I remember saying to my Teacher “I don’t know what to do with my life,” and him replying, “Neither do I. Isn’t it wonderful!”
Not knowing what to do with your life is an issue that causes stress and anxiety for a lot of people, particularly in the West, where there are a bewildering number of options open to us.
Should I go to this university or that one, study computers or literature, work for a company or be self-employed, live in Paris of Rome?
When you’re trying to figure out what to do next, you can easily become frozen like a rabbit in the headlights of overwhelming choice. There are so many things you COULD do with your life. How on earth do you settle for one?
I‘ve had many different roles in my life—student, musician, traveller, healer, monk, taxi driver, businessman, life coach, author—and I’m not done yet.
One of the more interesting transitions was from monk to taxi driver (sounds like there might be a book in there!)
There was a particular conversation I used to have at least two or three times a week with people who got in my taxi.
I’d ask, “So, how’s your day going?”
They’d answer, “Only two days to go until the weekend,” (in other words, “I’d much rather be doing something else with my day).
To which I’d reply, “If you could do absolutely anything with your life, what would you like to do?”
Nine times out of ten, people would answer, “I have no idea.”
When you ask people what they DON’T want to do with their lives, they come up with a detailed list in no time at all.
Ask them what they do want, however, and you’re met with a blank stare.
And I believe that overwhelming choice is the main culprit.
People become paralysed rather than liberated by the power of choice and, in many cases, end up drifting along aimlessly. When you don’t know what to do, you can easily end up doing nothing.
I Don’t Know What To Do with My Life— A Modern Dilemma
Having the freedom to choose what to ‘do’ with your life is a fairly recent thing.
Only a couple of generations ago, people had far fewer choices. Most people lived lives similar to those of their parents or grandparents before them. This is still the case in much of the world.
As I write (here in India) there are some women washing clothes by the well outside.
I don’t imagine they give much thought to what they could or should be doing with their lives. And I can’t help thinking that, in some ways, they’re better off.
They are free of the burden of overwhelming choice.
Lack of choice keeps life simple. It’s easier to find contentment when your options are limited and you don’t have so many decisions to make.
I go into this topic a lot in my book Awaken The Happy You.
Choice Is A Double-Edged Sword
On one hand, having the opportunity to study, travel, live abroad, enjoy financial security and have a comfortable lifestyle is a massive privilege. I’m certainly not complaining.
There are also downsides however. Being spoilt for choice creates a pressure to ‘make something’ of your life— to achieve, to become successful, to stand out in some way.
With the advent of reality TV and social media, having a ‘normal’ life is considered a failure in some ways.
Also, having unlimited choices opens up the possibility of making ‘wrong’ decisions, missing out on opportunities or screwing your life up altogether.
In short, choice can be a burden as well as an opportunity. Trying to get your life right can be really stressful.
“Doing something with your life” has become a huge thing.
It’s as if you now need to have an important mission, clear purpose or tangible destination in order for your life to be deemed worthwhile.
We have become more focused on the destination than the journey.
Without so much to think about, the villagers here in India live more in the moment, taking life one day at a time.
Maybe it doesn’t matter so much what you do? Maybe it’s more important to enjoy the ride, regardless of what you end up doing?
5 Things To Do When You Don’t Know What To Do With Your Life
1. Know It’s OK Not To Know
“I do like not knowing where I am going, wandering in strange woods, whistling and following bread crumbs” — Tilda Swinton
When you are unsure where life is heading, embrace the uncertainty. Don’t create an additional layer of stress by beating yourself up for not knowing.
Let go of the idea that you SHOULD know what to do. (hint: nobody does really).
Maybe it’s not time to know?
And besides, who says you have to DO anything with your life anyway?
Consider the kind of person you want to BE and make that your focus instead. This is something you can always do— whatever work or activities you’re engaged in.
Who you are is more important than what you do.
There is nothing wrong with not knowing. There are no mistakes. If you were meant to know, you would.
“Always remember deep in your heart that all is well and everything is unfolding exactly as it should. There are no mistakes anywhere, at any time.” — Robert Adams
2. Divide You Life Into Bite-Sized Chunks
You can’t plan your whole life right now. A lifetime is a pretty long time frame.
I’ve had so many chapters in this one life.
And still, I don’t know what I want to do with my life—other than live it to the full, whatever I end up doing.
All you ever need to focus on is the next small step.
If you are driving along a country road at night, the headlights will only allow you to see twenty yards ahead. Despite this, you are able to drive hundreds of miles—twenty yards at a time.
It’s the same with your life. Instead of wondering what to do with your whole life, shine your headlights on the next week or month.
Write down 3 things you could work on in the next month—three things that will make you feel happier—and focus on those.
Maybe you could lose two pounds in weight, try to run half a mile without stopping or volunteer to work a couple of days in a local homeless shelter?
Do what makes you happy now and when the next twenty yards come into focus, do what makes you feel happy then.
We have an old Scottish expression: “What’s for you won’t pass you by.”
Focus on the small stuff and the big stuff will reveal itself—when it’s time.
3. Drop What You Are No Longer Able To Accept
If you don’t know what you want to do next in your life, maybe you could focus on dropping some things from your current situation that no longer serve you?
Make a list of the things that drain your energy and leave you feeling contracted and disconnected. Consider which of these you could let go of.
Maybe slowing down, living more simply or taking some time out will create the inner space you need to allow your next move to percolate through to you?
One of the best moves I ever made was to sell my stressful travel business and go back to taxi driving three days a week. I made way less money but felt much happier.
And I was able to write my first book in the taxi.
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4. Live Life Moment By Moment
One day, my teacher asked me how I was doing.
I told him that my meditation practice was going well, that my mind was quiet most of the time but that “I had no idea any more what to do with my life.”
He laughed and replied, “Me neither. Isn’t it wonderful!”
We like to think we’re in control of our lives.
But the truth is, we have no idea what’s going on. Nobody does.
Life is a great mystery and there is tremendous freedom in giving up the need to understand what’s going on (easier said than done, I know).
If the next step is unclear, don’t worry about it.
Enjoy this moment.
Enjoy the rain on your face, the breeze against your skin, the sunset, the birds singing. Recognise how miraculous being alive actually is.
If you want to do something highly worthwhile in the meantime then learn to develop an intimate relationship with the present moment—with your true Self.
Learn to engage fully with whatever is right in front of you, this very moment.
Through your conditioning, your busy mind will keep trying to figure everything out, keep trying to convince you that you need to know what you are doing with your life.
You don’t need to listen. Just keep coming back to the present moment.
Life is a sequence of moments. And you can live them one at a time.
When we get too lost in our heads, we miss out on Life, which is always here, now.
5. Be Like A Kitten— Let Life Carry You
“Be like the kitten, not the baby monkey.” –Indian proverb
According to this beautiful proverb, there are two ways to live your life—like the baby monkey that clings tightly to its mother, relying entirely on its own strength as it hangs on for dear life. Or like the kitten, that is relaxed and trusts the mother will look after all its needs as it is gently carried around from place to place.
Most us live like the baby monkey. We rely entirely on ourselves, trying to figure everything and believing that it’s through our own efforts and hard work alone that we get by in life.
When I was younger, I often felt conflicted— trying to satisfy the expectations of society and of my family whilst remaining true to my own heart’s desire. They wanted me to be an academic. I wanted to go travelling. Trying to shoehorn yourself into situations that don’t fit rarely turns out well.
I have discovered, after many years, that the way that works best for me (there’s no right or wrong way) is to focus more on how I want to BE than what I want to do.
When I focus on being present, living in the moment and being the most loving, most caring version of myself that I can be, life tends to take care of where I end up and what I end up doing— often in ways I could never have imagined.
If you choose to go it alone, Life will take a back seat and let you get on with it.
If you invite Life in, to carry you around like the kitten, it will.
There is no right or wrong way. Your life will unfold exactly as it is meant to, whatever you do.
“There is something within you that knows what to do. There is a Power greater than you, that knows how to take care of you without your help. All you have got to do is to surrender to it. Surrender your thoughts, your mind, your ego, to the Current That Knows The Way. It will take care of you. It will take better care of you than you can ever imagine.”
– Robert Adams
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10 thoughts on “I Don’t Know What To Do With My Life”
Thank you Richard, for writing this article I love that it is so concise and it’s a great guide.
PS I loved reading your book Awaken the Happy You.
Thanks Brenda. So happy you enjoyed the book!
Thank you Richard. This is like a weight being lifted off my shoulders. My husband just recently retired and I felt this need to try and make up for those years he’s worked so hard. Now I will shift to focusing on BEing rather than doing.
With much gratitude
That’s great Elizabeth. I’m happy it helped!
Thank you, for a very enjoyable article to read. I am excited to try some of your suggestions.
Thanks a lot Tammy and good luck! Which of the suggestions stand out for you?
Thanks for this, my brilliant first class engineer son just quit his job and left to become a Buddhist monk of the Theravada tradition in Thailand. I still cannot understand why my heart is so completely broken. Any tips? We are not clingy, religious, or controlling. Why do we feel so broken?
There’s no need to understand why you feel the way you feel. We are not in control of what we feel. It sounds like you believe you should be feeling something different… more tolerant perhaps? Life just unfolds as it unfolds. Your son is following his calling. You are feeling what you’re feeling. And it’s all OK. It’s all part of life unfolding. Here in India, they say that each individual’s journey is charted the moment they are born. There’s no way of knowing whether this is true or not. Either way, all we can do is accept life’s unfoldment (including how we feel about it) or resist. Hope this helps 🙂
What if whenever you start something you’re really excited about and then you lose interest or become demotivated? That happens to me constantly, I don’t understand why I do that. I don’t seem to remain interested in anything.
Hmmm… Good question Caroline. Why do you think that is? Do you feel demotivated generally in life?