Help me find what I want.
March 16, 2006 9:20 AM   Subscribe

All of the guides to life planning or career management start from the assumption that the individual knows what they want or at least what they like. I have no idea what I want. What can I do to discover or rediscover direction?

My family is somewhat stoic and really taught me how to ignore my desires or bury them to support the desires/interests of others. Thus, I have become quite gifted at delayed gratification with little gratification at any point. I tend to focus on long-term goals and sacrifice happiness to meet those goals. A college degree put off thinking about what I wanted for 6 years, graduate school delayed it for another 8 years, and chasing tenure occupied 7 years. Over this time it has become increasingly difficult to set and achieve goals because I have lost sight of what I want and what it means to me. Right now I am completely stalled. Friends have suggested following my skills – but I am really a jack of all trades. Others have suggested following what I love or what makes me happy – but I don’t get those feelings from anything or at least not in a long time. How do I discover or rediscover the things that I want or things that I like or love?
posted by Tolerant to Human Relations (23 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
So you don't know what you love to do? You're gonna get a lot of the stock "Follow your bliss" answers.
posted by ernie at 9:29 AM on March 16, 2006

When I asked a similar question on metafilter this book was recommended to me (I could do anything...) I figured out what I wanted to do by the end of the first chapter and then passed the book on.
posted by drezdn at 9:33 AM on March 16, 2006

I came here to recommend the same book as drezdnI found it surprisingly helpful.
posted by Miko at 9:33 AM on March 16, 2006

This is something I've thought about a lot, because I've been in the same situation. Actually, from your description, you may be my long lost brother or sister.

Anyway, Re: "following your bliss", It's likely that you do derive happiness from something that you do, but that you just haven't made the connection between doing it and doing it for a living. For instance, what do you do when you should be working on something else?
posted by Hildago at 9:38 AM on March 16, 2006

I recently had a career-changing epiphany. I'm about to return to school to train as a nurse practitioner, leaving a pleasant but personally unsatisfying career path as a medical writer.

The short follow-your-bliss answer is that I asked myself honestly why should I get out of bed, and followed that answer. It really does work.

Here's the long answer. I'd been feeling general career and purpose-in-life malaise for several years. Meanwhile, I've been volunteering for even more years at a crisis hotline and a hospice, and wishing I had more time to do similar things that directly benefitted people.

One morning as I was lying in bed waiting for the inspiration to get myself up, I asked myself, Why am I leaving my comfortable bed? The answer was "To help my company achieve its launch and productivity goals [and ultimately increase its value to shareholders blah blah business stuff that means very little to me other than the fact that it helps me pay my rent and go on trips]."

Then I thought about the nurses at the hospice, and thought how their answers to that question would be much more satisfying to me than my own answer was.

For some reason, I had never considered nursing before this. I had had these vague, idealistic notions of what I wanted to do with my life and what I wanted my time alive to "mean" (ie, to what goal I wanted to expend my energies), and I had spent lots of time mulling it over, but no coherent picture had ever taken shape. This was like the final piece of the puzzle clicking into place, rendering a vague impression into a crystal-clear image.

Like Hidalgo suggests, that final piece had been hiding in plain sight all this time.

Of course, then I had to recognize and act on the fact that I could make the change. Up until then, all my thoughts were in the "Wouldn't it be nice if..." vein.

Because I am a committment-phobe and, like you, had never really asked myself what I wanted, another thing that helped was that when I started applying to schools, I did so with a sense that I was still "just seeing" if I could do it, rather than telling myself "Now I will become a nurse practitioner."

Also, I didn't tell anyone other than my SO what I was thinking. This was kind of hard when I was, say, studying for the GRE or taking microbiology classes. But it was important psychologically, because I had no fear of the embarrassment of failure, other than the disappointment that I would personally bestow upon myself if it didn't work out.

Good luck!
posted by tentacle at 9:54 AM on March 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

I read the book that drezdn and miko mentioned - twice. While I think it contained some extremely good insights for self discovery, I'm still stuck. I think the key is being decisive and jumping into action, which is difficult if you're not particularly self motivated and wishy washy like I am.
posted by delladlux at 10:21 AM on March 16, 2006

Previously on AskMe: Help me find some goals.

You have my sympathies; I'm finding myself in a similar situation (currently feeling a lot like this). What helps for me is thinking about what I was really passionate about when I was younger. As a child you naturally experience the world as a wonderful, intriguing place. Try to recapture some of that spirit, that sense of adventure and discovery.

Do you still know how it felt to wake up early in the morning, the first day of the holidays, ready for an entire day of boisterous play in the woods? (That's why I love Calvin & Hobbes by the way, Watterson can capture those wonderful moments like no other.)

Once you reconnect with that feeling of excitement, think of other situations that had/have a tendency to evoke it too. Flying always does it for me. When we used to go on trips when I was little I always enjoyed the flights to and fro more than the actual stay itself!

Then, think of professions that are related to your passion. In my case these would be: pilot, skydiving instructor, airplane technician, flight attendant, etc.

Hope this helps a bit. Good luck on your quest!
posted by koenie at 11:14 AM on March 16, 2006

One piece of advice: Don't jump into a new career just because it involves something you are skilled at. You're much better off doing something you're so-so at, but passionate about than something you're extremely skilled in but don't have the enthusiasm for. My two cents worth.
posted by unclejeffy at 11:17 AM on March 16, 2006

The kinds of suggestions tentacle and koenie have are good, and they're expounded upon in the recommended book. The book is kind of a formulaic system for going through that exact kind of self-examination.

the key is being decisive and jumping into action

Well, yes. A book can't make you do anything.
posted by Miko at 11:18 AM on March 16, 2006

Response by poster: While I was hoping for more than "Follow your bliss" I understand the response. The point of the post was "I have no idea what my bliss is anymore ( I may never have known) and how can I find it?"

I have read and worked through "I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was." However, I did not find it to be particularly useful because the exercises are based on examining your past activities and tying them to your emotional response. This does not work with me -- when I have been happy it has little to do with what I am doing, but is more a function of the place, time, and how I feel about myself (also I have relatively little emotional imprint on my memories). In fact, I am in the place and job that prior to graduate school I was the happiest (fifteen years ago), but the feeling is not here anymore. Also by examing your past for the answers it discounts any growth or difference in circumstance that has occurred since you first realized those emotions. The reason that returning to this place and job has not made me happy is in part because I am not the same person I was fifteen years ago.

In response to Hildago's comments, I am not really worried about integrating my bliss into my work yet -- I just want to find something (bliss) that I like and want. The question regarding "what do you do when you should be working on something else?" is well considered -- I avoid and kill time unproductively (internet and games) -- if I could find something I wanted to do with my off time, then I would probably be happier about my work (in which by all measures I am very successful and well respected).

Thanks for your comments -- they are making me think.
posted by Tolerant at 11:19 AM on March 16, 2006

Might I suggest Po Bronson's What Should I Do With My Life? It's a collection of stories about real people from many different walks of life who answered the question you're asking.
posted by phoenixc at 11:19 AM on March 16, 2006

Tolerant, if I may be so bold, your second comment leads me to think that this isn't a career problem -- it's a psychological/emotional one. It sounds as though you lack enthusiasms and have lost interest in your life. That's not something a career book or a new professional goal can solve. I think you might need to connect with whatever parts of yourself you've cut off. When you are interested and engaged in life, it's usually no trouble to identify something you enjoy doing and would like to do more of.
posted by Miko at 11:22 AM on March 16, 2006

The point of the post was "I have no idea what my bliss is anymore ( I may never have known) and how can I find it?"
I you have absolutely no clue whatsoever, one thing you can do is experiment. Paraphrasing grumblebee: take a good look at the banquet of life and take a bite of all the tasty bits. You could, for example, decide to try one new hobby/activity every month or so. Take a cooking class, learn something about investing, dancing seems to have come back in style lately, get certified as a lifeguard, get your pilot license, ...

I would really be interested if someone knows of a systematic approach for doing this though.
posted by koenie at 11:40 AM on March 16, 2006

"What Color Is Your Parachute?" is considered a classic in this genre. Has step-by-step instructions for figuring out how to find a vocation that is aligned with your values, skills, and not least, your bliss. I've never really put the effort into following its instructions though.
posted by lbergstr at 11:53 AM on March 16, 2006

Some advice from the Feeling Good book: motivation follows action, not the other way round. However, the hard part about taking action for me is that I often find some excuse for not doing it. I hear myself thinking stuff like: "Nah, I'm not going tonight, I don't feel like it." or "They'll all think I'm a weird, boring guy, I'll better stay at home". It would be cool if you could find some activity partner in your vicinity to counter these effects.

By the way, I agree with Miko: it certainly is more of a psychological/emotional problem. The difficulty is in escaping from the vicious cycle of negative thoughts and inactivity.
posted by koenie at 11:57 AM on March 16, 2006

Are you just looking for a hobby? Cuz if so, maybe you should just go ride a bike.

Seriously, I'd suggest you stop thinking abou it. Simply, rational inquiry cannot create new knowledge. Arguments cannot get you to ideas that you don't already possess. If you are positive that the answer is not already in your posession then no amount of self-examination will yield anything worthwhile. Your best, then, is to go out find new knowledge. Explore new places, new things, and new persons. Avoid that which is familiar and safe; embrace that which is strange and dangerous. Go out and have some adventures.

And when you are looking for new adventures do not let yourself deliberate too much about whether a specific venture is "worthwhile" and will lead you to your "goal." You don't know what your goal is and even if you think you do, you lack the intellectual fortitude to seriously examine your supposed goal. That's what the codeword "happiness" really means. It's a way of saying 'I don't (want to) know.' Your only criteria for adventures must be how strange and dangerous they are to yourself and those you love.

As for some specific suggestions: Travel, the longer the better. Read some auto/biographies on successfull adventurers and innovators. Sell all the crap you've bought over the years but don't waste any time looking for new crap. Whatever it is that seems difficult to you--go and do it.
posted by nixerman at 12:06 PM on March 16, 2006 [3 favorites]

The classic question is "What would you do if you had complete financial independence?" Or you could extend it to "What would you do if you had unlimited means?". Of course it's possible that you would come up with "I would go on vacation forever" but I think it's still worth pursuing from there. Where would you go on vacation? What would you do? Asking "What if?" is a pretty good way to start a daydream off and it seems like that's what you need at the moment. I'm sure you could come up with a bunch of these scenarios and the answers will point you in the right direction. At least, that's how I ended up doing what I'm doing right now.
posted by teleskiving at 1:20 PM on March 16, 2006


Sell off all your unimportant possessions, put the important and meaningful stuff in storage, and split.

You'll never find anything staying in the same place.
posted by HiveMind at 1:23 PM on March 16, 2006

Another good book on this subject is The Pathfinder, by Nicolas Lore.

It's a shade less touchy-feely than "I Could Do Anything", I think, but stil a bit more about personal exlploration than, say, "What Color is your Parachute". It's got a lot of step-by-step exercises, and a lot of smart writing on decisoin-making. I recoommend it highly. Maybe you'll like it , too.
posted by ManInSuit at 1:26 PM on March 16, 2006

There seems to be a lot of this going around lately. I find myself in a similar postion, and I can certainly identify with your family background. Miko's comment, I think, is right on, I would suggest reading Bly, Zweig, and Jung, all of whose primary ideas revolve around tuning in to the concept of "the shadow" aspect of personality. In addition, I've been recommended Ira Progoff's "At a Journal Workshop" which I have not begun, but looks like an excellent tool for diving into the psyche to resolve the forgotton issues that hold us back. Good Luck.
posted by p8r1ck at 4:23 PM on March 16, 2006


I've been struggling with this myself lately and found the exercise on Steve Pavlina's web site to be quite useful.
Essentially, he suggests to sit in front of a blank page titled "what is my true purpose in life" and write. Write any thoughts that come to mind. Number them. Write until something triggers you to cry (his success came at 106, mine.. I still have to sit down). Check the link for more motivation and explanation, but it makes sense in my head. Of course, it's tough as heck to do. But then again, you know that. Good luck and keep us posted on how it went!
posted by Yavsy at 5:48 PM on March 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

You may have to re-live those days when you denied your own gratification... take a class, any class! What would you have taken as afterschool lessons? As an elective? Find the most expansive continuing-education (or sports, music, art, etc.) catalog you can, and flip through it circling possibilities. Don't look at the times the classes are held or the cost.

You can also do this with jobs, but I'm not sure of the opportunities available to you where you're located. Where I am, it's entirely possible to decide to intern for the Daily Show and then go ahead and do it.

I also suggest you avoid thinking about these things in terms of career paths... first figure out some things you like, some activities that make you feel fulfilled by trying things for the sake of trying them. Once you have some solid leads, you can investigate them fully to see if there's a way to earn your life's income from them.
posted by xo at 10:50 PM on March 16, 2006

"I avoid and kill time unproductively (internet and games) -- if I could find something I wanted to do with my off time, then I would probably be happier about my work (in which by all measures I am very successful and well respected). "

Well, I think I am your polar opposite, friend, so I don't know if my approach would be useful to you at all.

First off, don't totally discount the "unproductive" time playing games or going on the internet. There will come a time when you will find that too boring to continue, and in the meantime it's a mindless distraction so the back of your brain can mull stuff over. And your brain is working on it, your brain doesn't want a dull, lifeless, uninspired existence. I think the problem with that is that if you don't figure it out, you might find yourself doing something "rash" and wondering what the hell has gotten into you!

I think you are conflicted about finding your bliss, to be honest. You are clinging to the respectful job, the success and social standing and family approval that apparently comes with such a position. I'm not saying you have to be in a hurry to give that up, but I'd examine your feelings about that a little bit more--what are you really willing to give up, purge, negate, jettison, in your quest for finding a passion in your life? You can't cling to the horse and reach for the brass ring at the same time. But maybe you could hold on to the horse with one hand and lean toward the brass and straddle two worlds for a while. Do you get a sabbatical with your current position?

About 12 years ago I left a fairly stable job to pursue my painting. I do have to pick up odd jobs and through the art I have developed some valuable marketing skills that have actually earned me more money than my previous stable job ever would have paid. In a way, quitting that stable job felt like stepping off the side of a cliff, but sometimes when you do that you discover you don't fall, you float. You haven't sprouted wings yet so you can't fly, but you can tread water long enough to survive and eventually thrive.

Maybe you need to take a risk and discover that all of your current skills won't disappear, you will find a new way to use them, you will reinvent yourself but you have quite a bit of good raw material to work with, and in doing that what is meaningful will be retained and the shit will fall away.

Good luck!
posted by 45moore45 at 11:52 AM on March 17, 2006 [1 favorite]

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