How did you decide what to do with your life?
August 18, 2004 8:54 PM   Subscribe

I find it hard to believe that no one has asked this yet but...
How did you decide what to do with your life? What questions did you ask yourself? When you have many ideas and none are "right", what factors should weigh more heavily than others when it comes time to decide?

I'm 25, have wandered in the land of various office jobs since college, and feel like the time to strike out in a particular direction, but my mind is just swirl of thoughts that spend the day smacking each other down.
posted by 4easypayments to Grab Bag (38 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
workwise or happinesswise?
posted by amberglow at 9:08 PM on August 18, 2004

Thanks for asking this question, i'm graduating college this year and am still unsure if what i'm going to school for is what I want to do for the rest of my life.

Personally, do what makes you happy, no matter how munch money you earn, it can't buy you the happiness that comes with doing a job you love.
posted by Derek at 9:26 PM on August 18, 2004

Above all, do something that you'll enjoy, that won't get monotonous. (Note: the oft-quoted statistic is that people will change careers 3-5 times during their lives.) For me it's a combination of:

* something I find fascinating and personally rewarding (intrinsic benefits)
* work that's challenging and new (keeps your brain awake)
* work that involves life-long learning
* work that involves working with people
* work that has the potential to help people
* work that provides a comfortable living/income
* work that fits my values and ethics

And yes, I realize every day how very fortunate I am to have the opportunities available to me to pursue it; many people don't have the options.

Derek: I know plenty of people who do nothing related to their major or even graduate degree. One of my journalism friends couldn't find a position, so she started doing internet project management and now she's doing project management for an international travel company. And Barbara Walters didn't start in journalism herself until she was 30.

Some people fully separate their personal lives from their work lives; one of my professors told us of her poet friend who works as a postman--he does his work, gets an okay salary + benefits, and can spend the rest of his time writing and spending time with his family.
posted by gramcracker at 9:40 PM on August 18, 2004

Though not job related, I can speak from college experience:
I've always been into math and science and knew I wanted to do something in them. I've been a computer science, pharmacy, biochemistry, etc major. A little while ago, I wasn't even planning on applying to grad school not knowing what I wanted to specialize in (I'm majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology).
However, as a side hobby, I have always been interested in the brain and how it works with our psyche, memory, emotions, etc- but moreso from a psychology rather than science standpoint. Then, looking around at grad school books, I found the perfect grad school major: neurobiology, which combines the study of the brain from a biological standpoint with some psychology thrown in. Exactly what I've always been interested in.
Granted, I have NO idea what I'm going to do with a graduate degree in neurobiology, but at least I know what I'll be doing for the next 7+ years of my life and knowing it is something I want to do.
posted by jmd82 at 10:14 PM on August 18, 2004

I just get involved with things I find interesting and keep my eyes open for opportunities. Keep in mind I have a B.A. in philosphy and a master's degree in urban planning and I do web design for a living. My desire now is screenwriting. Before I went back to college, I was the managing editor for Transworld Skateboarding Magazine.
posted by strangeleftydoublethink at 10:19 PM on August 18, 2004

I don't have a clue but I'm saving a lot of money to go traveling.

Although I'm 25 (too) I haven't really done much... so lets say for the sake of argument that I'm ten years old, and as a ten year old it'd be ridiculous to decide what to do without having had a look around yet. The travel bit is just my way of being random and I'll see what happens and hopefully I'll find some more things and people to like.

I already like programming, and teaching, music and video, but I'm sure there's more out there.
posted by holloway at 10:26 PM on August 18, 2004

Response by poster: workwise or happinesswise?
Mostly workwise, but happinesswise tips wouldn't be so bad, either.
posted by 4easypayments at 10:29 PM on August 18, 2004

Workwise, I adopted the philosophy of having a job, not a career. In doing so, it makes it pretty easy to take work for what it is often worth—a means to do what you want. Looking for meaning in a career is a lifelong pursuit and always seems to be at the next "career opportunity."

Also, work becomes enjoyable then. I'm less concerned with developing my professional life via career paths. Instead, I pursue my interests and apply what I learn to work, vis-a-vis. It is quite rewarding.

Follow your bliss. If you get lost in what you're doing every now and then just because, you're doing the right thing.
posted by pedantic at 10:55 PM on August 18, 2004

I have nothing to add, except to note that it is quite possible to still be asking oneself these questions 12 years later...
posted by rushmc at 11:42 PM on August 18, 2004

Well... I haven't decided what to do with *all* the life that remains to me, but I do have one technique for making major life decisions. I do all the rational consideration I can, including written lists, weighted scores, etc etc. Then I toss it out, flip a coin to decide, and try to sense how I feel in the instant the coin falls.
posted by scarabic at 1:27 AM on August 19, 2004

I was actually planning a question to Ask Metafilter, but perhaps it ties in better with this thread.. so I can always try.. :-)

What sort of 'they pay the rent' jobs are you doing in order to focus your life on your dreams? For example, people who are starting out in DJing or production often work in a record store. Surfers often work in surf shops, etc. Philip Glass, the composer, was a cab driver when his first opera was hitting the stage.

The reason this is related to the original question is not because most people lack dreams or don't know what they want to do.. they just don't know how to financially support themselves while they do it!
posted by wackybrit at 1:45 AM on August 19, 2004

I am not sure it's so much a question of asking yourself the right questions and going through a rational planning process as it is living a set of good habits and applying some heuristics. I am trying to put together a list for myself, and here's a bunch I've come up with by trial and error:

* be willing to consider where (geographically) you'd like to be. Sometimes if you're in a place that feels right to you, the rest comes much easier. If place doesn't mean much to you, don't worry about it.

* don't compromise your moral standards. If you do, it's harder for you to listen to yourself. While we're on that subject, spend some time writing to yourself regularly, and cultivating religious practice if you're at all inclined that way.

* always be saving some amount of money (even a very small one) toward a fund that can keep you flexible and mobile

* don't be afraid to change your mind and extricate yourself from commitments if it seems best for you. This isn't to say that you should break leases or employment terms lightly, but that you shouldn't be afraid to go to people involved and work out what needs to be done to get what you want.

* if you find yourself too busy to spend time thinking/reflecting over a period of more than 3-4 months, change something soon. The best opportunities will get missed if you're distracted, not to mention your best thinking about steering your own future just won't happen.

* move toward something you really want, rather than away from something you're afraid of. This doesn't mean not preparing against potential problems or trying to steer around negative results, just that a positive goal is a better overriding goal than something else. Manage risks, but take your chances.

* make sure you spend at least as much time doing something as you do wondering what to do. Partly because it provides feedback that's useful in guiding further action, partly because thought/question can become a big morass especially if you're prone to excessive introspection and wondering. Change your mind when you need to, but always be spending a decent amount of time working at whatever pretty good ideas have occured to you so far.
posted by weston at 2:10 AM on August 19, 2004 [1 favorite]

I'm in a band. it's an intense experience sometimes.
posted by mcsweetie at 4:19 AM on August 19, 2004

I had it lucky. I wanted to be a newspaperman since I was about 8 years old and never wanted to be anything else. It was amazing to me in school (and after) to see people casting around blindly for a career. It wasn't until then that I realized how lucky I was to have had a calling. Many people I knew based their decision on money (they all went to law school basically), a terrible mistake. You will be at work for a great portion of your life. Do something you will enjoy.
posted by CunningLinguist at 4:21 AM on August 19, 2004

but how do you know what you want to do, what you like? people always say, do something you love. well, what if you don't know what you love.

I guess I'm a "generalist" as I tend to be interested in a lot of things, but nothing in particular jumps out at me. I've come to terms with this (mostly), but just saying do what you love doesn't always help.

My biggest tip is similar to pedantic in that I decided I didn't want to make my job a career. Deciding that takes a lot of stress out of the workplace. And makes sure you don't define yourself by what you do for a living (which can become so easy once you start working in offices and everyone around you is trying to climb the ladder).

Doesn't mean that it is bad if you do, but just remember you don't have to go that path (although can be difficult in places like DC where the first question you ask someone is "what do you do?").
posted by evening at 4:32 AM on August 19, 2004

Sometimes it's easier to go with the process of elimination. I didn't want to sit at a desk all day. I didn't want to do the same thing every day. I wanted to meet new people and learn new things. I wanted to live around words and drink with people who know how to tell a story. These things were more important to me than money. There are basics: do you like the outdoors? Do you like numbers? Are you good with people or not? Do you like to stick with one thing or do lots of different things? Does the idea of selling something turn you on or off?
Also, what are you particularly good at? Pursuing your strengths is always satisfying.
posted by CunningLinguist at 4:49 AM on August 19, 2004

Location, location, location! I was similarly lost after college five years ago but decided that even if I didn't know what I wanted to do, I definitely did know where I wanted to be: London. So I got myself there. I got a job, I made friends, and eventually I met my Aussie husband. Two years later we worked out that we needed another change, so we moved to Sydney and started over again. It's worked for me so far. Two months ago I finally worked up the courage to chuck my well-paying (but boring and soul-sucking and meaningless-in-every-larger-sense) IT job to take a massive pay cut working in a wool and craft store. I work ten times harder than I did as a web developer, but DAMN I feel better at the end of the day. I get to meet people and teach them skills and share my passions with them. I wouldn't say that I've finally settled all the questions you posed, but I feel like I've made some progress towards my own set of answers. Don't be afraid to introduce a little randomness and see what happens.
posted by web-goddess at 5:03 AM on August 19, 2004

Since there was never anything in particular I wanted to do, in the end I decided, after much agonizing, not to decide. I just went with whatever came along, and let my interests and skills determine where I went next. These days (I'm 40), I've gotten very much into working as little as possible, and scaling back my wants to allow for that. That, I think, has really become my "career" -- looking at my budget to see what money goes where and arranging things so that less of it goes there. This buys me leisure time to do the things I never could get anyone to pay me for -- reading my books, taking walks, brushing my cats, etc.

You may, however, be much more career-oriented, which is fine. Just don't get your head into a place where you feel like you're "supposed" to pick The One Thing or earn a certain amount of money or have certain things. There is no cosmic scorecard for this stuff, and no medals awarded.
posted by JanetLand at 5:07 AM on August 19, 2004

Figure out what it is you are good at and go from there. We all have our own giftings.
posted by konolia at 5:50 AM on August 19, 2004

Follow your interests, no matter how brief or far away. No one can find them for you but you, and no one will know when it's right but you. Do it before you're locked into the material possesion machine. And always remember that you can change it whenever you want, if you really want to.

I abandoned corporateland after years of getting the house I want, home theatre I want, etc etc etc. Put my nest egg in an untouchable category and am getting ready to start a part time job in a bead store that I can walk to. Sounds better than doing an annual performance review and taking boring seminars to fulfill a Career Development Plan to me.

Cheers to you on an exciting journey ahead!
posted by yoga at 5:56 AM on August 19, 2004

Don't worry about it. It's out of your hands. The notion that you have any control over your destiny is an illusion. Right now, there's a butterfly flapping its wings over the Andes...
posted by Faze at 6:30 AM on August 19, 2004

A friend of mine (who has always been very career-oriented and has worked at Large Companies) was having one of her periodic bouts of existential angs over her career once, and was cheered up by the advice "you don't have to figure out what you're going to do, you just have to figure out what you're going to do next."

This needs some qualification: not everybody is in a situation that permits them to abandon ship and try something completely different (either because they lack the skills, or don't have the luxury of time and cash reserves to develop those skills).

Me? I just tried some different things until I stumbled into something that can pay relatively well, I'm relatively good at, and I enjoy. This was not part of a plan. I had several jobs where my tenure could be measured in weeks or months before that, and I've had side-jobs along the way.

Another point, just to play devil's advocate: if there's something you really love to do, and you make it your job, well, then it's your job. You might stop loving it. There's a difference between a vocation and an avocation.
posted by adamrice at 6:49 AM on August 19, 2004

I think you will enter a dangerous phase of your life if you start to define yourself by your job. I'm a writer and a teacher, by gift, and I have been lucky enough to find jobs over the years in those fields. But I am so much more than those two things. I would drop out of the workforce in a SECOND if I won the lottery. There are far too many things in this world that I want to see and do and just don't have the time because I spend 10 hours each day at or commuting to/from work. At the end of the day, it's a job, and 5:00 is the best time of every day because that signals the beginning of MY time. The jobs pay the bills for the things in life that bring me happiness (home, hearth, health, etc.) We have a policy in our house that we don't talk about work at home, unless there is something major happening that we need to discuss. But the petty bitching about office politics and who did or said what? Leave it at work because it's just work.

Also, I've always had the philosophy that if you do good things in the world and follow your inspiration, the universe will meet you halfway, and the money will be there.
posted by archimago at 6:53 AM on August 19, 2004

I can absolutely relate to this question - I'm 33 and still trying to figure out what I want to do when I grow up.

Like evening, I'm a generalist with no clear direction of what I'd like to be doing. Every few years it seems like I decide that what I'm currently doing sucks, and I pick something else, and after a few years change again. I have always been slightly jealous of people like CunningLinguist, because if I knew what I wanted to do, I would do it! I have no problem making changes when necessary, and I do not define myself by my job in any way. I'm really happy with every other area of my life, so I'm not complaining about life in general, but I would love to not feel like I've wasted 9-10 hours of my life every day. My problem is that I am very, very good at organization and administration, so that is what I do for a living and make good money from, but it doesn't make me feel fulfilled in any way.

OK, truth be told, over the last few weeks I have been increasingly thinking about a career that makes my heart sing. However, in order to get there I have to complete 5 years of training (part-time) in a very competitive field, and the training involves certification in an area I feel very intimidated by. So I'm gathering information and thinking about it. It scares the hell out of me, but it would probably be good for me...

I don't know if that remotely answered your question - it is more of an 'I'd love an answer to this too', I guess.
posted by widdershins at 7:01 AM on August 19, 2004

I grew up in the country [USA] and basically decided I wanted to continue to live in the country. While there are lots of jobs you can do in the country, I wanted one that I knew I could find work in, in a rural location, and one that would let me use my brain. I had a pretty narrow list: cop, post office worker, librarian, doctor, government official, store owner, lawyer. I have a lot of little quirks that make working most "real" jobs impossible: I hate to dress up, I won't sell anything, I won't lie, I dislike working full time, I require a fair degree of autonomy, etc. On the other hand, many compromises I don't mind making: low pay, scut work, dealing with "the public" were all okay with me.

When I was in college, one of my favorite things to do was do research, even though I didn't really like writing papers, or even going to class. I went to library school a few years after graduating college and was delighted to find that librarians were so aggressively pro intellectual freedom, freedom to read, that sort of thing. I also found that with my outgoing personality, it was easy for me to make a name for myself professionally which didn't hurt either. The job I have now is pretty good, part time, nice library, nice people, runs through April and then who knows what I'll do?

I have a very hard time with the life/work distinction. In my dream world, my job and my life would be intertwined, in a good way. My favorite job ever was as a caretaker for an Odd Fellows hall in Seattle where I lived there, opened and closed doors, met with groups meeting there, kept the place cleaned. It was a self-contained little world, and I mostly worked alone. In the library, regrettably, people act like their "work" selves, so there is a certain amount of mindless small talk, conflict avoidance, and laziness. People come into the library concerned about issues in their real lives and we greet them with our work faces. I'm never totally comfortable with that. On the other hand, it's pretty easy to work in a one person library out here [Vermont, USA] where I could decide for myself how much of myself to put into it.

For me, the hardest part has been carving out time and energy and a place in my weird herky-jerky life for a partner. I have a boyfriend in law school who is definitely aiming for the straight-and-narrow normal job route and I worry that this will eventually be a problem. I'd be happy living in a burrow underground if I could avoid selling my soul to The Man, and I'm not entirely sure he feels the same way.

At the end of the day, though, I'm not ever sure I've made the "right" decision, but I know that I've been happy with what I do, and that I earn enough to cover my expenses and save for a rainy day. I'm not really on the baby track, so I don't feel like I need to plan for that, and me and my sweetheart both seem to have hopes and aspirations that fit within the weird world we've created for ourselves. The town I live in has 1200 people which is just about what I was aiming for.
posted by jessamyn at 8:56 AM on August 19, 2004

Christ, I'm 40 and just had the balls to ask myself that same question a few years ago.

My advice, do what you really want to do. Don't work at some shitass job because you think someone's going to be proud of you. Don't go to school for something that you yourself don't really want. I've wasted nearly my entire adult life living for someone else.

We're (my family and I) are paying the price for my lack of backbone now, we're struggling, but making it and much happier.

Good luck.
posted by damnitkage at 9:03 AM on August 19, 2004

On the "job vs career" thing, it's okay to define your "real life" as what you do after work hours. However, you want to avoid falling by default into a crap job that saps your energy and doesn't even make up for it by paying enough to properly subsidize your after-hours activity. Even if your time and energy are primarily devoted to your non-work life, be sure you take the time out to find a job that doesn't actively drain you. (Of course, if you can find a job that you actually find really rewarding, then woo-hoo! Go for it.)

On the "generalist-what-do-I-really-love" issue, here's what's worked for me: Throw yourself headlong into as many interesting activities as possible with the full intention of getting really, really good at all of them. In a little while, you'll find out that it's impossible, some of the activities will crowd out others for time and energy. Thus, by sheer Darwinian selection, I've found the activities that will hold my interest for years or decades at a time.

Feel free to change your direction at any point in your life. I'm 40 years old now. A few years back I went back to school and learned enough computer programming to get a job as a programmer. Now I'm working my way through school to get a second degree in computer engineering. Twenty years ago, when I got my first degree, I had the aptitude but not the discipine needed to do well in an engineering program. If you keep learning and growing your whole life, you should have new possibilities open up for you in time.

Good luck!
posted by tdismukes at 9:17 AM on August 19, 2004

I think the first, best step is some self knowledge. As a guy with a BA in History, who works as a network admin (with many, many stops in between) I sat myself down and tried to decide who I was, and what fired my brain the most. I found that the single biggest fear for me (job wise anyway) was repetition. I don't think I could survive a day on a production line. So, when IT sort of popped up I noticed that it is ever changing, and thought, "Good fit there" and moved forward.

Having said that, I also subscribe to the river of life version of it means that you are heading somewhere...let go and go with the stream and it will be much smoother than if you grab at every branch you see...I suspect that we have less say than we think.
posted by Richat at 9:53 AM on August 19, 2004

I find that some people (like my wife) know what they want to do, and just find a way to do it. She always wanted to be a teacher, did what she needed to do to get there, and is now happy as a teacher.

I, on the other hand, never felt like I knew what I wanted to do, so just kind of drifted into opportunities based on how they felt. Sometimes I think that we ask too much from our jobs - they're supposed to pay us, fulfill us, allow us to exercise our passions, blah blah. If my job pays me, I find I can pursue my "passions" informally, like by taking piano lessons, studying aikido, doing hobbies, etc.

I had two bits of things that guided me when I wasn't sure about a particular direction to go in. One was that if you weren't sure about something, to make a choice that left you with the most flexibility afterwards. I've turned down some jobs that didn't seem to lead anywhere except to more of the same, and have accepted jobs that add to my general skill base and will leave me with something marketable when they're done. That's probably mostly how I ended up as a psychologist - it's an advanced degree that allows you to set up your own shop if you like, or work for others. You can do clinical work, or research. So it seemed like it left a lot of flexibility for later.

The other bit of profound advice was from an aikido teacher, who says he got it from a Don Juan book. If you have the opportunity to choose, choose the path with heart in it. All paths lead the same place, which is nowhere - we'll all be dead, and that's that. If you choose a path that has heart in it, you'll be spending your time better than if you don't.
posted by jasper411 at 10:38 AM on August 19, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! You've helped me so much. Already, I'd say things seem clearer, even if only from realizing that I don't have to be completely clear before starting out in a direction.
posted by 4easypayments at 10:55 AM on August 19, 2004

Sometimes not knowing what you want from the age of 5 can be a good thing. As an English major who had no clue what he wanted to do for a living, I eventually gravitated toward the Internet, because that's where lots of new jobs were being created in my area. It has turned out to be a great experience for me. The excitement of working in a newly-formed industry has been really stimulating, the work itself has been a complex of computer, media, and people skills, and I was lucky to wind up on a team of really extraorindary people. Getting some stock always gave me the sense that the business was partly mine, and I really enjoyed the entrepreneurial spirit of that. Every day we came into work to collectively go out there and knock 'em dead. It's been fun.

I have a certain envy for those who know they want to be newspapermen or trial lawyers from childhood on, mainly because when someone asks them what they do for a living, they can give a 1-word answer. But I think there's something to be said for the thrashing around as well. You won't have the comfort and security of an age-old profession, but you might wind up somewhere interesting you never expected or trying something new that's never been done before, rather than just fitting into a role that generations before you have fully delineated.
posted by scarabic at 11:07 AM on August 19, 2004

although can be difficult in places like DC where the first question you ask someone is "what do you do?")

I adopted what my old roommate's practice; he would state his interest.

"I'm a writer."

Although I haven't finished my book and haven't ever been published, that defines me better than my job as a project manager.
posted by pedantic at 11:22 AM on August 19, 2004

I don't have much to add -- my mother told me when I was young that if my job was something I loved, I wouldn't have to work a day in my life. So I agree with most everyone else on this thread.

Though something that works for me is shooting for "standards of personal excellence". So you decide to take up pottery, or rock climbing, or running for office? Do it seriously and fully. Make sure you're hitting your personal standard for excellence.

Personally, I like making stuff for the web, so I just keep plugging away at making stuff for the web. It's nice to look back each year and see what I've done. It's inspirational for the next year, and very satisfying to know I've done something more than watch television.

I know there will always be better artists, developers, writers, and so on, but it's nice to know I did my best.
posted by jragon at 11:42 AM on August 19, 2004

The last sentence of Jragon's comment incorporates a very important idea. If you've got something you know you want or need to do, it's very important to do it, even though you may not be that good at it, make any money at it, or win the admiration of others thereby. I have always wanted to write at least one novel, and this year I finally got started. It may not be any good. It may never get published. But when I finish, I'll have done what what is in me to do, and that's what matters most.

So much of the misery and problems in this world stem from people not doing the things they know they need to do. Don't be one of those people.
posted by orange swan at 1:30 PM on August 19, 2004

Do what suits you, avoid what doesn't, be aware of the difference and avoid advice like mad.
posted by dong_resin at 1:35 PM on August 19, 2004

I was having a lot of difficulty answering this question when I talked to a acquaintance who helped me with a great observation - "most of us just fall into what we do - we never planned on it."
posted by xammerboy at 2:33 PM on August 19, 2004

I found out through trial and error, basically. I had many jobs, all of which had their good and bad points. It took a while to get to getting paid for stuff I love to do, but I probably wouldn't have found it without trying other stuff first.
posted by britain at 9:03 PM on August 19, 2004

If you decide to choose something meaningful but low income, make sure your partner feels the same way. And then she'll change her mind if and when you have kids.
posted by mecran01 at 6:38 AM on September 2, 2004

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