‘The Get-It-Together Guide for Figuring Out What to Do With Your Life’

UPDATED: June 26, 2023
PUBLISHED: May 8, 2015

The Zuckerbergs, the Oprahs, the Gateses—they’re the usual suspects who pop up in discussions about success. They’ve rightfully earned their status as hallowed gods in the pantheon of achievers, and we love to parse their stories, sleeping habits and breakfast choices for clues about how they did it.

But industry giants aren’t the onlyones worthy of analysis. From photographers and video game designers to food scientists and sports journalists to small-business owners, there’s a vast body of people who’ve made careers out of what excites them. These individuals share something in common—and Roadtrip Nation has spent 15 years interviewing professionals of every kind to find out what that is.

Related: How to Make Your Passion Your Profession

Roadtrip Nation started when fresh-out-of-college grads Nathan Gebhard, Brian McAllister and Mike Marriner hit the road in a beat-up RV to talk to people who had forged livelihoods doing what they love. More than a decade later, it has grown into a long-running PBS series, an educational organization and a movement of people committed to living lives true to their interests.

So what have they found? It’s not some magical five-step method for success you can read in a listicle. It’s not an anchoring life principle. It’s not an acronym you can learn at a workshop. And frankly, if you study the lives of the thousands they’ve talked to—from Supreme Court justices to lobstermen—their decisions look starkly different. But there is a common approach that ties their journeys: a process of self-construction that’s allowed them to avoid dreading Mondays and create satisfying careers centered on their interests, values and vision.

The Roadtrip Nation co-founders outline this approach from their new book, Roadmap: The Get-It-Together Guide for Figuring Out What to Do with Your Life, so you can do the same:

Let go of misaligned ideas about yourself.

From the moment we enter the world, expectations from family, friends and society are piled onto us and build up to form boundaries around our dreams. From advertisements that show us what to strive for to our educations that prescribe narrow choices to our moms’ well-meaning advice that reflects her desires more than ours, we’re constantly showered with other people’s visions of success.

These ideas about who we should be and what we should do tend to worm into our brains, overpowering our internal aspirations. Soon we find ourselves careening down paths that aren’t our choosing, and decades can fly by before we realize we’re living someone else’s life.

So how do you seize control? Study yourself. Ask questions about where you’re headed and why. Things like: Am I here because of my own choices or others’ wishes? Am I engaged in my work or living for weekends? Am I being true to myself? If the answers are alarming, tune out others’ dictates and start listening to your own needs.

Related: Only You Can Decide Who You’re Going to Be

Define what success means to you.

We live in an era where we tirelessly document our every move, crop out imperfections and share it with the world for approval. So it’s no wonder we’re trapped in the snare of external validation, making decisions based on how they’ll appear on Facebook. There’s nothing wrong with wanting the cars, vacations and promotions we flaunt on social media. The problem is when we measure success by the superficial trappings our work affords and ignore the work we had to do to acquire it.

The people who find authentic happiness look beyond society’s one-size-fits-all view of success and define it for themselves. How do you do this? Distance yourself from the envy-inducing pressure cooker of social media, the hectic motions of the daily grind and think about what matters to you when everything is stripped away.

Break your vision of success into categories: What does success mean to you financially? With family? At work? Your priority could be financial stability, spending time with loved ones or the ability to work for yourself. Identifying these core motivations will help you dismiss paths that are incongruent with your values and find ones that fit.

Accept that you’ll keep changing.

Things that satisfy at 25 (a job that educates but doesn’t pay much) probably won’t satisfy at 45. Time marches on and priorities shift as we move into new life stages. So even if you find that “one thing” that grips you, it’s bound to evolve—and with the pace of job change, it might not exist in the same form in the future.

As these waves of change approach, move like a surfer: Don’t fight it. Ride it and make constant adjustments to stay on your feet. If you’re consistently exploring areas that interest you and expanding your skills in lateral directions, you won’t just tackle what’s thrown your way; you’ll avoid stagnancy when you’ve outgrown something.

It’s easier than ever to curate your own set of capacities to stay relevant to the world and yourself. Take an online class, watch a YouTube tutorial, join a Meetup of people with similar interests or just follow someone on Twitter who inspires you.

Ultimately, by shedding pressures, defining what you truly want and courting change, you’ll stay on a path that’s true to who you are—and who you’re becoming.

Related: What to Do When You Have No Idea What to Do With Your Life

Nathan Gebhard, Brian McAllister and Mike Marriner are the co-authors of Roadmap: The Get-It-Together Guide for Figuring Out What to Do with Your Life (Chronicle Books; April 2015). They are also the co-founders of Roadtrip Nation—a long-running public television series, educational organization and movement of people committed to living lives true to their interests.