There are a few agonizing questions one has to answer in adulthood, especially during the early days (or years) of this period of life. “Who am I?” is one; one that will probably haunt you for the rest of your life. “What do I want from life?” is another, and it might follow you at different stages of your life too. Then there is, “What should I do with my life?” which seems to be a question that is far-sighted like the previous two questions. But unlike the previous two questions, it also comes with a special sense of urgency when you enter into adulthood.
Chances are, you went to college, or perhaps some sort of vocational school. But even if you didn’t, sooner or later, you’ll likely have to confront the reality of being a part of society as some sort of “productive” member. (I was trying to avoid the implication of defining work through capitalist language and perspectives but alas, I have failed.) In our (rigidly) capitalist system, work is not just something that we are taught to see as a thing we “do.” But it becomes part of the definition of “who we are,” for better or for worse.
What you do of course, in a perfect world, doesn’t define who you are. But in our very imperfect system, we seem to take it for granted that the work someone is involved in, implies their interests (or lack thereof). Considering that you meet people who may not only dislike the things surrounding the work they do (their commute, their company, their boss, etc.), they just flat-out despise the work in and of itself, our general implications and assumptions about work in relation to the self, are questionable at best, and entirely miseducated at worst.
But a job, as we know or should know, is not always a career. And by the same token, a career is not always a vocation. In a social and organizational psychology sense, a job seems to indicate an exchange of compensation for hours – day-in, day-out, while a career is something that signifies a long-term journey through the working world with particular interests in the overall process and outcome. A vocation however, which is defined as “a calling,” is something that seems entirely different – a mission to achieve one’s purpose through work.
In the most ideal scenario, we would all work at jobs that serve our career(s), and fulfill our vocation(s). It should be noted of course, that regardless of the occupational identity someone may have, it shouldn’t be taken for granted that they are in this ideal scenario, or for that matter, not in this ideal scenario. But there are multiple scenarios one may encounter in this context. For instance, you may love your job, but be uncertain about your career or vocation. Or you may love your career and vocation, while despising your job.
Whatever situation you may find yourself in, and especially if you are not in the most ideal scenario one way or the other, sooner or later you have to ask that agonizing question, “What should I do with my life?” The responses, very much like the question itself, can be vague. You might obtain responses such as, “follow your dream,” or on the opposite end of the spectrum, “follow the money.” Rarely does it seem that these two things enjoy the place of a perfectly shared space – if the two respective pieces of advice were to be illustrated by a venn diagram, for example. It is of course even a privilege to be in the position such that it is taken for granted that one has a choice. Still, if you do have a choice, this next part is really important.
On a Sunday night – when I do all my anxious thinking and generally engage in the privilege of having mini-existential crises – I came across a profound idea (on Facebook of all places) that I had never been able to put into words, but always believed and used as a guide: “Don’t ask kids what they want to be when they grow up but what problems do they want to solve. This changes the conversation from who do I want to work for to what do I need to learn to be able to do that.” Google Global Education Evangelist, Jaime Casap, apparently said these words. The best truths, they say, are often simple ones, and this is no different.
Whatever stage of adulthood you may find yourself in, in thinking about work, asking what problem(s) you’d like to solve, can change the entire trajectory of your life. Don’t be overwhelmed with the vastness of the question, “What should I do with my life?” or get caught up in the hindsight and reflection hole of wondering whether you studied the right thing in college or graduate school. Instead look at the world and consider your job, career, and vocation and ask yourself in relation to your strengths and talents, “Am I solving the problems I want to be solving?” It’s not fool-proof, and it might lead to even more questions, but it’s a good place to start.