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“I don’t know what to do with my life!” 6 questions to get unstuck

man wearing pink shirt is saying i dont know what to do with my life

“I don’t know what to do with my life” is a thought I’ve had many times, usually at the cusp of some big transformation in my professional or personal life. 

There was the time my “dream job” became a daily nightmare, so I decided to quit and start my own business. And there was the time when I was staring at a breakup email my boyfriend had sent me while I was vacationing in Peru that led me to change my plans and stay for five amazing months.

Any time you’re aching for growth, or you’ve been blindsided by bad news, you’ll hit a point where you’re unsure of what to do next. It can be scary, exhausting and disheartening—but it doesn’t have to end there. If anything, it can be good news because you’re about to move onto something better (even if it doesn’t feel like it right now).

Below, we’ll go over some comforting statistics that show that you’re definitely not alone if you’re feeling stuck. Then, we’ll go over some action steps you can take to make real progress toward your goals and find more meaning and purpose in your life.

Table of contents
“I don’t know what to do with my life!” 6 facts that prove you’re not alone
Is it normal to not know what to do with your life?
What should I do if I don't know what to do with my life?
How do I find out what to do with my life? 6 questions to ask yourself
Don’t know what you want to do with your life? Parting words of advice

“I don’t know what to do with my life!” 6 facts that prove you’re not alone

  • Americans are the unhappiest they’ve been since 1972. [1] In 2020, only 14% of Americans said they were “very happy,” down 31% from 2018 and the lowest it’s been since researchers started tracking this metric in 1972.
  • Only 31% of U.S. workers feel engaged with their job. [2] In June 2020, employee engagement in the U.S. dropped seven percentage points over the previous month, from 38% to 31%.
  • Half of U.S. workers have made a dramatic career change. [3] Forty-nine percent of U.S. workers have made a dramatic shift from one industry to a completely different one. And for those who haven’t, 65% are either thinking about, or previously thought about, making the change.
  • 52% of Americans feel stuck career-wise. [4] In November 2020, about half of Americans surveyed said it was "either difficult for them to get a good job or their opportunities to advance at work are limited." So if you're feeling stuck in your job, you're definitely not alone.
  • Most people don’t know what they want, even when they think they do. [5] [6] This should give you some comfort: Those people who seem to have it all figured out? They might not. Lots of research has shown that when people think something will make them happy, they’re actually not on target.

    For example, Dan Gilbert conducted a study that showed that although most people think freedom will make them happier, it actually doesn't. In his study, they brought students into a photography course, and at the end of the course, each student had to choose between two photographs they'd taken. They could keep one picture, while the researchers would keep their other picture.

    For one group, researchers told the students that they could change their mind anytime and swap photo A for photo B if they chose to do so later on down the road. But the other group of students was told that their decision was final (they couldn’t change their mind).

    Now, which group do you think would be happier? Group A with the freedom, right? But what Gilbert found was counterintuitive: People who made the irrevocable decision (Group B) were much happier with their choice!

    This just goes to show that what we think will make us happier doesn’t always do so. 
  • The Dunning-Kruger Effect makes unskilled people overconfident. [7] [8] This cognitive bias is named after social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, who, in a 1999 research paper, described experiments where participants who performed in the bottom quartile grossly overestimated their performance, while surprisingly, those in the top quartile underestimated their performance.

    The Dunning-Kruger Effect, then, refers to people’s tendency to be overconfident about their skills in an area in which they lack competence. So those people who seem to have it all figured out? Maybe, in reality, they’re simply unskilled and unaware.

Is it normal to not know what to do with your life?

Yes! It’s easy to look at the people around you and think they’ve “got it all figured out.” But have you actually asked them? If they’re honest, you’ll find that most people don’t know what they’re doing all the time. They just keep doing what they’re doing because it’s comfortable, they’ve got bills to pay and making a drastic change is daunting.

And that’s okay. There’s no pressure to figure everything out, especially when so much of our lives these days is about surviving the economic and psychological strain that the pandemic has imposed on us.

What should I do if I don't know what to do with my life?

Check in on your health.

If you’re feeling down, stuck and unmotivated, it’s a good idea to check on your physical and mental health. Sometimes these feelings can be symptoms of a medical issue that needs tending to. 

In 2016, I hit a low point where I lacked energy or enthusiasm for anything. When my doctor ran blood tests, he discovered that I had iron-deficiency anemia and a vitamin D deficiency—which explained why I napped all day and didn’t want to do much else. At the time, my mental health needed attention as well, which is why I started talk therapy too, but it’s important to realize that your body affects your mind and vice versa.

Talk to your medical doctor to rule out any potential health issues.

Talk to a friend.

Sometimes, we just need to talk to a friend. While they can’t fix your problems or find the answers for you, they’ll help you feel less alone.

While it may feel safer to keep your doubts to yourself, I encourage you to share them with one person you trust. When someone is able to meet you where you’re at and “hold space” for you, as Brené Brown puts it, you’ll feel validated and relieved.

Get a coach.

A good coach doesn’t tell you what to do—they ask you insightful questions that help you come up with the answer. You know yourself best, after all. Your coach can customize questions to your unique situation, help hold you accountable and support you along your journey to finding your purpose.

Enlist the help of a therapist.

There are some things that a coach isn’t equipped to handle. A good coach will be able to tell you if or when that happens, and at that point, will direct you to a therapist. There are plenty of people who have both a coach and a therapist! Having this team in your corner will help you get to where you want to be.

How do I find out what to do with my life? 6 questions to ask yourself

If you find yourself wondering, “How do I find my purpose?” or “How do I find my passion?”, below are some questions that can help get you closer to your answer.

1. What was the first thing I ever wanted to be?

Now, don’t take this answer too seriously. Few of us want the same job that our 5-year-old selves wanted. For instance, the first thing I ever wanted to be was an astronaut—that doesn’t mean I want to be one now! 

The beauty of this question lies not in the specifics of it but in the general desires behind it. For example, I wanted to be an astronaut because I love the beauty of the night sky and the freedom of exploring new territories. While I have no desire to walk on the moon today, I feed those desires by visiting new countries, going stargazing and watching meteor showers.

As we grow up, many of us learn to stomp down those desires and tuck them away in the recesses of our hearts. I encourage you to remember what the childhood version of you wanted to be so you can remember what you used to find joy in.

2. When was the last time I created something I was truly proud of?

Typically, when we’re passionate about something, it inspires us to create something related to it. Someone who loves music might write songs on their piano, or someone who cares about animal rights might start a fundraising campaign for abused pets.

So think back to the last time you created something you were proud of. In it lies hints to what you find meaningful.

3. What’s something challenging that I could do for hours, without noticing the time passing?

Have you ever been so engrossed in a challenging task that you glanced at the clock and realized two hours went by without your noticing it? This is known as “flow,” a state of being “in the zone” or so engrossed in a demanding activity that time flies by. It can happen when you’re playing an advanced piece of music on the piano or when you’re putting together a complicated jigsaw puzzle.

This “flow” activity is linked to an increase in positive emotions. In a 2007 study by Thais Piassa Rogatko, college students were asked to list eight to ten major activities they participated in each week and then rate how much those activities made them feel “in the zone.” 

One group was then asked to partake in one of their top three “in the zone” activities for one hour within the next week, while the other group was asked to partake in one of their lowest three “in the zone” activities. By the end of the study, researchers found that the high flow group experienced a larger boost in positive emotions than the low flow group.

Try making your own list of high flow activities. These will clue you in to what energizes you and fills your life with meaning.

4. What do others say I’m good at?

I became a writer because in 3rd grade, Mrs. Burt read my short story and said, “Amy, you’re a good writer.”

I picked up guitar because in 5th-grade music class, we were all learning guitar, and my teacher said, “Amy, do you play guitar?” When I said no, she replied, “Well, you should.”

Now, take this with a grain of salt. Just because other people think you should do something doesn’t mean you should. But you can use their opinions as guidance, especially when that person is someone you trust and admire.

5. What do I daydream about at work?

Instead of, “So, what do you do?”, my favorite question to ask a stranger is, “What do you daydream about at work?” Why? This usually clues me in to what they’re truly passionate about, which interests me far more than their day job.

So ask yourself, “What do I daydream about at work?” If you’re tapping away at the keyboard doing some mind-numbing task like data entry, but you can’t stop thinking about the campervan conversion you’re working on at home, then that’s a pretty strong hint that it’s something you’re passionate about.

6. If I had a magic wand that I could wave over my life tonight, what would be different when I woke up tomorrow morning?

This “magic wand” question is popular among therapists and coaches because it gets right to the crux of the matter: What, exactly, do you want to change? 

If you could fix everything overnight, how would you know things had changed when you woke up the next morning? What would be different/better? The answers will help you understand the changes you need to make to get there.

Don’t know what you want to do with your life? Parting words of advice

If you don’t know what to do with your life, give yourself permission to stop trying so hard to find your life’s purpose. That’s a lot of pressure for anyone. Be kind to yourself. Reconnect with things you simply enjoy doing. Cultivate relationships with people you delight in being around. Purpose usually follows.

And regarding passion, let go of your preconceived notions of it. Realize that, even when someone is deeply passionate about something, there will be times when they don’t like it. 

I’ll always remember when a friend who was an aspiring writer found out that I didn’t feel like completing an article that was due that day.

“But writing is your passion!” she said, her wide eyes telling me she was shocked by my admission. 

I think the problem here is that most of us have fallen for the lie of, “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Look, I love writing—but it still feels like work to me. And that’s okay!

If you’re feeling disillusioned or discouraged because you haven’t found your life’s purpose or true passion, my best advice is this: Please be kind to yourself. Most of us have been fed lies and illusions about what passion and purpose look like. Just because one has passion and purpose doesn’t mean they won’t also struggle and doubt themselves sometimes. It happens to us all.

Not knowing what you want to do with your life doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Let it be the springboard that catapults you to the next level. This is only the beginning for you.

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