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What are the first few steps to figuring out what to do with your life when the choices are so vast?

For many the hardest mystery to solve is figuring out who you are, what your passionate about and then how you want to share that with the world generally through the career you choose.

It is so difficult in fact, that many people never figure out what they really want to do with their life. The conundrum of figuring out one's inner self and true passions can be confusing enough but add a myriad of career choices or life paths to the mix and a young college student has quite a dilemma on their hands. “One effect of all this choice,” Barry Schwartz sites in his TED talk on the Paradox of Choices, “is that it produces paralysis, rather than liberation." This means that smart, intelligent people could be paralyzed into defaulting into a career field they don’t care much for after all, end up with multiple degrees and a mound of debt or no degree at all because it was all too overwhelming and they never chose.

How should someone figure out what to do with their life? Are there rules of thumb, do you just pick and hope for the best or do you systematically come up with a plan? If you can't decide what do you do? Should you look at your personality, preferences, strengths and weaknesses and figure out the sum? And shoot, in this economy is a degree even worth it? What about other options? How does intuition or our gut play into our decision? What is the best advice we currently have to help individuals figure it out for themselves? How did YOU decide on what you wanted to do with your life?

  • Jan 9 2012: When you don't know what to do with your life, go to a train station and buy a ticket for the nearest train. Talk to the people while you're travelling. When you arrive, go to a bar, club, theatre or whatever strike your fancy. Get drunk, a lot, even if only to make certain that it's bad for you. To pay for your stay pick the first job that you come across. Don't complain, just do it. Even if only for a while. Bungee-jump off of a bridge. Break a bone and laugh at the stupidity of the thing you tried to do. Do whatever crazy thing comes to your head. Then move somewhere else and do it all over again.

    There is this strange trend where people believe that life has to be spot on, according to plan and what not. If they don't have a plan or screw up at any point it's like it's game over...

    But I believe that it's those unforeseen or extreme (or both) experiences that mean the most in life. Kind of "What won't kill you will only make you stronger" thing. The more things you do, and the larger variety of them, the more you gain in terms of character and that awareness that there are little to no problem's which you can't handle.

    Let's say it out loud. Life isn't about the job you have. You can have dozens of jobs throughout your life and not find the one that would define you. So, stop trying to make everything perfect, and learn to have fun. Even if you're shy or insecure, start slow. But don't sit around thinking what to do. Do something. Do anything.

    Join an acting club even if you're not so great at it. Start a band simply because you want to spend more time with your friends. What the heck, sing along when you see a performer on the street. Do the first thing that comes to your mind and deal with the problems as they come.

    Trust me, somewhere along the way you'll just stop, look at the people around you and say "Guys, that was fun. But I have to go now..." and you'll instinctively know where to go and what you want to do there.
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    Jan 18 2012: Dear Fiorella,
    This question only becomes a "conundrum" when you percieve it in that way. A "young college student" can percieve the possibilities and opportunities as "quite a dilemma on their hands", or s/he can percieve the life experience as a limitless opportunity. Why is it necessary for a young college age person to choose, at that time in his/her life, the one activity/career that s/he will explore for the rest of his/her life? I am 65 years of age, my interests/careers have changed several times so far, and I anticipate that my interests will continue to change until I take my last breath. There is no need to pressure oneself, or accept pressure from other sources to make a decision. Explore, try many different things until you find what excites and motivates you. Let go of the mindset of what "should" I do, and follow your heart:>)

    If "smart, intelligent people" feel "paralyzed" because s/he has TOO MANY choices, I suggest that s/he may not be as smart/intelligent as s/he thinks? Do you know how many people in our world have NO apparent choices, and manage to live a very fulfilled life as they evolve in themselves while supporting, encouraging others on their life journey as well? It is a choice in many cases, and those who choose to feel "paralyzed" are simply giving up his/her choice. That doesn't seem very "intelligent"....does it?
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      Jan 19 2012: If you follow the Barry Schwarz talk, there is evidence showing that it is actually easier to be happy when you have limited choice. I think this is a character thing more than a question of intelligence. Lots of choice is especially crippling to 'maximizers', those people who always need to feel they made the best choice. Often these people are highly successful and intelligent, but are maybe less happy than people who are fine with 'good enough'. I think its difficult to judge someone else's view of the world without actually experiencing it.
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        Jan 19 2012: Bob,
        You are absolutely right! Actually, there are several TED talks which give evidence, and/or effectively show us, that it may actually be "easier to be happy when you have limited choice". I agree with you that it may be "a character thing more than a question of intelligence".

        The reason I suggested "intelligent", is because the facilitator of this conversation, Fiorella Bonicelli brought to the table the statement..."This means that smart, intelligent people could be paralyzed into defaulting into a career field they don’t care much for after all, end up with multiple degrees and a mound of debt or no degree at all because it was all too overwhelming and they never chose".

        I was/am simply addressing the topic:>)..
  • Jan 16 2012: There's an old saying, "You don't get anywhere standing still", I can't exactly tell you how to decide what to do for the rest of your life, or what steps to take to start to decide, but I can advise you this, do something. Most people end up in your situation numerous times throughout life, with more experience you start to realize that walking the path of life tends to get you to where you want to be even if you had no intention of going there. If you plan on going to a University, go to the University, take classes, learn, meet people, form you image of yourself through your experiences. In the end that's how it will work regardless of what path you think you've chosen anyhow. The worst thing you can do is nothing at all, if you can't decide right now you probably aren't ready. Some people won't know their passion til they are well past school age, if they waited around trying to figure it out A) They probably would never realize it and B) They would have wasted a whole lot of their time trying to decide when they could have been living and deciding whether they knew it or not.
    • Jan 18 2012: These have been my sentiments exactly as of late. At some point the thinking and analyzing has to go and a choice just has to be made... and if it doesn't work out, then a change in directions is always possible I suppose... thank you for the insights!
    • Jan 18 2012: And I really agree .. "The worst thing you can do is nothing at all.."
      • Jan 18 2012: I'd like to add to this. If you can't decide what your passion in life is now, go to school for something you know you're good at that gives you the best shot of landing a job after school. This will do a few things, you'll have a degree you can use and you'll be making money. Another thing it will do is give you life and work experience. Lastly what it will do is show future potential employers that you're willing to work and do what you have to do to get things going. You may not end up in that carreer forever, but then again you may, you never know. If you work hard good things happen, people take notice and it ends up rewarding you. You'd also be surprised how many people end up getting degrees and landing good jobs that are barely related to their degree.
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          Jan 18 2012: Excellent ideas Michael. I also find that volunteer work is a good way to explore different interests and possible careers, gives us life/work experiences and shows potential employers that we're willing to spend the time and effort. I agree...people take notice:>)

          With almost all of the social services volunteer positions I've held in the past 20 years, I could have had a job in any of them when staff positions became available, because I was dependable, consistant, and did the "job" well, even if it was a volunteer position. I was, however, "retired" and wanted to stay that way:>) I also found that as a volunteer, I had more freedom to work "outside" the boundaries limiting the staff at times>)
    • Jan 18 2012: Very very true as you say Michal, Failure has no space in doing.
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        Jan 23 2012: I don't agree with this statement. Failure MEANS you are doing. Failure is an inevitable consequence of doing. I have tried several career paths. The one I love (art) has marginal successes but for the most part has been a failure. It is too easy to think that everyone has or can have the same or similar experience that we have.
        Life happens, there are no do-overs, there is only keep moving, keep learning, keep trying. Many many people have spent lifetimes battling disappointment and failure. This does not mean they have no value or that they suffered from paralysis, it does not mean they achieved less or that they are sheep. It only means that the result of what they contributed outlasted them.
  • Jan 23 2012: Fiorella, great question!! When I read it I was amazed by how accurate you describe what I'm thinking at this point in my life. I couldn't have said it better.
    I haven't found any answers yet and the future doesn't look too bright for me, I'm in my second year at college, doing something that is really well-paid but I definitely do NOT like what I do and now I realized that the only reason I'm doing it is that I do not know what else to do. I have no idea what I like, what I'm good at (though this could probably be fixed by experiencing some other jobs) and I have no idea what to do next. The only 'acceptable' solution I found and the one I'm sticking to right now is to do what I have started already, until I get to that point in my life when I say "Stop!" and move on to something else, although starting from the beginning is not so intriguing.. Also I'm trying to read & listen to great people, great books and great stories, hoping that it will point me in a direction eventually. That's how I go this TED talk (which is amazing by the way).
    Good luck with finding what you like and at doing it the rest of your life!
  • Jan 19 2012: I think this question is very insightful. I, too, have been paralyzed by the vastness of possibilities for my life. Based on my limited experience, I would recommend the following things for someone facing these decisions.
    1. Recognize that you will make mistakes.
    2. Avoid financial pitfalls. This can be huge. Avoid graduate degrees that have no immediate job payoff. That sounds incredibly dream-crushing of me, but it is important to pay your bills. Don't lie to yourself and think that making money isn't important if you are following your dreams. You can follow your dreams after you get off work from your professional job. You don't want to end up with a mountain of debt and a high schooler's after school job making lattes. I would also avoid going to graduate school just because you don't know what else to do.
    3. Talk to people who have jobs that interest you. Limit yourself to three or four interesting fields, find someone who works in those fields, and talk to them. Can you picture yourself doing what they do? Make sure you learn about their bad days at work as well as their good days. Compare your temperament and personality to theirs. Do they seem happy in their jobs?
    4. This might sound stupid to a young person, but ask your parents what they think you would be good at. They've raised you, so they should know you pretty well. I honestly wish I had done this when I was in college. Your parents are a really valuable resource, even if you don't know it yet. (You may skip this step if your parents are in prison, have major mental illnesses, or were abusive.)
    5. Just do it. Make the decision. If you're wrong, you're wrong, and you can change course. But don't have high expectations about every day being perfect once you find the path that's right for you. Even people that love their careers have difficult, stressful, and demanding days. Expect to work hard and keep moving forward.
    Everything will work out.
  • Jan 18 2012: Fiorella, Many congratulations to you ! for the question has come, the answer is bound to come.

    Hang in there, in this state of confusion. Its Ok to be confused, like you said, your body/life might feel choked but your mind/heart/conscious, whatever you call it, is perhaps most active in this state of confusion, it will help you in clearing this fog.

    I'll try and collect my thoughts on this and comeback. However, i might just confuse you further. Let me know if you can handle more confusing than what you already have.
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    Jan 18 2012: Hi Fiorella, answers to most of your questions are there. It would run into a few volumes :)..... you can call me if you want
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    Jan 9 2012: The more yout think the more are the chances of getting confused. The answer to the questions you have raisd be summed up in just two words i.e. 'Be Foccused'..... once you know what you want there is nothing which can confuse.

    You may have noticed that typically when we go to big malls where umpteen choices are there wihch leaves one confused. If the choice is more focused things can be dealt with more easily
    • Jan 18 2012: I agree focus is paramount... (and I am being the devil's advocate here..) but how does one focus? It is easy once you know what you want to do with your life to formulate pragmatic steps to reach your goal - but what does it take to get that focus.. I am just curious if you have any thoughts on concrete steps to figuring out how to focus so I can decide on what to do with my life or maybe concrete steps are just not possible.. maybe life is too abstract and it just comes down to what Adam said above ... you just have to have experiences that help you figure out what you like and don't like... I just find the conundrum of trying to figure out what to do with one's life fascinating and so just curious to push the conversation further if you have any other comments... thanks so much for your thoughts!!