“You can do anything you want to do with your life.” That’s the remark that every school, college and university student who’s considering their career options is bound to have heard a thousand times.
And it’s true. Your whole life is ahead of you, and the person you want to become shapes the person you will become. But what if you don’t know what you want?
It’s a struggle most university and college students experience, but it can happen at any stage in your life. Perhaps you’re making a drastic career change, going through a divorce, or just having an existential crisis.
Here’s how to combat the issue.
Who Do I Want to Be?
This question is often misinterpreted as something much harder to answer than it actually is. I’m not asking what career you want or where you see yourself in 10 years.
All I am asking is what sort of person do you want to be? This question is closely linked to the sort of things you value, which shape the personality traits you possess and the behaviour you undergo.
Psychologist Steven Stosny has developed four easy steps to determine such values:
- Value is something you must be willing to invest time and effort into. It is something you must be willing to sacrifice objects, people, experiences and behaviours for. When establishing which values you have, ask yourself: “would I be willing to invest my time in this?” Values can be anything, from reliability and loyalty to open-mindedness.
- Core values are values that you hold over and above anything else. They inspire you to become the best version of yourself and are often referred to as “what you stand for.” Breach of them makes you feel guilty and creates a loss in sense of self. When establishing these values, ask yourself “what do I value above everything else?” Most people answer with things such as love and attachment rather than superficial things like food or sex.
- Outward flowing value. Stosny states that authentic value should be created by us, flowing outwardly rather than inwardly. For example, it doesn’t feel good to be loved by others when you don’t love anyone yourself. When determining your values, ask yourself, “how am I going to create this value in and through myself?” This could be by trying new things, smiling more, or helping those in need.
- Emotions and value. Although emotions are often interpreted as important, here, they are counterproductive. This is because they are contingent, and reflect more about our environment and circumstances, than they do about us as people. Feelings of anger, for example, might reflect the fact you were just fired from a job. When establishing your values ask yourself “are my emotions getting the better of me?” A good way of determining this is by asking whether you will feel the same in an hour when your emotions and anger have vanished. If no, then these are not a reflection of your values.
Drawing Stosny’s four-part theory to a close, by following these steps you are able to determine what you value above anything else: things that reflect your true and authentic self, rather than anything false and contingent.
Now you have determined these, we can now use them as a guide to shape the people we wish to become.
Small Goals Make a Big Future
Having a sense of direction doesn’t require you to know where you want to be in ten years time. In reality, I think most people have no idea where there’ll be by then.
And the more I think about it, I doubt many people would want to know, either. One of life’s greatest adventures is the unknown. There’s something exciting about not knowing where you will be next.
Instead, self-direction ought to be more guided towards short-term goals that reflect your values.
One way to do this is to sit down every morning and list five ways in which you aim to implement your core values through small, easy and manageable steps. Do something nice for someone you care about, try something new, or take on a new challenge that interests you — for example.
(Scientists call this technique of breaking down tasks into small, easy to manage tasks Heuristics.)
For me, one of my core values is curiosity and personal development. So I set myself the task of reading one philosophy, personal development or Psychology piece a day.
These small practices based on your core values shape your habits and tendencies, and as a result, will start to shape your future self.
Over time, you will find that you won’t need to think or write down these values. They’ll become unconscious and automatic behavioural tendencies that reflect who you are.
To give you an example: one of my good friends at university, without realising, refuses to order food that he has tried before when he goes to a restaurant. He insists on trying something new every time, and this reflects his core values of open-mindedness, creativity and positivity.
“Focus on making choices to lead your life that aligns with your core values in the most purposeful way possible.”
― Roy T. Bennett
Doors Open On Their Own
The more you start making small, manageable goals for yourself, the more you will find yourself surrounded by people who are on the same path as you. People with similar values, interests, likes and dislikes.
It is then that doors, opportunities and paths will start to open by themselves. People will start to recognise your hard work, your compassion, creativity or other strong habits that are shaped by your core values. These will inevitably shape your future — whether that’s through being offered a new job, the relationships you form or the mindset that you inevitably adopt.
People often say your career is shaped not by what you know, but who you know, and while this is true, it’s important to note that the people you know are also shaped by you and your values. Consequently, you remain in control of your future, rather than things outside of your control.
So stop worrying about the future or your future career prospects. Focus more on the person you want to be in the here and now and you’ll find that everything else will fall into place naturally.
“I feel very adventurous. There are so many doors to be opened, and I’m not afraid to look behind them.”
― Elizabeth Taylor
When questioning the person you want to be, stop trying to answer impossible questions and instead focus on the following:
- Establish your core values: what you hold as the most important in your life, and what gives you a sense of self.
- Use these to develop small, manageable goals which will shape the person you want to be and will create strong, positive, enduring habits that will soon become natural.
- Remember, one of life’s greatest adventures is the unknown, so start taking life one day at a time and let doors open for themselves.