The dreaded question “What do you want to do in life?” follows us from our school days well into adulthood. At school, this question is all anyone asks you, and after, it can bring on an existential crisis, because you realize you don’t know. So how do you figure it out?
It’s not easy to figure out what you want, or even if what you think you want is what you really want, but it's not impossible. It does take a fair bit of introspection, trial and error, and flexibility, as well as resilience, to bounce back when your plans don’t work out. Most importantly, like all things worth having, figuring out what you want in life requires you to leave your comfort zone.
In this article, I’ll take a look at the troubles you may run into while figuring out what you want in life, as well as tips on how to overcome them and really figure things out.
What you want vs. what you think you should want
When I was in 9th grade, my Estonian teacher made us write a letter to our 25-year-old selves, describing the life we think we will have by then. I still have the letter, and these are the things I thought I would have by 25:
- At least 2 kids.
- A flat in a very specific neighborhood.
- A job as a journalist or author.
At 25, I had precisely none of those. Instead, I was - and still am at 27 - childless, living in a completely different city, and working as a school psychologist.
According to my high school yearbook, at 18 I still thought I would become a journalist, but I somehow ended up choosing psychology. Despite this change of heart, I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever wanted to become a school psychologist, but somehow, I’ve ended up with a career I enjoy more than I thought I ever would.
(And despite everything, I never quite let go of my journalistic ambitions, and have always done some form of writing on the side of my day job. So, 15-year-old Maili might have been onto something.)
My ideas at 15 were at least partly influenced by what I thought I should want, and to an extent, they still are. Seeing my peers starting their own businesses makes me feel like I’m missing out on something, even though I can’t say I’ve ever wanted to be an entrepreneur.
Every culture and generation has its own ideas of success and what people should strive towards. Your own wants may align with those, or they might be at odds, but they still influence your own ideas of success.
How your goals can change
Few people know what they want in life, and even fewer end up with the things they think they want. Take a look at your own goals and dreams from childhood and teenage years or even early adulthood. Did they come true? Did they change over time?
Most likely, you didn’t end up with your childhood dream job or life, although I’m sure that some of you did. Many of us want to become pop stars and presidents, and as we grow up, we understand how unlikely these career paths are.
Even as we get older and our goals get more realistic and practical, not everyone ends up working in the field they studied for. About half of my undergrad course ended up in fields other than psychology, and while I stayed in the general field, I didn’t end up a criminal psychologist as I originally planned.
It’s completely normal for even the best-laid plans to change. Sometimes life throws a wrench in the works, or sometimes our priorities shift as we try out new things and collect new experiences.
This doesn’t mean that there’s no point in making plans - setting goals is essential for motivation - but don’t be discouraged when your plans change.
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How to figure out what you want in life
Figuring out what you really want in life is a game of trial and error, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have a plan for it. Here are four tips on how to get started with figuring things out.
1. Try new things and meet new people
The simplest, yet simultaneously the hardest, way to figure out what you want in life is by collecting new experiences.
Trying new things can introduce you to ways of life and experiences you didn’t even know existed. How would you know if you like something if you haven't tried it? At the same time, trying new things can be scary, and most of us are quite content in our comfort zones.
However, growth happens outside of the comfort zone. You don’t have to try everything, because that’s impossible anyway. But branching out from your usual patterns and social circles can be the key to figuring out what you want.
So, if something seems interesting, go ahead and try it. If you’re curious about a way of life, go and ask the people living it. Who knows what you may find?
2. Set goals (and change them where necessary)
Setting goals is a good way to keep ourselves motivated and get unstuck when it feels like we’re on autopilot.
Goals are also essential to figuring out what we want in life. Take a moment to think of your current goals. You probably have those goals for a reason. Why are you working towards those things and not something else?
For example, if you’re working towards a degree because you’re passionate about the field, you probably want to work in the field and you’re right on track. However, if you’re studying because of pressure from your family or culture, your degree probably isn’t what you want, so maybe it’s time to broaden your horizons.
Whatever your goal, don’t be afraid to change it if it’s no longer serving you - the key to figuring stuff out lies in flexibility.
3. Find your why
It’s much easier to know what to do when you know why you want to do it. Finding your purpose in life is an important step in figuring out what you want in life. In fact, some people might say that they are the same thing.
However, having a purpose or meaning in life is a much broader concept than the things you want. Your purpose is your motivation for achieving whatever you want in life.
4. Figure out what you don’t want
If all else fails, start by figuring out what you don’t want. It may seem counterproductive, but sometimes, it’s easier to name the opposite first.
For example, if you’ve always been in unsatisfying relationships, the first things that come to mind regarding future relationships are the things you don’t want to see. Even on a smaller and more trivial scale, I often find myself figuring out what I want for dinner by naming things that I don’t want.
Or, as psychologist Dr. Jennice Vilhauer writes in Psychology Today:
We could not identify the wanted state of happiness if we did not know what it was like to experience the unwanted state of being unhappy.Jennice Vilhauer
So start by identifying what you don’t want and then ask yourself what you would like instead.
- Don’t want: My parents’ nagging marriage.
- Want: A supportive, loving relationship.
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It’s not easy to figure out what you want in life, but nothing worth having is. It does take flexibility and resilience for when your plans don’t pan out, and readiness and courage to come out of your comfort zone and try new things. While experimenting, you may find that what you thought you wanted isn’t what you really want, and that’s okay! You’ll figure it out in the end.
What do you think? Do you find it hard to figure out what you want in life? Or do you want to share a tip that helped you figure it all out? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!