“How are you supposed to figure out what you want to do with your life? How am I supposed to pick classes when I have no idea what I want to be? I am so f*** stressed. I have no idea how to figure this out. I don’t know what to do with my life and I have to decide by next week!”
“Oh my god, would you just relax! It’s not that big a deal. Seriously. Just pick something!”
I was in a coffee shop several months ago, working on my latest book (due out this summer!) when I overhead the above snatch of conversation between two girls a few tables away from me. They looked to be high school students in their late teens, and it would seem they were trying to decide on some sort of post-secondary educational program.
This whole bit about not knowing what to do with your life is a refrain I hear fairly often from people at all different stages of life (and next week, we’ll deal with finding your passion after you’ve retired). It can be particularly anxiety-provoking for young people who feel pressured to make a decision that will impact the rest of their lives, however, and I felt bad for the first girl. She really did sound stressed out about having to make such a big decision without really knowing where she wanted it to lead.
The pressure to choose
As the two girls finished their sugar-laden beverages and packed up their things to leave, I started thinking about why we put so much pressure on young people to decide the course of the rest of their lives before they’ve even finished high school.
Because the second girl was actually right – it’s really not that big a deal. And yet we tell these kids that the decisions they make now will affect their career options for all eternity.
Where the wrong choices happen
When we do that, what ends up happening is that these young people, who are just starting out their own journeys towards independence, become terribly afraid of making a decision about which career path to follow because they don’t want to pick the wrong thing and end up trapped in a job they hate. Oftentimes, these kids have many interests and the thoughts of having to choose just one thing to concentrate on fills them with anxiety.
And all the fear that we subject them to often puts them on paths that they would never have chosen for themselves if they weren’t so scared. They give up everything that they love in order to make mom and dad and the career counsellor happy and that’s what really ends up trapping them in jobs they hate.
Three truths about choosing your life path
If you’re a young person dealing with this kind of situation and panicking over choosing your life path and not knowing what you want to do, there are three truths that I want you to keep in mind:
Truth #1: Deciding on a post-secondary program is not the do-or-die decision that you think it is.
No choice that you make is ever likely to be a binding life contract. If you pick a career path or an educational program that ends up not feeling right to you, you will be able to change your mind, and your direction, later on. Most of the decisions that you will make in life are changeable if they end up being the “wrong” ones for you.
In the meantime, follow the calling that appeals to you most at the moment, and start there.
Truth #2: Your life path is going to change over time. So don’t worry if you end up not liking what you pick now.
Your path in life can and will change as you begin walking it. As you gain knowledge and experience, your passion and direction – the things that you want to do in life – will evolve right along with you.
Everything that you choose to do will act as a building block in your own personal evolution. You really can’t choose the “wrong” path because anything that you choose will be integrated and added to your own personal storehouse of knowledge and experience. It’s all a part of the journey and the process that is your life.
Truth #3: You’re going to make mistakes. Everyone does. Don’t let them break you.
You WILL make mistakes in life. And you will experience failures. They’re unavoidable. Fortunately, they are also fantastic learning experiences that can help you create even bigger and better things than you had originally thought of.
There will be twists and turns in your journey, and sometimes you may wonder what the hell you were thinking. But everything that you experience contributes to your unique story and it will lead you, inexorably, towards your true purpose in life.
One day, it will all make sense. Mostly.
If you don’t know what you want to do with your life, and are afraid of making the wrong choice, take heart. One day you will look back at all the ups and downs, all the crazy twists and turns that you took, and you will see how it all makes sense, and how it all worked together to bring you to a particular point. (This doesn’t mean you’re ever going to have all the answers. You won’t. Nobody does. If they tell you that they do, they’re lying.)
So don’t fear making the wrong decision about what you want to do with your life. All your decisions are a part of your journey. Just concentrate on being true to who you are, and to who you want to become. Do the best you can with what you have from where you are, and you’ll do just fine.
If you’ve already gone through the post-secondary education decision-making process, what’s your best piece of advice for young people trying to decide their life path?