How do I figure out what the hell I want?/Let's start 2009 off right!
December 29, 2008 4:26 PM   Subscribe

I have no job and in this economy, I figure its worth investing in my dreams so that I’ll be all set when the economy bounces back. The problem is…I don’t know what I want!

After years of mulling over the “what should I do with my life?” question/having a quarter life crisis, I have decided that perhaps I should attack this problem indirectly. I just think the whole question is far too massive to really conceptualize and the ensuing inability to answer it and find a perfect solution is making me quite depressed, honestly.

I’m tired and frustrated with trying to find an answer and my remaining options are: consult a psychic, work on my spirituality or lack thereof, or try to sell off my possessions and travel around the world

So when attacking these questions head on doesn’t work (and by head on I mean doing career inventory exercises, finding out everything I can/doing various professions I’ve considered, taking personality tests (I’m an INFP), charting my astrology (Virgo sun, Pisces moon!)), how have you, Mefites, found answers?. Any anecdotes/time-tested techniques would be much appreciated!

I'm 25, in Boston, and about to finish a master's degree in a field I don't really think I'll pursue. Anonymous for various, irritating reasons
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I am in a similar boat: finishing an MA in a field I grew to dislike. I even tried a psychic, funny you mention it. (Mostly because I thought a friend was working the Salem show, too.) But this is what I did in the end:

I have a lot of books. I have them almost all in one room. I sat down and stared at them for almost an hour. I didn't touch any. I just sat there, on the floor, and stared at them.

In the end, the non-fiction I had bought for my own use - as opposed to for classes - shouted at me. It said 'why the hell aren't you in a professional medical field.'

It was a field I wasn't considering going into - in part because it is very similar to my mom's - but everyone I've mentioned it too has said they can very much see me doing that. In fact, apparently two of them had discussed me (eeesh) and come up with the same thing, without my input.

People always say 'well, what would it be if you could do anything you wanted, money no object.' Obviously, medicine is not a hobbyist field. They have laws against that. So trying that line of thought slowed me down. It was looking at the objects I've acquired that spoke to me.
posted by cobaltnine at 4:40 PM on December 29, 2008 [3 favorites]

It doesn't surprise me that you're in this situation given your personality profile. INFP. Unless I miss my guess, you find restaurant menus to be a debilitating wave of choices, let alone serious life decisions. In my experience, "what you want" is something that is at least as much decided as it is "figured out". I quickly grow frustrated with people who seem to be on hold, waiting for a bolt of lightning to strike, illuminating them with perfect knowledge of What They Want.

F*ck. That.

You can't have everything. No choice is perfect, and no choice will get you everything you want, when you want it. Doing x entails not doing y or z, but it does open the way to doing a and b, though not both. Etc. At some point you just have to make a damn choice and decide to be happy with it. Because if you don't choose x or y, you'll find that you've actually chosen q, which you didn't want, having waited so long that your best two choices have passed you by.

Sometimes you do wind up looking back and realizing, "Hey, if I had done things differently, I could have been better off." The only time you should regret that is if you failed to make a decision or you made a decision which was against your better judgment. Choosing what seems like a good idea at the time as all you can do, and if it doesn't work out, c'est la vie. You just gotta roll with it.

So my advice is to think about your priorities. Think about what sounds good in ten or twenty years. Then make choices now which look like they give good odds for getting there. But above all, remember that What You Do can never, ever bring you complete fulfillment.

Contentment is a virtue. Like any virtue, it takes practice and effort. It involves the conscious decision not to dwell on what might have been, to let go of regrets, and refusing to be so paralyzed by your options that you wind up losing all of them.

Make a choice.
posted by valkyryn at 4:49 PM on December 29, 2008 [21 favorites]

I don't know if this is something you've already done, but instead of considering common jobs and trying to pick the one you might be alright with, think about it from the other direction - think about what you like, and then ask yourself how you can make a job out of it.

For instance, if you really love music, there are a number of jobs that could tap into that - becoming a musician, becoming a music teacher, working in a music shop, becoming a scientist who studies music (they do exist! I know one), doing music therapy, doing commercial stuff like creating jingles, creating or working for something like, etc, etc. There are probably more music-related jobs that I can't think of because that's not where my passion/interest lies. But once I've made my list, I would go to friends and family and ask them what other music-related jobs they can think of. Ask the internet - ask AskMe. ;) Contact someone who does the kind of job you think might work for you and in addition to asking them about that job, ask about related ones.

I think in order for a job to be right for you, you need two things - first, the job needs to be broadly interesting to you. You need to like music/sports/teaching/whatever and feel like it is a fulfilling or purposeful way for you to spend your time. But secondly, and just as important, you need to enjoy the day-to-day responsibilities of the job. I think a lot of people get tripped up there - they spend all their time focusing on the first part and suddenly realize that they've only been considering a broad, idealized picture of their job. For instance, I had no idea how much computer programming would be involved in the scientific research I do. I'm lucky in that I've since discovered a sick love of debugging code.

Obviously in an economy like this, I don't advise that people refuse any job but one that fits them really well, but if you're asking how to find the best job for you...
posted by shaun uh at 4:49 PM on December 29, 2008

I wouldn't consult a psychic, for various reasons. If you are religious or raised in any religious tradition, I would recommend finding a spiritual guide in the religion that you practice/d.

You can try intentionally working menial and tedious jobs for a few months. Life will sometimes suck, but that is part of the process. Seriously - instead of trying to find the job, find a job that you don't really care one way or the other about. Everybody I know - myself included - only truly realized what we wanted to do for the rest of our lives after working in a dead-end job that didn't fully utilize our talents.

Also, keep a handwritten journal. Purge every day.

I think that the important thing to remember is that there is no quick, sudden realization of what is the right thing to do. There can be catharsis and an epiphany, but it is a process and not a precise moment in time.

For further reading / personality tests, try StrengthsFinder 2.0, it's a little more talent-oriented and practical than Meyers-Brigg.
posted by jabberjaw at 5:24 PM on December 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

i didn't have any idea what i wanted to do until i had worked for 10 months in the service industry. it just came to me one day that i never wanted to wait tables again and it became blindingly obvious what i wanted to do instead. though over the years i was completely indecisive, i realized my dream job is a combination of all of it. so, my suggestion? write about what you want your life to be like. perhaps take a crappy job for a few months? it worked for me but may not work for you.
posted by big open mouth at 5:31 PM on December 29, 2008

I recently resigned from a successful career in higher education to pursue what I really wanted to be when I grew up, even though my educational background is in the arts (including an MFA) and quitting and changing my life means pursuing advanced degrees in medical sciences. I arrived at this revelation through increasingly involved volunteer work where I met mentors who first directed my to professional certification trainings that expanded what skills I had to offer, and then coached me through going back to school when it was clear I had found my passion.

The thing was, when I was volunteering, all I could think was "I wish this was my job," and when I was working I couldn't wait until I was at the hospital, or with a mother and infant group, volunteering. When things started coming together, there was a day I realized I had more email from advocational parties than from vocational parties.

It was scary, but it has helped, so much, to have surrounded myself with inspiring people (that I met through volunteering and then internship clinical hours), encouraging me. Though not applicable to your situation, I was also inspired by the birth of my son and realizing that I wanted and needed to be happy for him.

So, my advice is to start some volunteer work--go for workplaces and areas that seem interesting and fun and don't put any restrictions on yourself. Though it seems counterintuitive when talking about volunteering--do it for yourself--you'll serve the workplace or the people better if you're having a good time. And it's ok to move on from a volunteer position if it's not a good fit or you dread doing your hours. If there is someplace you really want to work and there isn't anything available, keep trying and consider doing some kind of training or seminar to make yourself a more attractive prospect or in order to offer a new service to a workplace or organization. Do this even if it means spending some money for new skills training (plus you meet more people and get a better focus for what you want to do).
posted by rumposinc at 5:41 PM on December 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm 25, in Boston, and about to finish a master's degree...

You have the rest of your life to figure out what to do. You may think you're running out of time... but you are so just getting started. The most important thing is to enjoy life. I'm 15 years older than you and have survived quite well as a non-careerist professional. The things I really dig in life don't pay. Thank goodness I became obsessed with networks and systems early on as it's always something to get paycheck from. I work for 2-3 years then explore for a year. This cycle has been difficult at times and I must often to remind myself it's about the journey and not the destination. Anywho...

I recently took up the task to compose a personal manifesto. I know myself well enough at this point but I must develop on a smaller, focused set of principles. This will go through various revisions but the overall theme will remain the same. It helps remind me what I'm doing so I don't feel idle.

I also did a goal worksheet recently. There are various ways of doing this, 1/3/10 year with personal/health/career.
posted by ezekieldas at 6:14 PM on December 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

You sound very familiar. (I don't give much credit to it, but I am INFP, too, for what it's worth.)

Your search for "answers" is a search for meaning, purpose and harmony. What has been very difficult for me to admit is that meaning and harmony rarely arrive through epiphanies that knock you off your pony; and, disappointingly, those aren't always the best experiences to have, either.

This unsatisfied feeling you are getting indicates that the dreaming, wondering, pondering that you are doing is not enough. If that way of engaging the world was enough, you would be satisfied by it and have all the answers and direction you need. I bet in the past you were satisfied by this sort of thinking; that's why it's hard to move beyond it--it used to be enough. In your post, you seem to recognize this.

Meaning and harmony are built through very small decisions. Daily decisions add up. The hand-wringing rarely amounts to much. The search for only big answers really doesn't lead anywhere. It's important, but pretty useless without being tempered by action of some kind. There is great good in being motivated by a search for big answers, but the great good you get is usually not big answers, if you get what I mean. By no means stop looking and dreaming, but you need to start something new, which is what you are looking for. The fact that you say you need an indirect path is a great insight, something that I came to a little later in years than you did.

As far as I have found, there are two paths you can take. I call them the path of action and the path of inaction. Both lead where you want, and both are equally as hard.

The path of action involves you making daily or hourly effort on an almost microscopic level towards a variety of goals. These goals will likely be something you don't have confidence will answer your problems because you will instinctively be looking for the big answers. It doesn't matter what you choose. They can be personal improvements (being generous as often as possible) or skill improvements (work on math) or bigger things. The important part is that they are achievable on a very small level, or at least can be broken down as such, and they are not too cerebral. You just need to be persistent about making your efforts. Stubborn like an animal. You need to check if you are doing them frequently, at least once a day, and it's best if you write down what you did well and what you did poorly. Don't choose too may. You will lose all faith that it will amount to anything (and you will lose faith) but it is important to persevere. It helps to set a time limit, like "I am going to work towards these goals for six months, even if I decide they are stupid halfway through." If you do this, you will either be happy with where you are headed and think of new things you can do to build more, or you will be not quite satisfied with where you are going. But, the important thing is that you will have something specific to compare your dissatisfaction with, rather than the jumble of feelings you are dealing with now.

The other path is the path of inaction. This is where you simply commit yourself to giving up the pursuit for answers and meaning that you're on and just continue everything else you are doing in your life, exactly how you are doing, but without engaging the feelings you have that drive you to search out a better version. Give up the dreaming introspection that feels it can, through a bit more work, find what it's looking for. You've given this sort of thinking enough time to succeed and it hasn't yet. You have probably gained a lot from it, but not enough, because you still feel the way you do. The trick with this path is stubbornly not engage the type of fretting that you identified above. If you do this long enough, eventually, what will happen is the right decisions and directions will begin to coalesce. The daily decision to not engage builds after a while and you can begin to engage a new aspect of yourself that was clogged by the fretting and nervous searching. It's best to give yourself a fixed amount of time. Whenever you start to think like this, you need to just tell yourself, "I am not going to think like this until June 1st, or whatever."

These are just the two techniques I developed to help myself out of what you are describing. I am still struggling. It is in my personality to engage the world through the inside out; but just as an extrovert needs to get in touch with his feelings, people like us need to get in touch with the world.

Tomorrow, I will probably regret writing all this. I am not sure it is useful, or even makes sense. But, what does make sense?
posted by milarepa at 7:15 PM on December 29, 2008 [12 favorites]

i think a good way to approach this is simply to focus on getting more information about the reality of WHATEVER career interests you, no matter how nuts it may seem. If there is something you were always curious about, read some books written by people who do it. you'll either decide it sucks, decide you want to know more, or maybe run across a different, related career idea you hadn't thought of.

i also think that a good approach is to think long-term and work your way backwards. A lot of people I know are determined to figure out the magical career that's fun and awesome and makes a lot of money and they can be doing it in a year. if it were that easy, everyone would do it.

when it occurred to me i might want to be a doctor, i didn't know a thing about it. so i started by overloading myself with info about it. internet, books, tv, there's even a Doctor Radio station on Sirius! (which i am addicted to. ha.) as well as talking to people in the field about their experience. what really made me sure was reading books written by people in the profession about their experiences. Anyway, although the long, LONG road made me nervous, I tried not to think about it. I just thought about what I wanted, measured up the steps in between and started taking them. Now, as it happens, I am still on that path and almost ready to start applying to schools. However, if at any time I had decided I didn't want to go through it all the way- I've still made so much progress. Just based on all the steps I've already taken, I've learned about so many different related career opportunities I never knew existed. careers i'm now actually qualified for (or close to it) based on the experience I've gotten while chasing dream #1. what i am saying is, instead of picking a career out of the air, just think of a field that you find fascinating and try to get your foot in the door somehow. volunteer or work some crap job (i got a horrble job cleaning ORs at a hospital, and it was the best thing i ever did.) just pick something, learn more about it, then you'll be able to see if there's anything in it for you. if not, try again with something else. but i also don't think it hurts to ask around, people in your family, etc. what they would see you doing as a career. i thought my family would be shocked at my stunning revelation but . . . none of them were. at all. maybe they're smarter than i thought.
posted by lblair at 7:45 PM on December 29, 2008

What did you love when you were a child? What fascinated you, captured your attention? What was magical?

Do that.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 9:07 PM on December 29, 2008

what shaun uh suggested is what worked for me: "instead of considering common jobs and trying to pick the one you might be alright with, think about it from the other direction - think about what you like, and then ask yourself how you can make a job out of it."

For me, it was looking at silly fantasies I had in high school. I kept jokingly pretending we were all going to move to the forest and start a new community together. Eventually, I realized that silly idea was something I had a lot of preachy ideas around how to do right, and eventually I got a masters in city planning.
posted by salvia at 9:24 AM on December 30, 2008

Agreed with milarepa: you need action + acceptance.

Your situation and personality sound a lot like mine. I empathize with you, and I think your plan to attack this indirectly is good. When I was in the depressed/anxious/guilt-ridden/etc. thick of dealing with this kind of stuff, I found that focusing on my Career Crisis was counterproductive--I just ended up feeling paralyzed because the whole thing became so freighted. The slow way out of it for me has been to start accepting that "success" means making a series of small, best-guess-for-now choices. It really is true that you (probably) aren't going to receive the perfect answer fully-formed in a flash one day. If you can get your mindset to the point where you see that as a good thing, you'll do yourself a lot of good.

I just think the whole question is far too massive to really conceptualize and the ensuing inability to answer it and find a perfect solution is making me quite depressed, honestly.

Agreed. I felt the same way, and the answer is to undercut the massive-ness of it. A path to career discovery that is meandering, erractic, and imperfect is *not* a problem or an indication of flaws on your part. It is a very common and even rich and valuable experience. Just think of all the empathy and self-knowledge and humbleness this struggle has already given you! Do all you can to relax about this and not grant it so much centrality as the question you have to figure out in order to be happy. Talk to a lot of (supportive) people who are quite a bit older than you are. They usually have more perspective and can help talk you off the ledge, so to speak.

And the other part of the picture has to be action. Just start doing things and making small choices. Trick yourself, be sneaky about it ("I'm not volunteering at this clinic because I'm trying to decide if I want to be a doctor, I just need something fun to do on Tuesdays!"), whatever it takes to undercut your tendency to see it as one giant monolithic Life Decision. But take action, however you need to. Being in motion, for me anyway, helped defuse the depression and anxiety of not knowing exactly where I was going. At the very least, when you get out there and actually do things, you learn more about the world/yourself, and you'll have more information.

You sound sufficiently self-analytical that I don't think you'll ever have to worry about not introspecting enough. Your challenge, as milarepa said, might be to go ahead and make decisions even though you haven't yet unraveled all the internal mysteries. Good luck and be nice to yourself.

(Sorry I wrote a book here, but I can really relate!)
posted by aka burlap at 11:11 AM on December 30, 2008 [3 favorites]

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