What Should You Do With Your Life?
What should you do with your life?
What’s your life’s purpose?
In today’s world of mindset bloggers, visualization instagrammers, motivational speakers, manifestation gurus and self-help authors, you may feel like a failure for not knowing the answers to those questions. Everyone seems so in tune with who they are and what they want to do these days that it can leave those of us who haven’t quite figured out our life's purpose feeling a bit left out.
What if you’re feeling adequately motivated and inspired... you just don’t have a clue what to do with your life?
Sometimes, you need a practical list of steps to follow in addition to getting your mindset right. And finding your purpose or what to do with your life is one of those times. Contrary to popular belief, there actually is a practical list of steps to answer these questions.
Or more accurately, there is one step.
Sometimes, the simplest solutions are the most effective, and finding your life’s purpose is one of those complicated questions with a deceivingly simple solution.
The best way to decide what to do with your life is to try things.
The Problem with Introspection
Many people I talk to have the idea that the best way to find out what they should be doing with their life is introspection... and that idea isn’t entirely wrong.
The only problem with it is that on its own, introspection isn’t enough.
The definition of introspection is “the examination or observation of one's own mental and emotional processes.” Some activities that fall into this category are taking personality tests and reflecting on our own past experiences or career steps through journaling or another method with the intention of determining what we like and don’t like. While these activities are positive and can move us toward the goal of figuring out what to do with our lives, they generally don’t provide one practical result that we can take to the job market and live happily ever after in the knowledge that we’ve chosen the best-fitting, most fulfilling job that could ever possibly exist for us.
Because for most of us, our personalities and preferences could be applied to a variety of career options successfully... and those options can change over time.
The Prevalence of Multi-Hyphenates
I’ve been seeing a term I wasn’t previously familiar with quite a bit on blogs and instagram lately: multi-hyphenate. The definition of a multi-hyphenate is “a person, especially a celebrity, with several professions or skills”. Aside from the reference to celebrities in the definition, I like the term because it’s widely applicable.
And by widely applicable, I mean that every single person I know is a multi-hyphenate.
Which means that you probably are too.
This is an underlying problem with introspection as a method to figure out what to do with our lives: while we may have one overarching passion or purpose (though many people have several), there generally isn’t one convenient, clear career path to fulfill that purpose on an everyday basis. There are many possible paths that could work, because most people have multiple professions that they would be successful in and a wide variety of skills. To make matters more complicated, the path that fits us best can change over time. And the answers that come from introspection may not clearly define what our overarching passion or purpose is... we may have to get out there and actually do stuff to figure out what is most fulfilling.
Give Yourself Something to Reflect On
Introspection works best as a companion to experience. You need experiences to reflect on and review if you are going to determine which options are a good fit for you.
In a nutshell, you need to try things.
This is the primary reason that figuring out what we’re supposed to do with our lives at 18 when we’re graduating from high school or at 22 when we’re graduating from college is so difficult. While we may have some vague ideas about what impact we would like to leave on the world, we don’t have much practical experience executing that vision. We’ve studied stuff, but we haven’t tried much of it in a real-world environment. Most of us fall into whatever job we can get with the major we’ve chosen (or a job that isn’t in our educational field at all), and that is when we start figuring out what we like and don’t like.
Finding your life’s purpose or what you are supposed to do with your life isn’t so much a question you can answer in one day as it is a series of experiments over time. Sure, it would be great if someone handed us a ticket at birth saying what we’re supposed to do, and we didn’t have to worry about it. But since that doesn’t happen, viewing these big questions like an ongoing experiment can help take the pressure off compared to the idea that we need to have one permanent answer that can never change... and we need to have that answer at the very beginning of our careers.
Reframing “Failure” As a Positive Outcome
Trying stuff to figure out what we like and don’t like has one inherent flaw that tends to scare people away from taking action: we aren’t going to like or be good at all the things we try... and that can feel like failure. Through reflection on experiences, personality tests, conversations with friends and family, research, networking, conversations, things we read, internships, jobs, and hobbies throughout our lives, most of us can build a list of things we want to try out. These can be built on skills or talents we have, things we’re interested in learning more about, or things we think sound cool for other reasons. Since we’ve established that we’re all multi-hyphenates on some level, this list may be long. And the sheer volume of things we could do on that list and the wide variety of directions we could go can be overwhelming... and paralyzing.
What if you pick the wrong one?
That’s great: you can check it off the list.
There is only one way to start working through all your options and ideas: start trying them. Many people find one option that fits them well enough, then they throw away the list... because the next option they try might be worse. But what if it’s better? There are people in the world who will spend their entire lives paralyzed right there: wondering if the next option on the list might be better, but not taking any action because it also may be worse.
Let's reframe: if the point of this long-term experiment is to learn what fits us best, then stopping with an OK solution isn’t the outcome we’re after. Testing out options, even ones that we ultimately abandon, brings us closer to the point of finding the combination of options that leaves us the most fulfilled. Everything we learn about ourselves and about each option on our list brings us closer to figuring out our life’s purpose or what we should do with our lives overall.
If you find yourself stuck in an option that is an OK fit, it may be time to pilot the next option in a practical way.
As you can probably tell from this post, I have a personal bias toward practicality and practical solutions, so I’m not going to be one of those bloggers telling you to quit the job that pays your bills to test out a brand-new idea that you may not even like. That isn’t a helpful experiment generally, because the stress of forcing the brand-new thing you are trying to immediately start paying your bills could make you hate it... even if you would have otherwise liked it. In the spirit of not forcing our experiments to pay our bills from day one, here are some practical ideas that you can use to help you pilot or test an idea to decide if it may be a good fit for you on a larger scale (something you may want to pivot into as a primary career):
Take some classes on the subject you want to explore, either online or in person.
Try it out as a hobby you don’t need to earn money from. Do you like doing it?
Try it out as a side hustle. Do you like the activity in a business context?
Talk to people who do it for a living (informational interviews).
Go to meetups with people interested in the field (learn from what they’ve learned and make relevant connections).
Network and ask questions in person and online (using social media).
Explore the different ways people are doing it as a career (are they freelancing, working remotely, working for employers in person, or completing this work some other way?)
Take a part-time job, internship or apprenticeship in the field to see if you like doing it in a practical context.
Read blogs and books, listen to podcasts, and watch videos (particularly those focused on the day-to-day life in the field you’re exploring or lessons that others have learned to help you determine if it may be a good fit for you).
Share your journey (blogging or podcasting about your process of learning about something or pivoting in your career can have multiple benefits: connecting you to others in your position, helping others with their journey, and holding you accountable to keep moving forward).
Throughout this post, I’ve been implying that finding your purpose means doing a combination of things in your life (jobs, hobbies or other activities) that feels fulfilling to you. Some people may disagree with this bias toward practicality, and instead want to define their life’s purpose as something abstract, lofty and inspirational that doesn’t necessarily align with any practical combination of action items. While we’re all on the same page about the fact that whatever you do with your life should align with your morals and beliefs as much as possible, one of the things I’ve learned through my own experiments figuring out what to do with my life is that there may be jobs or activities where you agree with the mission, but the day-to-day isn’t a good fit for you. Feeling fulfilled because you are doing work you believe in at a high level is important, but that high level agreement with the mission statement generally isn’t enough to overcome being unfulfilled in the everyday execution of your work.
You deserve to feel fulfilled by the combination of activities you pursue in your everyday life and in the knowledge that you’re working towards whatever larger purpose you decide to define for your life. Keep experimenting with combinations until you can create a good fit in the present that also could result in whatever long-term fulfillment means to you. Review that combination regularly as you learn and grow. Make changes when you need to make them, and never consider an option that you tried and didn’t like to be a failure (learning is the whole point).
What if you try everything you’ve ever wanted to try, but you still don’t feel like you’ve found your life’s purpose?
What if you don’t have a list at all or don’t even have one idea you want to try?
Those are scary questions, I’ll admit. But taking action has a weird way of creating even more options (momentum builds momentum). As you discover more career options and fields of study, you’ll discover job roles you never even knew existed. You’ll meet people that will point you in directions you didn’t know were available to you. You’ll also learn more about yourself from every experience and get better at weeding out things that don’t fit earlier in the process.
Ultimately, there is only one way to fail at finding your life’s purpose: quit trying things.
Another important practical consideration that us multi-hyphenates should keep in mind: it may be too much to ask of any full-time job to fulfill your life’s purpose entirely. If no one full-time job is feeling like a great fit, you may need to create your own combination of activities to fulfill your life’s purpose (jobs, side hustles, hobbies, etc.) Feel free to think outside the box.
Your life doesn’t need to fit anyone else’s expectations... it just needs to fit you.
Finding Fulfillment… and Fun
If I had to summarize this entire post with one takeaway it would be this: trying out things you are interested in is never a waste of time, and it’s never too late to start trying things.
Everything you try isn’t going to be successful. And until you get used to that, it may be uncomfortable.
Although we could avoid that discomfort if someone just told us our purpose the day we were born and we never had to think about it again (as I mentioned earlier in this post)… where would the fun really be in that?
Because finding your life’s purpose isn’t just supposed to be fulfilling.
It should also be fun.
As long as you are trying things, no matter how far-fetched they may seem as viable options, you are learning things that will help you decide what you want to do with your life.
So have some fun with it.
I’d love to hear from you about some of the jobs, side hustles, activities, or hobbies you’ve tested out that didn’t work for you... and about those that did. Join the conversation in the comments, and thank you for reading!