Nathanael Garrett Novosel, March 20 2024


What are you supposed to do with your life? It’s a big question that’s become more common more recently since we live in a modern world of relative luxury where want has trumped need to a certain extent. Historically, it was to do whatever was required of you to survive: hunt, forage, construct shelters, etc. Recently, however, with both freedom and prosperity, there are millions of options of jobs where people can explore things that they enjoy doing that happen to be profitable (because other people value them).

Interestingly, this makes the “supposed to do” part of the question ironic. “Supposed” means should as if there’s something you are required to do, divinely meant to do, or genetically predisposed to do. The sad truth for indecisive people is there’s not; you live and decide what you wish your profession to be.

Don’t let the “everyone is entitled to X, Y, and Z” crowd confuse you, though: every living organism since the beginning of time had to put forth effort to survive, and in civilized society that means that everyone contributes to society in some way, shape, or form. It would be selfish to think that everyone should do work for you and you shouldn’t have to do anything (yes, even if you “don’t need much”—I once had a relative live with me for almost a year, and of course the person didn’t see it as an imposition as long as he stayed out of the way…yes, it was an imposition). The reason that some people get to sing or paint or create YouTube videos for a living is because millions of hardworking, intelligent, do-what-they-have-to-do people built the infrastructure, services, and food systems that give some the privilege of calling the more creative endeavors their jobs. But a lot of people worked hard, sacrificed, and even died for the luxury of choosing your life path today with less risk of harm or death than people millennia ago who had to sail off into the unknown for food or die of starvation.

I bring that up because it raises another irony: we are better off than ever before, and that makes us more indecisive than ever before. It’s not just a coincidence; more options with less external pressure can make it harder to choose. It’s not like joining the military during WWII, which citizens like my grandfather did—even lying about his age to enlist at 17–because the world was at stake. There aren’t many options, and few people would’ve even made other choices. So the idea of, “What am I supposed to do?” when the answer isn’t, “Go save the free world from annihilation,” is strangely both a blessing (to not have to do that) and a curse (now you face the existential dread of living a trite, meaningless life). But the overwhelming prospect of millions of options with no systematic way to filter through them is legitimately a problem, so let’s begin to solve this here.

What you need are goals. Why have goals? It’s simple: you exist in this universe to grow through life experience, and your body is predisposed to want to perform actions that make itself better off than it is now. In many professional disciplines like project management and enterprise architecture, they know this as Current State->Roadmap->Future State. The idea is to identify where you want to go (future state), figure out where you are (current state), and then determine how to get there (roadmap). Complete those three steps, and you have direction and what you’re “supposed to do” becomes clear: you do the things that you need to do to attain the outcome. It’s not easy, but it is that simple.

So let’s break down how to do this and why into steps. The simple idea is that you can’t know what you’re “supposed” to do until you know where you want to be. For example, if you want to earn a lot of money, then you probably need an advanced degree or to go into business and then pursue a profitable field. The “supposed to” go to school or start a business is the thing that you now know are part of a much more limited number of options once you have identified a goal.

So, what do you want to be? Don’t worry, we won’t get existential. While you can do, be, or have anything your heart desires with enough desire, belief, and effort, most people arrive at a common set of things that they hope to get out of life:

So the simple first step to answering this question of what you’re supposed to do is to determine what you want out of your life in these categories:

When you answer these questions, you begin to form a picture of the future of what you would like your life to look like to consider it a success. For example, if you want friends, family, and relationships, you’ll need to have a social circle (often implying that you’ll either stay in one location or stay in touch), keep your family bonds strong (involving holidays, etc. with them), and a lot of relationship development (dating, marriage, etc.). Your life is shaping itself pretty strongly already, as you’ll need to dedicate a lot of time to your desired relationships or they will die. Additionally, life experiences might require either time and effort or money and time, such as “winning a Super Bowl” requiring decades of effort or “Seeing the Taj Mahal before I die” just requiring a few thousand dollars, a passport (assuming you don’t live in India), and a couple of weeks’ of time away from work. How much money you need will depend on what you want to own and how well off you want to be, and then you need to know what skills you need or professional direction you’ll need to attain that quality of life. Finally, how you help others or what you need to know are examples of long-term things you need to keep in mind as you may need to commit years of your life to learning and teaching.

There are surely other questions, but those are examples of when you can understand what you want from your life, you can now work back to what you need to—i.e., what you’re “supposed to” do—to get it. There are obviously many routes to success in life, but the great news is that you can narrow down your options. If you are modest and simply want a home with a loving family, then all you need to do professionally is find a trade that earns an average income that you don’t mind doing, work it for 40 years, and then retire. The focus will more be on the family where you will spend decades developing a relationship, raising children, and generally being a responsible adult in a community. However, if you want to be a big-time CEO, you might take a direct path where you work long hours and rise the corporate ladder alone, or you might also want a relationship and children and so have to figure out how to balance everything. That is a great example because if that’s your goal, you really only have a few options (e.g., rise in the business world as a manager, become a founder/CEO where you’re the expert/inventor and leader). Again, while you could become a CEO after living in the wilderness for a decade with wolves, your odds go up if you spend that decade rising the corporate ladder.

So define your goals—your desired future state—and then compare it to where you are. If you have well-off parents, you might be able to take more risks and still have a place to live if you fail. If you already have a good education, then your jump into the professional sphere won’t be as big—just find the right job. But if you suddenly realize you went into the wrong major, you might have to learn a new field from scratch and decide how to do that. So it’s the difference between the current and future state that will help you figure out what your path is from Point A to Point B.

Once you do those two steps, now what you’re “supposed to do” with your life will now begin to become identifiable. The problem with the question of what you’re supposed to do with your life is that it combines the goal with the means to get there, making everything both confusing and overwhelming. But if you now know what you want and only then compare it to where you are and figure out what you need to do as next steps, you can make it less daunting. What you’re supposed to do will almost “find you” in a sense.

Let’s take a couple of quick examples: if you want to be a singer, you need to learn how to sing. If you want to be wealthy and help people, you might want to become a doctor and, therefore, need years of medical school training. Wow, what a concept! To do the thing you want to do, you’re supposed to learn how to do it and then practice doing it. “No shit,” right? Great response—it means that you do now see it as simple as it is and you were really just mulling over which goals you want to set for yourself. Most uncertainty lies with either what you want or whether you believe it’s possible to get what you want; once you resolve those two things, finding a path is not as big of an issue because you’ll be so motivated to figure it out.

This is the power of defining your goals: what you’re “supposed to do” finds you. The best part is that you can change your goals at any time! Many people are afraid to state their goals because they think they’ll be wrong or they’ll be unattainable. Who cares? You’re just thinking about it. You don’t have to commit tomorrow. For example, write down that you’re going to be a race car driver. Do you recoil in surprise because you hate the idea of sitting in a car for hours driving in loops? Boom, you’ve eliminated one option from the millions you have and now might even be able to define why you don’t like that idea so that you now have an idea of what needs to be true for you to like an idea. Do you not want to sit all day? Great, you’ve not just eliminated race-car driving but also thousands of other jobs that involve a lot of sitting. See? You’re making a ton of progress!

Continue from the defined goals to the current state contrast to the “how to get there” roadmap, and you’ll have arrived at what you’re supposed to be doing now and in the future to get there. If you don’t do the first step, your life will be defined by other people’s goals or—worse—how people want you to behave simply to please them now and so you will be no better off for your own future. “You’re supposed to sit there and be quiet!” Well, that might be good for someone else now, but if you need to rehearse a speech you have in an hour, that might not be the best thing for you right now. You might need to stand and talk!

On a final note, you might have problems with this question because of either judgment from others or because you really don’t know either what your goal is or what you need to do to get there. In the former, all I can say is that if you let others control what you do with your life to where you are dissatisfied with how you’re living it, you will regret it later. It’s not easy to take a path where people either ridicule you to your face or pretend to be supportive while trashing you behind your back, but you have to choose whether others’ approval or your goals are more important—that’s for you to make, and I can’t tell you which will leave you better off since you might, for example, not take a dream job so you don’t move your kids out of their school. However, the latter two issues of not knowing what goals or steps are possible has a simpler answer: research and experimentation! Learn about something: if it sounds great, plan to try it. If it sounds bad, prioritize something else. Then, try it—if you like it, do more of it. If you don’t like it, stop. One of the worst things people do is think that they can logically calculate a perfect answer from what they know today when the real problem is that they simply don’t have enough information today about what is possible or what they like so that they can answer it confidently. Solve that problem by gaining that information.

In short, goals are important. There are two aspects that answer the “what am I supposed to do with my life” question: they tell you what you’re supposed to be working toward, and they tell you as a result what you need to do to get there. And don’t say, “What if I don’t have any goals?”—you have them; you just haven’t articulated them. Even if all you do is wake up, eat cereal, and watch TV, your unstated goals are to get the sustenance and rest you need to survive and then keep yourself at least mildly entertained until the next life event occurs and you need to do something else. That might not be the loftiest of goals, but it’s the logical conclusion based on your actions. If you don’t like that answer, that is your first step to a better goal. And that’s the whole point: most people will say that you’re supposed to do what makes you happy, what you find to be meaningful, what will make you successful, or what you have to do to survive or fulfill your responsibilities or obligations to people you care about/for if you have them. No matter which you choose to motivate you, that’s what you’re supposed to do.

Life Path

Where You Are->What You Need to Do->Where You Want to Be

Three-Step Process

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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