This past July, I found myself sitting by the Mediterranean in Spain. I was all about warm sand, crisp sun and wet, salty hair twisted tightly through my fingers. At this time I accepted, yet again, I had absolutely no clue what I wanted to do with my life.
Doesn’t this only happen to college students? Or post-grads? Or people who buy Corvettes on their 50th birthdays?
Two months ago, I was so certain graduate school would be my next step. But here I was, in one of the most beautiful places I had ever been, realizing I was lost.
So what would I do?
Pursue an MFA and endure three more years of basically being broke? Find a full-time job in a big city and launch my career? Find a way to never leave Europe or eventually, come back?
Life crises do not discriminate against age, income or sex. Being confused about your next step is wildly common. Yet, few are willing to admit we all experience it.
Have you found yourself looking at two, three or even five very appealing paths and thinking, "I have no idea which one to take"?
Or, do you feel lost about who you are and what you want? If so, ask yourself these eight questions.
1. Where does my mind go when it wanders?
Though it is the most clichéd and well-known on this list, it is also the one with the most introspective capability.
I realized I am always developing scenarios, characters and fake dialogue. I love to people-watch and imagine the personal lives of passing strangers. I even get down to nitty-gritty details, like what their secrets could be or what they’re hiding in their medicine cabinets.
Based on this revelation, I came to the conclusion that when my mind wanders, I am always telling a story, even when I don’t mean to. Hence, I knew I wanted to be a writer.
So you, reader, where does your mind go?
Do you find yourself thinking of how the sun hits the branches and what a beautiful picture that would be?
Do you think about a commercial you watched? How funny or terrible it was, and how you could make a better one?
Each of these thoughts connects to a deeper vision of who you are and what you want.
Put this bit of information into your subconscious. Then, the next time you’re stuck in traffic — or you find yourself mindlessly daydreaming — make a conscious note to jot down your thoughts.
Connect the dots with all sectors of your wandering ideas. It won’t lead you astray. Eventually, you’ll find a connection.
2. What would I do with my free time without distractions?
Remove yourself from the world we live in today, from a world filled with notifications, iMessages, emails, Netflix binges and other abundant distractions.
Place yourself in a "Walden"-esque existence, where it is simply you, nature and a few favorite things.
Would you spend your time reading books? Spend your time writing books? Would you take long walks? Would you find ways to survive and survive better?
All of these bare choices show us bare personality aspects of ourselves. They reveal if we are philosophers, creators, problem solvers or inventors.
If you had nothing to distract you, what would you do?
3. What keeps me up at night?
Thoughts, both good and bad, seem to take on a personality of their own late at night.
I’m not talking about happy or sad thoughts; I mean the deep thoughts you more than likely keep to yourself.
My good thoughts: stressing about future stories I want to write, thinking about how hard it will be to write said stories and anticipating how exciting it will be when I'm finished.
Bad thoughts: believing I will never amount to anything, and wondering why I stared at my phone instead of submitting that article.
Thoughts, both good and bad, harmonize and balance to reveal key aspects of who we are.
Whatever keeps you up at night is in your mind for a reason. Usually, these genuinely deep concerns and hopes only surface when your brain is relaxed, but they wreak havoc on your conscience.
Have you heard the saying, "Don’t believe all the things you tell yourself late at night"? While true, something about the quiet darkness and surrendering ourselves to "just be" can allow us to be honest with ourselves.
Pay attention to what thoughts you give power, what good thoughts catalyst you into dreams and ideas and self-bashing thoughts are actually constructive, not critical.
Remove negative thoughts surrounding the fact you have no idea what you want. Believe some of the things you tell yourself late at night.
Don’t run from the negative, or let it overtake you to the point of surrender. Grow from it. Learn from it.
There is an answer in there somewhere.
4. Do I live a life I don’t love because I’m worried what people will think?
We can get so lost in the pursuit of what we should be that we go after things not meant for the people we truly want to be.
We set goals and we leap forward with tunnel vision. When we land, we end up lamenting the options we chose to ignore.
Forget what society tells you about being an adult. Ignore the "you're not making it unless you work a corporate, 9 to 5 job" concept.
If you don’t feel ready to get a full-time job, maybe you’re not. Who cares?
Make lattes at a local coffee shop, travel the world or pursue an artistic passion. Don’t feel guilty or ashamed you're taking a few years after graduation to figure it out.
Or maybe, you do want to quit your 9 to 5 and become an entrepreneur. You will never be ready to tell your boss, "See you later" and to give up a 401(k) for a what if.
But if you can’t stop thinking about it, have a clear game plan and know you’re capable, don’t hold yourself back.
Life paths are subjective.
Eliminate fear from your thoughts. Think like there are no consequences or judgment. No one telling you this is how life should look at 25. Then think: What would I realistically want to do be doing?
5. Do I quit when the going gets tough?
I’m fully aware of a habit I have made.
When I can’t pen out the perfect metaphor — or I can’t think of a conclusion for an article — I get up, walk away and simply give up for an hour or so.
Walking away from something like writing is crucial. But this surrendering did not solely exist in my creative work. It became a habit.
From pilates to learning Adobe Photoshop, when it got hard, I walked away. Sometimes, I never came back.
What was keeping me from just doing it? Why was I not pushing through to the endpoint of my ultimate goals and success? Well first, I had to accept it to stop it.
The world is filled with different personalities. Some thrive on challenges and finishing first. Others feel so overwhelmed with the pursuit of "just being," they choose to "not be" as an easy escape.
Are you choosing to not be? Do you know, deep down, what you want to be?
Are you scared of the hard work? Are you scared of failure? Even more so, are you scared of success?
But deep down, fear of success is rooted in all of us. Yes, we crave it. But we also associate success with plateauing.
Don’t quit. It might seem easy to take a two-hour Netflix break when you can’t finish a difficult task. But this pattern quickly becomes habit.
Habits are hard to break. Once you realize you might be creating a pattern of quitting as a means to avoid success, it is easier to glue yourself to the seat until you really deserve that Netflix.
6. Do I find distractions in relationships, drama and pointless activities as a way to distract myself from myself?
People have trouble accepting or even acknowledging this one. But, we are all guilty.
Relationships of all types are great distractions. Sometimes they are so distracting, we don’t realize we use them as scapegoats to evade our true problems.
In moments of confusion about life, it is easier to worry about other people's problems — or deal with the superficial issues they bring to our lives — than accept or acknowledge our own.
You might spend months trying to salvage a relationship. For what? I’m sure for multiple reasons. But it also serves as a distraction.
This immediate distraction and drama is an easy way to avoid overarching issues that will still be present and persistent long after the drama has fizzed.
There is a time to be selfish. There is a time to say no. And there is a time to end unhealthy relationships that only distract you.
Sometimes, our dearest friends could only be adding to our confusion. But, we also allow it.
Ask yourself, what or who needs to be diluted? What or who needs to wait? What or who needs to be cut out all together?
7. What am I really saying?
Through a conversation with a friend, I realized what I wanted.
It was my last night in Spain. We walked down the cobblestone streets of Elche.
I confessed to her everything that had been bothering me. She said something like:
What you’ve been saying to me this past week isn't 'I can’t wait to go graduate school,' or even, 'I’m going to register for the GRE.' You mainly talk about how you want to be independent. You want to make financial and life decisions on your own. You love writing, but you want the freedom to live in a city of your choice, to have a career.
There was my answer. I had been saying it all along. I just needed a third-party listener (not a voice in my head) to tell me.
Go to a friend for advice. Do not tell him or her exactly what you are feeling, or why you feel that way. Ask him or her:
What do I talk about the most? What do my conversations revolve around wanting and not wanting?
Find a blunt friend who will tell it like it is.
8. Am I being too hard on myself?
I like to believe no one ever truly "gets it." I’m sure in five years, two years or maybe even one, I will be back to asking, "what if?" and, "what do I want?"
Life is full of crossroads and scary, yet exhilarating decisions. Each will lead you to moments of clarity. These moments can range from months to years.
Yet, life changes, we change, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with feeling in-between at any stage.
Remember at this moment of transition, you are growing more than you realize. It is not in our comfortable jobs or in our clear-headed years we grow the most.
It is in the uncomfortable, the weak and the lost phases when we have no choice but to look inside, and ultimately transform ourselves into the people we want to be.
Embrace being lost. It means you have a choice. It means you will end up right where you belong.