If you don’t know what to do with your life, here are the 5 key steps you need to discover your direction.
What should I do with my life? What is my purpose? What do I want in life?
These were the questions that haunted me in my 20s.
Don’t get me wrong.
I wasn’t ‘not happy’ (whatever that means, right?).
I had great friends, a boyfriend, a beach-side apartment, a well-paid corporate job and everything, seemingly, a girl could wish for.
But underneath it all I felt hollow, empty, a bit lost, like everything I was doing had no point. I was living my life but wasn’t engaged in it.
These were uncomfortable feelings to have and sometimes I let them bubble to the surface, but more often than not, I pushed them aside.
I mean it’s a pretty scary thought right?
If you have everything and still aren’t happy, can you ever be?
Lucky for me, it was easy to distract myself. I had drinks with friends, gym, work, yoga class, shopping, holidays and other daily concerns to keep me busy.
There were long periods where I forgot I even had a problem 🙂
But everything always comes to a head eventually.
And mine came in the form of a full-blown existential meltdown at 27.
I’d just gotten back from a 7 month trip to South America, was freshly single, with no job, no place of my own and no strings attached.
My life could go in any direction.
That’s when I had to finally face the truth I’d been avoiding for so long: I had no purpose in life, no direction, nothing I wanted and no freakin’ clue what to do with my life. What was my reason to be here?
I wasn’t into anything, had no ‘passions’ that I was aware of, and no future or career path really excited me.
Safe to say, these were my ‘lost’ months and they were tough.
I went through depression, saw a therapist, bawled my eyes out but eventually…I figured out the answer.
I managed to go from an aimless existence thinking I had no apparent interests, to actually finding what I wanted to do with my life. Not only that, but being excited to get up everyday to see what the future brings.
And here, I’m going to share how I did it. Summarised into 5 key steps.
What should I do with my life?
Follow these 5 steps to discover what you should do with your life.
They don’t have to be done in order and you may have to go back and repeat a step more than once.
Self-discovery is an ongoing journey so be patient and buckle in for the ride.
1. Create space to connect back to yourself
The first step to discover what you should do with your life is to really get to know yourself.
Your true self, not the self that you have to be for others.
Or the self that’s just a reaction to external demands.
Who are you truly? What do you like? What do you dislike? What fills you up? Who do you revert to when there’s no one around to impress or please?
We often lose our connection to ourselves in modern life. Often we don’t even realise it. We get busy with doing, running, filing obligations and commitments and reacting rather than choosing.
For the longest time I thought I had no discernible interests or passions. But what I discovered when I finally slowed down was that I simply wasn’t giving them enough time or focus to emerge.
When external obligations were taken out of the equation, I found I naturally gravitated towards certain activities.
In the time that I was unemployed and soul-searching at home, I rediscovered my love for reading, exercise, meditation, yoga, writing, creative projects, and being in nature.
They were activities I had previously de-prioritised in favour of going for drinks, online shopping, dinner with friends, parties, and vegging out on the couch after an exhausting day of commitments.
Who are you when you are left to your own devices? When you don’t have to be anywhere, or anyone?
When you know the answer to this, you’ll be lightyears closer to answering the question of what you should do with your life. Most of the time we don’t know what to do with our lives because we lack self-awareness and aren’t connected with ourselves.
We either never invested the time to grow this crucial knowledge or learnt to push aside our inner voice in favour of external priorities.
When you ask ‘What should I do with your life?’, you’re really asking ‘Who am I? What do I want?’
Creating space to stop and just be with yourself is imperative for discovering the kinds of things that light you up. It allows you to remove yourself from all that external noise so you can really tune in to what you want and need in your life.
- Make some space in your life now by carving out a few hours each week that’s your time to get away from the noise and busyness of daily life. Use this time to tune into yourself. Give yourself permission to do whatever you like. Do things for pleasure rather than because you feel like you should. Go for a walk, just sit there, journal, cook, draw, make art, whatever you like.
- Don’t worry if you feel stumped at first. This happened to me – so much time and nothing to fill it with, amiright? I felt bored and anxious, thinking I was someone who always needed stimulation. I was just so used to constantly being busy and doing that I didn’t know any other way to be. As I stuck with it, my interests slowly started to emerge. If you have time, you’ll find ways to fill it, and left to your own devices, you’ll start filling it with things you’re internally motivated to do rather than ones that come from an external source.
- Use what emerges in your ‘me-time’ to add to your self-knowledge. What do you naturally gravitate towards? Are there any trends? E.g. maybe all your favourite activities involve nature and the outdoors, or maybe you notice you’re most happy when you’re working with your hands. You don’t have to reach any breakthroughs, just make a mental note of all these little clues to add to your internal map. The more clues you find, the closer you get.
2. Slay any limiting beliefs
Truly not knowing what to do with your life is different to thinking you’re too old, too poor, too incapable or too whatever to do it.
I’m guilty of this.
When I finally realised what I wanted to do with my life, I also realised I actually knew all along what I wanted. I had just unconsciously taken the option out of the running because I didn’t think that life was possible for me.
I grew up in a traditional Chinese family where the acceptable life path was very much: study hard, go to a good university and get a stable white-collar job in a big company.
That was the path that was taught to me as ‘correct’ and as a result many other paths that were less stable or financially secure were automatically eliminated from contesting in my mind.
Don’t make the same mistake I did and let limiting beliefs about what is possible or not possible restrict what you allow yourself to imagine for your life.
These limiting beliefs often get instilled into you from an external source anyway – your parents, teachers or society told you what was or wasn’t possible for your life and you believed them.
If you’re not careful you may end up living someone else’s blueprint for your life.
There are very few things we can’t achieve if we want it badly enough and are willing to put in the work.
In fact, you’re more likely to achieve your real dream, however crazy it is, because the fire will be lit from under you. You’ll really want it. That will give you the strength to keep going. Trust me, I’ve felt it.
Be honest with yourself. Are you really stumped on what you should do with your life? Or are you just not keen on what’s left after eliminating your real dream from contention?
If it’s the latter, commit to finding a way. There’s always something you can do to take your life closer to where you want it. Don’t make your fears more important to you than your dreams.
The goal-setting exercise in the next section will also really help here – it will ask you to expand your mind, go big and dig into what you truly want from life if you could have it any way you wanted.
- Ask yourself: What dreams and life goals have you crossed off your list because they weren’t ‘realistic’?
- Examine them again. How did you get this belief? Is it really impossible? If other people can do it, why can’t you?
3. Get clear on your core values and life goals
Find your core values:
As mentioned, not knowing what you should do with your life is more often than not, a crisis of self-awareness.
You haven’t done the work to reflect on what is most important to you, your deepest values, who you want to be and how you want to exist in the world.
If you’re really serious about finding what to do with your life, then you need to put in the work; That means focused reflection time where you can connect with yourself and explore what makes you tick.
I think fundamental to discovering who you are is knowing your values.
Your values are the principles, qualities or standards that you find important. They’re the blueprint to how you want to behave and who you want to be.
Most people aren’t aware of their core values and as a result, sometimes live life in conflict with them.
For example you might really value honesty, but in your job as a sales manager you might feel like you need to regularly gloss over the truth in order to sell more products. This leads to feelings of dissatisfaction and disillusionment with your job, even though you might not be able to pinpoint exactly how.
When you are living in harmony with your core values, you experience a deep sense of peace and fulfillment.
Knowing your values then, helps you identify what you need in your life to be content and fulfilled.
This helps narrow down your direction to head.
For example if one of your highest values is adventure – being in a stable, predictable corporate job is probably never going to fulfill you, no matter how much you’re paid.
Maybe what you need is a remote job for a start-up so you can travel the world, which would likely fulfil your value of adventure, and hence your sense of fulfilment from your job.
I created step-by-step instructions to help you identify your core values here and I would recommend putting aside some time to find your core values.
Set your life goals:
The other deep dive exercise I recommend is setting some life goals.
What does your dream life look like? What sort of things do you want to achieve and do? E.g. live in Spain, hike the Appalachian trail, go on a health retreat in Thailand, learn how to salsa dance.
The goal setting exercise I use is from Tony Robbins and it’s a really fun one. It provides a structure to get your wildest dreams and wishes for life on paper.
You can find the step-by-step instructions on the goal setting exercise here.
I highly suggest you do both these exercises as they will help you dig deeper to what you really want out of life and what is most important to you. They truly helped me enormously to figure out my purpose and what I should do with my life.
- Do the core values exercise.
- Do the goal-setting exercise.
- Examine your answers. What kind of career or lifestyle helps you express your most important core values? What kind of life direction or lifestyle do your life goals point you towards?
4. Take action and try different things
If you’ve created space for yourself to slow down, ferreted out limiting beliefs, taken time to reflect on your goals and values and you still have no idea what you should do with your life?
Then my advice to you is to take action.
Contrary to popular belief, finding your life purpose and passions is more often like a trial and error process than something you’re born knowing.
You have to try something to know whether you like it or dislike it. Each new experience helps you narrow down your search because you’ll discover what gets you going and what doesn’t.
It could be that you don’t know what you should do with your life because you haven’t experienced it yet.
The options we can conceive for our lives are limited by our experiences.
If you haven’t tasted a mango before, you’re not going to know it’s your favourite fruit.
If you haven’t left Madrid your whole life, you won’t be able to imagine what life in London is like and if that’s something you’d prefer.
Expanding your experiences means expanding the array of possibilities you can select from for your life.
I got to know this first-hand when I decided to move to Chile for five months.
Before I left, I would never have imagined my life in Chile would make me as happy as it did.
In Chile, I lived a pretty simple life. I was working as a volunteer so had no income. I lived with a host family in a bunk bed, in a modest home, eating mainly legumes and vegetables.
I didn’t have near as high a standard of living as I had in Sydney – none of the disposable income, none of the comforts or options for entertainment. I struggled daily because I didn’t speak Spanish and simple tasks like trying to buy an empanada were initially gargantuan tasks for me.
On paper, you’d think my life in Sydney would win hands down.
I thought that too, but that wasn’t the case.
Stripping away all the fluff we’re taught to chase, I was left with relationships, community and my personal growth in overcoming daily challenges. These things fulfilled me more than any material comforts or security ever had.
My time in Chile opened my mind to a new way of living I’d never considered.
It helped me realise what was truly important to my happiness, and that the things I thought I needed to be happy, like a certain financial income, wasn’t necessarily so.
That’s how valuable expanding your experiences can be.
So if you really have no clue about what you want in life, you need to go out and do something completely different so you have more references to pull from.
Get out of the familiar and safe. Go towards whatever is interesting, something you’ve always wanted to try or do.
Take up those salsa classes, volunteer at the elephant shelter, enrol in that graphic design course, start your side business, prep for a stand-up comedy show, take the yoga teacher course or travel around the world!
And every time you try something new, note your reaction. What did you like or dislike about the activity? Was it helping people? Adrenaline? Being creative? What sticks or sparks further interest? Are there any common themes?
Keep looking for trends and clues and use the process of elimination to narrow it down to what sparks the most joy for you.
The more you take action and try new things, the more chance you’ll have to find that HELL YES life that you know you’re going to be excited living.
- Write down 10 things you’ve always wanted to try or were interested in, but were too afraid, or never got round to doing.
- Start doing them! Pick your favourite from the list and take one action now to commit yourself e.g. book a class, make a phone call to ask for more information.
5. Be patient
The last step is to be patient with yourself. These things take time.
Your job is to keep discovering and learning little things about yourself – what your interests are, what you like and dislike, what’s important to you, what your dreams look like.
Feed these clues to your brain and let it marinate on them in the background. And don’t be discouraged if you don’t get a lightning bolt answer straight away.
It took me a trip overseas and then 3 months of focused reflection work before I finally realised what I wanted to do with my life.
The answer just clicked and came in a flash after months of nothing, so the same may happen to you.
I was driving to a pole-dancing class (trying new things you know) and it just came to me as I was pulling over like ‘that’s it, that’s what I should do with my life!’
Be patient. Keep exploring and learning about yourself and you’ll have your moment too.
The bottom line
The answer to ‘What should I do with my life?’ is something you have to put work into figuring out.
We have unrealistic expectations of having passions from birth that we’re just meant to know.
In reality, we need to do the work to increase our self-awareness and learn to listen to our inner voice. From an early age, we’re taught to look externally for answers but finding your purpose is something you have to look within for.
Remember, the key is to create space in your life to remove external noise to connect back to yourself, slay any limiting beliefs about what your life can or can not be, put in the work to discover your core values and life goals and take action to expand your experiences. This will expand your frame of reference and the choices you have to select from.
Lastly, have patience. It’s not an easy question to answer. As long as you’re learning more about yourself every day you’re making progress.
You don’t have to see the full path to move forward. Go towards what you know. Play detective with yourself. Test and learn and collect the clues. Keep discovering little pieces of the puzzle and eventually the pieces will fall into place.
The rewards of a meaningful and purposeful life will be worth every struggle to find it. Don’t give up!