What should I do with my life?

Advice, Top Stories March 22, 2012

Have you been putting it off, are you a bit confused… or you simply have no idea what to do job-wise? Well, you’re not alone, read on for plenty of reassurance and some sound career advice. Here is what can help you realize what you should do with your life.

What should I do with my life?

Some people have all the luck. Take Arif Haq: he graduated from Warwick University with a 2:2 in politics, clueless about what he wanted to do with his life. Within a couple of months, he’d landed a dream job as brand manager at Pepsi UK. “I left uni with no idea about what I wanted to do, but aware that I had to get a job very quickly as I didn’t have the money to support myself – a year-out travelling around was definitely out of the question,” he says.

He signed up to two recruitment agencies and after a few interviews, landed a job as an account handler at marketing company KLP – part of Euro RSCG, the world’s fifth-largest marketing communications agency. Within two months, Pepsi UK, one of KLP’s largest clients, came calling. They needed someone fast and Arif fit the bill. Now he is in charge of the marketing activities for a number of Pepsi brands in the UK. The job is high pressure and varied, ranging from organising TV shows to PR and management. Arif loves it. “I don’t think it was confidence that meant I hadn’t considered my career after uni, I was just lazy and fairly apathetic,” Arif admits. “I guess I’m just lucky.”

If only it always worked out like that. But, for the majority of people, a job you are passionate about won’t just fall into your lap. Smart, with a 2:1 in business administration and buckets of work experience under his belt Jamie Beecham has struggled since graduating earlier this year to find what he wants to do. “Towards the end of my course there was some discussion about job hunting, but I was working part time and also focused on getting my grades, so I decided to leave it until I graduated,” he says. He had considered a career in teaching but realised that he didn’t want to continue studying. He’s applied for a range of jobs and things look better now, than earlier in the summer when Jamie fell into some serious career depression. “I really didn’t know what I wanted to do and found it difficult to get out there and start looking. Things looked bad, the competition was tough and I was getting worried,” he says. Having experienced some unfulfilling part time work, he’s determined to find something he enjoys doing. At the moment, Jamie’s considering whether to risk setting up his own business, he’s got an idea for setting up a triathlon marketing website but he’s unsure about plunging himself into more debt.

“You’re not a freak…”

Jamie is not the only one battling career confusion. “It’s true that significant proportion of finalists haven’t made up their minds by their final year. For some, it’s because they haven’t thought about it, and for others it’s because they have thought about it and are still confused. It can be a nerve-wracking time and it’s easy for panic to set in. It’s important to realise you’re not a freak… Lots of other people are in the same boat, and being obsessive can be counter-productive,” says Carl Gilleard chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR).

The trouble is if you feel you are running out of time it can become even harder to think about what to do. Like when you are staring at a blank piece of paper in an exam room, there are times when inspiration can seem a long way off. Well, here’s the bad news. If you really want to find a job you love you’ll need to set aside some time to think about what you want to do. The good news is that the more time you spend thinking about it, the more likely you are to find a job you enjoy, say the experts.

The quarter-life crisis

According to leadership development organisation Common Purpose, about half of workers between the ages of 25-35 say they are not fulfilled in their current jobs. The main reason for this discontent, the research found, is that workers are struggling to combine the demands of their job with their wider life ambitions. It’s been tagged “the quarter-life crisis” and more and more 20-something’s are suffering from waking up in the wrong career two years after graduation. The reason? A simple lack of planning.

“Most people spend more time planning a car purchase, or an annual holiday than they do thinking about their career,” writes John Lees, author of bestseller How to Get a Job You Love. “How do people choose the work they do? For many, work chooses them. Careers are often formed by the first job that happens to come along after graduation. It’s staggering how many people drift from one job to another with no clear plan.” So why do so few people actually try to find out what they really want to do? “There are three main reasons,” argues Stephen Coomber in The Careers Adventurer’s Fieldbook.

“First, most people don’t actually know what they want to do… they either take the path that is laid before them, or follow the received wisdom of those around them. Second, those who do have an inkling of their true vocation don’t know how to go about making it a reality… the third reason is fear of failure.”

No one can make this decision for you, says Carl at the AGR. “You’ll always have the graduate that can’t make a decision and wants someone to make it for them, but that kind of direction isn’t available, even at your careers service,” he says. “It is your life and ultimately you have to come up with a decision.”

Don’t let fear of the unknown push you into a state of paralysis or denial, warns Brian Staines, careers advisor at the University of Bristol. “The worst thing you can do is get into a state of inertia, where you are so afraid of making the wrong choice you don’t make any choice at all,” he says. “This isn’t a one-off life or death decision, it’s a decision that will move you forward. You can always change later but do make it a choice based on solid research.”

Dream jobs take time 

Nick Isbister, author of career book Who Do You Think You Are? believes that the ground rules on finding what you want to do have changed, but we’ve still to catch up. “The reality is that the emphasis in employment until recent years has been on skills rather than motivation. The implication is that we will tend to enjoy a job that we have the skills to do.” But he argues “Our -personal motivation is a much more complex matter than just finding a good skills fit.”

This means considering some very personal questions. If you get stuck thinking about what you do like doing, start with what you don’t like doing, the AGR’s Carl suggests. “Some of this you will only realise when you are actually in the job so be realistic and acknowledge that you won’t necessarily springboard into your ideal job immediately,” he says.

Research by the government last year suggested that it can take graduates anything up to four years after graduation to find their way into a job with high levels of job satisfaction, good pay and prospects. This is daunting, but Roger Steare, careers consultant advises: “From a maturity point of view, people don’t really get into an adult frame of mind until their mid to late twenties. So it’s actually quite natural to feel unsure.”

Find what you love

Steve Jobs was the CEO of Apple, the guy that oversees the making of funky hardware like the iPod. Despite founding the company at 21 and becoming a multi-millionaire by the age of 30, he managed to get himself sacked from Apple and went through a serious career crisis. Never one to stay down for long, he spent the time soul searching, only to be rehired as CEO of the company. His words to this graduates of 2005 at Californian university Stanford were straight to the point:

“You’ve got to find what you love. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. So keep looking. Don’t settle.”

The hardest part of this whole process is deciding what you want to do. But Nick Williams bestselling author of The Work We Were Born To Do has spent years looking into this process. He suggests some key steps:

1 You can work for love AND money

The majority of the population believe you can work for love or money. Either you sell your soul to earn good money, or you do what you love and are inspired about, but can never succeed financially. But you CAN have both. Seek out those who do both, study them, learn from them and spend time in their company.

2 Listen to your inner voice.

Create a list, and keep adding to it, of what would inspire you, what would seem really you and what you think would fulfil you.

3 Understand the process of resistance 

Beware of procrastinating, talking yourself out of an idea or finding reasons why something wouldn’t work.

4 Expose yourself to the real world 

Most people have a limited view of the world of work and its possibilities, but the truth is there have never been so many possibilities and opportunities to find and create work that is inspiring. Read up on interesting companies, go spend days at work with family and friends, work-shadow people, both to discover new ideas and find out what you definitely don’t want. Then you can make more and inspired informed decisions.

5 Think purpose, not job title 

Sometimes you will think that a particular career will guarantee some particular experiences, like security, fun, inspiration, creativity, excitement, intellectual challenge, meaning or purpose. Start thinking the other way around. Write down your non-financial goals, like, “I want to feel fully utilised, I want to make a difference, I want to keep growing and learning, I want to be inspired.” This is your purpose in your working life.

6 Don’t make employability and the market your idols 

When you are motivated by fear and a belief in a lack of opportunity, you might be tempted to override your own interests in order to be wanted and employable. But if you have had to mould and distort yourself to get a position, you probably won’t enjoy it much when you get it. Instead, believe that the more you live authentically, the more opportunity you can create. Recognise that you can create your own business if the work you’d love doesn’t seem to exist now.

7 Know you can make new decisions as you grow

It can seem daunting when you need to make decisions that are going to have a dramatic impact on the rest of your life. But every decision you make now can be changed in the future. Your working life can be a series of successes, and even some failures, but you can change course your whole life. Even your seemingly bad decisions can become great sources of learning and transformation for you.

8 Get in touch with the real you

One of the greatest causes of pain around careers is when you fulfil other people’s expectations of how they’d like you to be and what they’d love you to do. Even being a great success at someone else’s dream for you will bring you misery. We all want to be liked and approved of, but you must be aware the times when you override your own desires and instincts in order to please your family or friends. This is especially the case when we don’t yet know what we want to do ourselves.

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