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Finding purpose and choosing a life direction
May 22, 2014 4:09 PM   Subscribe

I'm currently in a position where I can choose the direction I want my life to go in. What have you done to figure out what to do with your life?

I'm currently in a position where I'm able to choose the direction that I want my life to go in. There are a lot of things I'm interested in: psychology, political science, technology (my first 'career' of sorts), and many others.

I'm currently in college, studying psychology, and my goal right now is to apply an understanding of behavioral science along with knowledge of technology and strategy to solve complex problems. I feel good about that, partly because I feel like behavior is so fundamental, but I want to make sure that I'm not losing out on other options—such as tech (and specifically VR), which has made a case for potentially being hugely important in the future.

Although it's idealistic, my goal is nothing less than to make the most impact that I can to improve people's lives. What I need help with is narrowing that down and figuring out what the best way to attack that is. I'm not sure whether the end goal making people live more fulfilling lives, or to push science/humanity forward, or yadda yadda, and I don't know if I know enough to make the decision of what can make the biggest impact.

What I'm trying to avoid is thinking that this current path is "good enough" and go with it, instead of taking the highly opportune time right now to change course if necessary and set the right trajectory going forward, because I can see how confirmation bias can make me accept the status quo and optimize for a local maxima while never achieving the global one.

Finally, I'm well aware that there's a limit to how much I can sit down and think about this kind of stuff, and there's a point where I just have to do stuff to get more information. But I'd like to make sure the direction I'm heading in will let me do the right thing to get the right information.

I've tried a few "life purpose" exercises and such, which were surprisingly helpful, and travel has helped this immensely. So: what have you done to figure out your purpose/what do do with your life? Volunteer? Travel? Talk to people in the field? Thanks in advance for your thoughts.
posted by markbao to Human Relations (10 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
To add some context: I just turned 22, and left college three years ago to do a tech startup, and I'm now back in college in my second year. The whole idea here, in one sentence, is to make sure I'm setting the right direction early on for my life, which is (maybe) the most important decision I'll make.
posted by markbao at 4:19 PM on May 22


Get out of school - or at least classes- and least work a "real job" for a while in the field you are interested in. (Or a "hands on" internship or something, while finishing school.) School subjects, in my admittedly biased experience, have almost nothing to do with real world hands on stuff. You figure out if you like stuff by doing it, not by thinking about it.
posted by quincunx at 4:19 PM on May 22 [2 favorites]


When making such decisions, I would suggest incorporating as much silence/stillness into your life as you can, alone. Cut out as much noise/content as possible (i.e. tv, radio, news, podcasts, surfing, .......metafilter) and notices what surfaces/dissipates after a few weeks/months.
posted by mrmarley at 4:20 PM on May 22 [2 favorites]


I'd suggest starting with the foundation - ensuring that you can *afford* making impact on other people's life.

That doesn't mean taking a highly paid career, but it does mean having a plan for what you're going to live on. I've seen a few too many friends who "followed their dream", and ended up destitute. And their dream got smashed between two low-paying low-skills jobs.

Here are the questions I ask myself on a fairly regular basis, to adjust course:

* What am I good at?
* What are people willing to pay for?
* Where can I go from here within the next 1, 2, 5 years that brings me closer to making an impact?
* Which of these paths are challenging, increase my impact, and at least maintain my current level of security.

Yes, theoretically this can get you stuck in a local maximum. I'm doing this for a few decades now, and there's been no shortage on things I can do to both challenge myself and increase my impact.

In terms of external influences: Travel, talk to people who're different from you and your friends, read voraciously.
posted by groby at 4:21 PM on May 22 [1 favorite]


Start doing things you enjoy, and eventually it will be clear to you what you enjoy working on the most.

I think it's like looking at a table of food, and figuring out which is your favorite. You have to take bites of each. No amount of logically analyzing the ingredients will yield the answer. Asking others can be helpful, because they might tell you "this dish tastes like haggis" and you might already know that you dislike haggis. But the only true way is to try things, and let each activity propel you to the next one, until one day it's clear what your life purpose is.
posted by cheesecake at 4:43 PM on May 22 [1 favorite]


" my goal is nothing less than to make the most impact that I can to improve people's lives."
Here's the deal--you don't actually know which action of yours is going to affect another person's life, much less improve it. You can't predict how your actions will be received. You can only do what you do, and act with integrity and truth of purpose--whatever your hand finds to do, do with with all your might (Ecclesiastes 9:10 for those of you playing at home.)
So, you figure out what you're good at doing (maybe it's writing or coding or chemistry) and then, you figure out what interests you, and how these two areas (skill + interest) combine and sort of go from there. Or you fall into something that you didn't know you were good at (sense memory recall, for example) and you investigate how that meshes with everything else.
Or you take a class in something completely unrelated and you fall in love (making jam, for example) and now you want to make perfume that smells like jam, so you find a job at a perfume company that needs a chemist, or you go to Vietnam to import wild fruit or you do both.
Personally, because I'm a career freelancer, I think people who start profitable companies and run them honestly, fairly and well have the greatest impact for good on the lives of others. YMMV.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:34 PM on May 22


Thanks all. Some comments:
Get out of school - or at least classes- and least work a "real job" for a while in the field you are interested in. — quincunx
Good idea. I worked in tech for a good amount of time, but I haven't been able to find many things at the intersection of what I want to work in since it's pretty new (applied behavioral science + strategy). I will definitely do some searching on this—thanks for this.
I'd suggest starting with the foundation - ensuring that you can *afford* making impact on other people's life. — groby
This is something that I've been admittedly shying away from since I didn't want to limit my options to only those things that directly make money. But you're right, it is definitely a practical consideration, since I can certainly see how not having a plan and just pursuing whatever I find blindly can lead to me not being able to do what I want in the long-term. I'm hoping there's a suitable balance there—I love the set of questions that you list. Thanks!
I think it's like looking at a table of food, and figuring out which is your favorite. You have to take bites of each. No amount of logically analyzing the ingredients will yield the answer. — cheesecake
Here's the deal--you don't actually know which action of yours is going to affect another person's life, much less improve it. You can't predict how your actions will be received. You can only do what you do, and act with integrity and truth of purpose--whatever your hand finds to do, do with with all your might — Ideefixe
Very true. I'd like to think that I have some sense of what might work best or not, but trying out things based on what I find interesting is probably a more sure way. Thanks!
posted by markbao at 6:21 PM on May 22


I've been a longtime reader of Cal Newport, who writes the Study Hacks blog. I found his book So Good They Can't Ignore You super helpful more recently as I was making a career decision of my own- I think I actually found it by searching Google for how to be happy in your career (versus like, rich or successful.) I highly recommend it. Some of it is a little bit cheesy and repetitive but I think the concepts are solid and the interviews and stories are really interesting and make it a worthwhile read.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 9:51 PM on May 22 [3 favorites]


It sounds as though you came up with this goal to make the biggest impact in people's lives due to outside influence rather than your inner desire. When it is your inner desire, it is usually more specific, like "I want to write a screenplay that makes millions of viewers more aware of poverty" or "I want to create software that helps millions of small business owners".

It sounds as though you feel a tremendous amount of pressure to decipher this sentence of "maximal impact". As though you were told that you must achieve "maximal impact" or else terrible things will happen. So you are frantically figuring out "maximal impact, maximal impact, what does it mean??"

First figure out who is force-feeding you this line about maximal impact. Are you getting a lot of pressure from parents? Do your parents ask on every phone call whether you have figured out your path yet, and then you read a lot of blogs about how maximal impact is the way to go, and now you have merged them in your head as loud marching orders?

Usually people achieve enormous impact by goofing around, not by setting out to achieve impact before they even know what they like. Steve Jobs was a dropout tripping on acid and meditating at communes when he gradually stumbled into creating Apple. There was video footage of students asking him how to be successful and he said to try LSD and have lots of sex, because boring people don't tend to create innovative products.

So relax and silence that drill sergeant in your head, so that another voice can emerge. The voice of what you actually want, which is likely small and trivial at first. These little desires may one day grow into grand impact, but only if you don't toss it out because they seemed so unproductive at the start.
posted by cheesecake at 9:12 AM on May 23


I'm in a similar place in life, and to be honest I have NO IDEA what I want to do... I think what we can do right now is 1) do well in school/extra curricular so that if an opportunity pops up you will be qualified to take it 2) keep exploring and keep looking at opportunities. That's all you can do, really, try to up your qualifications, and keep looking until you find something that feels right. It's not like you pick one door and all the other ones close, skills are transferable. So my strategy is just to focus on being a more competent person now, and keep an open mind.
posted by dinosaurprincess at 3:01 PM on May 23


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