How to figure out what to do with your life? Many people think the answer involves finding the right job or company to work for, but both research and my experience show that the answer is a bit more subtle.
To find work you love, you need to find work that has qualities well-matched to you. In this article, I’ll share seven qualities of work that I think everyone should observe in their jobs, and use to guide their careers.
There’s a 10-word phrase that almost all of us get asked when we’re kids:
What do you wanna be when you grow up?
And for most of us, the answer to that question usually has to do with specific job roles, firefighter, engineer, CEO, or sometimes it is a specific company we wanna work for, Tesla, Apple, Nintendo, whatever company it may be.
And I’m not here to say the answers to those questions are wrong or that the question itself is wrong. But when it comes to the challenge of figuring out what to do with your career, what to do with your life, and what makes work truly satisfying, these types of answers might be incomplete. And there might be better questions to ask.
I am almost 26 years old at this point. And I was reflecting the other day on the 10 years that I’ve spent running my business, my blogs, College Info Geek, and my podcast.
And I was reflecting on the fact that over those 10 years, I’ve been a part of tons of different and very disparate projects all of which I’ve gotten a lot of satisfaction from.
These include things like learning PHP and making tweaks to my website’s WordPress theme, to learning about gardening, and focus pulling, and being in front of the camera, making videos to improving the physical networking setup in my home to even going through the tax code and writing Excel formulas so that my budget spreadsheet would calculate my taxes correctly. These all seem incredibly different.
And if I had taken my experiences with just one of them and gone to a high school career counselor and asked them what I should do with my life, they would give me a ton of different answers. They would say, I should become a web developer or maybe a gardener or a blogger.
And of course, all these jobs are incredibly different and what’s more important, they each have their own unique path of education and experience required in order to get to them.
So if I were to go back in time, how would I know what to tell 18-year-old Thomas to pursue since I’ve done all these things and gotten a lot of satisfaction out of all of them?
Pursuing what interests you
Well, in truth, it really doesn’t matter, but I would tell 18-year-old Thomas is pursuing what interests you now because I’ve come to believe that what makes work satisfying isn’t the specific job role that we have.
It isn’t the specific company that we work for. It’s the traits and qualities of the work itself. And this is obviously, if you think about time, a lot of the jobs we do today, haven’t been around very long.
All these jobs didn’t exist 50 years ago, 75 years ago, a hundred years ago, and people who were in their prime careers back then weren’t sitting around just wishing that these fulfilling jobs would come out of the heavens so they would stop feeling unfulfilled in their work. They had work that fulfilled them as well.
Self-determination theory to figure out what to do with your life
The motivational psychologist, Edward Deci, did a lot of this kind of research on motivation and job satisfaction and came up with a framework called self-determination theory, which I first learned about in Cal Newport’s book, “Deep Work”.
And this theory posits that there are three main qualities that make work satisfying and helps you to figure out what to do with your life; autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
- Autonomy is essentially your level of control over your time and your actions.
- Competence is the feeling that you are skilled in your work and that it’s non-trivial work, it’s a skill that’s worth having.
- And finally, relatedness has to do with your connections to other people. Do you feel loved by them? Do you feel respected by them? Do you feel like you’re an integral part of your group, both with your coworkers at work, but also with your personal relationships?
So according to the self-determination theory, to find work that you love doing, to find your passion as it were, involves simply finding work that has these three qualities in spades.
And I think that is good advice, but I think there are also some more specific qualities that you should be on the lookout for. And I’ve actually got a list of seven of them that I wanna share, which I have been keeping on a list ever since my original internship in college kind of shattered my original high school career goals.
So let me explain that for a second. When I was in high school, I wanted to be a systems administrator. I was gonna go to college, I was gonna get an IT degree, and that was going to be the guy in the chair with 15 monitors, kind of like Tank from The Matrix. That was my dream.
But then, after my sophomore year in college, I got a job at a fortune 500 finance company in the IT department. And I remember thinking to myself, during that internship, that those three months felt like a prison sentence. I could not wait to get out of that job.
Now, this had nothing to do with the people that I worked with, my coworkers, my boss, my mentors, they were all great, but the nature of the work made me feel trapped and I really, really didn’t enjoy it.
And as I started to journal and kind of record my feelings, I started to realize some of the reasons why. And it came up with this list of seven qualities that I now look for in the work that I do.
Quality 1: Are you building, or are you maintaining?
Do you do work where you’re building new things from scratch or are you maintaining things that maybe you built in the past or that somebody else built? Personally, I need to build new things. I need to be creating.
If I’m maintaining stuff for too long, I get really, really bored and really, really checked out. And this actually illuminates some of that past seemingly disparate experiences that we talked about near the beginning of this article, because whether it’s learning a bunch of Excel formulas and building cool spreadsheets or building these cinematic lighting setups, or making videos from scratch, all of these types of work involve building new things.
And they also often involve learning new things, which is my second list item to figure out what to do with life.
Quality 2: Are you using your current skills or are your learning new ones?
Are you doing work that lets you comfortably use your existing skillset most of the time or does each new project force you to learn something new? Personally, I love to learn. I’m always looking to get better at some new technique or add some new tool to my tool belt.
And if I’m doing work, I don’t have that opportunity again, I get pretty checked out.
Quality 3: How much creative autonomy do you have?
This kind of goes back to that autonomy concept from self-determination theory. How many of the decisions in your work do you get to make?
Back when I was in high school and early on in college, I was a freelance web developer and I found that work creatively fulfilling in some ways, but kind of stifling on the whole because I was really just doing what clients told me to do. And I didn’t have a whole lot of creativity, at least for what I wanted to do.
Whereas contrast that to my career as a YouTuber, I do have some constraints, there’s the algorithm, there’s the fact that I know a lot of sixth graders in classrooms watch my videos, there are sponsors to think about, but for the most part, I have complete control over the content that I wanna make and that’s very fulfilling.
So think about that. How much creative autonomy do you want to have?
Quality 4: Interaction with others.
There are two different aspects to this.
- Is the raw amount of interaction, is your work largely solitary or do you have a lot of interaction with other people?
- There is the type of relationships, the types of interactions. Are you interacting with the public at large? Like somebody working in a retail store. Are you interacting with a small but dedicated group of clients who really wanna be there like a tutor or a music teacher? Are you interacting with coworkers or superiors? These are all different types of relationships and different people are gonna gravitate to different ones.
This, in particular, has been a very important observation for me, because if you see what I do on the internet, a lot of people would point to that and say, oh, you like to teach, you should be a teacher or a tutor, but I actually have experiences with that type of work and personally, it’s not for me.
Back when I was in high school, I took a tutoring job at a local community college and I really didn’t like it that much.
Whereas I really do like making videos and blog posts and podcasts for YouTube and the internet because I get to work in solitude, I get to build something that is mine, and then I share it with the world and hope they find it helpful.
That is very different than in-person tutoring because the level of interaction and the type of interactions are completely different themselves.
Quality 5: Level of authority over other people.
And speaking of interactions, number five is your level of authority over other people. Do you want to manage other people or do you want to just sit down and do your work and not have to bother with that?
Personally, I don’t like managing other people. I like doing my own kind of work, which is why I have taken steps to delegate a lot of the management in my company to somebody else so I can focus on creation.
Quality 6: Do You like being in the spotlight?
Next, we have the spotlight. Do you wanna be in it or don’t you wanna be in it? Do you wanna be the person who gets all the attention and the glory for something, or do you want to be behind the scenes?
And related to this, do you want credit when you do something, or do you not care so much? Now, we have a weird society where saying that you want the spotlight seems to be looked down upon, even though we tend to reward people who seek the spotlight.
So I’ve done a lot of thinking on this because obviously, I’m somebody who kind of likes the spotlight otherwise I wouldn’t do the work that I do. And there are feelings of guilt here, but I’ve kind of come to this conclusion.
It is not really useful to beat myself up, to engage in this sort of mental self-flagellation over my enjoyment of the spotlight because there is good that comes of it.
As long as I keep my ego in check, as long as number one, I realized that my self worth is not defined by how much applause I get from other people and just as importantly, as long as I take the time to raise other people up as well, to acknowledge the work of others, I think if I’m making deliberate attempts to do both of those things, then my enjoyment of the spotlight isn’t problematic, but it is something you should think about.
Quality 7: Work-life balance
Lastly to figure out what to do with your life, have your work-life balance.
In other words, how much you prioritize your personal life over your work one? How much time do you have for your relationships with your friends and your family? Where do you live and how long is the commute between where you live and your work? Do you get to travel for work or do you have to travel for work?
Some people wanna go see the world. Some people want to just kind of have a home base. And does your work offer you a hard cutoff time at the end of each workday?
Do you get to sort of shut off your work brain and go think about other things or are you expected to sort of always be available, always be on call?
So with these seven traits of work in mind, we now come back to the original question.
How do you know what to do with your life?
Well, if I somehow got time travel powers and I can go back and talk to 18-year-old Thomas, this is what I would tell him.
a) To figure out what to do with your life simply pursue your interests
Simply pursue your interests and work hard at doing that because none of us can pick what our passion is out of a hat. And none of us really understands what traits and qualities of work really resonate with us until we get to experience them.
So go out and get as much experience as possible.
b) Be observant
And secondly, while getting that experience be observant, maybe even keep a journal and think about these qualities and any other that come to mind and how the current work that you’re doing relates to them.
And if you can do that while continuing to build your skills and hone your current ones and continuing to build new relationships over time, then wherever you find yourself working in the future, whatever job role you find yourself in, there’s a great chance that the work you’re doing is gonna be something that satisfies you.
Now when it comes to going and getting that experience, one common objection that a lot of people have is that, well, nobody will give me the opportunity to get experience in the first place.
Everyone who is hiring wants somebody who has five years of experience or more so it’s this chicken and the egg problem. And with certain industries, that is a problem. But with many of the jobs available today, especially jobs that you can do from your computer, nobody has to give you permission to get experience.
- First and foremost, you can go volunteer for organizations that need this kind of help, offer to do work for free.
- Secondly, you can always do personal projects, side projects, just learn on your own.
If you’re looking for a place to gain the skills necessary to get started there, Skillshare is a great option to figure out what to do with your life.
Thank you so much for reading. Hopefully found this article helpful in some way, if you did share it with your friends and family. Happing Working!