At the hour of midnight, the submissions to the university were going to close. I had known that for months now, but somehow I found myself in a hurry. Not in the timely sense, however; time was not the issue. Direction was.
I opened my computer and looked at my list of priorities. Of all the courses I was eligible for, geography was in first place. I had put it there, months ago, when the submissions first opened. Now, however, it felt kind of wrong.
I glanced at the clock: eleven. With one hour left to make a life-altering decision, my life revealed itself as shaky. I didn’t know what I wanted.
This story marks the beginning of a journey. A journey to find an answer to the question of “What do you want in life?”
I know it’s haunting. Personally, it’s a question I’ve been troubled by, lost sleep because of, and been anxious to answer when someone has asked it. At present, however, I think about it a little differently.
While I ended up studying geography, for what’s now five years ago, I’ve since learned a lot about what it means to figure things out. Here are 3 of the most important lessons:
1. Being Challenged Now Will Benefit You Later
“When things do not go your way, remember that every challenge — every adversity — contains within it the seeds of opportunity and growth.” — Roy T. Bennett
When faced with a challenge, people usually fall into one of two categories. The first are those who see it as an excuse, and let themselves be discouraged. The second are those who see it as an opportunity, and continues to push through.
While everyone feels the toll of a challenge, those who push through know there are benefits in the long run. Once processed as something useful and positive, they will improve. As the legendary investor Ray Dalio explained:
“Pain + Reflection = Growth”
If you’ve never experienced the benefits before, I get that the option of using it as an excuse is tempting. I encourage you, however, to try to push through. There’s growth waiting in store. Research on the topic, for instance, has identified five major ways that can happen:
- Increased sense of self-reliance and strength.
- More compassion and feelings of connectedness in relationships.
- A greater appreciation for life.
- Positive spiritual and existential changes.
- The ability to find new or different paths in life, that wouldn’t have occurred without the challenge.
For me, being challenged turned out to be a blessing in disguise. By studying something that didn’t feel quite right, I started to drift, and eventually I got into a depression. While that has been the greatest challenge of my life, I can say that the benefits were all equal in size. All of the above has been true for me.
2. You Inevitably Learn More About What You Want as You Go
The biggest mistake in figuring out what you want, is thinking you need to know what it is before you do something. This isn’t only wrong, but it’s actually backwards.
Taking action is the fastest way to figure out what you want.
I get it though. It’s nerve-wrecking to be in the unknown. But sometimes, your only option is to go. Because when you pick a direction to go in — any direction — you will gain important information along the way. Information you won’t get by standing still.
If you learn that the direction wasn’t for you, simply pick a new direction to go in. This way, through trying different paths, you will get an increasingly clearer picture of what you want. To paraphrase Frank Martela and Michael F. Steger, two research-psychologists:
“The consequences of pursuing something should help people make sense of life. Not only because it provides structure and consistency, but also because when people ‘try on’ a direction, they likely learn something about themselves.”
There’s no need to rush this process. Your answer will come when it comes, if it comes. As the psychologist Carl R. Rogers explained,
“The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination.”
Personally, when the path of geography didn’t work out, I discovered something important about myself. I learned I was curious about people, and decided to study psychology. I’ve also learned to follow paths beyond the confines of education.
For instance, I started to write, and found great value in doing so. Now, it’s a path I keep walking everyday because of what it gives me.
3. You Don’t Need a Definitive Answer
Most people would like a definitive answer to most questions. But truth is, you don’t need a definitive answer to the question about what you want in life.
Your answer can be fluid. Changing. Not set in stone, but lived in each and every moment. You’re not one answer, not one thing. You’re as many things as there are possibilities to living.
The true answer to life unfolds as you continue to live it.
Not everyone will like this answer and cling to something definitive. Just look at all the Instagram bios, for example, where a whole life is boxed into a few distinctive labels. “I’m a gemini. INTP-personality.” I don’t think they will appreciate it.
But I get it. There’s security in having a clear identity. I still argue, however, that the best in life happens when you transcend these labels.
They’re limits, and going beyond them allows you to explore the totality of what it means to be you. It allows you to accept yourself, for everything you are and ever hope to become.
“Fixation is the way to death. Fluidity is the way to life.” — Miyamoto Musashi
Sure, there’s utility, for everyone, in having goals, plans, and some basic security to what you’re doing. But in the bigger picture — when you step back and look at your life as a whole — you realize it doesn’t matter.
What matters is living life to the best of your abilities. It’s figuring out what kind of challenges, paths and answers that excites you — right now; right now in this moment.
And if you really want an answer to the question of “what do you want in life?,” you might answer by asking another question. Instead of asking what you want in life, ask “what does life want from me?”
Want to live a more meaningful life? Get my free PDF here.