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

UPDATED: May 22, 2023
PUBLISHED: July 15, 2015

The pressure to figure out what you’re doing with your life starts early—and it begins as almost a joke. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” your parents ask 4-year-old you, mostly because it’s cute to see tiny humans rattle off improbable career choices. But now that the real decision is upon you, you’re feeling paralyzed when it comes to what’s next.

The problem here isn’t that you have to choose something; it’s that the way we frame the choosing makes the answer seem so final: Pick a career, start running at it headlong and hope it holds. But this approach doesn’t allow for the natural twists, turns and course-changes that are part of the journey. And it leaves you feeling guilty if you do end up veering off course.

But here’s the thing: When you ask successful people, most of them didn’t have a vision of exactly where they would end up. But they started taking little steps—not always in the right direction at first—that led them to where they are now.

Take NASA’s Adam Steltzner—he directs Mars rover landings. Before he was ever landing very expensive state-of-the-art equipment on faraway planets, he was a music school dropout in San Francisco. The journey from lost to landing rovers on Mars seems huge when you think of it as one leap. But it all started one night when Adam looked up at the sky and noticed that the stars weren’t in the same place they’d started.

To find out why, he signed up for an astronomy class. But what came first was physics, which introduced him to the natural world as beautiful and knowable. That discovery kept him pushing through challenging material—even when he wasn’t very good at it yet—until he’d finished his Ph.D. in engineering mechanics and gotten a job at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. At NASA, he started getting sent all of the weirdest, hardest problems and soon he found himself in a new department at JPL: the one that handled landings. He’s since landed multiple rovers. It happened over many years, but it all started when he looked up at the sky, asked a question and took the first step toward answering it.

To alleviate the overwhelming pressure you’re feeling about having it all figured out, consider Adam’s journey and try reframing the question as, “What should I try first?” or “What question do I want to know more about?” If you embrace the idea that there’s no set endpoint and no plan that you can plot out perfectly—only the one that you’ll see when you look back—then you’re free to follow your interests and focus on what you’re doing right now.

If you’re feeling unsure about what that first step is, here are a few small things you can do right now to get started:

Follow people who are doing the things you’re interested in.

More than ever before, you can get an inside look at industries and jobs without being an insider. When you follow someone doing intriguing work in an industry you’re interested in—whether on Twitter or elsewhere—you open up a whole world full of people and ideas that you wouldn’t have otherwise discovered. You’ll find out what those in the know are reading and suggesting, who they’re talking to and what they’re saying—you can even join in—and this is all valuable when trying to decide if the nitty-gritty of a job or industry is right for you.

Dip into subjects that interest you, for free.

There’s no shortage of lectures, Q&A’s and interviews with leaders in fields you’re interested in online. Seek them out. You can also learn about different jobs and industries by taking a free class on Khan Academy, Coursera, iTunes or Udemy; subscribing to a podcast; or livestreaming a conference that’s focused on the newest topics in an industry you want to learn more about.

Find a friend who’s searching, too.

Accountability inspires action. Find a friend who’s in the same boat as you, and check in with each other regularly; or if no one’s coming to mind, announce your goals to friends, in person or online. When you set goals, make them specific by assigning a deadline or saying how often or how much of something you’ll do. And set goals that seem easier to accomplish than you think they should be—this way you’re more likely to keep at it. (Plus, an excellent byproduct of making your goals known is that friends might send you job, volunteer or internship opportunities you wouldn’t have otherwise heard about. After all, most jobs are found through networking.)

Keep a record of your progress by taking notes or keeping a journal of ideas you have, the things you’ve tried and how you feel about them. 

Then try answering “What do you want to be when you grow up?” one more time.

Now read Roadtrip Nation’s “get-it-together guide” for even more on how to create a satisfying career. 

Brian McAllister is the co-author of Roadmap: The Get-It-Together Guide for Figuring Out What to Do with Your Life (Chronicle Books; April 2015). He is also the co-founder and operations director for Roadtrip Nation—a long-running public television series, an educational organization and a movement of people committed to living lives true to their interests.