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What should I do with my life? (8 steps to clarity)

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Some people know from childhood precisely what they want to do with their lives. They never ask “what should I do with my life?” Instead, they say “I’m going to be a teacher (or a pilot, doctor, lawyer…)”. 

A survey, however, found that only 10% of people were working in their dream job. A further 14% had worked in their dream job at some stage and then moved on. Among those who had achieved their dreams, only 64% said the gig lived up to their expectations.

So what does that tell us?

Dream jobs aren’t always what we believe them to be. That’s mostly because we only see the public picture and have no idea what goes along with the job behind the scenes. Like the lawyers and doctors we see in TV series. All the glamour! 

Winning court cases; outsmarting cunning baddies. Diagnosing rare diseases; saving lives when all hope is lost. But we don’t get to see the reality!  All the hours of dedicated study, poring over legal case history and medical journals, long hours and often, perseverance to the point of exhaustion to get through. Not to mention the emotional toll of losing a case or a life despite giving it their all.

Maybe you’ve never had a clue what you want to do, or your childhood dream also didn’t materialize like most others. The good news is that you’re not alone; the bad news is that you still have to figure out that “I don’t know what to do with my life” dilemma.

And that’s no easy task. If it were, you wouldn’t be asking yourself over and over “what to do with my life?” to the point of insanity (especially if you got family lighting a fire under your chair).

We don’t have a magic genie to light your way, but we do have some practical steps that will help.

Table of contents
Self-knowledge is the key to success in life
8 steps to identifying your dream career
What should I do with my life quiz

Self-knowledge is the key to success in life

Or in the words of Carl Jung “who looks outside dreams; who looks inside awakes”.

Getting to know ourselves might seem odd because most of us assume that we know our personal motivations and attitudes. The reality is that most people don’t. We build our external personality and internal reality on what influences us, including our upbringing, family, culture, social circle and the media. We think we want to do things, or like something because that’s what dominates our world.

Understanding intrapersonal intelligence is critical to leading a balanced and successful life. When you know what you like, want, and who you are, it’s easier to figure out how you’d like to live your life, irrespective of external stuff. You don’t have to ask “what should I do with my life?” because you instinctively know.

3 crucial questions to ask yourself before you do anything

There are many other steps involved in finding the right career path, but these three questions are vital before you make any decision.

1 - Is this what I really want to do?

Instead of asking what should I do with my life (which inherently implies that you are seeking external guidance rather than looking inward,) ask yourself what you really want to do. Not because it’s what your family wants, the direction your friends are following, it looks good on TV, or it’s a way to make big money.

2 - What do I have to do to achieve and succeed in this career?

Do thorough research: how much educational study is involved, is there an internship period, what goes on behind the scenes and what are the hours? Speak to people in the profession and dig out all the dirt, not just the attraction. Find those who left and ask why they changed careers.

3 - Am I willing to pay the price?

Be honest! Are you willing to do whatever the job requires? Put in the hours, the study, do the mundane bits with equal enthusiasm, spend time away from home, get your hands grubby, etc. If you have any reservations, see what doesn’t match with your inner-self.

8 steps to identifying your dream career

No one else but you can decide what line of work you want to follow. Careers tests will tell you nothing, and a careers counsellor or mentor can guide you, but they can’t decide for you – that’s your job.

Remember when you say “I don’t know what to do with my life” you’re talking work. Since we spend about 2,080 hours at work annually, you want to be happy. So apart from being honest with yourself by answering the 3 crucial questions above, here are some more steps to get you heading in the right direction.

1 - Identify your passions

To enjoy your job, you have to believe in it. That doesn’t mean that you’ll hold a deciding role, but you must be comfortable. For example, if you’re vegan, think carefully about the fashion and culinary industries. Particularly in your training, it would be difficult to avoid animal products.

What are your natural inclinations? Ask yourself “what am I good at?” Do you spend time analyzing things to come to a result, like puzzle games? Or do you prefer helping others; do you volunteer at a non-profit? Are you always in the kitchen cooking and baking for friends and family? Or do you love drawing and design? What makes you, you; what makes you unique?

There are many passions, and we all have some. These are clear indicators of what we’re inclined to do. When we enjoy what we do, we tend to be better at it and can progress in that field. 

2 - Wipe the slate clean of every career you know

We’re influenced by careers suggested by our family and friends, jobs that they do and work highlighted in the media. (Have you ever noticed that if you read a magazine article that uses a hypothetical scenario the person represented is usually an editor, copywriter or media analyst? It’s written by a writer who innately pulls to what they’re familiar with. That’s what we do.)

Because you like figuring things out isn’t a sign you’ll enjoy being an accountant. The fact that you love helping doesn’t imply you’re a nurse in the making. All those meals and cakes you’ve done aren’t a precursor for being a chef. And your love for drawing and design won’t necessarily make you a great artist.

So boot out all of those ideas and get creative with your passions. Look into careers that embrace your emotions, but are less well known. A meteorologist, hypnotherapist, food scientist or technologist, or a town planner, for example. No one starts at the top, but once you’re in an industry that enthralls you, you get to work your way up.

3 - Consider your life stages

We all age and develop, but when we’re younger, it can seem remote and unimportant. Think carefully if what you want to do today will still have the same appeal in 10 and 20 years. One of the most common career choices I often saw young school leavers want to follow is sports management. I asked them this same question. Will you still be as strong and fit as you are now in 10 to 20 years? And will you forever be willing to wake up in the dark morning hours to coach and manage a bunch of youngsters or people at a gym? 

For most people, even those who excelled in sport as a student, fitness becomes a hobby after a few years. Other things become more important, and priorities shift.

If you’re already working, look at your manager and those more senior and ask yourself if that’s where you’d like to be in 10 or 20 years. Also, think of how careers evolve. 

If culinary is your thing, you’ll start as a commis chef doing loads of routine work, but you could end up owning your own restaurant in 10 or 20 years. Some jobs evolve and open new doors; others don’t. Consider that!

4 - What does money mean to you?

Money definitely makes life easier, but it has a different psychological value for people. Some people want to make lots of money and define their success by their bank balance, possessions and lifestyle. Others want enough but would opt for a lower-paid job that embraces their passions rather than one that pays very well.

Neither attitude is wrong, but honestly, what’s yours?

If earning a high salary matters, you’ll be willing to make personal sacrifices to get it. If you’re in a job that doesn’t pay well and offers little scope to increase your earnings, you’ll be resentful. This is evident when people change industries. 

Say someone has qualified as a pharmacist: serving their local community can be personally rewarding, but the pay is average. Joining a commercial pharmaceutical manufacturer is a different story. The job is more corporate and disconnected from the end-user, but the salary is high.

5 - How ambitious are you?

Are you very competitive and aim to always come out on top? Or are you very passionate to make a difference? Both of these are ambitions, and people who want to achieve are always willing to make the necessary sacrifices.

People who see themselves as the CEO of a multibillion-dollar organization are prepared to put in the hours, travel, put themselves in the public eye and learn how to mitigate risk and brand damage. Those who want to make an impact will spend endless hours in a lab to find a cure or for diseases. Conservationists will spend months and even years living in remote places, often on their own, to study and save rare species.

These people are willing to sacrifice and even forgo family life to achieve their ambitions, which they may regard as a mission. Few have regrets in later life because they found enough fulfillment in their successes to have lived, what was for them, a successful life.

6 - How comfortable are you in your comfort zone?

We’re always told to get out of our comfort zone, but some people have found a very successful one. If you’re unhappy and believe you’re not getting what you deserve in life – then get out of your comfort zone and make changes. If you don’t, you’ll be stuck in misery forever.

If, however, your comfort zone works for you, then find a career that aligns with it. This also supports life stages. Maybe having a family is very important to you, and you want to participate in your children’s formative years actively. If that’s a priority and you miss out, you could feel disappointed and guilty all your life. Develop skills that can earn you a living in a corporate, as a freelancer and then potentially as a business owner. Careers in marketing and design are a perfect example, but there are plenty of others too.

If you’re struggling with this one, consider the Estèe Lauder cosmetic brand, a multibillion-dollar multinational. It was started by Josephine Esther Lauder in her kitchen and then in a stable turned laboratory. If she’d have left her comfort zone and not thought of creative ways to make money, we’d probably never have heard of her.

7 - Accept that somewhere along the line you’ll fail

There’s no such thing as failure in business if you see it as a learning curve. Don’t shy away from a potential career because you think it will be challenging, and you might fail. No matter how great you are, you’ll end up making a wrong decision, forgetting to do something or struggling to come to grips with a concept along the line. 

That’s where honesty and transparency come into career success - owning up, repairing damage and asking for help or mentorship so that it doesn’t happen again.

Embracing challenges and succeeding, in the end, is not only rewarding, but it propels your career prospects in the right direction. This might seem contrary to the comfort zone bit, but it’s not. You can take on challenges that might fail while in your comfort zone. It all depends on how you approach success and perceived failure, as well as how much effort you’re willing to invest.

8 - Bring it all together

Considering all the previous steps, create a list of potential career options with an individual map for each one. Map out how you see yourself developing personally, professionally and what alternate options each career brings. Use your imagination; see each prospect as an adventure and figure out where it will take you. 

 Draw up a shortlist of two or three careers and research them from your new perspective. Approach people in those jobs and ask them what motivates them and what they see as drawbacks. Most people like speaking about themselves and are willing to help. So if you approach professionals on social media sites like LinkedIn in the right way, they’ll mostly share their experiences with you.

If you’re inclined to entrepreneurship, look at careers that will give you a firm foundation to strike out on your own with confidence.

Finally, look for job shadowing opportunities or volunteer your services, even if it’s over weekends or during your leave, to get some hands-on experience.

What should I do with my life quiz

People can ask “what should I do with my life” at any age or stage of their career. Maybe you enjoyed what you were doing, and now you find it boring. Or you’re possibly looking to choose a line of study to start out in a career. There’s nothing wrong with not knowing what to do with my life!

We change, the work environment evolves, and different opportunities present themselves. The most important thing is not to panic if you’re uncertain and also not to surrender to a life of monotony in a job you hate. Some careers allow you to follow your motivations if you dare to follow through.

Critical to making the right decisions and choices is self-knowledge, but how do you know if you don’t know yourself? F4S can give you a whole new perspective of yourself when you take an online assessment. Learn what your motivations are and match them to your shortlist of prospective careers. Don’t worry if you find that some of your motivations are out of kilter for your choices. F4S offers online coaching to help you improve in areas you need to so that you can land your perfect job when you’re ready.

Take our 'what should I do with my life?' quiz now.

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