If you have no idea what to do with your life, follow these 5 guiding principles.
- Don’t be misguided by cliche ideas.
- Pay close attention to the essential things in life.
- Accept that you cannot do anything you want to.
- Give yourself some headspace.
- Learn to get comfortable with change.
I’m thinking ‘I have no idea what I want to do with my life’, as I sit and stare out of the window.
This rambling thought is mine from several years ago at age 22. My dad had recently died of liver cancer, I was working long hours at McDonald’s, and consistently feeling incredibly insecure and fragile.
You will be tempted to skim through looking for a practical answer but if you carefully read all of this, you will find a simple but powerful answer to this question. The same questions I had in my early twenties.
Who am I?
What is my purpose?
What should I do with my life?
This article obviously won’t tell you exactly what to do with your life, but hopefully, you will find some guiding principles to make up your own mind. You will need to put the work in to get the results. Nothing comes for free, especially fulfilment in what you do with your life.
1) Stop being misguided
Frequently we can think that the answer lies in a career. If I just find the right job for me, then I’ll be happy.
Or, maybe it’s placed in relationships. We can go from dating to relationship to insecurity, blame and break up year on year if we are not careful. When we try to figure out ‘what to do with our lives by building on a relationship, we can go from bad to worse pretty quickly.
It has to be said that even as someone who considers themselves to be a spiritual person, I felt just as lost as everyone else. And it’s here that I want to go ahead and give you permission to cut yourself some slack. At 23 I did not have a clue what I should do with my life. Some of the most fascinating people in my life still don’t know even at age 50.
2) Pay attention to what matters most.
Don’t switch off at this point. You might be looking for the ‘what should I do with my life answer’, but it’s not a great question. When my dad died, he didn’t ask for some last bits of paperwork to finish. He did not ask for a list of life achievements. He asked for his kids – the people he loved. And as we sat with him in the last week of his life we talked about memories. We shared stories about his funny quirks and we cried, not over missed work opportunities, but over quality moments spent together.
Think about any time you have sat with somebody who has died or imagine what you will be like at the end of your life… You won’t ask for more things to do.
When I began thinking about my life as a journey of someone I was becoming rather than what I should be doing – a whole world of possibility opened up to me. Ambition is not a negative, but it sucks if it is not tied to a fulfilling purpose.
Let’s say you think that being loaded with cash is the most meaningful thing to do with your life. Imagine yourself well into your sixties with everything you could have ever wanted; did it make you happy? It might seem cliche, but the answer for most people is no, not really. I’m not saying money is bad, it’s just a root of all manner of problems if you love it. And you will fall in love with it if that’s what becomes most important to you.
Can I humbly suggest to you that career, ambition, power, influence and the like become secondary goals in life? You might think that one or more of these is the answer to what you should be doing with your life, but without a serious sense of purpose and worth – each one in their own forms are hollow.
Instead, you want to think about what are the things that matter most in life. Most people start with a sense of wanting to do something great, but great people do great things, so focus on being a great person. I don’t mean the type with a grandiose sense of self, I mean just a genuinely good human being. You can make a job or a career the focus of your pursuit, but in my experience character leads you to true calling and fulfilment.
You will find a plethora of paths laid before you, especially when you are young, in terms of what you can do for a career. But how will you know if they will fulfil you? How do you know that even if you find the right career that the firm you end up working for will be fulfilling?
Do the brave thing and buck the trend of western culture and stop asking ‘what should I do with my life’ and start asking ‘who am I becoming’. It’s a subtle change, but it is enough to reorientate your entire perspective. So I ask you again, what matters most?
3) Understand You Can’t Do Anything You Want.
Can I hit you with a home truth that might hurt somewhat? You can’t be or do anything you want in life. It’s a lie to say you can. I’m guilty of perpetuating this as much as the next guy. You have a range of talent and ability and there will inevitably be things that are outside this range.
I have an affinity for the creative. I love media design, movies, film making, colour, music, vibrance.
I hate math.
It’s useful but I would find it to be a very dull use of my time. I have one friend who has a PhD in maths.
To me, this is ludicrous.
Maths, physics and a deeper love for science will help in a career for something like NASA.
Now, I could certainly improve my mathematics skills with a lot of determination but because I don’t enjoy it (and have a number of other skills lacking) I will never be an astronaut. It’s a cool job, but I’d never pay attention to some of the most simple exercises required to make it in to space!
It’s a ridiculous analogy, but it applies to so many career paths and life roles. I’ll never be an Olympic sprinter, I only run when being chased and I’m of average height with a rugby build. It’s just not going to work. The sooner I face up to my natural limitations (and stop seeing the word ‘limitation; as a negative), the sooner I am liberated to focus on what I am good at and what I enjoy.
There are, of course, some weaknesses and areas of disinterest that you need to hone. To be effective in life, you have to learn to manage yourself well. You have to learn to negotiate and be flexible in adapting your circumstances. In my early twenties time management was a major weak point. It still doesn’t come naturally to me, but I have trained myself to be better.
There’s a tremendous book called Strengths 2.0 which will help you find your range. It teaches you pathways of ability and uses an online tool to help you discover you first. A little like an aptitude test for your interests in life. When you discover what you could be good at, and what you’re more likely to pay attention to, you start to narrow your focus.
Wanting to do anything in life can sometimes lead to analysis paralysis. There’s so much on offer, so you want to do everything, but instead you end up doing nothing. But life is a marathon and not a sprint. What do you enjoy doing and can you do something related to it?
Consider that you don’t have to do everything now. You might be able to do one thing for a few years and then change later down the line. We live in a day and age of career flexibility. Or, it may be that your job is a means to an end and that it simple allows you to earn money to let you do the thing you love in your spare time. Too often we can hate what we currently do (which severely limits any chance of progress) and let our complaint stick us in a rut. What if you saw purpose in your job as a way of paying for the things that matter most to you? Then all of a sudden, this job that sucks now has meaning and purpose. Your attitude changes, you colleagues feel the shift and everybody wins.
4) Allow yourself space to think
It’s possible that you never take time to sit and work out what you want to do with you life. Instead of being paralysed by inaction, build a plan and put it in motion. I’m not saying you need to plan your whole life out, but even knowing roughly what you want can help you map out a path in life. And if that plan changes, that’s okay. If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time. With a plan, you can set your life in motion and then at least you will have something to change.
Put a day in your diary (by the way, you need to use a diary) to do nothing but day dream about your future. Write it down and reverse engineer it. How did you end up there? What steps did you take? Who did you work with and learn from? What skills did you need? This becomes something of a strategic plan to get you towards that goal.
Whatever you yearn for, it is not going to be handed to you on a plate. Nor should it be. You have to work for it. You have to pursue it. You not entitled to a better future. Nobody is. You have to sacrifice and pay for it with time, effort and energy.
Pursue people that know how to do the thing you want to do. If you ask enough of them, I guarantee some of them will want to help you.
5) Be okay with change
Finally, you may find, just as I did, that in pursing your goals you realise that they were not what you wanted at all. Instead you discover new things along the way and are transformed by a hunger for things you never knew we’re attainable. When I became a joiner, I was just focussed on surviving and paying bills. I soon realised I had a hunger to build something more than a wooden staircase. I pursued a business and charity work as two separate loves.
Life, the economy and nasty people battered me about and I learned resilience. Later all of those things led me to pioneer a number of projects. Some were related to interest and hobbies, others I found meaningful purpose in. As I write this, most of what I do is converging into 3 distinct areas of my life and every skill and experience has helped shape it.
Change is okay. You must always challenge yourself and look to grow into the next thing. Don’t settle and push for more.
As you look for a variety of pursuits in life, you may discover yourself being led to other areas. You began a project and through it, discovered new skills and interests. These can lead you to be doing things that really hit your fulfilment sweet spot. How many times have you heard somebody say ‘I never thought I would be doing x,y,z’.
Don’t get hung up on the what. Look for experiences to challenge and grow you and allow yourself to discover new things along the way.
Take a moment to snapshot everything that consumes your time. List them and rate them from 1-5 on a fulfilment scale (1 being unfulfilled). Now make a list of ideals things to be spending your time on. What can you swap out and give some new attention to? Are there things you can defer to later in life and explore further down the line?
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