When we say it out loud, we usually frame it as a joke:
“Wow, that 12 year old’s running their own company. What have I ever accomplished?”
“Look at that 22 year old who’s already got a master’s degree and is probably going to cure cancer soon. What have I been doing with my life?”
“That CEO is how old? Looks like I’ve been wasting some time over here!”
But the versions of these sentiments that lurk in the privacy of our own thoughts don’t feel quite as innocuous. What’s funny on the outside betrays something more fragile in the context of our inner monologues: our fears, doubts, and insecurities about our own careers.
Touch that nerve and the questions will tumble out: Have I been wasting my time? Did I make the right choices? Why do I feel so far behind? Am I actually no good at this? Will I ever get where I want to be?
I’ve been there at various points over the years—when I was in college and didn’t get my dream internship, when graduation loomed and I watched classmates get fancy offers in tech and consulting while I searched for seemingly nonexistent jobs in arts administration and writing, when a woman from my undergrad class published a bestselling novel just a few years out, and when peers and younger journalists I know landed big promotions and prestigious bylines and were recruited by top publications.
But the thing is, I’m hardly the first and certainly not the last to have this feeling. I know because I’ve heard it from friends and colleagues. It’s a complex brew of emotions, and the precise recipe varies. Maybe it’s one part jealousy and one part sadness with a splash of regret. Maybe it’s half admiration and half disappointment. Maybe it’s 95% frustration and 5% anger.
But while it’s okay to occasionally feel your own brand of “what have I even accomplished?”, the most important thing is how you respond to it.
First, remember that talent and hard work don’t necessarily equal immediate success. Luck’s also a component. You don’t always know what great timing or serendipitous connection might’ve led to others’ wins. That’s not to say they didn’t deserve them, just that it doesn’t mean you’re not capable of similar achievements later on. A recent study of career “hot streaks” found that “individuals have equal chance to perform better even in their late careers,” as one researcher explained.
Here’s the process and the questions that will help you make progress towards identifying what you’re doing with your life too:
Step 1: What do you want?
Whenever you’re looking at what you’re doing with your life, it’s important to take a step back, look at the big picture and identify what you want. Frankly, if you don’t know what you want, how do you expect to get it?
This seems simple, yet it’s often quite hard to address. When I ask this question, people often tell me what they don’t want or what’s not working. They’ve gotten into the habit of making decisions based on what’s best for their career, family or others… and forget to think about what they want for themselves.
What do you want? Get specific.
Is it a new career in which you feel excited and energized? A relationship where you feel honored and loved? To be confident and happy with yourself? To live in a particular place or to explore the world?
Once you are clear on what you want, you can move to the next question.
Step 2: Who are you?
I have a strong belief and a lot of experience that self-awareness and a little soul searching is critical for success – especially when you’re trying to figure out what you’re doing with your life.
Understanding yourself at a deeper level and making decisions based upon those insights will make sure whatever you choose to do next is something that will make you happier, more successful and more fulfilled. It will make sure that your next step is a step in the right direction, not just another step.
Look through the series of questions:
- What is most important to you right now?
- What are your core values? What are the beliefs, guiding principles or ideas that are deeply important to you? Which ones are you off track with?
- What are your passions? What do you love? What interests you? What gets you engaged, motivated, excited?
- What are your skills and talents? Which would you like to use going forward?
- What is your wish list? What do you want and need in your life/career/relationship? This might include the type of environment you thrive in, people you want to be surrounded by, or something you want in a role.
- What is the impact or difference you want to make? How do you want to serve, contribute or add value?
- What do you NOT want? While you don’t want to spend too much time in this space, it’s as important to be aware of what you don’t want as much as what you do!
Grab a journal. Ask yourself these questions and allow the time and space to discover the answers.
Write everything down. Then, review what you wrote and highlight or circle what stands out or resonates the most. These are what you want to pay attention to as you move forward and think about what you’re doing next with your life.
Then, with a little soul-searching under your belt, it’s time to move on to step 3.
Step 3: What are your options?
You’re not happy where you are. You know you want something else. But what is that “something”? This question allows you to explore what your potential options.
At this point, it’s not about deciding the one thing or making the right choice, it’s about allowing your creative mind to expand and see all the possibilities.
If you hate your career, what new potential careers are on your mind? If you’re unhappy in your relationship, what can you do? If you’re feeling like you need change or an adventure, what could those possibly be?
Brainstorm ALL your options without worrying about whether they are possible or not (just yet). Make a list and keep asking yourself…. what else? This allows you to dig deeper and see opportunities you might have otherwise not explored.
What are all of your possible options at this point in time? Don’t limit them if you can’t see how it’s possible, just get all your ideas out on paper.
Once you have your list of options, then you can move to the next step.
Step 4: Which options are the best fit right now?
Okay, so you have your list of options and possibilities. Now it’s time to narrow it down and explore those options in a little more depth.
A fantastic way to do this is to envision your life “as if” you were in that new role/situation/relationship/option.
Go back to your options list and circle the 1-3 that you feel most connected to, energized by or engaged with. You’ll want to make sure those options fit what you want (question 1) and who you are (question 2).
Once you have a short list, imagine your life as if you took that as your next step. What would you think, feel, hear and see? Can you picture yourself there? Does it feel good? You can also do some research at this point to learn more about each of your options.
Then, armed with information and idea of the best next option for you, it’s time to move on to the next question.
Step 5: What’s stopping you?
This is a big one. As you explore your options, it’s likely you may come up against some barriers.
Perhaps you have fears or limiting beliefs of what you can or can’t do or what someone said you were capable of. Maybe it’s lack of self-esteem or confidence. When these come up, it doesn’t mean the option is wrong, it just means you need to dig a bit further to find out what’s going on It’s important to explore what’s getting in your way.
Think about what’s getting in your way or stopping you from moving forward. Once again, don’t stop at your first answer. Ask yourself, “what else?” until you identify what’s getting in your way.
Then, it’s time to move to the last question..
Step 6: What can you do to move forward?
You’ve narrowed down and explored your options and now it’s time to take action. I know this part is hard. What if it isn’t right? What if there is something else out there? What if it’s the worst decision I ever make? Arrgghh!
These are all real and good questions, but not if they stop you from moving forward towards a more fulfilling life. If you’re feeling hesitant about taking the next step, let me give you a different way to look at it.
If you’re unhappy where you are now, what is the bigger risk? Staying where you are out of fear of doing the wrong thing OR moving forward and seeing where it leads you? It’s better to rock the boat than to die sinking in it, right?
Once you’ve decided, it’s time to act. What’s your first step? Take it.
Give yourself a deadline, a timeline or a goal to make it happen so you can move from ideas to reality.
Make a decision about which option is best for you to move forward into the life you want. Then, take the first step towards that option. Then the next and the next one after that.
So, what are YOU doing with your life? Just the sheer fact that you’re asking yourself what you’re doing with your life is a step in the right direction. A mentor of mine always said, 90% of solving a problem is awareness that it exists. You know you need to do something.
Now, if you’re serious about moving forward, it’s time to take the time and put in the effort and answer the questions above. Be brave. You’ve got this. It’s not too late. It’s your life, and, yes, it can be everything you’ve imagined.
Now, get to work. You don’t have to be a recent graduate to still have options. So know that it’s normal to feel this way sometimes—a lot of people do. But then acknowledge what you have achieved, and figure out what you’re going to do next. Focus on the prize.
Check out my related post: Have you tried the WOOP method?