Why is it that asking someone about what they’re doing (or want to do) with their life tends to drag down the conversation? Talk about movies and music, and they’re happy and engaged. Ask them about their ambitions in life, and the light in their eyes goes out. People don’t want to talk about their future, career, or school.
How profoundly sad is that? Why is talking about what you want to do in life a boring subject? Shouldn’t it be the most exciting of all?
This lack of direction is crippling, and it comes in part from society telling us that taking certain steps when we’re young will result in success and happiness later, like life is a magical machine—drop in a college degree, a corporate job, a house with a picket fence and a 401k, and out pops a happy life. We all know life has never been that simple, especially not now.
Just because you’re busy doesn’t mean you know what you’re doing. If you’re in school, great. If you’ve got a good job, well done. But why are you doing the things you do? Where will you be next year? How about ten years from now? Where do you want to be, and how do you plan on getting there?
It seems that people are going down a blind path in the hope that it will all work out.
Why gamble the one life you have to live?
The 10 Reasons Why No One Knows What They’re Doing in Their 20s
1. You didn’t take advantage of your college years. You chose a major because you were good at it in high school and you found it “interesting”. You thought joining clubs would take up too much time, so you said “maybe next semester”, yet you never did. You were studying subjects you weren’t passionate about but, you thought having a high GPA would equal success. It didn’t, and you’re slowly becoming very angry now that you’re working a job – you have no idea how you got into – when you graduated Magna Cum Laude.
Here’s where most people are in their 20s:
- In college, majoring in something they chose out of convenience, but they have no real idea what they’re going to do with their education.
- In graduate school because they got a BA in something they don’t know what to do with.
- In a job with their major in an industry they have no real passion for, and they’re surrounded by people who did the same thing. They have a decent salary and benefits, live in a nice apartment, and leased a new car, so they’re very reluctant to leave.
Why is it that students spend more time on Facebook in one week then they do picking their own major? It’s likely to cost $25,000-$100,000, and it’s an investment of four years of your life (nowadays 5 years). That’s a big deal, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly.
It’s not about what your parents want, what feels safe, or what you were good at in high school. It’s about recognizing what your truest self has always wanted to do—the thing you were born to do. The thing you could do every single day without ever feeling tired of it.
“There are moments when one has to choose between living one’s own life, fully, entirely, completely – or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands. You have that moment now. Choose!” – Oscar Wilde
Imagine that an uncle you didn’t know passed away and you inherited millions. If you never needed to work again, what would you fill your days with? What would you want to accomplish? Chances are, the answer to that question is what you should be doing. Find a way to turn your passion into a career. In this day and age we need to stop putting our passions aside and start living them.
Stop chasing money and start chasing happiness. (And no, money does not buy happiness.)
Then, pick a major that you want to study. Don’t choose it because your friends are doing it or because it “seems like a smart choice.” Study something that matters to you, the thing that will drive you to stay up until 2AM finishing that text and wake up bright and early at 7AM, happy to get to your first class.
2. You live for the future. You are not enjoying the present moment. No wonder most people don’t know what they’re doing in their 20s. You expect that some event in the future will make you happy. Living for the future and thinking the future will be better after something is completed or once you’ve earned degree, finished grad school or gotten a promotion at work. You are missing the opportunities around you in the present because you live for the future.
“You spend your whole life stuck in the labyrinth, thinking how you’ll escape one day, and how awesome it will be, and imagining that future keeps you going, but you never do it. You just use the future to escape the present.” – John Green
Live fully in the present. Don’t live to be happy. Be happy while living. Don’t make happiness as the end product of your achievements/goals – get a perfect job/car/house/spouse. Derive happiness from whatever you are doing at present. It is the journey that you must enjoy not the end result. Time is ticking and you will not get it back.
Live fully and embrace the present. You can walk your way through life thinking the future will be brighter but if you are not doing the things that matter or count today then you will never arrive. You’ve got to love the journey.
3. Your parents control you. Parents have a major influence on the lives of children, and that’s appropriate—they’re fronting most of the bills. But what you have to understand is that your parents want what is safe and secure for you. They’re less interested in whether or not that makes you truly happy.
They don’t want you to take the risk and fail. They want you to be financially independent. They want to know that you can pay your own bills and provide for their future grandchildren. Sometimes the harder route is better for us, and we as adult individuals can see that, but our parents can’t see our lives in the same light.
For most parents, work is work. This is in part generational. Most parents have spent their entire lives doing things they didn’t like to provide for you. (You have to respect that.)
So, while you should respect the wishes and viewpoints of your parents, you don’t have to mindlessly trudge down the path they lay out for you. If you truly want to do something, you need to take control of your own life and do it. At the end of the day, it’s your life to live.
“Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Listen to them. Consider their advice. They’ve been around a lot longer than you, and they’ve got a lot of wisdom and good sense to share. But it’s nothing new for children to hold different values and goals than their parents, and at some point you have to learn to define your own code. This phenomenon is part of coming of age, and it’s a natural, healthy part of the human experience.
4. Your environment is holding you back. What you surround yourself with affects who you are and what you do. How will you ever figure out what to do in your 20s if your friends spend their time playing Xbox, watching movies, hitting the bars, and doing things that provide instant gratification instead of working towards their goals? That’s what you’re going to do, too. Yes, these things are fun. But everything in moderation, right?
Excessive indulgence (whether it’s drinking, partying, drug use, sex, junk eating, or whatever) can prevent you from focusing on self-discovery and improvement, and it can even become your worst enemy. Being social is good, and involving yourself in the right relationships can encourage and empower you.
However, filling your nights with temporary pleasures is just that—temporary. It’s fleeting. And yes, it will get old. The problem for most people is that when it gets old, they’re also older, and in the meantime they haven’t gotten themselves to the place in life that they want to be.
“You are the average of the five people you associate with most, so do not underestimate the effects of your pessimistic, unambitious, or disorganized friends. If someone isn’t making you stronger, they’re making you weaker.” ― Timothy Ferriss
Instead, surround yourself with people who have qualities you admire, who are smarter and more driven than you. Let their success rub off. Soak up their energy, and let their drive help push you to be better too. Outside of school, this is harder. And don’t be one-sided about it either—remember that you can positively influence others by encouraging others to be their best selves.
If you want to get somewhere, then hang out with the people who are already there or who also want to get there. Change your environment, change your friends, and you change everything.
5. You’ve taken the wrong path. Most young people suffer from being totally short-sighted. They think they’ll have plenty of time to get what they want, so they don’t take the appropriate steps now, and suddenly life passes them by. Too many of us are all about short term gains and happiness.
We want to be happy now, and we won’t sacrifice any part of that in return for future gains. So, we get stuck in the endless cycle of day to day motions, because we’re content with that cycle. School, work, gym, go out. That’s not necessarily bad, but it’s not going to lead you to anything greater down the line.
You could be spending most of your time climbing a ladder leaned up against the wrong wall (most people do). Just because there is a ladder presented in front of you doesn’t mean you need to climb it. Go find the right ladder. Go find the ladder destined for you. Find your mission.
“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
The mantra for all of this, the surface-level motto that’s been adopted and twisted to encourage the dumbest of behavior, is YOLO. You Only Live Once? Exactly. You only live once, so why waste your time doing something you don’t even care about? Nobody’s going to tell you what to do, and nobody’s going to hold your hand and lead you down the path that will lead you to long-lasting future fulfillment.
Most people don’t care who you are or what you do. It’s up to you to decide what you really want to do, then start taking steps to make it happen. Go.
6. You stopped learning. Your education begins after graduation, not ends. School isn’t the only outlet for learning. Think about learning from experience and results. What have you done? What skills do you possess? Learning is an ongoing process, not something you actively choose to do. A lifelong education can also be your greatest tool—and one that’s an absolute necessity for greatness.
Read books. Think about it this way; someone spent their entire life learning some painful lesson and is offering these golden nuggets to you for less than $10. Why wouldn’t you take that knowledge so you can learn from others? Anything you want to learn is at your fingertips. Read.
“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” – Mark Twain
Stick to people who do what you want to do. Call people. Get on LinkedIn and connect with them, and get an internship or an entry level job, whatever you need to do to break into the industry that you truly care about.
When you’re passionate about it all, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you learn, how hungrily you consume new knowledge. Connect with peers, too; you can learn just as readily from others like you, since you all have new and unique experiences to bring to the table.
This is the wisest investment you can make. Make constant learning a habit. Knowledge can’t be stolen or broken like material things. That’s why millionaires are broke one year and richer the next year. It’s not the money that got them rich it was the knowledge.The bank can’t repossess your mind. Invest in your mind, and you’ll be able to put it to work for you until you’re dead.
7. You do the same thing everyday. Just because you get older doesn’t mean you’ll become more successful. That’s an assumption a lot of people seem to make, whether they realize it or not, and it’s false. After you graduate, it’s completely up to you to make forward progressions in your life.
No one is going to hand you anything, and you’re wrong if you think you automatically deserve it—after all, you probably haven’t really done anything yet. The modern world is full of overeducated twenty-somethings with no real career prospects, baffled at how things have turned out, still living off of the US Bank of Mom and Dad.
“If you do tomorrow what you did today, you will get tomorrow what you got today.” – Benjamin Franklin
No one knows what they’re doing in their 20s because very few understand that time is the most precious asset in life, and you will never get it back. Not even billionaires can buy more time. They die, just like you and I will. Time is your most valuable resource, and it’s constantly trickling away. You can save up money, you can strive to earn more later and make up the losses from your youth, but your time here is finite.
If you want different results tomorrow, do different things today. It will never be easier to take big risks and try new things than when you’re still young—you’re likely to have fewer commitments and obligations to hold you down. If your environment is holding you back, change your environment.
Form the habits that will define your adult life. Eliminate the negative, embrace the positive, and form habits that breed success.
Eventually, everyone realizes they’re temporary. It sinks in, little by little, that you won’t be here forever. Understand this while you are young versus when you are in your 50s when you finally realize that your youth has passed you by. The fact that your life can and will end, something you’re desensitized to as a young person (because we assume our time is still long, and it seems endless), becomes reality.
For most people, that change comes too late in life. Allow yourself to feel it. Accept it. Meditate on it. Your time is going to fly by. Start making it count today. Live with purpose. Live with passion.
8. You’ve escaped to grad school. You should go to grad school if you want to pursue a career that requires it. Don’t go just for the hell of it, or to put off entering the job market, or to improve your resume by adding an additional line to it. Show employers results, not degrees.
Too many people go to grad school as a means of hiding out, because they’re afraid of the world beyond academia. It’s all they know. These people don’t usually fare well once grad school is over.
Grad school is not a way to prolong the day of reckoning.
There are countless job applicants with freshly minted masters degrees that they’re not going to use, and I see countless people making plans for grad school without a clue as to why they want to do it. It sounds nice to say, “I’m in grad school”. Yet I can always sense a feeling of uncertainty behind those words. For many of them, it’s an investment of tens of thousands of dollars and 2 to 3 years of their life. That’s a third of their twenties. It’s valuable time. Is it worth it?
And depending on the field you’re going into, it might not make you more competitive. What it will definitely do, however, is keep you from getting valuable work experience that much longer.
Meanwhile, your peers who spent those years learning practical lessons the hard way are going to be more competitive than you and have more real world experience.
“Within a couple of weeks of starting the Ph.D. program, though, she discovered that she’d booked passage on a sinking ship. There aren’t any jobs, the other students informed her; the profession’s glutted with tenured old men who won’t step aside for the next generation. Meanwhile, the Internet’s booming, and the kids we gave C pluses to are waltzing out of college and getting rich on stock options while we bust our asses for a pathetic stipend that doesn’t even cover the rent.” – Tom Perrotta
In the worst case scenario, you’re required to take on additional burdensome student loans, and those hang around your neck like an albatross for a decade after. That sort of debt can force you to stick with a job—any job, even one you hate—to struggle to make those minimum payments for decades.
Graduate school isn’t inherently bad, and for some people it’s the right decision. But it’s never the right decision to do it just for something to do. Know your path, and make a logical, rational decision about whether or not graduate school is a smart stepping stone on your path.
9. You’re not pushing yourself. Being talented isn’t enough. Success is a product of hard work, not talent. We all know talented people whose skills are never put to good use through sheer laziness. Negative thinking like “I have no talent” or “I’m not smart enough” is not an excuse for not trying something.
No one knows what they’re doing in their 20s because very few realize that you just have to do the work. Do it over and over again. Fail over and over again, cry over and over again, get back up and learn from those experiences. Talk to people, research, adjust your strategies, and try again. Persistence is a virtue.
Once you’ve started, don’t stop. Fix errors, but don’t quit. You’ve probably tried many things in your life, but you likely haven’t ever committed fully to one for a long period of time. When the goal you’re working on is your life’s true mission, you’ll find it hard to toss aside—the drive inside will tell you to keep going.
Listen to that fire. It’s not always going to be easy, but then again, no great thing ever is. When your social life begins to suffer, your cash flow gets tight, and the frustrations start piling up, don’t quit. That’s progress, and it’s not easy, but there’s a light on the other side of it. Those who can breakthrough those moments is what separates the wolves from the sheep.
“It ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!” – Rocky Balboa
There is anecdotal evidence that in order to truly master something you have to spend ~10,000 hours doing it. That’s equivalent to five work years. Through perseverance you can out perform those with raw talent and no work ethic any day of the week.
Don’t sit back in a comfortable job that will give you a 5% annual raise. You are not learning. You are not pushing yourself. You are not growing. You’re wasting your time and living a life of complacency. If you want to see change, you are going to have to take risk, put in the time and work your ass off.
10. You’re a walking stimulus junkie. You’re on the cutting edge of every trend. You’re in the know on the latest fashions, and you’ve got a ferocious sense of style. You’re a shopaholic and love malls. You binge on entire seasons of hot new TV shows, and your Netflix queue is a mile long.
Sound like you? If so, you might be a stimulus junkie—moving from one stimulating quick fix at a time to another, consuming the newest media and trends like an addict.
Nice watch, nice glasses, nice car—who cares? Will it matter 3 years from now? How about 10?
Don’t worry I’ll wait…
“The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything.” – Chuck Palahniuk
These aren’t bad things, but when they become all-consuming they keep you from developing a fulfilling life of action. They turn you into purely a consumer instead of a producer. Stop consuming information and start creating a life worth living.
Watch this scene from “Into the Wild” to better understand what it means to live unbound.
Stop wasting time filling your life with the things that billion-dollar marketing companies tell you that you need, and instead build your days on getting to where you want to be according to your own values in life.
Whenever you’re making a decision about life, ask yourself: “Is this making me a more confident person and advancing my goals, or is this distancing me from who I’m meant to be?” If your habits are keeping you from progressing, ditch ‘em—they’re only holding you up. Move forward now.
Bonus: You’re in the Wrong Relationship!
Relationships take up time and energy, two of the most important assets of your life. Many of us hold on to relationships for too long, pouring time and energy into them long after they ought to have ended. If someone’s holding you back—or if you feel unnecessarily obligated to them—it’s going to be hard to make any forward progressions in life.
Believe it or not but the person you’re attracted to might not be a good match for you in the long run. Physical attraction is about sex drive and producing offspring, not about being happy together. Being best friends with your girlfriend first, however, will create a relationship that stands the test of time. Look for both: the attraction and the compatibility. Friendship first.
The pain of breaking up is very painful, yet the pain of breaking up 3+ years down the line will be 10x more painful. You deserve the absolute best partner in life and shouldn’t settle for anything less. Until this person arrives, focus on you.
When you have that real connection, that partnership, it strengthens every other aspect of your life. When you hit a speed bump, you’ve got someone to help you bounce back, someone to encourage you.
When things are going well, you’ve got someone to keep pushing you and challenging you. It just keeps getting better and better. Often I hear from older couples in their 50s that they fell in love with each other over and over every decade. – The relationship just keeps getting better and better with time. It isn’t this roller coaster of emotions after 1 year where you have to fight to keep your partner happy. It shouldn’t be a fight; it should be a journey you embark on together.
And don’t stay in a relationship just because you’re enjoying the regular sex. If you were on an island with this person and you couldn’t have sex, would this drive you insane? Or would the relationship thrive?
If your girlfriend isn’t helping you become a better man, then you really need to reevaluate what she’s doing for you. Likewise, you should be helping her be her best self too. Young relationships are often toxic and co-dependent. That’s why they fail. They’re training fodder, and they help teach us what to avoid and what to seek in the future.
“Stop getting involved in relationships for the wrong reasons. Relationships must be chosen wisely. It’s better to be alone than to be in bad company. There’s no need to rush. If something is meant to be, it will happen in the right time, with the right person, and for the best reason. Fall in love when you’re ready, not when you’re lonely.”- Anonymous
The bottom line is to stay in the relationship that motivates you to be your best self. It’s easy to enjoy the good times, to have fun while you’re going out, and having regular sex. It’s much tougher to weather the storms of life together without turning on each other. If and when you do find someone who truly improves all aspects of your life, fight to keep her and don’t stop.
Photos: © Sergey Nivens © olly © iofoto © alphaspirit - Fotolia.com
So What’s a Man to Do?
You avoid these ten pitfalls in two ways:
The first is being honest and true to yourself. Spend some time evaluating what you really care about and what your true mission in life is. Discovering yourself and following your passions will ignite a fire inside you. Listen to your heart and have the courage to pursue the things that truly matter to you.
Sit down alone and wrestle with this question, what do you hope to accomplish before you die?
When you have an answer to this, you can start making a plan, and then the real work begins. Take massive action and follow through.
A very powerful TED Talk that can help you find your life’s purpose in less than 5 minutes:
The second is embracing change. Don’t fear it. You may not feel completely confident in what you’re doing, but that’s part of life—those are the little pushes we need that make us better and stronger.
The most elite special forces in the US military – Navy Seals, Green Berets, Rangers are all about being creative in the present. They build transferrable skills and tactics, then adapt them to the situation. Things change. People change. The environment changes. That’s what makes them elite, not weaponry or advanced technology, but the ability to handle change.
And understanding this is the key to stepping forward into the uncomfortable to chase your dreams. Define yourself and blaze your own path into the unknown.
Don’t settle for the temporary fun and the dull complacency that most young people accept. Don’t be satisfied with just hanging out, watching your weeks pass you by, each one like the previous. Push yourself into uncomfortable territory. Do one thing that scares you everyday.
The uncertainty, pain, and frustration mean growth. You’ll come out stronger on the other side. I guarantee it.
Pursue your dreams relentlessly. It’s your life, you only get one shot at it, and you need to step up and own it. Keep moving. Keep hoping. Keep fighting. There’s victory on the other side. And ultimately, the world will be a better place because of you.
Now close this because you’ve got work to do.
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