There is no other way to figure out where you belong than to make time to do it and give yourself space to fail, give yourself time to be lost. If you think you have to get it right the first time, you won’t have the space really to investigate, and you’ll convince yourself that something is right when it’s not. And then you’ll have a quarterlife crisis when you realize that you lied to yourself so you could feel stable instead of investigating. Here's how to avoid that outcome.

1. Take time to figure out what you love to do.

When I graduated from college, I was shocked to find out that I just spent 18 years getting an education and the only jobs offered to me sucked. Everything was some version of creating a new filing system for someone who is important.

Often bad situations bring on our most creative solutions. And this was one of those times: I asked myself, “What do I want to do most in the world, if I could do anything?” I decided it was to play volleyball, so I went to Los Angeles to figure out how to play on the professional beach circuit.

I spent my days on the courts, and late nights at the gym, and in between, I worked odd jobs in bookstores. And then I realized that the other thing I wanted to do was read. I had been so stifled in school being told what to read all the time. It was thrilling to be able to read whatever I wanted.

I wasn’t making very much money. Sometimes I couldn’t pay rent, and my landlord hated me. And sometimes I couldn’t afford to wash my clothes and I pretended that bikinis never get dirty. But, in fact, you really don’t need much money to figure out what you love to do, you just need time and space and a willingness to keep yourself busy until something sticks.

2. Take time to figure out what you can get paid for.

It took me a few years to navigate the arcane hierarchy of Southern California beach volleyball, but I finally played on the professional tour. For a summer. And what I found was that I am not nearly as competitive as the top players. I was, at one point, ranked 17, but I can tell you that I never cared as much about my rank as the other women.

What I did excel at, though, was winning sponsors, which, on some level, is what professional sports is all about anyway. I always had better sponsors even than women higher than me in the ranks, and I won partners and trainers by dint of my ability to attract sponsors.

But the truth about professional volleyball is that it is a really tough life. The eight hours a day on the beach starts getting old, and so do the Budweiser commercials I did (totally not fun) to manage to scrape together enough money to support myself.

So I thought to myself: Who is using the skills I have to make money? And I landed on marketing. And I had this boyfriend who was going to hire someone to do marketing at his Internet startup, so I volunteered to do it for free, to get something on my resume. And then I got a job.

3. Watch people around you to figure out who is happy.

I ended up having a pretty big job at a Fortune 500 company running their web site. Don’t get me wrong. It was the earliest days of the Internet, and it actually took more people to redesign my blog recently than it did to launch that Fortune 500 site in the early 90's.

But anyway, I started climbing the ladder and tons of people wanted to mentor me, to help me get to where they were. And they told me they were happy, but when I watched them, day in and day out, I realized that the people at the top of the ladder were not nearly as happy as I had expected them to be. They tucked their kids into bed from their phones at their desk. They were overdressed constantly and they had hair-trigger tempers for topics that seemed inconsequential to me.

So I went to where coolness seemed to be: At startups.

Now that I’m on my third startup, I can tell you with certainty that if you looked at my life you would not see that I am happy. Running a startup is really high risk and really difficult, and entrepreneurs work longer hours than anyone else. But I’m almost always there to eat diner with my kids, because I control my own hours.

So the final step of finding out where you should be is looking at everyone’s life with a clear lens. Adult life is really hard. Finding out who we are, and finding someone to share our life with, and having kids and still having a life, and being able to pay for all of that: Impossible, really.

So you look around and see who is doing what part of that well. And you pick the sacrifices that they made. Because no life is perfect, but all lives have some things to offer. Be clear on what you’re choosing and what you’re giving up, and don’t pick anyone’s life if they tell you they have everything: they’re lying.

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94 replies
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  1. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    This is the first time I’ve ever read your blog, – I don’t say this to just anything, but I must say – I think I have fallen in love with it.

  2. Ellen
    Ellen says:

    How could anybody not afford to wash their clothes? It only takes soap and water … jeez, the poorest people in the world can wash their clothes. Do you mean you couldn’t afford the laundromat and couldn’t figure out how to wash your clothes without a machine to do it for you?

  3. CJ in LA
    CJ in LA says:

    Great insight, you know an old Mexican saying goes “Nadie te quita lo Bailado” translated it means “No one can take away what you have Danced”. Being 43 and just finishing up my MANopause. I can say that the big bucks are great but actively participating in my life and in the lives of those I care about is what I started making money in the first place to do.

    To be able to get of the hamster wheel and write & then live out my truest to self “Life Script” that is what I am striving for today. The balance is never easy of course I still want the big house, car and ALL the trimmings but at what price???

    Best,

    CJ in LA

  4. sleep better
    sleep better says:

    I could really relate to this and I think everyone could. All of us at some point go through problems that are inevitable in this world. We only differ on how we take things and act on certain situations.

  5. Alexandria Brimage
    Alexandria Brimage says:

    That was a very good insight. I’m in school studying to be an accountant so I could be financially stable but emotionally (probably won’t be)- do I hear switch of major?- still lost but it’s a start(trying to sort out things).

  6. picture painting
    picture painting says:

    I think that giving yourself time to be lost is one of the best things I’ve heard in a while. If you rush into trying to “get your life together”, then chances are you’re going to miss something.

  7. Pete MacDonald
    Pete MacDonald says:

    This is a very good article which I can take a lot from. In my experience of being a music graduate, I came out of college without the slightest idea of what I wanted to do. Ultimately, I wanted to be a musician, and through experience I have found that the only way to keep money coming in is to do as many different jobs within the industry as possible and hopefully, one day, be earning enough money to be able to compose/perform the music you’ve always wanted to.

  8. John
    John says:

    This came up as a top result for “I’m a father and I don’t know what to do with my life”

    I am sorry but you didn’t help at all with your story of one volleyball players story of rising to marketing fame.

    Not at all.

  9. Sad about life lately
    Sad about life lately says:

    This was a great article…an eye opener. I’ve been so down over life and everything thats been thrown at me lately..I know theres so much out there but sometimes I feel like theres TOO much out there.. Im just so lost and sad. Thank you so much for writing this for others (like me) to read.

  10. James
    James says:

    I must say you have a mind that I could explore all day. I hope I meet someone like you someday and spend hours upon hours discussing life and careers.
    Thank You, truly! This helped me more then anything else has in a long time.

  11. Neil
    Neil says:

    I have 6 children, an expensive mortgage and I have been laid off from my job twice since 2007, and I have a wife who loves to be with the children tending to their every last need. Life couldn’t be better! By the way, I believe there is a God because it has only because of God that my needs are still, STILL, being met. There is not a blog on this website that can top what I am saying. So Ms. Penelope, do you have 6 children? Doubt it. Am I saying that I know what I am doing with my life? No, I am not perfect either. I was in the past a banker, but today, I am a Roulette Dealer in a casino. Go figure. But still, there is nothing, nothing more important to me than having a family. Do I support it perfectly? Nope. Do all the bills get paid on time? Nope. Do I get collection phone calls? Yes! Do I cry and get hurt too? Yes. But my point is, well, when I look into the eyes of my children, I don’t get all THAT sad about everything. Yes, I too get pissed off at life sometimes, but it is something about my children that keeps me going anyway. Life is meant to be hard. Not easy. Easy would be boring. Easy would mean that there would be nothing to talk about. Easy would mean that I wouldn’t need my wife and children or anyone else, but the fact remains that, well, everyone in the human race needs each other to get through this life. We need each other, with no strings attached and all strings attached. Families need each other. Towns need each other. Cities need each other. States need each other. Countries need each other. Whole races need each other. Oh hell, our Earth has wondered for a couple thousand years if there is another Earth out there, with people on it just like us, and when we find Earth 2.0, we can finally say, ahhhhhh ….we are not alone. I believe in a God – in a Heavenly Father – who does care about us but also wants us to care about each other. So, Ms. Penelope, I encourage you to CARRY ON and to everyone else, I hope for the best for all of you. In other words, KEEP THE GUNS LOADED AND KEEP THE POWDER DRY! God bless.

  12. leisa
    leisa says:

    Gotta say, a very good read. Another great read is a book by Phil Keoghan, “N.O.W., No Opportunity Wasted”. One of the best books I have ever read. I have gone from boring job (some great paying, some not) to another for years and always keep wondering what is it I want to do. Now, at the age of 50, I know what it is. I want to do something that makes a HUGE difference in people’s life (and somehow get paid for it). I thought to myself, what do I love to do? Easy, I love the outdoors, camping, hiking and the mountains. I did a little research on the web and came up with the perfect idea. I got a job as an Youth Counselor for at-risk teens with a wilderness treatment organization. It’s everything I wanted…to help people, go hiking and camping and GET PAID FOR IT! It is located in the Adirondack Mountains which is (to me) God’s Land. Is is incredibly beautiful. My mother told me I was too old but, alas, I am probably in better shape than I was in my 20’s. The icing on the cake is I am in great shape!

  13. Wrightkendra01
    Wrightkendra01 says:

    Thank you very much! I have been struggling with which direction to go with my life. I needed to read this. Thanks again!

  14. Amber Haney
    Amber Haney says:

    This article meant a lot to me. I have always done what my family “expected” of me. Go here, be this, make me proud. All the while, I was losing myself within this system of the “ideal” life. That is not the life I want. But right now I can only decide the things I do not want to do. I cannot figure out what I want with my life. I have the emotional and personal parts complete, but now I need my career goals. At this point I am influenced to research any career that sparks a tiny interest to me and I do not know if that is good or bad? I feel very lost, but grounded still. I am so confused about this life I have been leading. Thank you so much for this article. I am already beginning to take time off from school to find my passion and happiness. I am glad to hear you have found yours.

  15. sally
    sally says:

    “Time to get lost” is a great idea, but we aren’t all clever enough to spend our early 20s “lost,” and also fortunate enough to time our professional emergence with the dawn of the internet. What do you do if you already have children and grownup bills to pay and you’re not 22 anymore but you still don’t know what you want? Not doing laundry isn’t an option when you’ve got children to dress.

    Also, I’ve spent about the entirety of my career, such as it is, looking for mentors. Every supervisor I’ve ever had adores me and is glad to have hired me, the WORST performance review I ever had was still glowing, but nobody ever wants to mentor. They have enough to do, thanks. I sometimes think this wouldn’t be such a problem if I were prettier…but I’m not, and plastic surgery isn’t in the budget. I’m not hideous, I’ve been married twice so I must meet at least two mens’ definitions of basically-attractive-enough, but all the truly successful women I know are genuinely gorgeous.

  16. Hawaiian Massage
    Hawaiian Massage says:

    Generally I don’t learn article on blogs, however I would like to say that this write-up very compelled me to take a look at and do so! Your writing taste has been amazed me. Thanks, very great article.

  17. Brandon
    Brandon says:

    Great article. Just returned from Bali. Went on a yoga/surf retreat. When I returned home the wheels were turning. At the ripe “young” age of 33. I’m just discovering who Brandon is.

  18. Raja
    Raja says:

    I liked it a lot.. even I think in a similar manner.. I want to control my fortunes even if it means to spend extra hours because that is what brings happiness and a sense of satisfaction to my life.

  19. Damian
    Damian says:

    hey thank you so much for this

    I was feeling so lost googling and googling how to find out what i want to do with my life. Your blog is the only one that gave me some practical advice “find out what can make you money” that was like a lightbulb moment in my head, makes a change from people just saying “follow your passion” without thinking how i can make money from my passion. I started my own coaching business based on the follow your passion idea, and ran up $30,000 debt, yes i loved it but was it a lucrative business for me? not right then no. I am now going to approach it completely differently. Thanks so much this article has really inspired me!!!!

  20. Damian
    Damian says:

    hey, thank you so much for this

    I was feeling so lost googling and googling how to find out what i want to do with my life. Your blog is the only one that gave me some practical advice “find out what can make you money” that was like a lightbulb moment in my head, makes a change from people just saying “follow your passion” without thinking how i can make money from my passion. I started my own coaching business based on the follow your passion idea, and ran up $30,000 debt, yes i loved it but was it a lucrative business for me? not right then no. I am now going to approach it completely differently. Thanks so much this article has really inspired me!!!!

  21. Dwayne Greenler
    Dwayne Greenler says:

    I like the valuable information you provide in your articles. I will bookmark your blog and check again here frequently. I’m quite certain I’ll learn lots of new stuff right here! Good luck for the next!

  22. Meghan
    Meghan says:

    I am reading this article from Australia, I loved this. I am moving to New York in three weeks to pursue my marketing career. I have been working as a marketing assistant for the past year and I really enjoyed it- my first job out of Uni.

    New York has always been my dream …so off I go but with no job lined up- this has led me to start asking myself the tougher questions.
    What industry do I want to be in? (no idea)
    Where do I see myself in 5 years?(no idea)
    What job am I looking for?(no idea)

    Panic has set in- I have absolutely no idea what I want to do. Should you pick an industry or not be fussed about industry once you have a job that you like? Wing it and hope that it all works out in the end.

    “Often a bad situation bring on our most creative solutions”- brilliant line!

  23. shirley
    shirley says:

    For a month, continually say to yourself ” I love and accept myself as I am .” When I poke a contrary thought , do not give importance and resume the sentence.

    If we do not have what we need , if it seems that life denies us our aspirations and needs, although apparently fight for satisfying them, it is likely that this occurs because subconsciously we do not feel deserving of success, because we feel unworthy of be happy, because, from a low self-esteem and a lack of love for ourselves, unconsciously seek failure.

    Type in a list: “I deserve to have (or be ) … and I accept it now.” Write each merit several times , paying attention to what happens in your body. Ask yourself if you believe what he says or if , on the contrary , it still feels unworthy.

    If your body transmits any negative feelings , claiming : ” I renounce the party, in my conscience , is creating resistance to my own good ,” and repeat : ” I deserve … ”
    learn how to be happy and have what you want ….

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