a child?
- When were some of your happiest moments?
- When were you absorbed in what you were doing?
Take a moment to write down all the activities that you enjoyed. What was it about these activities that you liked? For example, I used to enjoy basic computer programming. When I try to capture what it was specifically I enjoyed it seems to be something about creating.
What about you?
Can you identify with any of those feelings you had as a child?
Can you turn them into a statement about you today?
“I am someone who enjoys…”
Explore your childhood. It’ll give you clues to what you might enjoy today.
4. Give Up Your Fixations
Quite possibly, you had a career in mind, but that hasn’t worked out, and now you feel stuck.
Or you know what would make you happy, but those lifestyles or types of work seem impractical or out of reach.
Being a Buddhist monk sounds perfect, but it doesn’t pay the bills, and you’re not sure what your partner might say.
Or maybe you’d love to be a world-class lawyer, but you can’t afford the tuition fees and the time to undertake a law degree.
Now is the time to let go of those fixations, at least partially.
You need to understand what first drew you to those jobs. Perhaps you can find those same attractive traits in other posts too.
- Write down the things that you want to do in life, but that you think are tricky or difficult to achieve.
- What parts of these activities do you think you’ll enjoy?
- Imagine a fulfilling day. What are your best moments?
- Identify the general components of what you imagine pleasurable. Is it responsibility, quiet, negotiation, winning a case? Or is it being useful and contributing to something bigger than yourself?
Now that you’ve isolated the pleasurable components, think about all the activities that could involve the same enjoyable things you’ve listed above, even if only on a smaller scale. For each pleasure point you found, try to write down at least three alternative activities where you might find this same joy.
A company lawyer may involve themselves in contract negotiations, for example. The pleasure comes from carefully reading documents, understanding the details, and drawing on a bank of knowledge — qualities found in all sorts of jobs.
Perhaps you would do just as well as a market researcher, contract manager, or document controller?
5. Advertise Yourself
Forget about looking for a job for now. Instead, create your own advertisement and send it to friends.
Usually, we look at job descriptions and see if they fit us – are we a team player, do we like market research? Put all that aside for the moment.
Draw up an advert that only lists the things that you enjoy doing and are good at.
List out your passions, skills, qualities, values and requirements.
Passions: singing, reading, knitting.
Skills: chemistry, gardening, business administration.
Qualities: kind, patient, fun to be around.
Values: honesty, hard work, equality.
Requirements: within 10 miles of where I live, no international travel.
Make sure only to include these things. Don’t include any job ideas, your educational background, or experience so far. Stick to your motivation and interests.
Send the advertisement to friends and family or post on an internet forum. The idea is to get feedback. Ask people what jobs come to mind; you may get a surprise.
Collect the list of ideas. Do any appeal?
6. Keep a Piggy Bank
The harsh fact is making changes will involve a bit of money, so start saving now.
Saving isn’t always easy, but most likely, you’re going to need to spend money on education or experiences.
One helpful tip is to save between 10-20% of your income each month. Have the money automatically transferred into a savings account. If you can, try to make that money hard to get at, so you’re not tempted.
Perhaps send it to a family member you trust or ask your bank if there are any hard to access accounts. Name the bank account “Do Not Touch.”
Once you’ve done that, survive on the rest.
Now that you’ve removed your savings; you’ll have no choice but to get by on less. Cut out all the unnecessary things and look for as many ways to reduce expenses as possible. The money you save will come in handy when it’s time to take action.
There are plenty of useful websites about saving, Mr. Money Moustache is one that has a good reputation.
7. Become Green With Envy
An 18th Century philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche wrote that while envy has a destructive side, it also has an instructive one.
What we envy is a clue to what we desire.
Throughout his own life Nietzsche developed a comprehensive philosophy yet struggled to get recognition for his work. His envy of other philosophers and talented people who had influenced the world drove him on. When the attention did come, as he expected it to, it was already too late – he had gone insane.
Yet this cautionary tale need not put us off.
Nietzsche was right; envy is both instructive and destructive. You need to be aware of your resentments, without dwelling on them and letting them consume you.
Which people cause you to feel jealous? What activities are they doing that most cause these feelings of envy?
Most often, we rarely envy a whole person, but only some aspects of their life.
These aspects can be a signpost to a desire within that we would like to fulfil.
If you envy a famous ballerina, for example, you might want to consider jobs involved in the arts. But you need to know what aspects of this person you envy. Is it the fact she’s a dancer or that she’s part of the dancing industry? Or is it that she is slim and famous?Different answers to these questions could mean different careers.
8. Get Into the Real World
Rather than spend time in your head, get out into the world and talk to people.
It’s impossible to know what some jobs and lifestyles are like because the media shape the images we have of them. Often these popular images don't conform to reality.
Still want to be a Buddhist monk? Go to your nearest Buddhist meditation centre and talk to some Buddhists. What do their jobs involve, what are their friends doing? What does an average day include?
The same goes for any other job: a world-class chef, flight attendant, or an agriculturist.
The images we have of these jobs tend to be very narrow, based on snap-shots we have seen on TV or in a magazine.
Whatever you think might interest you, find some real people who are doing the job now and ask them what they like about it. Do they enjoy the post? What is most fulfilling? What don’t they enjoy?
If you buy them coffee and show genuine interest in their skills and experience, they’ll be happy to talk. Who knows, they may even suggest a few opportunities.
The more you learn about what a career involves, the better sense you’ll get of whether you’ll enjoy doing it.
9. Become a Spy
Read books and the internet to see what other people are doing in fields you find interesting.
Researching others can be a great source of inspiration.
You need to be cautious, though.
Avoid anything that sounds too easy.
Be wary of anyone who has an incentive to paint things in the best light.
Things like, “How I made a million opening a restaurant-chain in 3 months without getting out of bed.”
Or, “How to be a YouTube star in 6 weeks.”
Often these stories are either made up or represent the outliers – the people who got lucky.
Or they ignore the six years of unpaid work needed to achieve this outstanding result.
Don’t let this put you off though. There’s a lot of good stuff out there, as long as you approach what you read with a critical mind.
And don’t forget about books too. Go to your local library (you’re saving money, remember) and find books on topics that interest you.
Reading about what others have done can give you ideas about what you might enjoy and how you might find jobs in this area.
Reading autobiographies differs from reading articles and books offering you advice. How-to books contain carefully selected case-studies that buttress the author’s arguments. What you’re looking for here is something different - honest accounts of someone’s life working in a field.
You want warts and all.
That includes the highs and lows and the details of what makes up the days and years of these careers. You want an honest sense of what it means to spend 10, 20 or even 30 years working in a specific area.
10. Act First, Think Later
Forget everything others have told you about having a plan.
It is impossible to know before you try jobs whether you’ll enjoy them.
Sure, all the pre-work and exercises above will point you in the right direction, but it’s when you’re out there trying to do a particular job that you’ll know how it really feels.
If you want to minimise your risk before you take the plunge, then try to get as much of a taster as you can before making a permanent switch.
Don’t know whether to have a family or not? Try volunteering at a Kindergarten or spending time babysitting your friend’s children. Possibly even work as a babysitter for a while (it might get you some extra money).
Still want to be a chef? Visit some local restaurants and ask if you can spend a day working for free in the kitchen. See if you can stick at it for a few weeks until you’ve seen enough.
This can be a fantastic activity even if you have no idea what you might enjoy. Who knows? working at a zoo or managing a hotel might be more rewarding than you imagined.
Not only will you experience what a job is actually like and learn how much you enjoy it, but you might also make some new friends.
11. Get It All Wrong
Unfortunately, even if we find something we enjoy, unexpected events can alter our life in an instant. And to top it all, there is no way of knowing if other decisions would have been any better.
Alas, life is not like a scientific experiment where you can reset the initial conditions, tweak something and see if the results are different. We will never know if a different choice in the past could have made us happier or not. Nor can we predict the future.
Embracing this uncertainty can be difficult, but many people find it more rewarding.
Don’t focus on having it all worked out and knowing what you want to do with your life; focus more on doing important and meaningful things each day.
As you begin to experiment, the activities you enjoy and don’t enjoy will become more apparent, but not before you hit lots of dead ends, winding roads, and wasted journeys.
Embrace the confusion.
Uncertainty is part of being human. It will all work in your favour one day.
All this soul searching now is sure to pay dividends in the future.
12. Make a Fool of Yourself
Experimenting and trying new things is going to mean periods where you don’t know what you’re doing, where you’ll look stupid and generally make a fool of yourself.
It could be creating your job advertisement or phoning up people to ask if you can shadow them in a job for a day. Or it could be volunteering at your local Yoga centre (before deciding to quit your job and set yourself up as a full-time Yoga coach). No matter what, people are going to question what you do.
Don’t let their obstructiveness and misunderstanding get in your way. Besides, for every person who thinks what you’re doing is crazy, another ten might think it’s great and have your back.
Laura van Bouthcout finally decided she’d had enough. At a dead end and unable to find a job she loved, she found a part-time job as a receptionist and started experimenting with a different position. She tried 30 extra jobs in one year. She phoned people up and shadowed them for a few days at a time. Amongst her many ‘jobs’ she worked as a fashion photographer, creative director at an advertising agency, a member of the European parliament, owner of a cat hotel, hotel review writer, director of a recycling centre, and a DJ.
She was never any good at any of these experimental jobs, but the experience taught her a lot.
In the end she continued to work part time and started a second career as an author of children’s books. She now has several published books under her belt.
13. Don’t Give Up
Learning more about yourself is a long journey – brace yourself for that.
Don’t give up; your sources of joy and career areas you want to test out will become evident over time.
Don’t let negative thoughts (critical thinking) hold you back.
And don’t let perfectionism get in the way. Every time you try something new you have a learning curve. That’s only natural.
Remember not to focus on the big picture too much but to explore and follow your instincts so that you find activities that you enjoy. Often the reward is not in the outcome but the struggle to get there. Try to enjoy the journey.
Embrace the Uncertainty
You're wondering what to do with your life, and it’s been causing you a lot of pain.
Everyone else seems to have it all figured out. It makes you feel like a failure.
Not only that, but everywhere you turn people are telling you to find your passion and your purpose. Life, according to these stories, is worthless without it.
Yet you’re not happy with what you’re doing and have no clue where to turn.
Embrace the uncertainty and take this as an excellent opportunity to learn more about the world and yourself.
Accept the fact that it’s not possible to work it all out in your head and that only by trial and error out in the real world will you find the answers you desire.
The road could be a long winding one with lots of dead ends, but it could also be an enjoyable one.
Sometimes the best journeys are the ones where you don’t know the destination. Along the way you may feel uncomfortable in your surroundings and unsure of yourself. You might feel lost and confused at times. Yet despite these difficulties, you’re also open to the experience and all that there is to learn.
After such journeys, we realise that we’re wiser than before, and the experience has built our character.
We never look back.
Face all the obstacles you meet with courage, my friend, and you’ll get there.
Pick your favourite strategy from above and start there.
An epic journey of discovery is before you!
- Medium: https://medium.com/the-ascent/when-you-dont-know-what-to-do-with-your-life-and-career-7b775b3c225b
- Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/dailymuse/2012/06/27/how-i-figured-out-what-i-wanted-to-do-with-my-life/#52d4a4713883
- Scientific American: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/10-things-you-dont-know-about-yourself/