“What should I do with my life?” you wonder.
Your parents wanted you to become a lawyer, a doctor, or a physical therapist… something practical.
You wanted to be an astronaut, a fireman, or a superhero… something fulfilling.
That was a long time ago.
Now, you’re stuck somewhere in between what you wanted and what your parents wanted — you’re making just enough money to eke out a living, you’re “sort of” trying to pursue things that interest you, and you’re mostly waiting for Saturday and Sunday each week.
Or maybe you make great money at a job you hate — you wouldn’t be the first.
Either way, you’re lost, you’re confused, and you can’t shake the nagging feeling that you should be doing something more important with your life.
In this guide, I’m going to show you why pain and suffering are the best indicators of what you want, and then I’m going to walk you through making a decision and test-running your choice for 3-6 months.
Why You Don’t Know What To Do With Your Life
Imagine that you were born 5,000 years ago, during the stone age.
You would have grown up in a small tribe of about 25 people, living your life in the forest, sleeping in a hut made of wood, stone, mud, and sand, spending your time hunting and gathering.
You would have been physiologically the same as humans today (for the most part), but you would’ve lived in a very different environment.
You wouldn’t have been sending out resumes or seeking a lucrative career.
You wouldn’t have been trying to build a million-dollar business.
You wouldn’t have been desperately trying to find your purpose.
You would have been trying to survive — because lions and tigers and bears, oh my.
In fact, your primary concerns would’ve been finding food for your next meal, seeking shelter, crafting weapons to defend against attack, and working to keep a good reputation among your tribe.
Compare that to your life today.
Now you worry about what you’re going to wear, where you’re going to eat, whether people like you, hate you, think you’re cute, or think you’re ugly.
And those are just some daily concerns.
More importantly, you worry about who you’re going to marry, what career you’re going to pursue, how much money you’re going to make, and how much impact you’re going to have.
You also wonder what your purpose is.
(No wonder mental illness is on the rise!)
So here’s my question: between now and 5,000 years ago… what changed?
Physiologically and biologically, we’re the same. We still walk on two legs, carry around massive brains, and create shockingly advanced civilizations.
It’s not us that changed… it’s our environment.
We no longer live in the forest, sleep in a hut, and only worry about our survival… because our survival is taken care of.
Most of us don’t worry about where our next meal will come from or where we’ll take shelter at night or whether or not that’s a bear in the bushes because it would be super weird for a bear to be in the bushes outside of our bank…
Still, our minds have evolved to solve problems.
And in the absence of real life-threatening concerns, our minds automatically search for other problems to solve.
Check out Simon Sinek’s talk about why Millennials have such existential struggles today…
In fact, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs supports this notion.
From bottom to top, each piece of the hierarchy can’t be fulfilled until all the needs below it are satisfied.
Stone age cavemen were worried about survival, so the highest they probably ever reached on this hierarchy was “love and belonging”, but only when their other basic needs were satisfied.
Today, the default for most of us is that all of our needs are met until we get to “Esteem” and “Self Actualization”.
This is why we spend so much time thinking about what our purpose is in life.
It’s a natural progression.
But it’s also a two-edged sword.
Because most of us get stuck.
According to Gallup, 70% of people in the U.S. are unhappy with where they work. And 900 million people world-wide feel unfulfilled with their life.
There are two things I want you to take away from this.
First, you’re not the only person who’s struggling to find meaning. Lots of people are struggling just like you.
But perhaps more importantly, your search for meaning is justified — it’s a natural part of being human and you should certainly pursue it.
Unfortunately, most of us try to find our purpose.
And that’s where our troubles begin.
Fate is Fiction, Meaning is Malleable
I spent four years as the co-pastor of a small church.
During that time, I encouraged people to live pure lives. I guided people through difficult times. I preached 50 sermons about god, purpose, meaning, and destiny.
And then, I left…
…all of it.
I abandoned religion. I abandoned my belief in a higher power. I left my church with no plan to return.
(You can read the full story over here)
And it was the best thing I ever did.
In retrospect, I discovered that seeking my purpose through religion and believing that I had some preordained destiny had caused immense stress, anxiety, and depression in my life.
After all… if I have to figure out what my purpose is, then I’m going to worry about it a lot. And when I’ve found it, I’m going to question whether I’ve found the right thing.
And when I’ve changed direction, then I’m going to question that decision as well.
The best thing I could do for myself was to accept that I don’t have a purpose.
And neither do you.
Let me show you what I mean.
It’s estimated that 107 billion people have ever lived throughout the history of our earth… and they’re all dead. We only remember a few of their names.
There are about 100 billion galaxies in our universe. And there are estimated to be about 1 billion other earth-like planets just in our galaxy — meaning planets that could potentially have life.
You will probably live 80 years, which represents .04% of the 200,000 years that humans have existed.
In the words of Joe Rogan…
“We are talking monkeys on an organic spaceship flying through the universe.”
Maybe even that is a generous description of our collective significance.
Truthfully, you and I are insignificant.
But that’s amazing in its own way, because we are a small part of this amazing universe.
And we are alive, capable of observing its beauty and chaos.
While we’re here, there is only one question that the universe poses.
The only question we have to answer is what we’re “going to do with the time that is given to us” (credit: Gandalf).
Because while we might be cosmically insignificant, having a purpose provides us with a much-needed sense of significance.
And in the end, impact is still impact, no matter how small.
Discovering your purpose starts with pain.
7 Steps to Answering The Ultimate Question: “What Should I Do With My Life?”
Now it’s time for action.
Grab a piece of paper and a pen. I’m going to walk you through 7 steps to figuring out what you want to do with your life. These are the steps I went through a few years ago and since then, I’ve been spending more time on the things that matter most to me: my family, this site, and traveling the world.
Ultimately, these steps helped me to become the man I wanted to become and to identify what really matters to me.
They can do the same for you.
Step 1. Understand That Life Hurts, No Matter What
The path hurts.
And I’m not talking about the path to greatness, I’m not even talking about the path to success — I’m talking about the path; life, time, movement, change, existence, being.
If I stay in bed all day, determined not to go outside and experience discomfort, then after some time my back will hurt, I’ll feel lonely, I’ll become depressed, and if things get bad enough, I’ll have to move in with my parents.
If I decide to do what others expect of me — get a college degree, a 9-5 job, and rack up lots of debt — I will grow bitter about putting others’ desires before my own. I will also come to resent the life I’m living… because it’s not the life I wanted to live.
What if I follow my dreams?
There will still be pain. I will suffer when progress comes more slowly than I’d like, when I fail at things that should have been easy, when I wonder if I’m good enough or if I’ll ever accomplish what I set out to accomplish.
Not to mention the uncontrollable pain that we’re all destined to experience, regardless of which path we choose — death, illness, heartbreak, the loss of a friendship…
So it hurts. It’s going to hurt. And you can’t do anything about it…
Well, except for choosing what kind of pain you’re going to experience.
Pick Your Poison
There’s a difference between wanting and “wanting.”
You “want” a million dollars. You “want” to be rich and famous. You “want” a nice car, a bigger TV, a six-pack, and a fluffy king-sized bed.
Of course, you do! We all do.
But let’s remember that all paths include suffering. Good paths. Bad paths. Boring paths. They are all going to hurt sometimes. Each will just hurt in a different way and at different times.
A far better question to ask yourself, then, isn’t “What do I want?” but “What am I willing to suffer for?” and “What kind of suffering am I willing to endure?” and “What is something that’s worth suffering for?”
To understand this, consider two of the most revered heroes in literature, Sam and Frodo from Lord of the Rings. On their way to Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring, they go hungry, they are physically injured, they fight giant spiders, and they watch close friends die.
Still, in the end, they count their suffering as being worth it.
After Frodo attacks Sam (his best friend) under the influence of the ring and then realizes what he’s done, sitting down in his doubt, he says, “What are we holding onto, Sam?”
To which Sam responds, “That there’s some good in this world, Mr Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”
Here’s the full clip (DEFINITELY worth watching).
When you weigh the suffering of a certain path up against all the good stuff that path will bring with it and find that, to you, the good outweighs the bad, you’ve found something worth pursuing, something that will keep you going for years to come (even when the going gets hard).
Mark Manson, the author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, encourages his readers to ask themselves a silly question when trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives…
“What’s your favorite flavor of shit sandwich and does it come with an olive?”
“Everything involves sacrifice. Everything includes some sort of cost. Nothing is pleasurable or uplifting all of the time. So, the question becomes: what struggle or sacrifice are you willing to tolerate? Ultimately, what determines our ability to stick with something we care about is our ability to handle the rough patches and ride out the inevitable rotten days…
What shit sandwich do you want to eat? Because we all get served one eventually… And you might as well pick one with an olive.”
In other words, don’t ask yourself “What do I want?”
Ask yourself “What am I willing to suffer for?” or “What is important enough to me that I’m willing to suffer for it?”
Because when you’re in the gutter, when things aren’t going how you planned, when the path you chose is throwing shit at you… you’re going to ask yourself “Why? Why am I doing this?”
And you better have a damn good answer, or else you’re going to quit.
Step 2. Write Down Everything That You Think You Might Enjoy
At the core of living your dream life is being able to do things that you love doing, every day. Figuring out what you want to do with your life doesn’t mean avoiding hard work or pain; it means doing something that you love enough to make the hard work and pain worth it.
To start, make a list of everything that you think you might enjoy doing.
Try not to write down things that are result-oriented (“Make a lot of money” or “Be happy”). Instead, get practical; write down things you think you would enjoy dedicating the next chunk of your life to (“Become a well-paid author” or “Open a bookstore” or “Become a successful actor”).
There are no limits here — if you think you might enjoy doing it (even if you’ve never done it before), then write it down…
Step 3. Ask “Why?” & Cross Off Bad Answers
Tony Robbins once said, “People are not lazy, they simply have impotent goals — that is, goals that do not inspire them.”
What he meant is, in order to do the hard work necessary to achieve what you want to achieve, what you’ve chosen to do must be exciting and inspiring.
So go through your list and ask yourself “Why? Why do I want to do this?” for each item.
There’s no one watching, so be honest with yourself. Maybe you wrote down “become an actor” just because you want to be famous (not a good reason), or maybe you wrote it down because you think you’d genuinely enjoy that creative process (a good reason).
If you ask yourself “Why?” and have a shallow or unsatisfying answer, cross it off.
The easiest way to tell if you have a bad reason for wanting to do something is to ask yourself, “Is this something that I’m willing to suffer for?”
If it’s not, then cross it off.
Step 4. Only Choose One Thing
It’s tempting to try and commit to multiple things at once…
You have a finite amount of time and energy. That time and energy is better spent trying to progress in one direction than in multiple directions.
I’m not saying you’re going to commit to this decision, leave your family, live in the woods alone, and only do your one thing. I’m saying that this ONE THING is going to be the only extra thing in your life that you’re committed to.
You still have to go to work, pay the bills, spend time with your family, etc… but rather than splitting any extra time you have between multiple ambitions and making little progress in every direction, you’ll choose just ONE THING.
That doesn’t mean you can’t spend time on other hobbies that interest you (video games, television, and reading, for instance), but it does mean that for your ONE THING, you’re committed to doing the good, the bad, and the ugly. This is the ONE THING that you’re willing to suffer to create.
Be relentless and only choose one thing. That way, you’ll make real progress toward accomplishing what you want to accomplish.
You see, we all — human beings in general — have a fundamental desire to build something with our own two hands, to contribute, to make a difference in the world.
And after you’ve written down some different things that interest you, you’re probably going to find that… well, you’d be totally fine with pursuing any of them!
So here are a few questions to ask yourself if you’re still having trouble making a choice…
- What about this is appealing to me?
- Am I willing to do what it takes to make this happen?
- Is the suffering worth the reward to me?
- When I think of doing this, do I get excited?
Remember — you can do anything you want, but you can’t do everything. So long as your ONE THING allows you to contribute consistently and express your unique creativity, then it’s probably a great choice.
Step 5. Create an Easy-To-Follow Action Plan & Write Down Your WHY
Now that you’ve committed to just one thing, what are you actually going to do about it?
That’s where your action plan comes in.
First, write down the WHY behind your decision and post it somewhere that you can see it everyday. Remember Michael and his burpees? If you’re going to stick with it when it gets tough (and it’s going to get tough), then you need to know why you’re doing it.
I’m going to become a well-paid author so that I can make a living doing something I love, so that I can tell compelling stories, and so I can make an indirect but tangible impact on the people who read what I write.
Next, grab another sheet of paper and write down all of the big, high-level steps you’ll need to take in order to accomplish what you want to accomplish. For example…
Then break each of those big steps into little bite-sized steps. If you want to learn about the publishing process, then maybe you should start by reading a book that teaches you how to create a book proposal. And if you want to open a business, then maybe you should start by doing market research. Write down all of the little, actionable steps you can think of.
Now, look at your list, and ask yourself what you’re most willing to commit to doing every week. Some of the to-dos on your list will be more appealing than others — start with those. Write down exactly how much of those activities you’re going to do every week, and try to make your commitment sustainable for well into the future (don’t get too ambitious).
And voila! You have a plan of action! Put those to-dos somewhere that you can look at them every single day and, ideally, check them off once they’re finished. You can use a tool like Trello to track your progress.
But before we move onto Step #5, a quick cautionary note…
CAUTIONARY NOTE: A common mistake that people make when planning the to-dos for their dream life is they over-commit. And by over-committing, they quickly get burnt-out, quit, and end up right back where they started.
So be realistic with how much time you have and how many to-dos you can commit to. It’s far better to build your dream-life slow and steady than it is to make lots of progress in the beginning but quit after just a few months because you’re exhausted.
Leave time for the things you enjoy like reading and playing video games or watching TV and spending time with family, and treat your ONE THING as a side-hustle. You need to dedicate time to it every week because it fills you up and helps you work toward your long-term goals, but you don’t need to dedicate all your time to it. Balance is key.
Step 6. Test-Run Your Action Plan for 6 Months (Adapt Your To-Dos As Needed)
Don’t overthink it.
It’s possible that the ONE THING you’ve chosen isn’t something you’re going to be interested in once you actually… well, try it. You might find that you don’t enjoy the process and that you’d much rather pursue something else.
That’s totally fine.
But you’ve got to give it at least 6 months (if you’re super antsy, you can do 3 months) of following your action plan to determine whether you enjoy the process enough to keep going and to experience at least some small amount of progress. Then, after 6 months, you can decide whether you want to quit or keep going.
Also, during that 6-month commitment, you’re probably going to find that some things on your to-do list are working well, some are burning you out, and some are ineffective, so adapt your action plan as needed. Opt for strategies that make real progress and avoid spending time on tasks that burn you out — remember, the only way to build your dream life is by doing what is sustainable FOR YOU.
Step 7. Check Your Results, Reassess, Keep Going
So you’ve reached the end of your 6-month (or 3-month) commitment and you’ve either (A) found that you enjoy your ONE THING enough to keep at it for another 6 months or (B) you’ve found that it’s terrible and you don’t want to keep doing it.
Or maybe (C), it’s been okay, but you’re discouraged because you feel like you’re making very little progress.
Here’s what to do in each of those situations…
A. If you’re making progress and you enjoy what you’re doing, keep doing it. There’s no reason to question your decision when things are going as well as this.
B. Even though it feels terrible right now, ask yourself why it feels terrible? Do you outright not enjoy it and need to move onto something else? If that’s the case, then go back through these steps and choose something else to pursue for the next 6 months. But just make sure that you’re not going through a short blip of discouragement when you make the decision to quit — never make a major decision in a valley.
C. In this case, you probably haven’t found a rhythm for making real progress toward your goals. But so long as you’re still excited about your ONE THING, this is probably just a matter of seeking out coaching from someone who’s done what you’re trying to do so you can start building momentum and getting results.
How Will YOU Answer The Ultimate Question: “What Should I Do With My Life?”
To quote Gandalf, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
What are you going to do with the time that’s been given to you?
Are you going to pursue your childhood dream? Are you going to try and build a business? Are you going to try and become one of the most creative people of the 21st century? Or are you finally going to take back control of your health?
Whatever it is, create your to-do list and get started right away. You’ll be shocked at how great it feels to be building something that you want to build — hard work and all.
Because as human beings, we’re meant to create, to build, to manifest, and to live the life we want to live.
The above 7 steps will help you do just that.
Mike is the founder of Get Your Gusto Back. He has a passion for traveling, he LOVES to write, and he’s been mentioned in Forbes and Entrepreneur for his expertise as a marketer and personal-development expert. He currently lives in Hawaii with his wife and two-year-old daughter.