8. What should I do with my life?

NPR ran a story that may hit close to home for many recent college graduates, “I know I’m supposed to follow my passion. But what if I don’t have a passion?” At some point everyone asks the question, “What am I going to do with my life?” The segment introduces a recent Ivy League college graduate, Max, who is trying to maximize his future opportunities, yet questions if passion is really the missing link to solving his equation. The NPR spot closes in on the variable of “passion” by citing the amount of commencement speeches year after year instructing graduates to follow their passion.

Who deemed passion the magic compass to guiding major career and life-path decisions? Is pursuing your passion or following your heart really the best advice, or is there more to the equation?

Max thought so and decided to seek some outside help from an economics professor—here is how he describes his dilemma:

Most of my classmates seemed to have some idea that career and life path choice should be driven by a “passion” such that the right choice is self-evident to the chooser.

I have no such passion. Furthermore, I am a fairly well-qualified young generalist. What paths should most appeal to me if my goal is to maximize doing “interesting” work? Doing meaningful work? Achieving social status? (Which of these goals should be primary?) Need I try to develop a passion before selecting a life path/career, and if so, how do I do it?”

The basic question is how to select a life-path and career, or, “what do I do with my life?”

This is precisely what I do for a living—I help young adults figure out what to do with their lives and careers. As a professional with several years of experience and a background in human development, I have some perspective on this.

The whole concept of passion is vague, overused and perhaps not very useful. Passion can be a factor, but I would not suggest someone base major life-decisions on this one point. By definition, passion is a strong or intense emotion—not the best thing to drive major life-decisions. The word passion comes from the Latin passio which means “suffering.” What if I began my career coaching meetings with a conversation on suffering? I think most people would run for the hills.

Here’s quote from a guy who describes himself as another Max:

I see this “passion” mindset among recent graduates a lot, it often leads to disappointment, cynicism and feeling underrated, because they’ve been promised that degree + passion = a job they love and pays well, without factoring in the time and basic workplace skills needed.

Singularly, passion is not multi-faceted enough to really drive a career, or make pragmatic decisions. It’s why I don’t talk about it explicitly in my career coaching meetings. The question, “what are you passionate about?” often elicits answers about sports, music or some other topic without much utility in helping to determine vocation.

So if not passion, what then?

Figuring out what to do with your life is a process that takes a multi-faceted approach. Deciding between different career and life-paths can be a very daunting and complex question for most twenty-something’s. Here is how one young adult put it:

I lack the focus and discernment concerning what I’m most passionate about and what I can pursue as a viable career. I struggle daily with feelings of uncertainty about my life-goals and I fret over decisions, even seemingly insignificant ones. I feel as if I’m always moving, but never in a truly constructive direction. It’s as if I’m caught in a developmental limbo and it’s both very frustrating and confusing. I have chosen a path to pursue, but I’m nagged by the thoughts of: is this the right path? And will this path pay off psychologically and financially?

The questions and variables to weigh out and sort through are numerous and may be very different between individuals. This is why vocational discernment is usually answered through a dynamic process that takes some time. There are so many factors to consider such as: interests, natural aptitudes/talents, values, vision, personality, resources, what’s important, desired outcomes, and situational opportunities just to name a few. Ultimately, each individual has to make decisions on what is important to them and how they prioritize all of these different things in life. The formal term for this life-course process called individualization, which is becoming increasingly important for young adults in the Information Age. Individualization is the process of developing one’s self as an ‘individual’ involving self-awareness in making life-altering decisions and choosing courses of action from a range of options in education, career, relationships, identity and values.

Dealing with these decisions is what gives many young adults anxiety, which is precisely why I’ve created Prepare a Future℠. In this process, factors that I help people assess in their overall picture are: strengths and weaknesses, developmental liabilities, real and perceived opportunities and threats, personal and professional identity, relational issues, as well as family and economic circumstances. Career is so integral to every other area of life that we often delve into other parallel matters that relate to profession.

Does your life drive your career, or does your career drive your life? What matters? How to prioritize?

It’s this process of asking really good questions and finding the right questions that really delivers the best results for solid long term decisions and knowing the ‘whys’ behind those decisions. This often requires outside help, yet the final decisions are the responsibility of the individual as they have to live with the choices they have made. It’s worth noting here success does not come about from one decision; rather success comes from the many little decisions over the years..

So if it’s not discovering your passion, what makes the difference in figuring out what to do with your life?

The answer is: those who engage proactively in this individualization process. Research exists to indicate that those who put systematic effort into the individualization process transition to adulthood faster and report higher levels of satisfaction in career, life, and relationships long term. In other words, they own their development and are more likely to build valuable identity capital and wisely steward their resources (such as their time, talents, and relationships).

Conversely, there are young adults who don’t spend much time or effort thinking about these things and thus don’t form the necessary foundations for which to make important career and life decisions. They may become overwhelmed when thinking about it or put it off in favor of activities with greater instant gratification such as video games, surfing the Net, or partying. Adopting this type of passive strategy leads to a more haphazard life of circumstance and confusion. This type of default individualization leaves young adults open to their life-decisions being determined by others or mass cultural influences.

The good thing about Max is that even though he may feel at a loss in how to make the best decisions today, he has clearly demonstrated a proactive approach to answering his question and will likely find a well-fitting vocation—perhaps one he even develops a passion for.

If you don’t have a passion, don’t fret, yet take ownership of your own personal and professional development by adopting a proactive individualization strategy, and in the persistent seeking you will figure out what to do with your life. If this post has made you think more about your own life decisions, don’t stop there: start writing down your thoughts, take inventory of your personal strengths and weaknesses, or make a lifetime wish list.

Stop and think.

Prepare a Future

Contact me or comment below, I want to hear your thoughts.

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