By Martin Elfert
How can I figure out what I really want to do with my life?
1. Ask the people who know you and who love you. The people who love us – our parents, our teachers, our siblings, our friends, sometimes even our competitors – are frequently the strongest resource that we have for exploring how we can best spend our time. Ask these folks what it is you were doing when you struck them as most happy, most at home, most at ease. Ask them to finish the sentence, “I always imagined that Jesse would love doing…” Ask them what they would do if they were in your shoes.
2. Notwithstanding the previous suggestion, remember that you are looking to discover a vocation, not to satisfy external expectations. Some of the saddest and most frustrated folks whom I know are living lives designed to meet another person’s test for success. Maybe they are doing what their parents wanted them to do, maybe they are doing what they think will look brilliant to their next-door neighbors. Regardless, most of these people are making the painful discovery that living in this fashion rarely leads to joy or to freedom. And that brings us to suggestion three:
3. Focus on meaning, not on money. Becoming spectacularly rich is something that few of us can do. Living a life of meaning, by contrast, is something that all of us can do. That’s not to say that finances are of no importance – I’m grateful that my kids don’t wonder where they are going to sleep or how they are going to eat. It is to say, however, that money is a tool, and making that tool into something that we worship is a choice that we make at our peril. A day will come, Jesse, when you are reviewing your life, holding in your lap the future’s equivalent of a photograph album. And I all but guarantee you that the memories that will seem important to you then will be of those times when you added to the sum of love in the world, not the times when you cashed a big check.
4. Do stuff. Volunteer. Read. Go to plays and galleries. Enroll in classes. Play sports. Take long walks on paths that lead to places you’ve never been before. Do things that push your limits. I’ve had the privilege of listening to a lot of people tell me the story of how they found the work that makes their souls sing. And you know what? Not one of those stories began with the words, “While I was sitting on the couch playing video games…” (Maybe there are a few folks in Silicon Valley whose story starts that way, but they are the exception that proves the rule.) One way to do stuff is to:
5. Get a crappy job. The value of doing something that you don’t like is seriously underappreciated when it comes to figuring out your future. As a young man, I spent a little bit of time building scaffolding on construction sites. The work was equal parts physically demanding and tedious. And the conversation among my colleagues, which focused primarily on sex and beer and sex and hockey and sex, began to erode my confidence in humanity. That time with a hardhat on my head really helped me see what I didn’t want to do with my days. And that, in turn, helped me to start to see what I did want to do.
6. Be open to the possibility that there may be more than one answer to the question of vocation. There are a few folks out there who graduate from school and settle into careers that see them more or less to the end of their lives. But the majority of us have vocations that evolve the years. What you really want to do with your life, in other words, may not be the same thing at age twenty as it is at age fifty as it is at age seventy. There may well be a season when you want your focus to be on what you do at the office, another season when you want it to be on parenthood, still another season when you want it on being a good friend and a good neighbor. Each of these seasons will, in their own way, offer the right answer.
7. Be open to the possibility that there may be no answer to the question of vocation. In her famous address to an imaginary graduating class, Mary Schmich tells the students gathered before her, “The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.” We might paraphrase Schmich by saying this: setting sail into possibility matters even if you don’t discover the treasure you were hoping for. Studying the map matters even if it doesn’t stop you from being lost. The search itself matters.
8. Last of all, be still and listen. Whether you call it prayer or mindfulness or still something else, spending time in intentional quiet matters. As Elijah discovered when he stood on the mountainside, God doesn’t like to shout – it is in the whispers, in the still small voices that God prefers to speak. So make it a practice to turn off your phone and the rest of the screens in your life every now and again. Make it a practice just to be quiet and breathe. I don’t guarantee that God will hand you a perfect answer to the question of what to do with your life, Jesse. But if you allow yourself a little stillness, you may be surprised by what you hear.
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