How to Figure Out What You Really Want to Do With Your Life

A photo of the "Thinking Man" statue

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At any stage in life, deciding what you want to “do” with your life can feel fraught. It can come when you’re 18 or when you’re 50, and it’s always a difficult process to work through—especially if a recent life change or job loss has thrown you off a prior path. But as stressful as this time is, it can also be exciting. You just need a few strategies to help you figure things out.

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Discovering what you really want to do with your life isn’t an easy task for anyone, nor is it something one can really create a step-by-step guide for. That said, when you’re not really sure what you want to do—what career to enter, what lifestyle to adopt, or anything else—a few different exercises can help you pinpoint what it is you truly want. Here are four ways to try to figure out what you want from your future.

Think about where you’ll be in five years

The “where do you see yourself in five years?” question pops up in everything from job interviews to financial plans, and while it seems cliché, it’s common for a reason: it works. It’s one of those annoyingly difficult questions to answer, and in most cases, it’s pretty much impossible to answer in a concrete way. Thankfully, that’s okay; sometimes just trying to answer the question is all you need to do.

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Considering how common a piece of advice it is, the idea of seeing into the future and picturing where you’ll be in five years is a heck of a lot harder than you’d think. Plus, the chances you’ll actually end up where you see yourself are pretty slim. That said, and as Adam Savage points out on the Tested, the exercise of talking about where you see yourself in five years is still useful. He shares this story:

The thing that you feel like you really want to do is the thing to pursue. You will not end up there, and that reminds me of one of Kurt Vonnegut’s off-quoted statements is the punchline to his favorite joke: ‘Keep your hat on. We may end up miles from here…”

I remember being 19 and meeting a girlfriend’s mom, and she asks me, “What are your going to be doing in five years?” And I named something I thought I’d do. She listened to me give this long explanation, and she said, “You’re not going to be doing any of that. You have no idea what you’ll be doing in five years. You’ll be doing something really cool, but it’s not something you can imagine right now.” It’s one of the greatest things that anyone gave me. She was totally right. Every five years it’s the same. I can never imagine where I ended up from where I started.

Savage’s point here is pretty simple: It doesn’t really matter where you think you’ll be in five years, but it’s still important to think about it, because doing so can give you the idea you want to pursue. As far as careers are concerned, Harvard Business Review takes a similar approach, recommending you think about what you want to learn in the next five years:

What capabilities will you have wanted to build in five years? For example, “I can’t say exactly what I’m going to be doing in five years, but I hope to have further developed my skills as a strategist and people manager.” This is a safe way to answer regardless of your age or career stage. “You don’t want to ever give the impression that you’re done learning,” says Weintraub.

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It’s a simple idea, and very similar to Savage’s approach, but it shifts the focus so you’re directly concentrating on what you’ll need to get to a place where you’ll be happy in five years. As we’ve pointed out before, picking a lifestyle to pursue instead of a job title can help you focus in what you’re really interested in, and this is one way to do that.

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Write your personal manifesto

The concept of a personal manifesto might sound a little silly on the surface, but the idea is about more than telling the world what you think. If writing it helps you figure out where you stand on certain ideas, you might be able to flesh out a possible career or lifestyle path. Silly or not, the tool of a personal manifesto has been implemented by companies like Google and people like Frank Lloyd Wright. The point, as The Art of Manliness says, is to give yourself a call to action to define how you want to do things. It’s easy to write your own manifesto, and while you don’t have to do it in a specific way. The Art of Manliness has a few suggestions for getting started:

  • Pick your topics: Pick a few topics to concentrate on, and make them as specific as you can. Ideas like, “The hours I want to work,” or “How I want to commute” are great for narrowing in on what kind of work you might be interested in.
  • Set down your principles: Write down your beliefs and intentions. It probably sounds a little over-the-top, but if you’ve never really written down and thought about your morals or beliefs then this is a good time to do so.
  • Use strong, affirmative language: It’s easy to write a manifesto with words like “I want” or “I should” but that’s not helping you. Write it out with affirmative language like, “I will,” or use the present tense with “I am.”

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The main purpose of the personal manifesto is to help you really figure out what you care about, how you perceive yourself, and how you want to act moving forward. It’s not always a key to figuring out exactly what you want to do with your life, but it’s a great starting point for at least figuring out how you want to go about those goals. Grab a pen, some paper, and get to writing out what you believe.

Volunteer (or shadow someone) in a job that interests you

One of the reasons figuring out what we want to do is so terrifying is because we tend to overcommit. Want to maybe write that book? Go to grad school! Thinking about being a lawyer? Apply for law school! When you up the ante on plans, they get real serious, real fast, and it’s hard to make a decision with that kind of pressure. So don’t overcommit to an idea. Instead, take a couple days to try on the lifestyle. To do this, you can try volunteering or shadowing someone at their job—while recognizing that you might need to hold off on this option for another six months or so until everyone has a chance to get vaccinated.

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We’ve talked before about finding a volunteer gig you enjoy. The idea here is to put yourself in a position where you’ll learn something and try on a new career. If you’re struggling to really figure out what you want to do with yourself, volunteer work is a way to try out a ton of different jobs without committing to any of them. Contrary to what you might think, volunteer work can include all kinds of work, including coding or manual labor. Volunteer Match is a good place to start the hunt for volunteer work.

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Likewise, job shadowing is another way to get a closer look at an industry without committing to long hours in school or worse, getting the job and finding out you hate it. Monster has a few suggestions for how to go about shadowing:

While students and recent graduates have long embraced job shadowing, Crawford, author of Flying Solo: Career Transition Tips for Singles, says everyone should consider job shadowing, especially in this economy. “You have to be more assertive than ever with your career, and asking for the opportunity to shadow someone is a way to not only learn what that job is like, but to expand your network as well,” she says.

Crawford, who is based in Atlanta, notes that certain industries lend themselves well to job shadowing, including medicine and law. However, you can usually plan a job shadow for any kind of job. Your college’s career center, alumni association or your local chamber of commerce can all be instrumental in helping to arrange a job shadow if your immediate network doesn’t yield any possibilities.

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Obviously job shadowing is tailored to college students, but it’s possible for anyone to give it a try, especially if you’re willing to work a day or two for free in your chosen industry. To actually find someone to shadow, your best bet is to call up a company and try to set up and appointment to do so. You might need to go through a few options before you land a place that’ll let you do it, but offering to work for free during your time is certainly a way to perk the company’s ears up.

Dig into those side projects

Sometimes the best way to really figure out what you want to do is good old trial and error. In a lot of cases, this just means trying out various side projects that interest you in your free time.

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You don’t have to be too organized about finding a side project. It might be as simple as finding a hobby you enjoy (Love podcasts? Start one. Like knitting? Explore opening an Etsy shop), or as far-reaching as testing out different industries that you might consider looking for a career in. As writer Scott Young describes it, it’s all about being curious, and side projects are a great way to do that:

Instead of making definite decisions about a career path, I believe you should get curious. Get curious about the way the world works. Notice your own interests and find small ways you can exercise passion in something. Even if you can’t find a way to make money off of it yet.

The bridge from passion to money-maker can’t be made hastily. Interests often get discarded because they cannot be immediately relayed into a source of income. And therefore aren’t as important as work that does.

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The idea here is to take on a lot of side projects, learn new skills, or tackle a few passion projects to try and figure out what you want to do with your life. Once you have a few ideas, find the time to actually work on them, teach yourself to stick with it, and just get started.

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The goal here is to give you a better idea of what you want to do with yourself. This might just reveal “the thing you want to pursue” and not your actual career path. That’s okay, because if nothing else it sets you on the path to getting somewhere you want to end up.

In the end, figuring out your passion, your career path, your life purpose—whatever you want to call it—isn’t an easy process and no magic bullet exists for doing it. The fact is, you need to think about it, and to do so you might need to push yourself through some mental hurdles until you figure out exactly what is you’ve been looking for. The above tips are just a few of the many ways to do so.

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This story was originally published on in June 2013 and updated on Dec. 21, 2020 to add additional context and to align the content with current Lifehacker style.

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