7 Tactics To Find Out What Life You Want

As 2021 starts winding to an end, I can’t help but think about a question that I’ve asked myself repeatedly over the last nine months. 

“What kind of life do I want?”

Throughout high school, university, and as an early professional, everyone wants to know what kind of job you want, what salary you want,  what company you want to work for, and how your life goals compare to theirs. This spirals into a mimetic dick-measuring contest with everyone gunning for those same coveted positions (for me and my friends the desired career path was Yale Law School followed by a Supreme Court Clerkship).

I never once had anyone ask me how much of my own time I wanted, what hobbies I wanted, what I wanted to do for fun,  or whether I even wanted someone to be my boss. The funny thing is, these are the more important questions to be asking. 

My friends at high school were all working towards a certain “reach school”. In university, they were working towards a certain job or graduate degree. They focused all their time and efforts towards specific narrow goals. They made sure they were in the “right” clubs, took the “right” internships, and said all the “right” things. Getting that job and the social status that came with it was really the main goal.

The funny thing is, of those that have gotten what they want (Grad school at Yale, Cornell, Harvard, and jobs at KPMG, McKinsey, and Goldman Sachs) they aren’t really happy. 

Everything they’ve been promised turns out to be far less than expected. The 70-hour weeks at Goldman have destroyed any semblance of a work-life balance; the corporate bullshit at McKinsey is stifling, and the entry-level positions do not offer meaningful work. 

They may have gotten the job they wanted, but they most certainly did not get the life they wanted. 

It’s all too apparent: the constant complaining, the widespread use of alcohol as a coping mechanism, the ‘Sunday Scaries’, and a general aura of unhappiness. 

Each day, I thank myself for the luck of realizing my mistake after just 8 months in a corporate environment. 

If you are in university, a recent graduate, or are considering changing careers, don’t choose a career based on popularity. Give yourself a few hours (or days) and seriously think about what life you want. Once you have determined what you actually want, work backward from there to find friends, work, and a location that supports that. You are responsible for your life and can change the way it will go. As Marc Andreesen writes in his Career Advice Blog, “The world is a very malleable place. If you know what you want, and you go for it with maximum energy and drive and passion, the world will often reconfigure itself around you much more quickly and easily than you would think.”

You only have one life and the sooner you can start living it the way YOU want, the better. 

How To Figure Out What You Want To Do

Figuring out what you really want in life is extremely hard. So here are some ideas, goals, and approaches to guide you. 

1. The Ten-Year Plan

This heuristic has been the most helpful for me. Ask yourself where you want to be ten years from now: what your daily schedule will be, how much you will be worth, where you will live, etc. (ie. working four hours a day, worth $50 million, living in Europe). Don’t be scared to think big. As Bill Gates says “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.”.

Now that you have established where you want to be, work backward from there, creating a timeline for each year. This way you can visualize what it will take for you to achieve your goals and tackle that in manageable steps. 

2. Plan Out Your Ideal Schedule

I first heard this technique from an Ali Abdaal idea, but it really works. 

Take the time to plan your ideal day, week, or month. What will it look like? What will you be doing? What will you not be doing? How can you be most productive?. 

For me, this includes a full night’s sleep, writing daily, a loving family, lifting weights, cardio, freedom to take a day off, and more. 

Now that you have determined what your ideal schedule looks like, try to make your current one as similar to that as possible. Start exercising every day, start writing, get a full night’s sleep, and begin creating those habits for the future. 

3. Ask Yourself What You DON’T Want

Not surprisingly, it can be extremely difficult to determine WHAT you want. You see it happen all the time: we buy the latest tools, seek exciting experiences, and search out the latest gifts,  thinking it will make us happy, but the buzz only lasts for a few hours. We go to festivals and parties to have fun before losing two days to the comedown. 

Most of us don’t know what we want or what will make us happy; therefore, it’s easier to focus on what we don’t want. 

Ask yourself, what makes you annoyed, unhappy, or unproductive, and then remove that from your life. 

It is important to focus on what you can control. I would love to never hear an accordion again in my life, but I don’t think that will happen. Some of the more actionable things I dislike include having fixed work hours, not doing productive work, lack of upward mobility, being given busy work, being out of shape, and being pitied by other people. I am working on eliminating all of these to create the life that I want to live. 

5. Create Experiences 

Materialism doesn’t really make us happy. Sure, a piece of technology that improves my life or automates something that takes up large portions of my time does, but always buying the latest iPhone or Macbook does not. 

It’s the experiences that I’ve had that I remember the most fondly. The times traveling with friends, the times I tasted a new dish of food, my first run along the Thames, my first time swimming in the ocean, running a marathon, and many more. 

For others, these experiences could be radically different. It might be playing Call of Duty with your friends, surfing in Hawaii, or racing dog sleds in Alaska (just three random activities that my friends have optimized for). 

6. Experiment More

How do you know what you want if you’ve never tried anything else? How do you know you like to travel if you never do it?  That you don’t like exercise if you’ve never been fit? Or that you don’t like different foods if you’ve never tried them? 

You’re young and you can afford to try new things and even fail so long as you are learning more about yourself and what you like or don’t like. 

For me, this was running. I absolutely hated running until I was able to run a relatively fast 5k. Now I run most days and it is one of the best ways for me to reset and find purpose again after a long day at work. 

7. Do Something

The most important part of figuring out what you want in your life is that you take action. As the legendary football coach Bill Parcells said, “Blame Nobody, Expect Nothing, Do Something”. 

Make sure you take responsibility for your life and realize that you CAN change whatever situation you are in. As you are going through this process, don’t be scared to look silly or have your friends in corporate jobs laugh at you. As you go, remember this quote from Teddy Roosevelt as it sums up the attitude you need to find what you want. 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”