What do you want to do with your life?
It’s one of the biggest questions we ever get asked. And one that other people are giving us advice about and influencing from basically the time we are born. People who love us and want good things for us start giving us advice about what a successful life should include. Peers and friends and colleagues and teachers and neighbours also signal to us what we should pursue in life. They’re usually sharing what they would and wouldn’t do, what did and didn’t work for them, and what they are and aren’t seeking for themselves. And these pieces of advice usually take the form of things like finding a job where you can maximize financial success, marry someone, have children, buy a big home, have a great garden, drive a fancy car, wear the right clothes, go to the right places for vacation.
And with all of those inputs from others, sometimes it’s difficult to hear our own voices in order to be able to answer that big life question. So in an effort to help peel away the influences of others in order to understand what you really desire for your life, here are five things to consider.
Look at how and where you spend your time. For one week, write down your daily schedule. What time do you wake up and go to work or school? How much time do you take for lunch, exercising, socializing, watching TV, cooking, commuting, caring for others, caring for yourself, having fun, spending time with friends and loved ones, doing errands and chores? What priorities emerge from your schedule? Is there a part of your life that you are neglecting? Or that is taking over your life? Which activities are bringing joy? Which ones feel like obligations? This type of reflection will give you an opportunity to see if what you’re doing now is in line with what you want to be doing.
Peel off the layers of others’ expectations. After reflecting on how you’re spending your time, ask yourself how much of what you’re doing is because of others’ expectations of what you should be doing rather than what you want to be doing. Are you pursuing a career that others have told you would be good for you but that feels like a burden and sucks your energy? Are you in a relationship that doesn’t feel particularly healthy but others have expectations that you’ll stay together? Are financial goals at the forefront of everything you’re doing, driving you to work crazy hours and disregard friends and family? You may want to find a therapist or do some deep reflection to understand how others’ expectations are driving you to do things that are unsatisfying for you. Unpacking the way others’ fears and desires have influenced you is a key part of the process to stop living your life based on others’ expectations and start pursuing your own version of success.
Identify what makes you happy even when no one knows about it. Once you’ve been able to peel off the expectations of others, you can start understanding the things you’re doing because you really want to versus what you’re doing because others want you to. Think back to things that make you happy to do even when no one else knows about it. Do you enjoy having time to dedicate to a hobby or doing home improvement projects? Do you want to spend more time painting or sculpting or playing music? Do you want to prioritize your work at this phase in your life? Do you see yourself as a parent, dedicating yourself to raising a small human? Spend time figuring what makes you happy so you can design your new version of success around it.
Get clear on how you want to grow. What are the ways you want to continue to develop? What are the things you want to learn? Are you interested in languages and travel or perhaps in learning how to code? Or maybe you want to learn a new musical instrument or train for a triathlon? What are the ways you want to learn and grow, and what are the things you’re doing today that are eating up your time and energy and distracting you from being able to do those things? Many times, expectations that other people have put onto us can keep us from pursuing our own growth.
Consider what kind of support you’ll need. What kinds of relationships with what kinds of people will you need in order to pursue what makes you happy and in order to grow and develop in the ways you’ve identified? Who in your life will be supportive of your desires to stop living your life based on others’ expectations and start living based on your own definition of success? What are the kinds of people you’d like to meet as you continue on your path of growth? How will you find people like that?
Once you’ve considered these five things, start mapping out your plan to change the way you’re spending your time to reflect your new priorities. This may sound simple, but it’s not always as it requires getting super honest with yourself and with those in your life about the kind of life that you want to live. Remember that you don’t have to choose marriage or kids or maximizing financial success. You don’t have to choose homeownership or fancy cars or climbing a corporate ladder. You can choose a smaller place to live with a shorter commute. You can choose a job with shorter hours to be able to dedicate time to hobbies or kids or other interests. You can also choose to work eighty hours a week in a job you love.
Others don’t define success for you. You define success for you. As a result, answering the question “What do you want to do with your life?” all depends on where you find fulfillment and the ways you want to grow and develop in your one amazing life.
Robin Moriarty, PhD, is a global business executive, speaker, author, adjunct professor, and thought leader for businesses and non-profit organizations. She has lived on four continents and travelled to over sixty countries. Over the course of her career, Dr. Moriarty has focused on aligning businesses with opportunities to create positive societal impact in North America, Latin America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific. As adjunct professor at The Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, Dr. Moriarty taught cross-cultural leadership to future global leaders. Her book, What Game Are You Playing?: A Framework for Redefining Success and Achieving What Matters Most, comes out this fall.