You never know when the feeling will hit you. Perhpas it’s a year out of college — or maybe high school — when you’re working as a part-time lifeguard. Maybe it’s on a seemingly random day, a decade after graduation in the middle of commuting to your customer experience support job, realizing this was not your dream. Perhaps it’s years later still when you're considering a career change but can't decide on a career or are coming across a new passion. Regardless, the feeling is the same: It's like you’ve been punched in the heart. You think: Wait, what do I want to do with my life? What am I doing here? And what should I do with my life? What is my purpose? Will I ever find the answer?
"What do I want to do with my life?" is a big question, even if your mind grazes over the existential “what does life mean?” undertone that inevitably bubbles up when you start to really ponder what you are versus what you “should” or could be doing with your life.
Luckily, many brave and curious folks have followed this line of questioning themselves, often feeling like a failure, too. But they've made it through to the light and have kindly provided insight and stories tracing how they found out what to do with their lives. Here are six tips to figuring out the answer to the question: "What do I want to do with my life?"
1. Watch Roadtrip Nation for inspiration.
This PBS show is like Road Rules but with zero drama and lots of meaning and purpose. Young adults hop into a green RV and travel the country, interviewing people from all walks of life to help see what opportunities lie ahead. Take your own mini-road trip after, just around town, even if just for a day or two, and see what pointed conversations with strangers can help you learn about yourself and make more informed decisions.
2. Don’t chase your passion.
Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame, suggests you “try this, and try that... creating incredibly rich and complex lives for yourselves, cross pollinating the world.” In doing so, you wind up bringing an idea from one area or time in your life and weaving it in with another — and you’re a huge part of society because of that.
3. Invent your own life’s meaning.
Thank the ineffable Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes for this one. In this advice cartoon, Watterson captures the struggles that come from deciding to leave the status quo behind and do your own thing — and the pleasure that holds.
4. Take a hike.
Or sleep in. Or sign up for a hip hop class. Or stop eating dairy for two weeks. Or go on a randomly located vacation (might I recommend Kansas City, Missouri?). The point is: Shake up your life by doing something special. The change doesn’t need to be drastic, but it does have to be a little outside your norm. Trying new things rewires our brains, and helps us find clarity in other aspects of our life. Case in point: Cheryl Strayed. Here are some other fun things you can do with your friends that can also benefit your career.
5. Learn about yourself.
We might roll our eyes when we see yet another Meyers-Briggs stamp of letters on someone’s relationship profile, but seriously, having insight to who you are is certainly helpful when it comes to narrowing down what kind of work you should do. A few personality tests to try…
- Meyers-Briggs: 16 Personalities gives a great breakdown of each type.
- Born for This: This quiz helps you see how you like to work.
- Chopra’s Dosha Quiz: While not the most detailed of dosha quizzes, Chopra’s is a great introduction to mind-body types
6. Make lists of what you’re good at and what your interests are.
You can ask friends, colleagues, or even your parents to help. And then consider a to-do list app to help you organize all of your lists.
My dream was to be a teacher... until I was a teacher. Finding a new career path was difficult, but one thing that really helped me was sitting down and making a long list of any skills I had or anything I was good at — literally anything, even just allowing people to be who they are without judgment and going with the flow.
I also wrote down any type of work or industry I might relatively be interested in, yes, including NPR correspondent. I asked friends and colleagues to spend three minutes and do the same for me. These lists allowed me to start seeing where my talents, skills and interests could overlap in unexpected ways and helped me figure out what kind of career to pursue.
I started in a job as a content creator because I like studying, writing articles and telling stories — now I work as a UX Copywriter, so it was a journey to get here, but I discovered a lot on the ride.
No matter the way you approach the privilege of defining your own road in life, know that deliberately pursuing a career path is a challenge that may take time — sometimes even years. There’ll be big setbacks and heartbreaks that will make you think, well, this was a terrible decision, and you’ll look back on the start of your journey and surprise yourself about what you were thinking. And when that happens (sorry, it totally will and it’ll totally blow harder than a whale’s blowhole) remember this: You wanted to proactively make decisions and create your life, rather than just allow it to happen to you.
There's no answer to life, and ultimately only you will really know what you should do with yours. Get organized, look for inspiration and passion, and realize that seemingly random pit-stops on the road will come back to help you — sometimes a whole lot — later on down the road.
When Alicia was 17, she wrote an essay titled "I Am a Snail Watcher." The themes of that essay — noticing tiny details, celebrating small victories, and rooting for the under-appreciated — still apply to her daily life and affect her writing.