Figuring Out What We (Or Our Kids) Want To Do Next In Life 

Figuring Out What We (Or Our Kids) Want To Do Next In Life

By: Tim Taylor, A Young Person Writing to Young People and Parents of Young People

How do you find out what you want to do in life?

After talking to people, reading a lot, and doing some growing myself, this is my answer:

Ignore how passion, purpose and success are portrayed in popular culture. Realise that finding these things in life is a personal journey, and it requires curiosity, due diligence, grounded determination, and an openness to opportunity. When you do find your passion and purpose, remember these are fluid concepts that will change as you and the world evolve.


In this article I will explore how our society’s pathway to finding purpose is flawed and outline a better way to find purpose.

The flaw in our society’s way of finding purpose lies in how we tell stories of people who find purpose and who we choose to exemplify the pathway to success. Too often, the method to finding purpose is told through the embellished success stories of great men.

On social media, millions are eager to share their success, achieved by pursuing their passions. The narratives of tech billionaires are convenient abstractions that feed into their own identities; and the carefully woven presentations of a perfect life are curated by paid photographers and hired PR teams. Too often these stories omit the truth, in part or whole, of how this success was actually achieved and is created retroactively, free from uncertainty.


The cumulative effect of warping the truth in stories of success is that people’s view of what purpose means becomes highly skewed. This leaves us with an uncomfortable question: if the stories of attaining success by discovering one's true purpose are largely smoke and mirrors, where should a young person look for guidance?

As obvious as it may seem, I found the most clarity came from the grounded experiences of people who had already grappled with finding purpose in their own lives. In particular, I was most inspired by the stories of three people: Tom Kuegler, a man who had boldly followed his passion for journalism; Christie Mims, a career coach and founder of The Revolutionary Club; and a recently employed Junior Consultant at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), who had used his degree in medicine to go in an unconventional direction.

All three people had different experiences with uncovering what they were passionate about, and each thought a different aspect was most essential. Mims considers it most important to be open to opportunity and positive change. Kuegler considers an unrelenting curiosity to be the key, and the consultant for BCG thought that a deep understanding of self was needed to find fulfilling work.

Despite the diverse ways these three found their passions, the common idea they all stressed was the need to keep searching. Passion and purpose are not things you find just once, instead they are re-discovered through an ongoing process of consideration and reflection.

I condensed the lessons I’ve learned so far into four steps anyone can use to find purpose and discover what they really want to do in life at any point in time.


Step 1: Be Curious

In nearly every story of someone finding purpose, curiosity was the initial spark that led that person to uncover their passion. What makes curiosity so powerful was best summarised in a quote chosen by Kuegler from Elizabeth Gilbert's book Big Magic, "Passion can seem intimidatingly out of reach at times — a distant tower of flame, accessible only to geniuses and to those who are specially touched by god. But curiosity is a milder, quieter, more welcoming, and more democratic entity.” Simple curiosity can be a powerful and much more attainable way for someone to find purpose, rather than being shown the accomplishments of others. Realise it is a simple curiosity that enables most people to find their calling, not glamorous calls to adventure.

Find what is important to you and why. Carefully assess your values and goals. Kuegler mentions the idea of a 'Personal Legend.' This can be a life goal, aspiration, or just something you think would be cool to do. The concept of a Personal Legend Kuegler references comes from Paul Coelho's The Alchemist, which states, "Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is.”

Even if you do not know what your Personal Legend is, curiosity is still the starting point to finding purpose. At the end of her incisive talk on how the human mind learns, Barbara Oakley concludes with a key insight for those searching for their passion, "Passion often develops from things that you are good at, but some things take a long time to master. Don’t just follow your passions, broaden your passions.” The best way to find purpose is not only to try everything a little bit, but to deeply immerse yourself into different things. Kuegler, Mims, and many others seem to agree. Dedication, full-heartedness, and exploration are all stressed as essential in finding purpose. Kuegler, who dropped everything to pursue journalism, takes this one step further saying, "Forget money, forget reason. Trust yourself. That’s how to figure out what to do with your life."

In my own search for purpose, I used these lessons to try and find my Personal Legend. Outside of my career aspirations, I made three observations about myself. Firstly, I had been commuting on a bike for many years, and I had wondered if I was capable of doing more. Secondly, I had a fascination with electric cars, and I wondered how difficult it would be to convert an old car to electric, and thirdly, I love teaching, and I wondered if there was some way to use this to make a positive change. From these observations, I set three goals for myself:

1)            Complete a 140 km long bike ride
2)            Convert a car to electric
3)            Teach finance to high school students

To be absolutely clear, I had no experience doing any of those things, but I knew I wanted to do them. Rather than divine purpose, it was curiosity that led me to turn three 'what-ifs' into reality, and in doing so, I uncovered what I want to do most at this moment.

Step 2: Drown In Research

Once you have some idea about what you want to do, whether it is a career aspiration or something you have always wanted to try, the next step is to learn as much as you possibly can about it. Practically, this means absorbing as much information as you can from people who are already in the field or have an intimate knowledge of the role. Talk to at least three people who have done and currently do what you are hoping to do. Mims recommended four.

But what if you do not have any connection at all to anyone in the industry you want to work in, or know anyone who has accomplished your goal? Mims says it is not a problem, "Networking is such an important thing. … email them or send a connection request [on LinkedIn]. Say something flattering, then once they accept ... ask them to chat for 20 minutes."
"I think the older you are, the more you need to prove that you've really done the research…. Ask for 20 minutes, it's really hard to say, "No," to that."

Now, if you are like me, messaging strangers out-of-the-blue for obviously selfish reasons can feel a little strange, but as Mims points out, "Most people are willing to chat for 20 minutes and pontificate about how awesome they are. Really truly, we all love to do it." Furthermore, she thinks there may even be a benefit to being younger. "I think the older you are, the more you need to prove that you've really done the research…. Ask for 20 minutes, it's really hard to say, "No," to that."

If one of those people tells you to be cautious, heed their advice. I had the opportunity to put this in to practice with all three of my goals. As it turns out, 20 minutes is all it takes to really get into the gritty details and learn important pieces of knowledge - knowledge that usually comes from painful experience.

Importantly, I learned each of my goals was possible, but there were things I had to keep in mind. For example, on my cycling journey I was told to give myself some concessions. The route I picked was not flat and went through mountains. I was told, “If you get to a big hill, just push your bike up. The energy you burn and the fatigue aren’t worth it.” Additionally, “Make sure you spend a third of the time off your seat, and get some good, padded shorts.”

Furthermore, when talking to others who had done electric car conversions, I became inspired to go beyond my original scope and implement trickier features such as regenerative braking and a clutch plate.

Finally, from speaking with teachers I learned two practical special lessons. I learned to design lessons. And I figured out how to present in a memorable way.

These are pieces of invaluable information gained simply by asking for 20 minutes of time.
Step 3: Throw Everything At It

Mims commented, "Ask yourself this question: 'How can I be 10 times better right now?' You'll start to brainstorm ideas. Then, pick your best idea and start to implement it. This way you will be one percent better every day." This last sentence is the crux of it: make small, consistent improvements.

In my own life, I found it was useful to first set a goal that is nearly impossible. A goal that is at the edge of what you think you can do. Although it seems contradictory, by committing yourself to something that feels beyond your reach, even if you fail you will still have accomplished more than if you had not set that goal.

The manageability part comes in how you break down what you need to do to achieve it. Take the big idea and break it down into progressively smaller ideas. Once you have these pieces, you can work out what you can do right now to get closer. Do a little every day. Make it a habit. If it becomes too challenging to even bring yourself to do anything, set a related task so small and simple that you cannot possibly rationalise avoiding it.

With a little luck and perseverance, you will make progress. As Kuegler put it, “If you’re trying to solve the “what do I want to do for a living?” question, you’re inevitably going to start exposing yourself to a lot of your fears. It helps you see that your fears aren’t that big and scary after all. Then when you actually surmount them, you feel invincible.”

Eventually, you will succeed.

For all of those goals I set, I was able to do things I never thought I could. In the past year, I taught over 100 students, from high schoolers to graduate students (and I’m not yet a graduate student), about financial concepts. It was incredibly moving to hear all of the positive feedback from both the teachers I worked with and the students I taught. Preparation for my bike journey pushed me beyond my limits and taught me many small lessons about perseverance and goal setting. Converting an old Land Rover to electric forced me to gain practical skills, such as fabricating and modelling. I gained a deeper understanding of project management and how to work through roadblocks.

Step 4: Keep Looking

This one might sound strange. You may ask, "I have gotten the job I wanted, why should I keep looking?" Because you've only found what you wanted to do right now. This will change. As Mims put it, "You wouldn't let your 20-year-old self dress your 50-year-old self. Most of us, we're not going to be happy doing the same job at 55 as we were at 22, and that's normal." Kuegler makes a similar observation, “The fact is that we change so much. We don’t arrive at our goals, kick our feet up, then do what we ‘want to do’ every day for 40 years until we die.” For me the thought of this is somehow less intimidating. Personally, the thought of finding the one job you will be in for the rest of your life is much more scary.

One of the harshest realities of the new century is the demise of the employer-worker relationship that allowed employees to work for 20 or more years at the same firm, with the promise of a pension, career progression, and job security. I was surprised to discover that company given raises rarely keep pace with inflation, contributing to the economy-wide trend of the plateauing of real wages earned by workers over the last 40 years. Worryingly, according to Cameron Keng from Forbes, staying in the same job for more than two years can greatly harm your lifetime earning potential. Companies are simply not rewarding loyalty.

In today's job landscape, the best thing early career professionals can do to ensure they get the pay increases they deserve is to keep looking for new opportunities and to continually reassess what is most meaningful. This way your career progression can evolve and adapt as you and the world do, too. Incidentally, moving jobs every two to three years is the most effective antidote to entering the workforce during a recession. In a study by NBER, the graduates who made up for initial lower earnings due to a recession did so by constantly searching for new opportunities and taking better positions as they became available.

The Summary

So, how do you find purpose, and how do you use it to build a fulfilling career?

1.            Be Curious.
2.            Drown In Research.
3.            Throw Everything At It.
4.            Keep Looking.

It is inevitable we will change; our goals will change; and the world will change.

So, though I may confidently state I want to work in management consulting right now, I may have a very different passion in 10 years. As Kuegler put it, “As I film more, write more, and travel more, I’m sure I’ll find things out about my Personal Legend. I have a clearer direction. I have more confidence. Isn’t that what we want in the first place?”

When I look back, I believe I’ll find I built a purposeful career by being curious, pursuing what interests me, and adapting my goals based on what I learn about myself and the world.
 Conference Delayed
The 6th Annual Oxford Conference on Business and Poverty - Housing has been postponed until July 27-28, 2022.
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