How To Discover What The Hell You Want To Make Of Your Life

When I keep procrastinating on something, that can mean two things.

One, the task involves something scary or too difficult: I’m too afraid or not ready.

Two, my procrastination-instinct knows something that my conscious thoughts haven’t figured out yet.

In cases where the second explanation is the correct one, procrastination is a signal that the thing you’re procrastinating on is not that important to you and you should be working on other things.

You see, procrastination is more often a valuable message from your gut feeling than it is laziness, as E Price has pointed out.

If you really can’t muster the motivation for some chore, or feel that you should not be investing your time and energy in some endeavor, that might very well mean that you have picked the wrong battle — not that you have a lousy self-discipline or something like that.

As Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes in Antifragile,

“I use procrastination as a guide from my inner self.”

My mission

Lately, I’ve been procrastinating on renewing my ‘personal mission statement’.

My what?

Some context: adolescent Maarten was frantically searching for who he was and for what made him happy and he benefited from writing a personal mission statement from time to time, in which he wrote down what his values were, what drove him and what he wanted in life.

I haven’t done this for years now and for some reason it seemed like a good idea to do it again, so it has been on my to-do list for several months now.

Yet, I still haven’t done it.

What is my unconscious mind is trying to tell me?

The underlying assumption of missions

Many people are looking for what they want in life, conducting this search on the assumption that they can find an answer that will eradicate this existential doubt once and for all.

Finding a solution strong enough to do that is no small feat.

For example, I have a friend who graduated in a specific professional field but no longer has the desire to actually continue in that direction. Hence he is now trying to figure out what he does want to do with his life, so far without success.

I wonder if there is an answer to that ‘What-do-you-want-to-do-with-your-life’-question to begin with.

Could it be that people like him are searching for something that does not exist; that the idea that we can discover our passion for life, our ‘mission’, is a mistake?

Enthusiasm versus happiness

Self-proclaimed “experimenter in lifestyle design” Tim Ferriss has said some wise words about this:

I don’t say: “Go after your vision/passion”, because I think that these two words have been overused to the extent that they carry little meaning anymore. Generally, my approach has been to treat my life as a series of six-month projects and two-week experiments and then assessing opportunities after each project has achieved some kind of critical mass. So I do not have a five- or ten-year plan. Instead, in selecting my projects and experiments, I use excitement as a guide. This is pretty simple, it’s about your sympathetic nervous system, about what gets you all hyped up. To determine that, you don’t sit down and think your way through it. You have to try a lot and see what bites you. The only way to do that is to throw a lot against the wall and see what sticks. You have to go out, be curious, take classes, socialize and make yourself uncomfortable.”

In other words: following a long-term plan is not the only way to lead an inspired life.

Thus, if you don’t know ‘what you want to do with your life’, that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you.

Secondly, it also follows that the correct method for deciding what you shouldaim at in life need not involve brooding on a personal mission statement.

Instead of thinking about what MIGHT make you happy for the rest of life, itmight be more fruitful to focus on what DOES excite you now.

Focusing on the first question will cause you to search for something that you imagine could bring you happiness for the rest of your life, whereas such a thing (for many people) might not exist in the first place.

The assumption is wrong

Personally, I have given up the search for something that can feed my fire for the rest of my life.

It was difficult for me to abandon this quest: I have always envisioned my life as having a linear build-up, in which everything contributed to the ultimate goal.

Now, I no longer think that’s suitable as a long-term approach to goal selection — I’ve come to agree with Tom Kuegler when he writes that “what you ‘want to do’ is a moving target”. During your life, you change, your desires change, your goals change and what once seemed important may not strike you as valuable anymore.

For the rest of my life, I will have to fill my days. In that case, I prefer doing something that excites me over doing something that doesn’t (such as dreading over that extra publication that might contribute to my academic career but drains my energy).

This really works: science backs up the idea that enjoyment is the most important factor in persistence on long-term goals (and not willpower or some such).

How would my friend fare if he wouldn’t wrongly feel lost because he is unable to infer what to do with his life from his armchair, but instead tested different activities in practice, assessed the experiences and figured out what energizes him?

I can’t help thinking that the assumption that we must find something — our mission, our passion — that will keep us passionate for the rest of our life is wrong.

Instead, it’s better to set the bar a bit lower and find out what you’re enthusiastic about on a much smaller timescale.

So focus on “what gets you all hyped up” and not on crafting your personal mission statement.

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