If there’s one skill I have, it’s worrying. I’m good at worrying about everything. From things that are worth worrying about to things I have no business being concerned with, I can find myself going down the rabbit hole of panic for just about anything.
This comes out most frequently after I am asked the question, “What do you want to do with your life?”
I know that people ask this in a well-meaning way. They want to engage with your interests, so they are letting you steer the conversation. They may just be asking the question because they don’t know what else to say. In either case, I think it’s safe to assume that the question isn’t borne from a bad place.
And yet, it’s so easy for me to go down a spiral of self-doubt when asked this question. It isn’t the fault of the person who asked, of course. Rather, as soon as I am posed the question, my mind starts racing. What am I trying to accomplish? Sure, I might be doing some interesting things right now, but where am I headed?
This tends to make me realize that I don’t have a fully crystallized plan. Then, it’s a simple hop to wondering if what I’m doing is a good use of my limited time. I start questioning if I should quit and go on a different journey while I still can. Often, this negative mood can last for a few days, making me question everything I do.
Thankfully, I am also averse to making rash decisions, which means I don’t act on these impulses. Instead, I let them stew within me, and after a few days, they dissipate. However, I do think it’s worth reflecting on what exactly is going on here. Panicking each time I am forced to think about my plans for the future is not something I want to keep on doing. It’s stressful, it puts me in a bad mood, and it isn’t very helpful.
When I think about the root of the issue, I think the key is in the word “certainty”. I want to have a plan that is certain. I want to decide on a future I would like to live in, plot a course on a map, and follow it until I get to that future. In essence, I want a clear guidepost that I can point to whenever someone asks me the question of what I want to do with my life.
I’m also starting to appreciate how big of a question this is. I think we fool ourselves into thinking that this should be straightforward, since we pose it to kids when they are very young. We don’t expect them to have an answer, but I don’t think we verbalize this either. As such, kids get the message that they should know what they want in their life, and this can be discouraging to those who don’t have a clear idea (which I suspect is most!).
I think it’s fantastic if you know what you want in your life. This gives you an objective to shoot for, which is a lot easier than chasing after nothing in particular. However, I also think that many people don’t have that objective or dream. Therefore, it’s worth doing the difficult work of reflecting on what you like and what could be made into a career.
In my own life, I’ve struggled to figure out what I wanted to do. I started off with the idea of becoming an engineer. That changed when I became interested in theoretical physics, and my focus shifted once again when I realized how much I enjoyed teaching. There’s a common thread to these interests, but I think it’s also good to point out that my path has never been solidified in my mind. At least, it didn’t remain solid for long.
What I have started to realize is that I probably won’t find a clear path for myself, and that’s okay. While certainty is nice, it isn’t required to live a life of meaning. Instead, my new plan is to go after my interests. There might not be a clear plan associated with them, but if I have something that I’m passionate about, I should do it. I will forget about setting myself up for a lifetime career. That’s nice, but it isn’t required.
Of course, I know that I can say this from a place of privilege. Not everyone has the chance to pursue their interests in a carefree capacity. I want to acknowledge that so those reading have an idea of the context surrounding my words.
My primary concern is to stop being worried about having fully formed career plans. A career plan would be nice, but I just don’t know what I want to do forever. Most importantly, that’s okay. I’m not “behind” for not having plans that extend for ten or twenty years. My path might not be certain, but I do know that my best guide so far has been my interests. Therefore, I should pay close attention to what I like and follow those interests.
It’s very easy to look at the plans that other people have and feel inadequate. Truthfully, I feel this all the time. I think, “I wish I could be as certain and confident about what I want to do as they are.” I want to have a complete plan. However, I realize that this isn’t what I have at the moment, and that’s not a problem. As long as I keep pursuing ideas that interest me, I will be okay.
A certain path is fun, but it isn’t necessary. Don’t feel bad if you haven’t mapped out your life for the next few decades. You aren’t failing, and you can still do great work.