“What to do with my life?” This is the question to drives people to career coaches, therapists, and spiritual leaders.
Figuring out what to do with ourselves, whether it’s a job, career, lifestyle, or spiritual path, is one of the most human of all endeavors. Although not everyone struggles with it at the same intensity, almost all of my clients have come to a point where they feel stuck and don’t know what to do next.
One of the first obstacles to figuring out what we want to do is the belief that we often hold on to, that answering this question should be easy. “Give me a 5-minute quiz and tell me what I should do!” Unfortunately, (and fortunately!) we are multi-faceted beings that resist simplification.
Are you wondering what to do with your life? Start here!
Step 1: Embrace Who You Are
One reason why a quiz can’t tell you what to do with your life is that algorithms can’t know you as well as you do. You are a unique mix of personality traits, preferences, life experiences, genetics, talents, interests and passion. In the entire history of the universe, there has been no combination of traits quite like you.
Although you have something unique to offer the world, this doesn’t mean that your career or your life has to be something completely novel. Some people thrive when they are maintaining the status quo. And maintaining the status quo is crucial in almost every field! So, embrace who you are if you want to know what kind of life and career is your best fit.
Here’s a bit of science to help explain how knowing who you are can point you in the right direction. According to the research by Dr. Helen Fisher, there are four broad biologically-influenced types, those who act as the pillars of society by maintaining traditions, social structures, and communities; those who are motivated by adventure and novelty; those who focus on achievement and accomplishments; and who that connect people, ideas, theories, and diverse perspectives together. We all have aspects of these different types and the various combinations are one of the reasons why human beings have been such a successful species.
Society NEEDS people to maintain traditions and also needs people who are always searching for something new and exciting. We need people who are always looking to accomplish some goal and we need people who know how to connect these different types of personalities and perspectives.
By understanding the different motivations of people in general, and yourself specifically, you will start to find your way forward. You’ll also understand why you can feel stuck! You’ll notice how some of these different types can be in opposition to each other and without some self-awareness, you’ll be stepping equally hard on the brake and the gas, spinning your wheels.
For example, one of my clients had a strong adventurous side but also highly valued safety and security. This made it challenging to choose a satisfying career because there was always one part of his brain that was yelling “Are you crazy!?! If you do that, you’re selling your soul!” or “You’ll die broke and alone!” But as he listened and learned from the different aspects of himself, he was able to balance his desire to take risks with his desire to have a stable foundation to his life and started writing freelance articles for an outdoor gear company while maintaining a 9-5 job. As his freelance work grows into a full-time job, he’ll have created the best of both worlds for himself.
It’s also important to understand what YOU want out of life instead of what your family or peers or society tells you what to want. This can be especially difficult with some families or in some cultures but you simply can’t live someone else’s life. This doesn’t mean that you have to go against your family or community when you decide what kind of life you want to live, but you do have to know what YOU want to do.
Gina Yashere talks about the list of acceptable occupations for immigrant families.
This doesn’t mean that you have to know exactly what to do with your life ten years from now, but know what comes easily to you. Pay attention to what brings you joy. What have you done in the past that has given you a sense of satisfaction? A sense of pride and accomplishment? Remember times when you felt a sense of flow, when you were so engaged in something that time seemed to disappear.
Now, this is different than binge-watching Parks and Rec on Netflix. Time does disappear in those instances, but thing in terms of when you were actively participating in something. Then dig a little deeper. Why did time stop for you? What exactly were you proud of when you had finished.
As you explore who you are, you’ll start seeing some trends. You’ll learn what you’re naturally good at and what you enjoy. Those moments are the foundation of a meaningful life. Even if you don’t get paid, if you bliss out when you’re playing music, make sure that music is in your life. If you color-code your socks, then give yourself lots of opportunities to organize. If you love talking to people, don’t spend all day every day at a desk. And if you love living the good life, make sure you have enough time and energy to enjoy it!
Step 2: Embrace the Process
Once you start on your journey to figure out what to do with your life, it’s useful to know that things will change. You’ll change your mind. You’ll change jobs. You’ll try something and it won’t work out. Embrace this! This is how we learn!
I like to think about life like an artist working on the ultimate masterpiece. Or the scientist exploring elegant solutions to tricky questions. Try something and if you don’t like it, take a moment to understand why not. Make some adjustments and try again. This is the Thomas Edison approach: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
When we replace “failure” with “learning,” we open ourselves to a future that exceeds our current vision. When something doesn’t work out the way you hoped, embrace the opportunity to try something new that will eventually exceed your expectations.
Step 3: Embrace a Strategy
Once you’ve experimented enough, themes and patterns about what to do with your life will become more obvious. This is when you can shift from exploring to planning. Now that you know your strengths, interests, and passion, how can you maximize those things in your life? Your community can help you with this, especially if you are specific about what you’re looking for. If you know you want to be a data scientist, don’t just ask for help finding a job. Ask your friends and connections if they know any data scientists. Ask them if they know companies that need data scientists. Ask data scientists they best way you can present yourself so that you can thrive in your career.
Do you need to find data scientists to talk to? Go on LinkedIn, type in Data Scientist in the search bar, click on “People” and you can filter people by location, company, or connection (or even more like “Schools” if you click on “All Filters”).
A polite, respectful request to talk to them about their jobs will result in some useful conversations—just expect a 10-20% response rate. You don’t need everyone to talk to you, just people who are interested in helping others find their life’s work. How can you tell if you’ve found that person? If they respond!
You will be most likely to find what you want to do with your life when you connect with like-minded people. Some people call this networking. I call this community building. Once you know yourself and the types of things that make you happy, talking to people with similar personalities can give you more information and ideas about the kind of jobs that will fit you.
Step 4: Embrace your Action Plan
Once you know what you want to do, you’ll have to take the final step of turning your dream into a reality. Sometimes that will happen naturally. As you talk to like-minded people, a job will open up and you’ll be living your best life before you know it!
Most of us, however, will have to conduct a job search, start your own business, learn new skills, and take strategic action. Expect this! Prepare for this! Give yourself structure and motivation so that you’ll constantly take steps until you get what you want.
Many people get to this step and get frustrated. They’ve done so much work, yet they are still underemployed or doing something that they don’t enjoy. “If it doesn’t happen quickly, then maybe it’s not meant to be,” they’ll think to themselves. But once you’ve gotten to this point, most of the hard work is done. What is left is patience and persistence.
Keep learning. Keep talking to people. Keep applying for jobs. Unless you’ve chosen a life that is flat out impossible for you (no, not everyone can be an astronaut!), keep working towards it.
Bonus Step: Get Yourself Some Guidance!
I’m not going to lie to you. This isn’t easy. If it was, you wouldn’t be here, would you?
I believe that everyone deserves solid support when they are trying to figure out what to do with their lives, even if you can’t work one-on-one with a career coach. That’s why I’ve created My Career Design Studio. It’s an online career coaching program that guides you through these four steps and puts you in the position of being the designer of your future.