What Do You Do When You Don’t Know What You Want To Do With Your Life?

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Some people know from an early age exactly what kind of career they want to have. They have a laser like focus, start picking up skills when they’re young, and fall right into their niche. But most of us aren’t so lucky. We roughly know what we want to major in at college, manage to get our degree, take the first full time job offer we can find, and then start to question everything we’re doing. So what do you do when you don’t know what you want to do with your life?

If you’re currently wondering what the answer is to that question, chances are you’re feeling unsettled and confused. Perhaps even suffering from a vast, empty feeling of nothing. You have a rough idea of what you don’t want to do, but you’re lacking inspiration and a clear career path.

Feeling Overwhelmed From Too Many Options

I met a new friend over the weekend at a house party, Ema, and we got to talking. She recently moved to San Francisco from North Carolina and is going through a bit of a rough patch. She’s single, 25, and really wants to find love, but more importantly a full time job. Her work experience is all in accounting, but her heart just isn’t in accounting anymore. The tough thing is she feels lost and really doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life.

I could totally empathize with her, because I know what it’s like to move all the way across the country and also not have a clue what you want to do with your life. Sometimes having a lot of options makes things so much harder. Ever notice how it’s so much easier to choose something, like a hair product for example, when there are only 3 options to choose from versus 30? It’s pretty incredible when you think about how many thousands of occupations there are in the world, and that can be really overwhelming.

I remember at one time in my life I thought I wanted a career in the tech industry. The problem was that was way too broad and I didn’t know how to narrow things down. Once I realized how many different type of tech companies there are such as hardware, communications equipment, semiconductors, software, etc. I got dizzy from my head spinning! But getting as specific as possible is what recruiters want to hear. If you’re serious about getting a job, don’t walk into an interview and say, “I’m really not sure what I want to do.”

Embrace The Uncertain With Open Arms

I could tell Ema was a bit down about her job search situation so I did my best to cheer her up by emphasizing some positives.  It’s perfectly normal that she feels overwhelmed and tired of her job search. It takes a lot of time and energy to find work, and there isn’t anything wrong with the emotions she’s experiencing. Discovering a fun and rewarding career path hard for the majority of people, and it takes time, research, experimentation, and due diligence. Ema’s doing great though by staying proactive and taking temp jobs to help pay her bills.

She’s learning more and more about the types of jobs that she doesn’t want, which will eventually lead her to finding the things she will enjoy.  It’s okay that there are a lot of unknowns in her life and in yours right now. There are uncertainties in everyone’s lives, including the most happy and successful business owners.

If you’re in a similar situation as Ema right now, take a deep breath and try to work on being patient with yourself. Be proud that you are in touch with your emotions and are trying to improve your life. Some people waste so many years ignoring or not recognizing their feelings. So you’re lucky you are attune to your inner most thoughts. You may not figure out what you want to do right away, but you’re lucky you are already starting the journey to finding out today and not 40 years from now.

You Don’t Have To Do One Thing Forever

Another tip to feeling less pressure when you don’t know what you want to do with your life is recognizing that you don’t have to be stuck doing just one thing for the rest of your life. It’s okay to change careers if you lose interest in what you’re doing. Some people change career paths their entire life, and still manage to find ways to thrive and make ends meet. There’s a great line written by Mary Schmich in the Wear Sunscreen Speech:

“Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life…the most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives, some of the most interesting 40 year olds I know still don’t.”

Utilize What You Have To Get Your Foot In The Door

Even if you have limited job experience, you can still tap into the skills that you have right now. A lot of job skills like organization and strong communication skills are transferable across all sorts of occupations. It’s still going to be hard to compete with people who have directly relevant work experience, but companies do make exceptions in the hiring process when candidates impress them. Highlight your energy, out of the box thinking, motivation, and willingness to put in extra hours.

Another way to segue into a bigger career change is to look for a similar type of job as to what you’ve been doing at a totally different type of company. Ema is doing just that. She is currently waiting to hear back on an accounting role at a travel related start up. She’d prefer not to be doing accounting, but is excited about the opportunity to get her foot in the door at a start up and to experience a vastly different work culture than her prior full time job at a commercial bank. Working in a young, upbeat, fresh environment could spark new ideas for her and get her one step closer to figuring out what she wants to do longer term.

“Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” – Steve Jobs

Strong Recommendations To Get A Handle On Your Life

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Take a proactive approach to the things you want. We’ve only got one life to live.
“Personal

Unconventional Guides

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Financial Samurai September 17, 2012 at 7:35 am

I think it’s really tough bc what we really want to do, so many other people really want to do as well.

It’s not enough that we know what we want, but also being given the chance. This is why entrepreneurship is a common path for many who are rejected or tire of the daily grind.

Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be free to do whatever. Hence, I searched for occupations and things to do to enable that dream.

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Sydney September 18, 2012 at 11:53 pm

There’s always going to be competition, but we can’t let that prevent us from trying to do something. You’re right that more and more people are turning to entrepreneurship as a way to bring their own dreams and ideas to life. It doesn’t work out all the time, but there are plenty of success stories out there, and that’s what excites and inspires a lot of young people today.

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My Money Design September 17, 2012 at 9:00 am

I struggled for a long time with the whole “what do I want to do with my life” dilemma until one day it hit me – The job I have now is pretty darn cool, and what’s wrong with making this into my career? So while its perfectly natural to wonder and explore, don’t forget that what you’re doing now is always still an option if you’re willing to find the purpose in it.

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Sydney September 18, 2012 at 11:57 pm

Yes, I totally agree. Sometimes all we need to do is to change our mindset and realize how much opportunity we already have if we simply give ourselves the chance. A lot of companies prefer to promote from within and moving upwards can really improve the amount of job satisfaction people experience.

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TB at BlueCollarWorkman September 17, 2012 at 9:27 am

Right on, right on. I didnt know what I wanted to do, but since I dropped out of highschool, I would take anything! An uncle of mine taught me to weld and I just went with it. And eventually found a job doing other types of construction, and over time, I”ve ended up being a key dude in this contractor company becuase I have all this experience doing different types of construction/welding, etc. Sometimes you just gotta go with what’s happening and find where it leads you in the end!

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Sydney September 19, 2012 at 12:01 am

I think that’s great TB that you were able to pick up specialized skills and get recognized for your talents. I’ve learned so many neat things from your blog.

Focusing on our own strengths can lead to wonderful things if we put our minds to it and take advantage of the opportunities that we come across.

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W at Off-Road Finance September 17, 2012 at 10:24 am

I found this Ribbonfarm article very relevant to the topic of how you decide what you want to do:

http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2011/08/19/the-calculus-of-grit/

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Kathleen @ Frugal Portland September 17, 2012 at 11:04 am

I’m reading a book right now called “So Good they Can’t Ignore You” and it talks about how following your heart, searching for a “dream” job is the wrong way to go about things. The author states that you need to get REALLY good at something and leverage that. Ema should read it. I’m going to give it to every college grad I know!

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Rich In The Heart September 17, 2012 at 7:33 pm

Well, I can’t say I completely agree with you, or the little tidbit you mentioned about “searching for a ‘dream’ job is the wrong way to go about things”. Sometimes, they coincide as they did with me.

However, I thought it would take almost my entire life to achieve what I dreamed of, only to “wake up” 20 years later and have already been in my dream job for the past 20 years.

Now it’s time to figure out a new dream. :-)

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Financial Samurai September 18, 2012 at 11:06 am

What’s your dream job?

During the 20 years, did you really not realize how awesome your job was? Love to hear more perspective on that. thx!

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Rich In The Heart September 18, 2012 at 6:25 pm

Well, my dream job (ever since I played Donkey Kong in an arcade), was to learn how to program a computer and do that well. Heck, I used to fool around with my parent’s old vacuum tube TVs just to figure out the circuits and what they might be doing when I was 13-14. I just enjoy electronics I guess. :-)

Consulting was probably my strongest point and definitely the most enjoyable, since things changed just enough (about every 6-12 months). I’ve been with the same company now for about the last 11 years, but prior to that I did the consulting gig for about 10 years.
The “wake up” didn’t happen until the last 3-4 years, because I was just enjoying the heck out of doing it. And I’ve managed to achieve the level I have without having a degree.

Now I think I may want to get more to embedded systems although I’m still not sure. I kind of like the thought of coming up with an idea for a new product that is faster/cheaper/etc. and design the entire thing. I’m a tinker at heart.

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AverageJoe September 17, 2012 at 3:34 pm

I love your advice that you don’t have to do one job forever. I think people get so wrapped up in making THE RIGHT choice, they never make A choice at all.

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Sydney September 19, 2012 at 12:11 am

Thanks. Yes, I really think a lot of recent grads get too hung up on this, especially in the beginning of their careers. I’m not an advocate for frequent job hopping, but the vast majority of people aren’t going to end up retiring from the first company they work for straight out of college.

It’s okay to join a company and not end up liking it, but quitting the moment one gets unhappy is a mistake. I hope more people start making the most of all the opportunities to learn and develop skills at every job they take before moving on. I say this because sometimes the problem isn’t the work itself, it’s that the employee isn’t applying themselves enough to get the amount of job satisfaction that they need to feel rewarded and happy.

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Terry September 18, 2012 at 9:49 am

I like your point that having too many choices makes your choice more complicated.

What has worked for me is to just try to meander in the direction that I want to go. I may not know exactly but the destination is, but if I have even a small glimmer of what I want to do, I point myself in that direction.

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Shilpan September 19, 2012 at 7:53 pm

It is important to do what you love, but it is even more important to love what you do. With all the options available to us, it’s up to us to find jobs or skills that are in demand.

At that point, all you have to do is to immerse yourself fully into to learning that specific skill in demand, and become one of the best.

If you follow that simple advice, you won’t have to worry about finding a job because a job will find you.

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London May 9, 2013 at 2:10 am

Choosing the right career is tricky. Economist Neil Howe estimates that only five percent of people find a good career match on the first try. And even beyond this chilling stat, there’s so much external pressure to land the perfect job, follow your passion and be super successful by the end of your 20s.

No wonder most people break into a cold sweat when asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

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Elena October 15, 2013 at 11:53 am

I like reading the comments above.

I’m in a bit of a dilemma right now. I had worked for my county doing office work and billing at a mental health facility and I loved it. Loved my co-workers, the schedule, the environment, but after awhile, I decided I needed to do something else, so I went back to school and decided to pursue nursing because of the stability and flexibility. I didn’t know what else I wanted to major in, so I convinced myself that I should do it, so I quit my job to go to school full-time. Because of unforeseeable circumstances, I dropped out last week, so I’m unemployed and don’t know what to do. I believe I made a huge mistake pursuing it because now I’m jobless and I also feel like a total loser for dropping out. Any advice?

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Sydney October 15, 2013 at 11:26 pm

Hi Elena. Just because you dropped out last week doesn’t mean that the education you’ve had so far wasn’t worth it. If you feel like you pulled the trigger too soon (I totally understand the pressure that comes with being in school) then go talk to the admissions office and see what options you have. If you’re in a financial crunch right now that doesn’t mean you can’t finish up your degree at a later time.

The best advice I can give you right now is to stay busy. If you aren’t able to go to school full time right now then spend all of your time searching for a job and networking. You should tap into the alumni network of your school as well. Even though you’re not actively enrolled, you still should get access and I think it could actually help you a lot to talk to prior students for advice. You’re not a loser if you try your best every day. Some days may not work out the way you hoped, but if you gave it your best effort then you can’t beat yourself up.

There’s a great tennis saying I read recently, “You’ll always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Don’t be afraid to try and give yourself a chance every day to succeed. Best of luck!

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