The Benefits of Not Knowing What you Want to Do in Life

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I cannot say for sure how globally widespread the societal stigma attached to being someone who is uncertain of what they want to do in life is. It seems that the commonly agreed upon perception of success in life comes from a lifetime of achievements and excellence in a lucrative and prestigious career. The very concept of a career suggests that we should all select one field and work that field for the rest of our working lives. And as success is a common end-goal for everyone, it then only seems logical that we follow this tried and true path to it.

Is this then really the only reason that being directionless in life is frowned upon socially? If being successful means doing A, then is anything that deviates from doing A, bad? Is there a B option or a C option?

Uncertainty in life can bring upon a host of benefits and grow us in ways we do not expect. Uncertainty can shed perspectives we’ve never expected to see before. And while uncertainty is a common fear among all of us, it can strengthen us immensely once we learn how to overcome it.

At heart, we are all uncertain

There seems to be several themes common to the average undergraduate college student of today. One, they enjoy partying and two, they don’t know what is it that they want to do in life. They would tell me “Newton, I’m screwed because I’m a junior and I don’t know what I want to major in.” I would reply “That’s okay. I’ve been out of college for a few years now and I still don’t know what I am doing” with me wanting to follow that thought with “Hey by the way, you should consider dropping out.”

I’ve met people, and I’m sure I will meet plenty more, who are working lucrative jobs in fields that are exactly what they pursued while in college. On paper, nothing seems to be amiss. They’re financially well off and they’re living a life of relevance and comfort. And yet, at least several of these people have expressed a degree of dissatisfaction with their careers. What’s going on?

Everyone needs to not know what it is they want to do

Yes, you read that right. A period of not knowing what the hell it is you want to do in life can be a period of enlightenment and liberation for just about all of us. Do you like what you do now? What if you got fired? What if your business fails? Would this cause fear or enlightenment?

Entrepreneur and financial advisor Ramit Sethi once emphasized a phrase that has stuck with the alcoves of my mind. In one of his videos, Ramit explained why we as job-seekers tend to send out copious amounts of resumes to numerous employers despite the low success rate in obtaining a response, let alone an interview. Ramit explains by saying that when we look for jobs, “we do what we know.” As humans are naturally great at pattern recognition, we tend to follow what is proven to be successful as it is the safe and seemingly likely way to achieve success.

Yet, what we know is not what always works for all of us. Sure, we know that pursuing and obtaining higher level and advanced degrees would enable us greater career opportunities. We know that certain professions such as doctors and engineers lead lives of financial stability and professional prestige. We know that the way forward at a company is going up the corporate ladder. We avoid doing everything we don’t know, and it’s what we don’t know that may answer us what we should do.

Doing a little of everything can be education in the best form

When asked to think of what education means, images of textbooks and multiple-choice tests are conjured up in the minds of many. I, however, like to think that education goes well beyond what happens inside a classroom. Some of the most valuable forms of education comes from exposure: exposure to people, exposure to cultures and exposure to different fields, trades and industries of work. By not knowing what it is you want to do, you could seek this through working various jobs. By working various jobs you acquire a greater knowledge, experience and understanding of what exactly drives our economy and our society.

Furthermore, akin to traveling, exposure increases our capacity for empathy, a highly valuable trait in pursuing a life of quality relationships. An article by Psychology Today on testing your empathy states that “we should imagine what it is like to sit in a small cubicle all day facing a computer that dictates to us almost everything we do and say. We have to imagine we are low salaried employees, single parents or students working to pay for school. We have to envision spending our days dealing with frustrated and angry customers, getting yelled at regularly, called horrible names and not being able to respond in kind for fear of losing our jobs.”

Rather than imagine, working a variety of jobs let’s us actually experience and understand the challenges workers in different fields face. Increasing empathy through this can help all of us gain appreciation for what people do and what people go through. An asset of this kind becomes invaluable in the long term as understanding people helps you understand better how to achieve whatever goals and endeavors you will have.

Do what feels right and do what you love

Common among those of us who don’t exactly know what path is right is the fact that we often do have aspirations and passions but refrain from pursuing them for a number of reasons. Perhaps we’ve been discouraged by our parents and our peers from doing so early on, perhaps we’ve tried in the past and failed or perhaps we are holding ourselves back from fear of failure or the impression that nothing meaningful would come of it anyway.

A concept of utmost importance is to understand that the purpose of a career shouldn’t be confined to simply succeeding (by whatever definition of success) and achieving wealth, but to provide value of the highest form in a particular field. In other words, develop your talents and skills that feel most natural and appealing to you. Don’t shape your skills around what is considered to be the tried and true path forward. Realizing this, there is little reason to not pursue and grow that what interests you the most.

Furthermore, realize that at the end of it all, being uncertain and lacking direction does not at all confine you to a lifelong state of this fate. Uncertainty allows us to explore and discover ourselves, build new relationships and gain understanding. Through this, is it likely that you do end up finding something that will both reward you and something that you find to be completely rewarding.