In my 49th year, I started to unravel. I had no idea what I should do with my life.
Prior to that year, my destiny had been relatively clear. I knew I wanted to go to college, find a good job, and settle down to raise a family. I was driven by the primary goal of creating the happy, stable environment for my children that I didn’t have growing up.
Once I graduated from college, I found a good job in public relations. I worked hard at it for 12 years, then stopped working full-time to focus on my family. But when my oldest child left home, the self-doubt and anxiety started to creep in. My role as a mom was winding down, I no longer felt inspired by my work in PR, and I had no idea what my next steps should be.
I also had very little confidence in myself and my abilities. Having focused on one career path and parenting for so long, I didn’t believe I had any options, except maybe to go back to school — but for what? To do what? I had no idea.
Whether you’re 19 or 49, or any age for that matter, you will bump up against this question at some point: “What should I do with my life?”
There’s nothing quite so daunting as asking yourself this question and only seeing a vast emptiness ahead of you. How on Earth do you know what to do when you have no idea where you’re going?
When you feel this way, it’s very tempting to distract yourself with trivialities. You might spend hours surfing the net, playing online games or lingering over Facebook. Maybe you shop away the time, tinker with projects, or watch sports on TV. You try to fill the emptiness with something, anything that doesn’t force you to think about what you’re not doing and what you’re not achieving.
Eventually though, the emptiness rises to the surface, and you have to take action before you fall into complete despair. Maybe you’re in a job that doesn’t inspire you. Or you might be just starting out in the work force, but you have no idea what you want to do. Maybe you’re about to become an empty nester or nearing retirement, and the years ahead look confusing and desolate. Regardless of your age or specific situation, you are standing at a crossroad without a sign to guide you.
If you are wondering, “What should I do with my life?” — then let’s explore some ways to help you find out.
Step #1: Relax.
Take a deep breath and realize you aren’t alone and this feeling isn’t abnormal. You might look around you and think everyone else knows exactly what they’re doing, and that you’re the only person in the world who feels confused and directionless. But that simply isn’t true.
The majority of people find themselves at this crossroads in at some point in their lives. Nothing remains static. Our values, interests, and life circumstances are constantly shifting, and with those shifts comes the inevitable restlessness and need to forge a new path.
From my own personal experience going through this confusing time, and from my work with many coaching clients who have been in this position, you WILL find your way through. Be patient and kind with yourself, and remain confident in your own good judgment and problem solving abilities.
Step #2: Define your core values.
Whatever it is you ultimately want to do with your life should reflect and support your core values. Your values are your guiding principles and the areas of your life that are most important to you.
If you spend your time pursuing things that don’t support your core values, you’ll eventually feel restless and unhappy. That’s why filling your time on Facebook or watching sports all day makes you feel like a slug. Your values are calling out to you and reminding you there is more to your life.
If you don’t know your values, take a look at this list of 400 value words to help you out. I suggest you pick 5-10 value words for both your personal and professional life. You might have a hard time narrowing down the list, but you’ll see you may choose words that are very similar. Pick your non-negotiables and write them down.
Step #3: Assess your current life.
Once you have your values defined, compare your current life or work circumstances to your values. Where are you living in misalignment with your values? Are there any important values that aren’t expressed at all in your life? Are there any immediate changes you could make to better live your values?
For example, if one of your values is creativity, what are you doing now to express creativity? If you are doing very little, how can you add more creativity into your daily life or work?
This may not solve your bigger question about what to do with your life, but it does reflect back to you what you want and need more of in your life. This awareness helps you refine any future decisions or actions.
Step #4: Define the skills you enjoy.
Everyone has skills, and these shouldn’t be limited to the skills you’ve learned in school or on the job. You may have innate skills in leadership, communication, compassion, writing, problem-solving, etc. Think about all of the skills you have learned, as well as some of your natural skills.
You may need to ask someone close to you to reflect back what they see as your natural skills. You might take some of these natural skills for granted and assume everyone has them. This list of personality traits might help you define some of your natural aptitudes.
Write a list of all of your skills, and then go back through the list and circle the ones you find the most enjoyable, fulfilling, and interesting. You may have skills you don’t find enjoyable at all, and you don’t want to focus on those.
Once you have a list of skills you enjoy, go back again and circle the skills that reflect or support your core values.
Step #5: Get clear on your personality type.
If you’ve never take a personality test, like the Myers Briggs personality assessment, I strongly recommend you do so. It gives you a much better understanding of your motivations, aptitudes, and strengths.
Just seeing this information, along with a description of your type and the careers and endeavors best suited to you, is really helpful.
When I first tried to figure out my next steps in life, taking a personality assessment is where I began. This free online assessment is a good one to try. Once you get your four-letter type, do some research online to read more about your type. Make notes about career suggestions, any information that resonates with you, and any ideas that intrigue or excite you.
Step #6: Pool your information.
On a separate sheet of paper, write down your core values for your personal and professional life, your favorite skills, and any ideas you gleaned from your personality type. Look for patterns and overlaps in the information in front of you.
When I did this exercise, I saw immediately that my values of service, creativity, and autonomy could be supported by my favorite skills in communication, writing, listening, and organizing. I also saw how the careers of counseling, coaching, and teaching that were suggested in my personality type could work with both my values and my skills.
This step is really important because it helps you narrow the field of possibilities and makes you focus in a particular direction.
Step #7: Do your research.
Start researching some of the ideas that are forming. You can Google, “great careers for INFJs” (or whatever your personality type is). You can also research “careers that require XYZ skills” or “careers for people who like to XYZ.”
If you don’t know if a career move is your next step, then look for volunteer opportunities or hobbies in the areas you are researching.
As you make a list of possibilities (for either a career or other endeavor), then do separate research to learn more about the specific responsibilities, education, knowledge, and skills involved for each possibility.
Step #8: Determine what you’re missing.
In your research, you may determine you need more training or education. You may discover you need to buff up your existing skills or gain more hands-on experience. Do your research on exactly what’s involved in getting up to speed and how you can do this.
When I was going through this process, I learned I needed more education for either a career in counseling or coaching. I ultimately decided to get my coaching certification because I liked the coaching model, and it required far less time and formal education than getting licensed as a counselor would have.
Take into consideration your particular lifestyle, family obligations, and available time.
Step #9: Review your finances.
Whether you decide to start over in your career, go back to school, or travel the world, you’ll need some amount of money to pursue your next phase of life. Maybe you already have plenty of savings set aside, and this isn’t an issue for you.
But most of us will need to plan financially for any big life changes. Even if you aren’t sure yet what your next steps might be, start setting aside money so you will be prepared when the time comes.
Try to build up a savings of six months to year’s worth of income. Don’t let a lack of money hold you back from creating a future that is passionate and rewarding.
Step #10: Try something.
You’ll never know for sure whether or not you’ve found what you want to do with your life until you give something a try. Use all of the information you’ve gleaned to take the next most obvious step, even if you’re unsure.
For me, that meant signing up for coaching school. I wasn’t completely sure when I enrolled that I wanted to be a coach. I had to immerse myself in it before I felt more certainty. Experimenting like this might feel like a waste of time, but it’s the only way to gain clarity. Even if you discover you’re on the wrong path, your efforts aren’t in vain. Everything you try gives you information for the next action you take.
Have faith in the intelligence you’ve gathered from the previous steps, and keep putting your toe in the water of various possibilities until one “feels” right. You really do need to feel your way forward, always measuring your actions against your values.
Step #11: Enjoy the process.
When you are in that stuck place of not knowing, you feel despondent and directionless. But once you begin to take action to figure it out, you become more energized and hopeful.
You may not have complete certainty for a while, but you know you’re moving in the right direction.
Try to see the process of figuring it out as your life purpose for the time being. During this time of exploration, your job and mission in life is to explore and discover. Rather than seeing this time as purgatory, envision it as a grand adventure instead.
Step #12: Remain open to possibilities.
As you work toward deciding what to do with your life, you’ll encounter many doors of opportunity and possibility. You may think you’re headed down one path, only to see an enticing detour that leads to another. Allow yourself to open all doors and take many detours. You never know where they will take you.
I thought my future career was just in coaching. But as I became a coach, I also learned that I had a passion for blogging and writing. This created a huge additional opportunity that I never even considered when I first began my search. Life is full of surprises.
Rather than spending too much time in your head, wondering what you should do with your life, become a detective whose mission it is to figure it out. Learn as much as you can about yourself. Do what needs to be done to prepare financially and personally for your next steps, and take action every single day to move forward.
Before you know it, you’ll be living the life you’ve created for yourself, based on your passions, values, skills, and research. Have faith in the process and confidence in your judgment, even if you make the “wrong” choice at first. Every choice you make will ultimately lead you to the answer.
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