What Should I Do With My Life? 17 Useful Pieces of Advice From The Greats


Popular career advice for the millennial generation usually goes something like this: Follow your dreams, pursue your passion, shoot for that one special star. (Oh, and, um, the recession will only make you stronger.) But what if you don't even know what your dream is?

For every impressive teen entrepreneur, there are thousands of 20-somethings floundering for a defining passion, or questioning why it is they are required to have one in the first place. After all, figuring out what to do with your life is an even trickier question nowadays, because the job market is less oriented towards a single passionate lifelong career. The idea of the stable rise 'up the job ladder' is increasingly splitting into a complex latticework of freelance work, temping, job shares, diverse income streams, and frequent career changes. Young people entering the job market are now likely to have 2 or 3 careers over their lifetime.

While we're still fascinated by the young world-changers who can barely grow stubble and the 60-year-olds who realize their 'true passion' is to raise alpacas/grow wine/renovate houses in France, the concept of a single dream is beginning to look both difficult and oddly obsolete.

Fortunately, for a very long time, wise people have been contemplating what it means to find a direction in life, how that relates to earning money, and what having dreams in itself actually entails. If you're feeling directionless, then here are 17 of the best pieces of advice for you.

On looking to your past for help:

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Sir Terry Pratchett, writer of the beloved Discworld series, is certainly no stranger to success. This encouragement to base your search for direction on reflections about where you are, and where you came from, is certainly a powerful idea.

On defining success:

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It's a simple idea, but more difficult than it sounds. If you're worried about 'success,' keep this Bob Dylan quote in mind, and remember that real success is about following your instincts.

On experimentation:

Sylvia Plath is a tragic figure, but she was highly perceptive, and The Bell Jar is a classic read for the young and unanchored. Experimenting with different ideas and job paths are all part of an important process.

On discovering what you really love:

This Rainer Marie Rilke quote, from his first letter to an aspiring poet (age 19), is actually about the passion to write, but can be applied to defining any deep hunger. It may have hard consequences — what you think you love may look flimsy against this test — but introspection is a valuable tool.

On parents' usefulness (or lack thereof):

Anne Frank got the parenting dilemma just right. While parents and family can try to help, ultimately they can't — and shouldn't — make your choices for you.

On the terror and pleasure of finding your way:

One of the most famous of Dr Seuss's books, Oh, The Places You'll Go! is a firm favorite for drifting graduates because it's such an effective metaphor for journeys of discovery. It emphasizes that while this is a terrifying time, it can also be empowering and fun.

On being fearless:

Ralph Waldo Emerson's advice may not appeal to those who like to look before they leap, but often, the only way to see whether a direction really suits you is to jump right in.

On ignoring advice:

This tongue-in-cheek statement from Edna St Vincent Millay is meant to be taken with a grain of salt, but it incorporates two interesting ideas: That you aren't required to take every piece of career advice offered to you, no matter how sensible, and that mistaken choices can be valuable, not life-ending.

On fear:

This quote, from the notably gloomy Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, is actually a pretty helpful tip for those who are trying a new or scandalously different path in life: The first step is often the hardest bit.

On creativity:

American author Kurt Vonnegut certainly knew that creating something, no matter how small or illusory, is valuable — and that it's very possible to have a creative life outside of whatever you do to earn money.

On uncertainty:

Writer Haruki Murakami is one of the most rigorously disciplined artists on the planet, but that doesn't mean he's not familiar with feeling lost or rudderless. This feeling, as he points out in his novel Kafka on the Shore , often doesn't have to do with outside factors — it's internal, and the only way to escape it is to push through it.

On courage:

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Maya Angelou went through many incarnations before she became an internationally-beloved writer, including single mother and exotic dancer, but she was always an advocate of the value and necessity of bravery. Everybody telling you to embrace your potential? Focus on being courageous, instead.

On self-contradiction:

American poet Walt Whitman's quote from his epic Leaves of Grass is a good one to keep in mind for those who seem to have conflicting ideas. Love law, travel, and gardening? Whitman says to embrace the uncertainty — and to accept that you may not have just one ruling passion in your life.

On what the world owes you:

If your lack of direction is leaving you frustrated, your first few forays have ended in disappointment, or your hard-won passion actually turns out to be a dud, remember this wisdom from scientist and writer Carl Sagan. Even pursuing something ardently doesn't mean it will automatically turn out for the best. And that's ok.

On responsibility:

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Toni Morrison's advice to her students is powerful stuff: You can't look at success as beating your peers to a prize, but rather should think about crafting a life that makes the world better.

On individuality:

It can be a great temptation to model your life path after a hero, or compare yourself unfavorably with peers who seem to have it all sorted out; but German author Hermann Hesse will try to make you think better of it.

On happiness:

Charles M. Schultz wrote Charlie Brown comics happily till his death, and his group of neurotic, lovelorn, and eccentric characters went through most of life's problems — including the search for a grand direction. And as he points out here, sometimes you just don't need one.

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