How to Know What You Really Want to Do With Your Life

At any stage in your life, deciding what you want to “do” in your life can seem daunting. This can happen when you are 18 or 50, and it is always a difficult process, especially if a recent life change or job loss has led you astray. But as stressful as this time is, it can also be exciting. You just need a few strategies to help you figure things out.

Finding what you really want to do in your life is not an easy task for everyone, and it is not something you can really create a walkthrough for. However, when you’re not entirely sure what you want to do – which career to choose, which lifestyle to choose, or whatever – several different exercises can help you determine exactly what you really want. Here are four ways to figure out what you want in your future.

Think where you will be in five years

“Where do you see yourself in five years?” The question comes up in everything from interviews to financial plans, and while it seems cliché, it’s common for a reason: it works. This is one of those questions that is difficult to answer, and in most cases it is nearly impossible to answer in a specific way. Fortunately, this is normal; sometimes just trying to answer a question is all you have to do.

Given how pervasive this advice is, the idea of ​​looking into the future and imagining where you will be in five years is much more difficult than you think. Plus, the chances of you actually ending up where you see yourself are pretty slim. However, and as Adam Savage points out in Tested , the exercise of discussing how you see yourself in five years is still useful. He shares this story:

What you really want to do is what you need to achieve. You won’t get there, and it reminds me of one of Kurt Vonnegut’s unquoted sayings – the culmination of his favorite joke: “Don’t take your hat off. We may be miles away … “I remember being 19 years old and I met my friend’s mom and she asked me,” What are you going to do in five years? “And I named what I thought I would do. She listened to me give this long explanation and said, “You are not going to do any of this. You have no idea what you will be doing in five years. You will be doing something really cool, but right now it is not what you can imagine. ” This is one of the greatest things that have been gifted to me. She was absolutely right. It’s the same every five years. I never know where I ended up, where I started from.

Savage’s point of view here is pretty simple: it doesn’t really matter where you think you will be in five years, but it’s still important to think about it because it might give you the idea you want to pursue. In terms of careers, Harvard Business Review takes a similar approach , recommending that you think about what you want to learn in the next five years:

What opportunities would you like to develop in five years? For example: “I can’t say for sure what I will be doing in five years, but I hope that I can further develop my skills as a strategist and HR manager.” This is a safe way to answer regardless of your age or career level. “You never want to give the impression that you have finished your studies,” says Weintraub.

This is a simple idea, very similar to Savage’s approach, but it shifts the focus so that you directly focus on what you need to get to the place where you will be happy in five years. As we noted earlier , choosing a lifestyle over a job position can help you focus on what you really care about, and this is one way to do it.

Write your personal manifesto

The concept of a personal manifesto may seem a little silly at first, but the idea is not only about telling the world what you think. If writing this document helps you understand where you stand, you may be able to flesh out a possible career or life path. Foolish or not, the Personal Manifesto tool has been implemented by companies like Google and people like Frank Lloyd Wright . The point, as The Art of Manliness says, is to give yourself a call to action to determine how you want to act. Writing your manifest is easy, and you don’t have to do it in a specific way. The Art of Manliness has a few tips to get you started:

  • Pick Topics : Pick a few topics you want to focus on and make them as specific as possible. Ideas like “The hours I want to work” or “How I want to get to work” are great for narrowing down the topics that you might be interested in.
  • Set your principles : Write down your beliefs and intentions. It may sound a little over the top, but if you’ve never really written down or thought about your morals or beliefs, now is a good time to do it.
  • Use strong, affirmative language : It’s easy to write a manifesto with words like “I want” or “I have to,” but that doesn’t help you. Write it in affirmative language, such as “I will,” or use the present tense with “I am.”

The main purpose of a personal manifesto is to help you really understand what worries you, how you perceive yourself, and how you want to act in the future. This is not always the key to determining exactly what you want to do in your life, but it is a great starting point, at least for determining how you want to achieve those goals. Grab a pen, paper and start writing what you believe in.

Volunteer (or substitute someone) for a job that interests you

One of the reasons we are so scared of knowing what we want to do is because we tend to pay too much attention. Would you like to write this book? Go to graduate school! Thinking of becoming a lawyer? Apply to Law School! When you up the ante on plans, they get really serious, very quickly, and it’s hard to make a decision under this pressure. So don’t get hung up on one idea. Instead, spend a couple of days trying on this lifestyle. To do this, you can try volunteering or spying on someone at work, knowing that you may have to postpone this option for another six months or so until everyone has a chance to get vaccinated .

We’ve talked before about how to find a volunteer gig that you enjoy . The idea here is to put yourself in a position where you learn something and try to make a new career. If you’re struggling to figure out what you want to do with yourself, volunteering is a way to try many different jobs without getting involved with any of them. Contrary to what you might think, volunteer work can include all kinds of work, including coding or manual labor. Volunteer Match is a good place to start your volunteer hunt.

Likewise, job tracking is another way to get to know the industry better without spending a lot of time studying or worse, getting a job and finding that you hate it. Monster has a few tips for tracking :

While students and recent alumni have long welcomed job surveillance, Crawford, author of Flying Solo: Career Transition Tips for Singles , says everyone should consider job surveillance, especially in this economy. “You have to be more assertive than ever in your career, and asking for the possibility of spying on someone is a way not only to find out what the job is like, but also to expand your connections,” she says.

Crawford, who is based in Atlanta, notes that workplace surveillance works well in several industries, including medicine and law. However, you can usually schedule a shadow job for any kind of job. Your college career center, alumni association, or your local chamber of commerce can play an important role in creating the shadow of the job if your immediate network does not provide any opportunities.

Obviously, job tracking is for college students, but anyone can try it, especially if you’re willing to work a day or two for free in your chosen industry. To actually find someone to shade on, your best bet is to call the company and try to create one and make an appointment to do so. You may have to consider several options before you get to a place that allows you to do this, but offering to work for free during your time is certainly a way to raise the company’s ears.

Dive into these side projects

Sometimes the best way to figure out what you want to do is through good old fashioned trial and error. In many cases, this means simply trying various side projects that interest you in your spare time.

You don’t need to be too organized to find a side project. It can be as easy as finding a hobby that you enjoy (Love podcasts? Get started. Like knitting? Discover an Etsy store), or as far-reaching as testing different industries in which you might consider a career. As writer Scott Young describes it as curiosity , and side projects are a great way to do it:

I believe that instead of making certain career decisions, you should be curious. Ask how the world works. Pay attention to your interests and find small ways to show passion for something. Even if you can’t find a way to make money from it yet.

The bridge from the passion for making money cannot be done in a rush. Interests are often discarded because they cannot be immediately turned into a source of income. And therefore not as important as work.

The idea here is to take on many side projects, learn new skills, or do a few passionate projects to try to figure out what you want to do in your life. Once you have a few ideas, take the time to work on them , learn to stick with them, and just get to work .

The goal here is to give you a better idea of ​​what you want to do with yourself. It may just reveal “what you want to do” rather than your actual career path. This is okay, because if nothing else, it will direct you on the path you want to come to.

After all, defining your passion, your career path, your life purpose – whatever you call it – is not an easy process, and there is no magic bullet for that. The point is, you need to think about it, and in order to do that, you may have to face some mental hurdles until you know exactly what you were looking for. The tips above are just a few of the many ways to do this.

This story was originally published in June 2013 and updated on December 21, 2020 to add additional context and align content with the current style of Lifehacker.

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