What Do You Do When You Don’t Know What to Do with Your Life? Start Doing Stuff.

Scott GallagherUncategorized

a row of archery targets with arrows stuck in them

Share this Post

In an earlier blog post, Joel talked about the messiness of self-directed learning. Yes, it’s true. Teenagers don’t always—more like almost never—have a clear vision and path of what they want to do with their lives. I thought about this and wanted to offer another, slightly different perspective on this wonderfully teenage, and generally human, phenomena.

A friend of mine in college was taken to the chiropractor when he was thirteen. After one visit he knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life. He majored in biology in college. Immediately after graduating, he wasted no time and went off to chiropractic school. He then came home to partner with and work under the tutelage of his old chiropractor for several years. He now has his own thriving practice. 

At Raritan Learning Cooperative, we have a class called Career Exploration in which professionals from all walks of life come in for a casual lunch with our teens to talk about what they do for a living, how they got into that line of work, and the education or experience needed to get there. My friend, the chiropractor, could be a guest. And he would tell his very straight line of a story, from the light bulb going off at thirteen to the opening of his practice. And this type of storyline is the extraordinarily rare exception.

Most people who come in to talk to the kids, from computer programmers, to pilots, to stylists, tell stories that are the opposite of a straight line. Most of the stories we hear are wildly circuitous. Many of our guests talk about changing their major in college a few times. Many have a degree that, practically speaking, is completely unrelated to the work they do. Many worked in a variety of fields. The most common thread among our guests is that most people try a lot of different things before they find the “one thing.” Or that they did find the “one thing,” two or three times in adulthood.

In his book Range, David Epstein, stresses this reality. And in fact he supports and encourages people to dabble, try different things, see what works for them, see what doesn’t. Move on quickly. Even for adults who themselves did a lot of meandering, it’s hard to not just want our kids to “figure it out.” To set a goal and move toward it. But Epstein says the research advises the opposite approach: 

Rather than expecting an ironclad a priori answer to “Who do I really want to become?”…it is better to be a scientist of yourself asking smaller questions that can be tested— “Which among my various possible selves should I explore now? How can I do that?” Be a flirt with your possible selves. Rather than a grand plan, find experiments that can be undertaken quickly. “Test-and-learn”… “not plan-and-implement.”

Epstein discusses how most humans are not very good at identifying the “one thing.” We don’t just one day “know” what we like, what we want to do with our lives, or what will satisfy us long term. That’s why at The Learning Cooperatives, while we work with kids closely to make goals, we also encourage them to do what they like now. In fact we want kids to get the message that goals should be based on what they want now. In her classic, Wishcraft, Barabara Sher, explains:

One of the most harmful misconceptions in our society is that you’ve got to figure out what you want and then you’ve got to stick (emphasis added) to it. … That’s nonsense. Goals exist only to serve you and make you happy. You don’t exist to serve them. If a goal isn’t serving you, you are free to change it.

If you’re reading this and you are one of those people like my friend who knew as a teen what they wanted to do for the rest of their life, you are a rarity. But for most of us, we had to try things out. We had to experiment with what we thought we wanted, and to learn that we might have been wrong, and move on to something else. It’s important that as adults we remember this struggle to figure ourselves out and to smile and be supportive when kids are in that same struggle.

At The Learning Cooperatives, when our teens’ paths are circuitous, we don’t fret. We ask, “What information can be derived from your current “experiment?” We ask in so many words, “What have you learned from ‘flirting with your possible self?’” But most of all, we recognize that most kids don’t magically know what they want to do with their lives, but they figure it out by doing it.

[Photo Credit: Image by Giovanna Orlando]