For many people, “What should I do with my life?” is the most perplexing question they face. This is especially so in America where the culture demands certainty, purpose and ambition from its membership.
The fundamental problem is that the place most of us go to supply the answer to this monumental question is the egoic, conditioned self. And the ego has no clue what your true path is.
The mind is a computer
Why? Because the ego is like a computer. It stores all the experiences of our lives, especially those from our formative years, just as computers store data. Then one of our “buttons” gets pushed later in life and out pops a stored data point.
Here’s an obvious example. Your parents were both doctors so they nudged you toward studying the sciences. And when you did well in elementary, middle and then high school in your science, biology, chemistry and physics classes, your ego noted that they seemed to love you more. So you studied harder…and got more love.
Then when the time came to figure out what you wanted to do with your life, the answer was easy: Keep getting love…aka become a doctor. But was becoming an MD really true to you?
Our egos thrive on society’s desires
Or an even more obvious example: Your ego discerned early on that society, including your family and friends, rewards success with attention and respect. So you worked your keister off in high school to get into Harvard. Then you worked your keister off at Harvard to get into Yale Law School. Then you worked your keister off at Yale Law to get a clerkship with a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
And on and on it goes. White shoe law firm comes next. Or a run for political office. Unfortunately, the what for these people is always secondary to “what will make me shine ever more brightly in the eyes of society?” I know this path all too well because I used to be one of these people.
Something’s always missing
People who answer the “What should I do?” question from a place of ego rarely feel a deep feeling of peace inside. Not that they contemplate suicide every day. It’s just that they always feel that tug inside that says something is missing.
So if the egoic approach doesn’t work, what does? What is a healthy way to answer the age-old “What should I do with my life?”
Yes, I’m being presumptuous
Before getting to that, let me state loudly and clearly that I recognize the massive presumptuousness of my purporting to know the way people should figure out what to do with their lives. All I’ll say is that what follows comes from a lot of experiencing, observing and studying this stuff.
I’ll kick off my answer of what I think people should consider doing with a quote from the great transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his masterpiece Essay on Self-Reliance. Emerson wrote:
“Accept the place the divine providence has found for you…Great men have always done so…and felt that the Eternal was stirring at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being.”
Later in the essay he wrote:
“Absolve you to yourself and you shall have the suffrage of the world.”
What is it to absolve you to yourself? It means to listen to your insides. To your intuition.
Don’t let Facebook guide you
Maybe even more important is what it isn’t. It’s not listening to your parents, friends, siblings, Vogue, Facebook or Instagram.
Which leads to a critical question: How do we listen to our insides? Most people would describe their “insides” as a cacophonous, heavy metal, egoic symphony from hell most of the time with pointless, anxious, disparate thoughts bounding around like a pinball in a pinball machine.
So what do we do about that? We do our best to get that symphony to quiet down so we can hear the important stuff.
Meditation is the key
How? The best way I know of is to practice regular meditation and mindfulness. The whole point of meditation is to place our attention on something happening in the present moment, like our breath, a mantra, sound and many other techniques. Ultimately, meditation is about practicing NOT being stuck in our thought factory minds. The more we do it, the more present we become.
If you’re looking for a place to get started, go to my site davidgerken.net where you’ll find a free, easy to follow guide to developing a regular meditation practice.
Mindfulness is merely being present in our daily lives. So if you’re talking with your daughter, be there talking with your daughter, not stuck in your head thinking about the juicy Netflix show you’re going to binge watch after dinner.
It’s all in the service of being present in our lives, which is the only place where life, God/the universe and our true selves exist.
Time to answer the question
Which leads us, finally, to actually answering the question, “What should I do with my life?” Here’s the answer that I think would serve every human being on earth: Awaken from the slumber your thinking mind has placed you in, get quiet inside, and listen for ‘the place divine providence has found for you.’ When you hear it, follow it. That’s it. That’s all any of us needs to do. Listen to our insides and follow what we hear.
For most, it’s not a one time thing where it’s:
“I got it! I’m going to be a carpenter! Yes! I’ve got the rest of my life figured out! Eureka!”
No. For most of us, it’s a continuing process of listening. You hear one thing which you do and that leads you to the next thing and the next place, until eventually you arrive at ‘the place that divine providence has found for you.’
The example of Mark Twain
A wonderful example of this was Mark Twain. He said that getting the measles at age twelve led him to become a writer. How? His town was in the middle of a measles epidemic and he freaked out. He knew he was going to get it so he jumped into bed with his friend who had it, just to get it over with. He got the measles and came close to dying.
His mother was so upset with him for doing this that she took him out of school and apprenticed him to a printer, thinking maybe he could keep Twain out of trouble. Through the printer he learned about books and…yada, yada, yada, many steps later, he became a writer…all because he got the measles at age twelve.
I wrote an article about Twain’s journey last year that is relevant to this discussion and worth checking out. Here’s the link.
Also, don’t get frustrated if your path doesn’t crystallize quickly. Many young people get impatient that they haven’t found their life’s path. To them and everybody on the path, I suggest this passage from the Tao te Ching, my favorite book of wisdom.
From Chapter 15:
“Do you have the patience to wait til your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving til the right action arises by itself?”
The point is, finding our divine providence is a mysterious, ineffable process that operates on its own sacred time, not ours. Your true calling probably won’t hit you over the head in some cosmic epiphany…
“Move to New York City and open an organic coffee shop!”
That happens to some, but not many.
A huge win-win
And how about this for a monumental win-win? Not only is getting quiet inside and acting on what you hear the most effective way to find your true path, it also eliminates a sh*t ton of angst and agony people suffer around the “what should I do?” question. No more endless, anxious pondering: “Doctor?” “Grad school?” “Career change from car salesman to website developer?” “The kids are all out of diapers and in school now so should I go back to the law firm or open a flower shop?”
You can kiss those days, and those feelings, goodbye. Your work will consist only of staying present, listening and acting on what you hear.
It’s like prayer
By the way, some people will read this and say, “This listening thing sounds a lot like prayer, which is what I do.” To which I say, great. If things get quiet inside when you pray so you can hear your divine path, then go for it.
Let me also state the obvious: Not everybody reading this is 18–30 years old and in that traditional period of “What the heck should I do with my life?” For those of you older than that, this getting quiet and listening to yourself practice works at any age. You might be in your 40s or 50s and considering a career change. Or in your 60s or 70s and pondering what to do with your retirement years. The same applies to everybody at any age: Get quiet inside and listen.
My journey from Washington to Hollywood
I’ve done this a few times. After working for several years as a political aide and lobbyist in Washington, D.C., something in me said I had to explore my creative side. A couple years later I moved to Los Angeles and became a television writer.
Getting put through the grinder of the Hollywood machine forced me to find something to keep me sane. That something, at the urging of my wise and fantastic sister Ellen, turned out to be meditation.
I got so into meditation and mindfulness that something inside told me to pursue that with all of my heart and soul. And that’s where I am today. Never have I felt so at peace with “how I should be living my life.” All from getting quiet and listening.
It takes strength and courage
There is one big elephant in the room that needs to be addressed. For many of us, including me, listening to our insides takes strength and courage. If your parents are both doctors and would love nothing more than for you to follow their path, it takes strength and courage to tell them that you’ve decided against going to medical school. Why? Because your insides are telling you to move to the Rockies and become a ski instructor.
You never feel more alive and vibrant than when you’re in the mountains. You tell your parents you have no idea where this will take you long-term, but you just feel an inner tug to do this and feel compelled to follow it. That takes courage.
But wow is it ever worth it. In fact, it’s my strong belief that nothing, and I mean nothing, is more important to leading a fulfilled life than listening to and following what we hear from that sacred voice inside us.
It’s how I’ll raise my kids
This will be the guiding light for how I parent my three kids, who are 12, 10 and 4. I won’t push them toward politics or writing or anything really. I will push them to listen to their insides…and then have the strength and courage to act on what they hear. Because in the end, all I want for them, and frankly all I want for anybody in this world, is to be happy and okay in life. And I believe with all of my heart and soul that what I’ve just laid out is the surest path to getting there.
Not that anybody asked me, but if you happen to be asking yourself “What should I do with my life?” Please consider…
Get quiet inside. Listen. Act.
Rinse and repeat for the rest of your life…