What Should I Do With My Life? 5 Questions To Help You Figure It Out
The loaded question, “What should I do with my life?” is one that fills many people with uncertainty and existential dread.
Of course, some people can easily answer the question without even blinking.
If you’re not one of them, however, it’s easy to feel envious of those who seem to have their lives all figured out.
Many situations can lead us to worry about what we should be doing with our lives.
Perhaps, like me, life just hasn’t gone according to plan and the things you want to do aren’t lining up with the things that you are doing.
Plenty of people feel lost when considering their life’s direction and if you’re one of them, you certainly aren’t alone.
In this article, I’ll cover:
- What It Means To “Do Something” With Your Life
- 5 Questions To Figure Out Your Life’s Purpose
What It Means To “Do Something” With Your Life
While many of us define ourselves by what we “do”, there is not one singular definition for what it means to “do something” with your life.
Technically, by virtue of existing, are we not all doing something?
That depends on who you ask.
In America, many people define themselves by their work.
“What do you do?” is one of the first questions a stranger is likely to ask, and generally, you’re expected to respond with information about your career.
But a career isn’t the only measure of a person — nor is it the only meaningful way to define yourself.
Most people choose to define themselves based on one of three things: Their heart, brain, or wallet.
What that means is they choose to describe what they do based on what they love (heart), what feeds their knowledge and inspires thought (brain), or what drives their income (wallet).
Though there’s nothing wrong with defining yourself by your work, focusing too much on your career can have negative consequences.
Whereas people in Europe often strike a better work-life balance, many people in the United States find themselves prone to overworking.
Ironically, we often do this to ourselves in hopes of finding success and happiness but overworking frequently causes us to feel less happy and more drained.
Additionally, if “doing something” with your life only relates to a career, a large group of people is being left out.
Additionally, many people do plenty of work but aren’t paid for it.
These include volunteers, stay-at-home parents, and caregivers.
Unfortunately — and unfairly — their work is frequently dismissed as “unimportant” because money isn’t being exchanged for services or labor.
A Better Way Of Defining What You “Do”
So if you don’t consider your paying job to be the thing you’re “doing” with your life, how do you define what you’re doing with your life — especially if you’re feeling lost?
Adam Leipzig, a movie producer and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, shared his definition of “doing something” with your life in his TED Talk “How To Know Your Life Purpose In 5 Minutes.”
In his presentation, Adam talks about figuring out your life purpose by focusing on “how people change or transform as a result of what you give them.”
Adam’s definition isn’t necessarily career-based, which creates more room for people who are not currently working or who cannot work at all.
Still, neatly summing up your life purpose isn’t always this easy.
Beth, a woman in her mid-forties who has spent much of her life as a stay-at-home mom, has been considering what she would like to do with her time as her children are growing up.
Though she hasn’t quite decided yet, she is optimistic and has a broad definition of what it means to “do something” with one’s life.
Beth tells me, “I think that anyone who is not living purely for themselves is doing something with their life. This often involves a job, but I don’t think
it’s essential, despite what society seems to think.”
Shane, a young woman from the Philippines, shares a very similar definition of what it means to “do something” with your life.
She tells me that it “relates to doing something greater than oneself. This means doing something good that will benefit others in need.”
You don’t have to work a traditional job to meet their standard of “doing something” with your life.
Even if you work a job that you hate, by Beth and Shane’s definition, you can still “do something” with your life just by being kind to others.
Personally, my view of what it means to “do something” with your life aligns with Beth and Shane’s.
I think it means pursuing a passion that you love and that also impacts the world positively in some way.
Of course, everyone’s definition of “doing something” with their lives isn’t the same, and that’s not a bad thing.
Asking yourself how you define it is a valuable exercise — but it may leave you with more questions than answers.
Additionally, it can be hard not to compare yourself to others who seem to be doing “more” than you — or who seem to have figured out their life’s direction when you still haven’t.
Is It Ever Okay To NOT Know What To Do With Your Life?
Finding and pursuing your purpose in life isn’t always easy and sometimes, it’s perfectly okay to be unsure of your life’s direction.
Though people of all ages can experience uncertainty when it comes to knowing what to do with their life, it is especially common for younger people to lack direction.
Josephine Fan, a 30-something businesswoman and mom, finds fulfillment in various aspects of her life.
However, she experienced a great degree of uncertainty as a young woman.
“When I was in college, my biggest fear was not knowing what to do with my life because what I had thought of all throughout my childhood ended up not panning out,” she explained.
“I had been convinced I would go into the medical field as either a doctor or a veterinarian…but it didn’t occur to me that my squeamishness and absolute phobia of blood and gore would put a stop to that.”
In her late teens and early 20s, Josephine panicked about her future and ended up obtaining a dual degree in psychology and business instead.
“I thought I was disappointing my parents since they had provided me every opportunity and support in chasing my dreams,” she said. “It was a very scary time for me.”
Almost everyone will have to ask themselves what they want to do with their lives, or experience the loneliness these thoughts bring at one point or another — whether it happens in high school, college, in midlife — or beyond.
While it’s normal to feel concerned if you don’t feel fulfilled, that concern can cross over into an unhealthy fixation if you’re not careful.
It can also result in feelings of developmental loneliness if your peers seem like they’re eons ahead of where you feel you should be.
In addition to having an emotional impact, not knowing what to do with your life or not feeling fulfilled with the way your life is now can also have a major impact on your mental well-being.
Dr. Christie Hartman, a psychologist and author on our medical review board, says that anxious thoughts can sometimes lead people to spiral.
“Anxiety, both mild and severe, can lead to imagining the worst-case scenario, and to catastrophizing,” she explained. “The instinct to do that can feel automatic, but you have some control over it.”
“I think the problem is looking into the unknown and seeing what feels like a giant void,” Dr. Hartman observed.
“The unknown is anxiety-provoking for anyone, which is why people fear death,” she explained. “And searching for your purpose in life is a big question that matters, but it is also an unknown.”
When figuring out what you want to do with your life, there’s a very thin line between concern and obsession.
If you find yourself consumed by anxious thoughts about your future or you’re feeling lost in life, then allow yourself the time to take a step back.
You don’t have to sacrifice your sanity to figure out what to do with your life.
Sometimes, focusing on small things that make you happy is more than enough.
5 Questions To Help You Figure Out What To Do With Your Life
If you’re struggling to figure out what to do with your life, ask yourself these five questions to find an answer:
- Would your younger self like who you are?
- What gives you nightmares?
- What are you willing to risk?
- What do you set your alarm for on the weekend?
- What do you want your obituary to say?
Some of these questions are a little scary to think about — but there are important reasons why each should be deeply explored if you’re trying to figure out your life’s purpose.
1. Would Your Younger Self Like Who You Are Now?
If you were to meet your younger self, he or she may think that some elements of your life are complicated or boring, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
After all, you’re (hopefully) more responsible as an adult than you were as a child.
However, if your younger self would be disappointed that you abandoned your dreams or avoid you because you’re uptight, overly stressed, or generally not fun to be around, it’s probably a sign that you’re not happy with where your life is now or where it’s headed.
Ask yourself, and answer honestly: What can you do now that would make your younger self proud and happy to spend time with your current self?
Starting out as a young graphic artist, Sara Abate Rezvanifar loved working with clients.
After years of frustration as a graphic designer, she looked at her past and realized that what she really loved was helping others to establish brand identities.
“My advice to others who aren’t sure what to do with their life is to remember what they loved to create as a child,” she explained. “This is often a clue to your passions and what you will excel in.”
Making an effort to be someone your younger self would look up to and be proud of is a good way to figure out what’s important in your life.
2. What Are Your Nightmares About?
Everyone gets weird dreams sometimes and often, our dreams are completely random.
That said, studies have indicated that stress in our waking lives can result in nightmares, and in some cases, our nightmares may have recurring themes.
Likewise, there’s a well-known correlation between stress and poor sleep quality.
Though many nightmares can evoke feelings of fear, that is not the only emotion people feel after nightmares.
Feelings of anxiety and despair are also common, and it’s worth reflecting on your nightmares to see if you notice any recurring themes.
For instance, if your nightmares revolve around high school, consider how you felt during that time.
Were you happy or miserable? Was high school a time of popularity or were you anxious, ashamed, or humiliated?
In your current life right now, where do you experience those same feelings regularly?
As another example, if your nightmares involve car crashes, what aspects of your life feel like they’re out of control?
Sometimes our minds try to resolve our struggles through metaphoric symbolism that can become apparent when we look at the recurring themes emerging in our dreams.
While examining your dreams, ask yourself if the way you’re spending your time day-to-day relates to themes in your nightmares and how those dreams make you feel.
If so, why do you think you feel this way and what can you do to change these feelings?
Considering how your nightmares make you feel and taking a close look at any recurring themes can help you to better understand what you don’t want in your life.
This is an important step in figuring out what you actually want to do with your life.
3. What Are You Willing To Risk?
There is no such thing as a perfect life and no matter what you do with it, you will face obstacles along the way.
Of course, every person will have a different amount of tolerance for challenges.
A crucial step in finding out what you should do with your life is learning what you can tolerate — and what you’re willing to risk.
If you want to feel completely fulfilled in your life, it may require a substantial change.
How big of a risk are you willing to take?
What are you willing to experience discomfort for — or gain from doing so?
Ciara Hautau, a digital marketing strategist I spoke with, wanted to be a psychiatrist after graduating from high school.
However, after realizing that the career wasn’t quite right for her, she allowed herself to change paths and never looked back.
It was a huge risk — but one worth taking in the end.
“Don’t be afraid to try,” she explained. “We’re living in an age where you can really explore and it’s a beautiful thing! If you need to take some time off to do some self-reflection, do it!”
“If you have an inkling you could be good at something but are intimidated or think it’s too late — don’t let it deter you,” she advised.
“Everyone’s journey is different and you have to do what’s right for you.”
Taking risks and trying something new is scary for anyone and people who are doing something that makes them happy will still experience hard days now and again.
Still, failure is always better than wondering “What if?” for the rest of your life, isn’t it?
4. What Do You Set Your Alarm For On Weekends?
On the weekends, you’re probably more than happy to sleep in and avoid a screaming alarm.
Sometimes, however, your sleep is worth sacrificing for your greater good.
On a day off from work, what would you wake up early — on purpose — to do?
Maybe you’d set your alarm to attend your kid’s soccer game, paint the sunrise, or squeeze in an early workout.
What you choose to do in your free time is often a strong indication of what is important to you.
Of course, I’m not necessarily suggesting that you literally have to wake up early on the weekend just to discover what you love.
If you’re like me and hate the sound of your alarm clock, you can still clearly define the things you enjoy and go from there — even if you sleep until noon.
For me, those things include storytelling, advocacy, and helping other people.
Even though these ideas sound vague, they served as a map that helped to lead me toward where I wanted to go in life.
It’s important to note, however, that there’s a difference between hating your alarm clock and not finding the motivation to do anything.
If you find yourself feeling a loss of interest in activities you used to love or if you feel a sense of apathy and a lack of motivation towards everything, these may be indicators of depression.
Something else you should consider is that the things you love may not necessarily be monetized easily.
Unfortunately, you won’t get paid a salary to be a stay-at-home parent or to work out — but that doesn’t mean that they’re not valuable and fulfilling aspects of your life.
For this reason, the way you earn money and what you love can be two separate things.
It’s also important to understand that what you love and what you’re good at can also be two separate things.
So, if you’re trying to find out what your purpose is in life, ask yourself what you truly love — not what makes you money or looks good on a resume.
From there, you can begin to explore what you want to do with your life.
And who knows — what you love to do may just coincide with a great way to earn money after all.
For example, if you’re a stay-home-parent or you love to work out, you might find success in operating a daycare or working as a personal trainer.
It may take some thought and planning, but where there’s a will, there’s probably a way.
5. What Do You Want Your Obituary To Say?
Regardless of whether you worry about how people view you in daily life, you likely want people to be left with a good impression of you after you’re gone.
Talking about death makes many people anxious.
We like to think of ourselves as immortal — as if death is something that happens to someone else, not us.
Acknowledging that we won’t live forever is important and it’s important to ask ourselves questions about what we want to leave behind.
When family, friends, and acquaintances read your obituary, what do you want them to remember about you?
If a stranger happens upon your obituary, what do you want that person to learn about you?
You can’t expect to be able to map out your entire life this way — it’s just not possible.
Still, you do have some control over how you will be remembered.
In their book Living Forward: A Proven Plan to Stop Drifting and Get the Life You Want, authors Michael Hyatt and Daniel Harkavy offer detailed advice about the ways you can work backward by finding things in your life that impact the world in a meaningful way.
The book even invites you to write your own eulogy as a way of working toward building what will eventually be your legacy.
In the Life Plan Template, you are asked the following questions, among others:
- How do I want to be remembered?
- What matters most?
- How can I get from here to where I want to be?
The idea of building a legacy isn’t something new.
In the award-winning musical “Hamilton” — a favorite of mine — the protagonist, Alexander Hamilton, is obsessed with the idea of creating a long-lasting legacy.
Though the musical takes some liberties with his life, it accurately reflects how desperate Hamilton was to make a mark on the world.
In the song “My Shot,” Hamilton says:
“God help and forgive me, I wanna build something that’s gonna outlive me.”
Don’t think of your legacy as something you have no part in because, ultimately, you control a large part of it.
Knowing how you want to impact others and how you’d like to be remembered can help you figure out what it is you want to do with your life.
If you know what you want your legacy to be, you can work backward by finding things in your life that make you happy and impact the world in a meaningful way.
There isn’t one guaranteed method to figure out what you should do with your life.
Your purpose is what you want it to be, and it can change over time, too.
For many people, focusing on what they love to do leads them toward a sense of purpose, and you can find that kind of fulfillment at any stage in life.
What it means to do something with your life and what you actually end up doing with it is ultimately up to you.
That’s the terrifying and exciting part.