Ask Unstuck: What if I don’t know what I want to do?

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” As kids, we answered this dozens of times, and not always the same way. A doctor by day and superhero by night. A teacher who travels on a magic school bus to other planets. A tap dancer… and a brain surgeon! The inquiring adults would smile or chuckle — no one was taking our answers too seriously. Plenty of time to figure it out. But what if we don’t?

Melanie, a 40-year-old working single mom wrote to us because she’s asking herself that very question. She wants to discover her “passion and mission” in life but feels shackled to a dreary office job (anyone relating to this?). And somehow she convinced herself to pursue a bachelor’s degree in a field she’s not even interested in. At the end of her day, any energy to date or socialize has evaporated.

Melanie, we’re not going to tell you want to do. It’s not that we don’t have opinions, but we suspect that it’s other people’s opinions that have led to your very understandable stuck moment. The world is way too good at telling us what we should and shouldn’t want, do, think, believe in. It can be so overpowering that we may not even realize that we’re following someone else’s rules. So Melanie, we applaud you, for recognizing and leaning into your stuck moment.

Your situation is what we call acting like a Drifter — pursuing a goal that isn’t your own. The first step to reverse this is to start trusting yourself. And that means blocking out the noise. Noise is all the advice and warnings and advertisements that filter into our own thoughts and muddy up our ideas.

Noise can also be competing priorities in your life. You need to earn a good living to take care of yourself and your kids. You need to have some fun. You need to connect with other people. And you need to have some amount of gusto for your studies. That’s a lot to tackle all at once. We’re big believers in chunking things out so we don’t get overwhelmed, so let’s focus on your academic pursuit.

We’re curious about why you decided to spend time, money, and energy on a degree you’re not enthusiastic about. Did you read an article that said this area is where the high-paying jobs are? Is it an occupation that runs in the family? Did your best girlfriend ask you to do it with her? Maybe you got a scholarship for this area? Whatever it was, disqualify it as noise. That reason is now kaput. Let’s find a topic that matters to you.

With a quiet mind, consider what you enjoy, what you are good at, what you want to try, and what you believe in. Start at childhood and work your way to the present, creating a running list for each topic. We recommend you add to your lists for about a week — without any input from anyone. Then look for patterns. What themes do you spot from among all your listed items? These should reveal an interest genuine enough to consider pursuing.

Before you leap into practicalities about money spent and time wasted, hang onto your (re)discoveries. Play with the ideas and revel in the possibilities. Daydream. And pay attention to your emotions. While you’re at it, try hard to block out thoughts that start with phrases like “That won’t work because…” or “But what about…” Pragmatics won’t lead you to passions. And we want you to build up your desire and confidence before the outside world tries to crash your party.

And now you’ve begun. This will be a great first step toward creating a goal that means something to you. Notice that we haven’t told you to switch your studies. It’s much more important to pay attention to what you tell yourself to do.

Last week’s Ask Unstuck: I have a plan but I can’t get started

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