Yesterday, a friend of mine mentioned that he’d been hearing the following words from many of his friends.
“I don’t know what to do with my life.”
Often, someone I know will say this with weary resignation, as though they are a literary figure doomed to wander the earth for decades, rootless and without purpose. And if they aren’t resigned, they’re panicking: “I don’t know what to do with my life!”
(You might hear the “panic” version a month before graduation.)
* * * * *
It’s hard to give a helpful response to people who don’t know what to do with their lives. Especially when you, like me, don’t know what to do with your own life.
But I’ve been thinking about this a lot (at least ten minutes) since yesterday, and I’ve come up with (stolen) an approach that can be fun (albeit not very helpful) for both sides of the conversation.
I know a guy who is semi-famous among some of my friends for giving ridiculous career advice to people who don’t know what to do with their lives. He might run into a mathematics graduate student, hear her out for a while, and then declare:
“You should run a grocery store! That will teach you everything you need to know about the real world.”
Or, to a perplexed philosophy major:
“Become the police chief of San Francisco! That way, if anything bad happens, the world’s most important city will be in good hands.”
* * * * *
The focus on San Francisco notwithstanding, I really like this approach.
First, because someone has to run grocery stores, and someone has to be the police chief of San Francisco, and why not you?
Second, because it expands the set of options you’ve thought about, to the point where you wind up considering something that you didn’t know was possible fifteen minutes ago.
Let’s say you’re an English major, and you come to me for career advice. (I do not necessarily recommend this.)
I might say:
“People in developing countries smoke too much tobacco! You should spend the next 20 years figuring out how to fix that problem. You’ll save thousands of lives!”
And you, the confused English major, tell me you’re not remotely qualified for that, because you prefer coffee shops and New York City apartments to wandering around Chinese villages handing out smoking-prevention flyers.
“Well… fine. How about you write the Great American Young Adult Novel? Not just an entertaining book, but a book that will teach impressionable young people how to become good citizens of the world? That would also be really cool!”
And you, the realistic English major, tell me that probably isn’t possible, and besides, how would you pay the bills? This isn’t England; you can’t write a bestselling children’s book on welfare money. And besides, you’re a journalist, not a fiction writer.
I shut up for a second. I stroke my chin thoughtfully, as though I had facial hair. Finally, a lightbulb appears above my head.
“All right, then! What if you took a bunch of classic newspaper articles, but rewrote them so that 12-to-17-year-olds would find them exciting? And then you made sure that each article included a detailed historical background and described multiple viewpoints on the event in an honest and fair way, so that the kids reading it wouldn’t have the black-and-white view of history they learn at school? How about THAT?”
And you, the ordinary English major, stop for a second. Wait, can people do that? And while my last proposal is just as crazy as the others, you might like it enough to think about how you could dial it back, reducing the scope of the task until it sounds manageable. Maybe I could start a blog where I rewrite one or two articles per week. And I could contact a couple of schools and see if they’d let me come in and present to a 9th-grade history class. Yeah!
And what happens after that?
Well, you probably go get a job at a newspaper or a PR agency or a TV show or something. I don’t actually think this weird back-and-forth will change your life.
But hopefully, when the going gets tough, and you think to yourself that this isn’t what you want to do with your life… the ridiculous idea will come back to you.
Or, better yet, you’ll think of all the ridiculous jobs that exist in the world, or could exist in the world, and start writing your own job description.
Since I don’t know what to do with my life, I keep a list of random things about the world that need to be changed, and that I think I might have some chance of changing if I spent a few years trying.
I will never fix most of these problems, and I might never fix any of them. Thus, I leave the list to you, person-who-knows-not-what-to-do-with-your-life. Flip through it and see if anything strikes your fancy.
(Click the plus signs next to list items to see the sub-lists.)
Also, let me know if you need any ridiculous ideas. I am, as always, aaronlgertler at gmail dot com.