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[LifeStyle] I really don’t know where I want to end up. How do I figure out what I want to do?

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Don’t let optimisation be the enemy of good, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon Smith. Endlessly chasing slightly-better can actually make things worse

Illustration: Lost in the Woods by Arthur Rackham.

how do I figure out what I want? I feel like I am good at achieving goals that I care about, but I’m hopeless at deciding what goals to pursue. I don’t know what I want and I’ve gotten increasingly anxious about it over the last five to 10 unhappy years. I’m anxious to set any goals because I feel like I’m absolutely unable to decide what to do.

I don’t like my job, it doesn’t align with my values, it’s ultimately meaningless, but it’s comfortable. I’m paralysed to make a change because I really don’t know where I want to end up, and it doesn’t feel right to risk the security I have to find more meaning in my work. I feel rudderless, encumbered and I truly don’t know how to figure out what to do. So how do most people decide what they want? Do you have any tips on how I can figure it out?
Eleanor says: “Figuring out what you want” can get easily confused with two other questions that suck up your time and deplete your energy while dangling the possibility of getting it right just out of reach.

Figuring out what you should want (not what you do want) is a miserable experience, because there are too many plausible responses. Family, money, prestige, doing certain kinds of good in the world, creative fulfilment – when you’re running at the question by asking what would be objectively best, it’s impossible to figure out a standardised unit with which to weigh these things against each other. If “what should I do with my life” gets read as “what would it be best for me to aim at”, you’re functionally asking yourself to solve an aeons-old question about the best use of a human life. No wonder it feels impossible to answer.

The second question we can accidentally embark on in the guise of asking what we want is: “How can I have an ideal life?”

When we ask that, we start to stress over all the possible ways we could improve things. Improvement is in principle never-ending, so the stress of trying to achieve it is also never-ending. If I lived elsewhere, would things feel a little better? What about if I had some more money, or a different job, or a different schedule or hobbies? Around each corner, after each tweak, the promise of a slightly better life.

The endless chasing of the slightly-better external environment can really make things worse. It can manufacture dissatisfaction with a situation that would have seemed totally fine and lovely if we hadn’t thought of it as second best – and second best not to a specific picture of a better life, but to the vague idea that things could be better. To crib an insight from the Buddhists, past a certain point – if your needs are satisfied and you have love, projects, safety, fun – the route to making things feel better is not in fiddling with the external environment. It’s in fiddling with how you react to it.

The question of what you want is separate to both. It’s about asking when you feel most like yourself. When do you feel at ease; like you have both feet firmly planted on the floor? When do you feel like the best of you is showing up in your interactions? When are you proud of yourself in that deep, lamp-in-the-soul type way?

How do I overcome chronic indecision and make progress with my life?

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It can be really difficult to stay focused on that question and not lapse into the others, especially if one has grown up in relative prosperity and freedom (at least compared with most of the planet for most of history). Although we have levels of possibility that many of our ancestors could only dream of, many of us don’t actually feel freer for it. So much opportunity can turn into the imperative to never waste any.

But one way to absolutely guarantee wasting it is to let optimisation be the enemy of good. The upside is that once you pick something, anything, things often get more wantable the more you commit to continuing to want them.

It’s not that you got the decision “right”, just that once you’ve made it, you can finally cease looking at life with evaluative eyes, and live it instead.


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