Unless you’re one of the five people in the world who came out of the womb knowing exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up, chances are you’ve experienced a “holy sh**, what am I doing with my life?” moment at some point during your adult years. Did the discomfort of the whole ordeal propel you towards graduate school or a parent-approved profession like investment banking or law? Potentially. Did it motivate you to “make a plan” and give yourself an arbitrary goal for which to strive? Probably. 

It makes sense: planning can be very attractive. It gives you a sense of control, however false, over an inherently unruly universe, and it makes you feel as though you can avoid some things and ensure others simply by stating what “should” or “shouldn’t” happen. Despite our best efforts, however, it seems that things “don’t go according to plan” far more often than they “go off without a hitch”. If that’s the universe trying to tell us something, then we aren’t doing a very good job of paying attention, because we continue to plan, only to continue to be surprised when things don’t go the way we expect them to. 

When it comes to identifying The Thing You Should Do For the Rest Of Your Life – the thing that ideally unites your talents, passions and convictions and still provides you with enough scratch to eat meals at regular intervals – ‘planning ahead’ really does seem like a good idea. But by starting at the end (that is, naming a profession you think you’ll enjoy and then trying to figure out what steps it will take to get you there), you’ve already limited yourself to only those professions or career paths you can name off the top of your head, a list that probably accounts for less than half of all the things you could potentially end up doing with your life. And as we’ve already learned, ‘plans’ very rarely go according to plan, so even if you manage to find a way to do the thing you think you’ll like, you could just end up right where you started when it doesn’t live up to your expectations.

If you’re having a crisis of professional faith, put down the B-school application and take a breath. Zen teaches us to live in the moment and focus on the task at hand – something you certainly aren’t doing if you’re constantly trying to “pick a career” and force yourself into it – and these concepts lend themselves remarkably well to fighting the urge to plan the hell out of our lives. Before you make another move, take a few minutes to try a little Zen-inspired activity that could potentially open up doors you didn’t even know existed. Maybe find yourself a little rock garden, too, because those things are cute AND Zen to the max.

1. Take stock of your strengths… and your weaknesses.

You can’t build something if you don’t know what’s in your tool box, so to start, take a moment to think (honestly) about where your talents actually lie. It helps to ask a few good friends and/or close family members, too; you might not know what you do well, but odds are they’ve taken notice and will be able to tell it to you straight. Next, try to name at least three things you don’t do well. You probably don’t want a career that utilizes skills you lack, but this is all about process, so it helps to start by defining the parameters of your talent spectrum.

2. List the five things you care about most in life.

Five is an arbitrary number, but give yourself a limit to keep the list from getting too long (if you really thought about it, you could probably come up with 200 things that make you get up in the morning, but that’s not going to be particularly helpful). They can be esoteric or mundane, but they should be the things that continually light your ‘fire’, as it were. Put this list next to your list of strengths and weaknesses, and look for any overlaps. You’ll probably find at least one, which can help to further illuminate what really matters to you and what doesn’t.

3. Forget about money

… and think about what you’d do with your time if you didn’t have to worry about an income. It could be volunteering for a nonprofit organization or it could be playing video games all day; you don’t have to pretend to be altruistic, just think about what you would want to do when month seven of your money-free life rolls around. It might be different than what you’d do on day one. Some people say that the thing you’d do for free is the thing you should do for your life’s work, but that’s a little too simple. The thing you’d do for free is the thing you obviously love doing, so some part of it, whether it’s the activity itself or just the way the activity makes you feel, should ultimately be part of your professional life. Once you have this list, look for overlaps between it and your last three lists. At this point, two or three overarching themes should be emerging.

4. Define your personal ‘mission statement’.

Just like any other large-scale operation, your life will benefit immensely from the guidance of a mission statement. Not only will it help you make decisions that are unequivocally aligned with the passions, talents and interests that you’ve just defined, but it can help you to identify good job opportunities whenever (and however) they arise. After comparing the aforementioned lists and noting any themes that arise, give yourself a brief, sentence-long action statement that defines what you want your life to accomplish. Make it broad enough to encompass professional and personal accomplishments alike, but not so broad that it doesn’t feel like a mission statement you can really own.

5. Take a step back, take a breath, and take action.

There are no perfect solutions to the nagging questions that keep us awake at night. You’ll probably still have to work at a 9-5 that doesn’t completely float your passion boat until you find the thing you’re really Meant to Do, but this exercise is an important step towards focusing more on process than on product.

At this point you’ll probably have an idea of some things you could pursue that aren’t end-goal-oriented, but instead simply in line with the mission statement you’ve defined for yourself. Instead of sitting on the couch and waiting for opportunities to come to you, take one ‘action’ step that supports the mission you’ve given yourself, even if it’s only as simple as attending an extra networking event next month or signing up for a class on a subject you forgot you cared about. Change comes slowly, but when you put yourself in a position to recognize opportunities in whatever form they might take, you’ve put yourself that much closer to finding whatever it is you’re meant to do with your life.

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