Imaginative strategies for when you have no idea what to do with your life.
It’s incontrovertible that you’ve thought at least once about what you want to do with your life. That society-permeating question of what you want to “be” when you grow up has probably incited feelings ranging from gently-provoked questioning to full-blown panic within you. For me, it was the latter. As a young teenager, I remember coming to my dad, a forensic accountant and generally wise human being, in an effort to ameliorate this crisis within. The big push I had received from others was to explore my passion; but I had sorely come to the conclusion that I . . . didn’t have one, really.
I liked playing video games, but I didn’t want to make video games for a living – too much time in front of a computer, I thought. I liked playing my keyboard, but I didn’t take myself for a budding concert pianist, either. Even more traditional occupational avenues like becoming a doctor, lawyer, or scientist felt out of reach to me, whether for lack of interest or perceived lack of ability. The only things I could have seen myself doing for life—artist, singer, community service volunteer, or professional life advisor to friends operating under a strictly “do as I say, not as I do” adage—seemed unsustainable as long-term prospects as well. Disparaged, I felt exhausted of all options.
On that day, my dad made the maiden delivery of his “connect the dots” speech to me. In essence, he said, I needed to determine both my passions and the level of affluence I desired in my lifestyle, each of which would fall somewhere on some mystical “importance graph”. I would then have to connect these “dots” and choose something that fell somewhere in the middle. Something that I perhaps felt interested in, but also allowed me the type of house, car, and shoes I wanted. This was, perhaps, a seemingly more innovative drop in the deluge of rain that was the advice I had received over the years, so I was intrigued. I took it on.
It was good advice. Amidst a virtual “jobpocalypse” whereby people my age are scrounging for money to feed themselves, let alone self-affirmation, I’m incredibly blessed. I have a well-paying, stable, and challenging job where I’ve met some of my closest friends.
But I know this isn’t the end of the journey.
Now, I’m a twenty-something Gen Y-er. If that doesn’t exclaim “I’m frantically running around with an ardent desire to make impact on the world!”, I don’t know what does. Naturally, I’d like to divert my existing career into something that does that, even if I do feel a level of satisfaction with my existing situation. I dare say I’m getting closer to figuring out what I want my life’s work to be each day. I know that I eventually want to do something that allows me great independence, a positive impact on people, and exercises the creative capabilities of my brain. Just attaining knowledge of these fundamental, if not ambiguous, requirements is a huge step I’ve taken.
Coming up with these five items took a monumental amount of effort, but it got a lot easier when I started thinking out of the box. If you don’t consider yourself a creative person (side note: I firmly believe that EVERYONE has pockets of creativity and inventiveness, but I’ll cast my fervent opinions aside for the sake of the reader), think about the desire you have to find out what you want your life’s work to be. Think about what hardships and challenges you are willing to face, the moments of despair, and the utter defeat you may experience prior to finding your “dream work”. If you can do what you’re imagining, certainly you can feign creativity for a few moments.
The list below comprises things I’ve actually done that have helped me. This is not to say that personality tests, taking different classes in school, and asking others about their profession haven’t been successful methods for me as well, but I know that if you’re reading this article, chances are high that you’ve done that, yet are still seeking answers. I felt the same way, so I did differently. Try these on for size.
Let me start by saying that I have zero formal musical training whatsoever. In fact, this method may work so well because I didn’t have it. Rather than focusing intently on my chord progressions or questioning the call-and-receive hook I came up with, I was always more focused on the raw emotion of my songs. It didn’t matter how long, short, awkward, or random they were—it mattered that they spoke to something within me. I try to write songs periodically because I find the desire to repeat phrases (i.e. choruses) really forces me to think about what message I’m trying to get across. As a result, I zero-in on what’s plaguing me at that moment.
During the fall of this past year, I recall sitting down at my keyboard and the first lyric that came to my mind was “I’m not your adding machine”. As I continue to scratch the surface of a career in the financial realm, I’ve firmly come to the conclusion that I was not put on this earth to crunch numbers. To do so would be an effort in embarrassment, quite honestly, as I’m not even that good at it. Thus, bookkeeping, complex financial analysis, and macroeconomics are out of the picture for me. And I’m perfectly okay with that. (Addendum: This is not, in any way, meant to offend people who love numbers. I greatly admire those who can perform mathematical equations with swiftness or gusto; I just can’t. If you’re easily amused, you’re welcome to watch me try.)
Bare Bones Travel
Another method is going on a heavily budgeted trip, such as a backpacking trip. When you’re sans the comforts and conveniences you’re so accustomed to in daily life, you really have to rely on your own abilities and innate problem-solving skills to get by successfully. Such a trip can be done alone or with other people, though preferably both; we usually act quite differently in either situation. How is this helpful? First, your travel style helps you determine what type of personality you have.
Do you feel comfortable hiking solo in the countryside, or do you prefer a group to accompany you? Are you someone who needs a more private space, or are you cool to bunk with 6 other strangers in a hostel room? Can you walk into a bar alone like you own the place, sit down, and confidently have a drink, or would you not be caught dead doing such a thing? While I’m not a huge believer in the introvert/extrovert dichotomy, answering such questions will help you put yourself roughly at either end of the spectrum. If your gregariousness earns you a new travel-buddy entourage that runs the gamut from Brazilian students to African diplomats, you may come to the conclusion that you’d be a natural at sales. Or, you could find yourself entranced by the ancient monument you happened upon during your excursion in the jungle and it may have hit you that you were born to do archaeological research in Kenya. Until you go out and experience new places for yourself, you just never know.
Look at Who Your Friends Are – Or Who You Want Your Friends to Be
This one is a lot tougher than it sounds, because it literally means you have to judge people harshly on purpose—not something I normally advocate. Take a moment and examine your friends—what you do together, how you help each other out, and most importantly, how you make each other feel. Think even deeper. What are your mutually held values? Do these people inspire you to be a better “you”? If you have trouble answering these questions, you may be being dragged down. While nobody is perfect, it’s important that the people you surround yourself with do not make you perpetually miserable.
Now, think about who you would like to be friends with. It could be the new guy in your cycling club or the fun lady in the tax-processing department on the 8th floor. All that matters is you have some names. When you surround yourself with people who are intelligent, positive, and motivated, you’ll notice that you’ll start to be the same way. Who knows, you may even meet someone who also wants to develop a productivity app in the near future. In other words, that whole “you’re the average of the five people you surround yourself with the most” idea isn’t too farfetched. When I first transferred back home to sunny southern California with my job, I literally wrote down the names of a few people I was semi-acquainted with in my new office and mustered up courage to reach out to them within the week. I did, and I can shockingly say that I have a significantly closer relationship with all of these people. Moreover, I can actually say I golf now. Amazing what weird lists can do.
Do the Opposite of What You Think You Should Do
This one’s a bit radical and sounds counterintuitive, but try doing the opposite of what you want to do, or at least something you wouldn’t expect yourself to like. You will either surprise yourself by finding you like it (or something related to it), or you may fully confirm that you don’t like that thing if your certainty was previously wavering. The process of elimination always helps.
What do you know, that kind of sounds like what I did!
Yes, if you had asked me 10 years ago if I thought I’d be compiling process improvement documents or facilitating meetings related to database access, I’d laugh at you before you were even finished. I was a candidate for least likely to go corporate growing up, preferring instead to have tree-climbing contests and draw my favorite anime characters. It was only when I opened up my eyes to the wide world that is business that I realized there were more options than filing, e-mailing, and Powerpoint-ing away. There’s everything from web development to marketing to HR consulting out there, and some of these have massive potential for tapping into creativity. Even though I know I’m still on my journey of finding the work I’m meant to do, I’m grateful for the doors my current business-y job opens for me.
Give Your Time
This one serves a dual-purpose. First, volunteering in something you have an interest in just may lead you down the path of passion. Conversely, it also gives you the opportunity to try something out without the commitment of 40+ hours per week. While you should still strive to live up to your commitments, it is a fortunate fact in volunteering that you are understood to be a volunteer with a limited amount of time to spare and a million other things on your plate. As such, if you find you can’t make it some days (or don’t like it and need to phase out of doing it), it’s really not a big deal. Moving to a new job won’t get you that, and slacking on your duties or leaving too soon may impact your future career.
Beyond the actual “content” of volunteering is also an exquisite untapped resource: your co-volunteers. It’s quite likely that these are not only caring and socially responsible people (they’re volunteering, after all), but a virtual career fair to boot. CEOS, game designers, copywriters, and band managers volunteer. So do startup owners, advertising executives, investment bankers, and fashion designers. You just never know until you start putting your feelers out there. Whether you learn about a cool job you never knew previously existed or make a killer connection that lands you a position, there is nothing to lose by talking to people.
In support of the above, I have one last bit of advice to offer that I guarantee will take you far in your pursuit of meaningful work: relax. Stop thinking you have to figure it all out right now. Stop waiting for an epiphany. Stop counting the number of years you’ve been on Earth and freaking out because they’re more plentiful than someone else you know who’s established. It doesn’t matter when you’re making it happen. If you’re doing something—anything—to put the search in motion, you’re making progress.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m still not entirely sure what I ultimately want to be doing with my life. When people ask me where I’ll be in 5 or 10 years, it’s nothing but a mish-mosh of sunshine and color that swims through my brain. I don’t have a solid idea, I just know I’ll be happy. I have plenty of ideas and avenues I want to try and, more importantly, I know the core tenets I’m looking for in my future job. If things change in the meantime, I’m willing to take them as they come.
Though, if I end up being a tree-climbing, video game-playing, song-writing anime artist, I won’t hate it.
Biography: Southern California-bred Haley O’Bryan is the type of person who will randomly fly somewhere if there’s a special on ticket prices, just so she can explore a new place. Operating as a business consultant by day, she takes opportunities such as paddleboarding, making music, and dancing absolutely anywhere to enjoy life. She also recognizes her condition as a travel-addicted individual and keeps a travel blog that she promises to update more if more people read it (infinitecorners.com). Bonus points if you bring her around her favorite animal, the seal.