How To Know What You Want To Do In Life

“Hi Celes, I have no idea what I want to do. I wish I am strong enough to concentrate on one single thing and do everything to be the best at it. I believe it is the only way of attaining something. My problem is that the variety of decisions make my head spin. I envy those who from their early days know what they’ll be and what they’ll do. Please help.” — M

Getting clarity on what to do is one of the most common questions I get from readers and clients alike. For some of my clients, they feel they are entering a period of their life where they should have clarity in what they want to do. Hence, not knowing what they want to do makes them feel frustrated. They feel that if they can quickly discover what they want to do, they can get started on it right away, rather than waste time doing seemingly unrelated things.

Here’s the thing though. To get an idea of what you want to do, you have to first base it off a reference point. This reference point is based on your past experiences. If you have not accumulated a set amount of experiences, you can’t possibly generate a meaningful answer in that regard.

For example, let’s say you want to buy a mobile phone. However, you have never used a mobile phone in your life. You don’t know how a mobile phone is like or what kind of functions it has, much less all the brands out there and the differences between the models.

What gives?

Will you:

  1. Sit at home and mull over what mobile phone you should buy, waiting for the answer would pop in at some point. Maybe an eureka will strike, maybe it won’t ever, but either way you don’t plan to do anything until the answer comes. OR
  2. Get to know what a mobile phone is. Go out there and explore the different mobile phones available. If possible, you want to try them out too, say by using your friends’ mobiles and visiting the phone shops.

Which option will help you make progress in your dilemma? Which option will give you new insights, new information, and new data points for you to base your decision on? Which option is a more reliable method to get you what you want?

If you are thinking option 2, we are thinking the same thing.

You see where I’m getting at with this?

The fog in your mind

For you to know what you want to do, you have to have some kind of experience you can refer to. Now, if you have never been out there getting into the thick of things, there’s not going to be a lot of things to reference with in your mind. There’s a fog in your mind, and the fog exists because you have never ventured much beyond your current point.

It’s like asking what’s your favorite sport when you’ve never exercised in your life. Or what’s your favorite book when you only read less than a book a year. Or what’s your favorite restaurant when you don’t eat out at all.

The fog will remain as long as you stay still. It’ll still be uncertain, hazy, possibly confusing and disempowering. To clear out the fog, you need to explore. You need to get out there and start trying out different things. You need to gain experience, to pick up new knowledge, to get into new situations. By building up as many of these experiences as possible, you create a baseline reference point in your mind. The more experiences you get, the more knowledgeable you become, the clearer you are of what you don’t like and what you do like, and the more you discover what you don’t want to do and what you DO want to do.

How I discovered what I truly want to do in life

One of the key things that helped me discover my purpose back in 2006 was because I went all out in all my goal pursuits and in pursuing my interests before that. It wasn’t like I had complete clarity of what I wanted to do in life previously. All I knew (as a kid) was I wanted to make the best out of my life and be a person of value to the society, and that meant doing my best and achieving my highest potential.

And that was what I did. I went all out to pursue my goals. I would put my heart and soul in everything I did. Whatever my goals were, from achievement goals, to academia goals, to business goals (I had a graphic design business last time, and ran a network of successful internet sites back when I was in secondary school), I would set my eyes on the top prize and go all out for them. Whatever my interests were, from making desktop wallpapers, to computer skins, to web/graphic design, to fashion/cosmetics, to gaming, I pursued them fervently. I never held back.

The whole process of setting goals, strategizing, planning, taking action, reviewing the results and readjusting my plans, and finally achieving the results, was eye opening. Every step of the journey, I learned something new about the world and myself. I grew as a person, and I became more self-aware. Learned more about myself, my strengths, my blind spots, my values, what I liked, what I didn’t like. I realized that things I used to think were important to me were actually not what I wanted. I came to realizations I never saw coming.

I would never have realized any single one of these things if I had never fervently pursued my growth, goals, and interests. With the kind of energy I put in my pursuits, it exposed me to an extremely wide range of situations and experiences. It was then a matter of time before I finally realized what I wanted to do.

Gaining Experience: Breadth and Depth

Hence, the key to know what you want to do is to get out there and gain as much experience as you can – both (1) Breadth of experiences (2) Depth of experiences.

  1. Breadth of experiences refers to the variety of things you do. Say if you have only studied engineering and worked as an engineer all your life, it’s time to start something new, that’s different from engineering. It can be anything – from dancing, drawing, finance, marketing, business, food & beverage, music, painting, etc. The more new things you try, the greater the breadth of experiences you build up.
  2. Depth of experiences refers to the intensity of how much you have done something. If you have always viewed engineering with a lackluster attitude, never putting in the extra time to know it better, and just doing what’s necessary to scrap by in the subject, you’d be building an average level of experience with it. Whereas if you have intensely strove to be the top engineer, studying top engineers, taking on all new projects that emerge and reading the best engineering texts, your depth of experience is going to be way more in comparison. The depth of your experiences in the subject can increase by an increased time spent on it, as well as just increasing your focus and energy when you are doing it.

Where to start off?

At this point you must be wondering where to start first, since there are so many different possibilities. My recommendation will be to start off by doing the things you already have some interest in. (whether it’s interest to try or interest to pursue further). Here’s a 5-step process to get you started on finding what you want to do.

  1. Take out a piece of pen and paper. For the next 30 minutes, please write out a list of all the things you have always wanted to try, but have never tried. Also, write down the things you would want to try today. Don’t overthink it. Don’t think about the feasibility. Don’t think about how you are going to act on it. The point of this step is to know your WHAT first before devising your HOW. Just write.
  2. After you are done, look back at the list. What are the things you are interested to try today? Circle them. It can be a few, it can be some, it can even be all.
  3. Now, rank them. What is the thing you want to try out first? Label that as number 1. Then, move on to the thing you want to try next. Label that as number 2. And so on and so forth, until you get to the very last item you circled.
  4. Now, it’s time to think about the HOW. How can you start trying the first few items you circled? Some of you may experience fear when trying new things. That’s because you overcomplicate the process in your mind. You don’t have to quit your job, stop your studies, or denounce whatever you are doing. You can continue what you are currently doing and try out something new, all at the same time. Just start off with little steps. Taking a course. Volunteering at a related organization. Consulting someone who is experienced in this area. Reading up on it. Draw up a plan to get working on the items on your list. Get up close with personal.
  5. As you gain an increase breadth and depth of experiences, you will start getting a clearer idea of what you don’t want to do, and what you do want to do.

Key Step: Take action

At the end of the day, it’s all about taking action to gain new experiences. Go ahead and try everything you want. Seek externally. Regroup periodically by introspecting and checking if you are moving in the right track. And as you gain a critical mass of experiences – both the breadth and the depth, the answer will be clear to you.

The most important thing of all is to maximize every experience you are in, give yourself fully to every moment and  not to forget to live life to the fullest every step of the way. I gather the reason why you want to know what to do in life is because you want to make the most out of life, so it’ll be ironic to miss out on living in the process of trying to find what you want to do. Knowing the answer wouldn’t make a difference if you are not even living in the present. Soak in the life you have now and appreciate everything you get to experience, good or bad, ups or downs. That’s when you truly live life to the fullest.

Be sure to read Meaning of Life: Discover Your Purpose, 7-part series on how to discover your purpose.

Check out my How To Pursue Your Passion series for more articles on pursuing your passion.