What should you do with your life? I frequently notice many people my age (my eighteenth birthday was in August) and many people considerably older than that have a very hard time arriving at an answer to that question. Terrified to make the ‘wrong’ choice and get stuck into a life they hate, they wander around clueless of what they want to do.
Left without certainty of what to decide for their life, many people simply settle for what’s available at the time. Current job, current relationship, current direction of progress. Never satisfied with today they have no idea where they want their future to head. As a result these people end up spending most their life in a state of vague unhappiness.
Some people manage a little better. They set some goals, plan ahead and move into a position that seems okay, but life always feels like a compromise. A fine balance between security and adventure, duty and passion. Inevitably these people feel that somewhere along the road of life they took a wrong turn and are no longer where they want to be.
With all this pressure, it can be very hard to answer this question. How can you possibly decide how you want your entire life to be shaped? I think there is a way around this problem, but it requires a little more depth.
The Myth of Whole Life Decisions
The real problem isn’t that deciding what to do with your life is hard. It is the fact that deciding what to do with your entire life is a ridiculous question to ask in the first place!
You are not a fixed being. Every experience you have after this point will shape you. If you are like myself and you consciously pursue experiences that shape you in a positive direction, you will most often find that after a few years of this process your way of perceiving the world change drastically.
The reason that deciding what to do with your life is so difficult is simply that no decision would be adequate. Even if you had the perfect knowledge and foresight to predict what you would want at every stage of life, no one decision would satisfy everyone. If you are growing then you are changing. And if you change a lot, then decisions made in the past might not be the best for the future.
This is results in the myth of what I call making “whole life” decisions. These decisions include what your life’s purpose is, what you plan to do with your life, a life to-do list, or any other such decisions that encompass your entire life. The reason they are flawed is simply that if we look at a twenty, forty, sixty and eighty year old versions of yourself they may end up being so different that any one decision would be inadequate.
What to Do Instead?
Once you’ve come to the conclusion that trying to pick a single path for your entire life is ultimately futile, you need to start thinking about what you are going to do right now. Clearly making no decision about what to do is a bad move as you will simply drift in the waters of life, without direction or progress. But, if making these whole life decisions is so likely to result in a suboptimal answer somewhere along the road, how can you go about creating clarity about what you should do?
Looking where your purpose overlaps your passion lies the answer of what to do. Steve Pavlina breaks purpose down into four layers of what you need to do, what you have the skills to do, what you want to do and finally what you should do. The answer is fairly similar in deciding what you should do right now. It is where your needs, your abilities, your desires and ability to serve coincide.
What you need to do is what you need to do to survive. This means determining how you are going to make an income, buy food, stay healthy and ensure the survival and safety of your family. Without money and food on the table, all the hype about purpose and growth doesn’t seem all that important.
What you have the skills to do points to your areas of aptitude. If you are young, like myself, then maybe you have talents in areas that haven’t yet become full skills. This area determines where you have a better chance to fulfill yourself and society than other people. Chances are you have talents or skills in multiple areas.
What you want to do points to what you are passionate about. These are the things that you find enjoyable, like to do and find interesting. Everyone has there own interests and passions and this is the area that determines what you would enjoy doing.
What you should do points to where you can be of most service to others. Even if you fulfill needs, aptitudes and passion but what you are doing isn’t that useful to society, it will be difficult to feel fulfilled. Only when you combine all four areas and determine the place that they overlap most strongly can you actually decide what to do.
Set Long-Term Goals
Once you have searched the small area that decides your purpose you need to start setting long-term goals to motivate your progress. Unlike short-term goals which are there to provide motivation and focus, long-term goals are used to provide direction. Setting five, ten and even twenty year goals is the next step.
Keep in mind that the purpose of these goals isn’t necessarily that you will achieve them (just as it isn’t the direct purpose of any goal). As I previously mentioned, chances are your long term goals will slowly fall out of sync with who you are as you grow. Chances are you might need to change or adjust these goals before you ever achieve them.
A little over a year ago I set several five and ten year goals for myself. Although at the time these goals were very meaningful and motivating to me, I’ve slowly moved from them even in the short span of one year. I may end up removing, altering or changing those goals in a year or two as I shift even more.
This shifting occurs because as you grow and gain experience the overlapping region between what you need to do, can do, want to do and should do changes. Your initial plan was based on one set of regions which may very well change in the years that come.
Deciding What to Do Right Now
Ultimately, you can never make a decision in the future, only in the present. Deciding what to do for your entire life right now will never result in an optimal decision simply because you are constantly growing and circumstances will change. What you need to do instead is find out what is the best path for you to take right now.
There is a myth in our culture that tells us that because we have to change paths, that the time spent on the old path was a waste. That time spent working in one career before a career change was wasted. That time spent in one relationship before starting a new one was wasted. This is garbage. So long as you are always doing where purpose, aptitude, interest and need overlap, you are always doing the best you can, even if you eventually change your mind.
Don’t decide what you want to do with your entire life. Determine what you should do right now. Most of the beauty of life comes from the fact that you can never be exactly sure where the path will go. Set your long-term goals to give yourself a picture of a future, but when you outgrow that picture, don’t worry about it and create a new one. For you can’t live in tomorrow only ever live in today.