In my role as a professor, I work with first-year students a lot. One of the things that my students tend to find frustrating is that from the moment they enter college, they feel like they’re expected to know what they want to do with their lives. While some students are lucky and feel called to pursue a particular career or discipline, others feel lost--and why shouldn’t they? In high school, students barely scratch the surface of the fields that exist and the opportunities that are available to them.
But it’s not just high school students who feel uneasy about choosing a career path: adults can feel unsure about their purpose, too. If you’re feeling unsure about what you want to do with your life, remember that you’re not alone. Fortunately, you can gain some clarity about your career path by reflecting on your experiences and asking yourself some hard questions.
What should you do with your life?
It’s important to understand that what you want to do with your life is likely to evolve. It may help to think more about what you want to do with your life now, or in the foreseeable future. Don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself by framing your future career as a lifetime commitment. Goals, interests, and opportunities change. By exploring your present interests and skills, you may be able to chart a path that will lead you to a career you find interesting and fulfilling.
If you’re struggling to figure out what you should do with your life, give some thought to the following questions.
- What are my priorities right now? (E.g., reduce credit card debt, enter a new industry, see family more often, etc.)
- What do I need to do to make my immediate goals happen?
- What are my long term goals? (E.g., start a family, launch a business, move to a specific area, etc.)
- What do I need to do to make my long term goals happen?
- What do I most like about the jobs I’ve held before?
- What do I least like about the jobs I’ve held before?
- What do I feel like I have to contribute to the world?
You may want to sit down with a mentor or friend and talk through some of these, or you might try journaling about each question over the course of a week. Being able to answer each of these questions may help you develop a framework for taking steps towards entering a career that’s professionally meaningful and personally fulfilling.
How to discover your purpose and passion in life
There’s a lot of career advice out there suggesting that those who follow their passion will build successful professional lives, but recent research debunks that idea. Passion, it turns out, is only a small part of the professional satisfaction equation. Purpose is much more strongly correlated to career satisfaction. So what’s the difference?
- Tends to be framed as a specific activity (“Do what you love!”)
- Can be conflated with happiness--and work won’t always make you happy
- Fluctuates over time
- Aligns more deeply with an individual’s core beliefs and values
- Anticipates hard work and adversity
- Tends to remain more stable throughout a person’s lifetime
So, if you’ve been trying to follow your passion, it may help to reframe and consider your purpose instead. What beliefs and values are most important to you? What kind of work can you do that embodies those values? By thinking about a career in this way, you may find yourself considering fields you hadn’t before.
There are lots of ways to find your purpose, but some of the following tools may help:
When you know what you want
Once you’ve decided what’s most important to you, it’s time to make a plan! Here are some steps to consider as you chart your path to your goals:
- Sharing your goals with your friends and family to help keep you accountable
- Seeking out mentorship or conducting informational interviews with people whose careers interest you
- Identifying any skills gaps and filling them by taking courses or interning
- Getting relevant work experience through entry-level jobs, internships, or contracting
To ensure that you don’t get overwhelmed, be sure to set reasonable, time-constrained goals so that you can assess your progress regularly and make any necessary adjustments.
Remember that deciding what to do with your life doesn't mean locking yourself into one career until you retire. Focus on what aligns with your values and will be meaningful to you rather than a specific industry or job title, and you’ll be on your way to a career path that’s satisfying.
Anissa Sorokin, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of English and Writing Program Administrator at Stevenson University near Baltimore, Maryland. Anissa’s interdisciplinary background and extensive experience teaching research, writing, and study skills help her demystify college expectations for students online and in her classroom.
Think you might want to earn a degree, but don’t know what to major in? Read Don’t know what to major in? 5 steps to help you make the right choice for you and create a road map to reaching your goals.