"What Do You Want to Do With Your Life?" is Not an Existential Question

On a few occasions at parties back in my college days, I would ask a new friend, "So, what do you want to do with your life?" It didn't take long to realize that this is a question people rarely think about and hate to answer.

A look of shock would spread across their face as soon as the word "life" rolled off my tongue, as if they're thinking, "Is he allowed to ask that?"

But that shock is quickly buried with indifference, "Hm, I dunno, I'm still in college.", they'd say.

What?! We're talking about what you want here. What does it mean that you're so willing to shrug that off?

They would treat that question as if it were some great philosophical interrogation, amongst the likes of, "What does it mean to be good?", "Is there a God?", or even "What is Twitter for?"

They treat it as if it's a question that may be interesting to ponder over but not particularly practical during their day-to-day lives.

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I believe quite the contrary.

Asking "What do I want to do with my life?" should be, as programmers say, a "cheap" process - one that you can run frequently and without hesitation.

It should be the guiding question that we ask each morning and the question we ask each night as we reprocess our day's work and fun. If any question served as a beacon guiding us through life's foggy waters to true happiness, it ought to be this one.

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I'll admit that at times I too struggle with this simple but seemingly-weighty question. I think about it often but still find myself clamoring for words and settling with, "Eh, I dunno.", when someone pops the question.

At a time when we are, more than ever, empowered to work towards precisely the life we want, why are we so unsure of what that is?

Are you surprised to hear that I think school may have played a role?

School taught me that for at least 5/7th of my life, what I want doesn't matter. It taught me that in life, you are generally not given adequate reasons for the expectations placed on you - you just accept what others want.

Is it any surprise that, after 20 years of this, me and my peers are a bit stunned at the possibility that what we want might matter, after all?

School also taught me that right answers are very important.

With questions like, "What do you want to do with your life?", right is what we make it to be. This is not the type of question we were taught to answer, but precisely the type to consider if we want to live satisfying, meaningful lives.

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When I'm asked what I want to do with my life my mind immediately thinks, "Oh boy, I better get this right." ... "Wait a second, what does right mean, here? Something impressive or something achievable? Something noble or something ordinary and relatable? Oh, screw it..."

"Eh, I dunno."

The problem is that we take this question to mean much more than it actually does. We assume that it means, "What are the most important things you want to accomplish throughout your entire life." We view it is a long-term, future-oriented question just barely related to the moment we're in now.

Are we forgetting that this moment is life too?

Asking what we want to do with our life everyday refocuses it as a question not about the future but about now. It turns it into a dynamic question with some answers changing over time and others that stay solid, standing out as the bedrock of what we want for ourselves.

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With this new understanding, maybe we'll begin to feel more comfortable chatting casually about what we tend to want today and in our greater lives. Maybe we'll start understanding the trends of our desires and find that being able to communicate and conspire with other people about them makes us exponentially more happy.

Now, if you asked me "What do you want to do with your life?" I'd probably say something like:

"I want to build exciting things and be constantly learning whatever I need to in order to do that. Right now, for example..."

That's not about 10 years from now. It's about today and it's pretty much the center of what defines my happiness in life.

Connecting with another person on such meaningful grounds is an experience beyond any other and it starts by first connecting with ourselves about what we want in life.


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