How to Know What to Do Next in Life

This recipe begins with a stew that you have already prepared. The stew contains pieces of endless possibility, a sprinkling of paralysis, and lacks any institutional structure to hold it together. It’s missing direction and hope – let’s fix that!

It just came off the long-term, large-scale educational or professional system stove and is bubbling meanly as you stare into its depths. A taste test tells you that it’s horribly overwhelming. Never fear! The recipe below will guide you to turn this stew of fear and confusion into one of acceptance and action.

Before we begin you will need:

  • A quiet and solitary location
  • A journal and pen
  • Hunger to learn
  • Three deep breaths

Step 1: Endless Possibility Removal

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Remove all those pieces of endless possibility floating in the stew – they are far too large and undercooked!

These great big chunks are way too big even to fit in your mouth – people will be afraid to even start eating them! If there are so many big pieces, how will anyone know which to choose? They all seem like such great possibilities! Some of them are jobs, others are studies or programs, some are starting businesses, still more are travel, and a particularly large one looks like staying at home with your parents.

Take them all out! Nobody will eat them unless they are properly prepared first. Pull them out of the stew in your brain and put them down on paper so you can see them – right there in your journal, without all the other things in the stew to confuse the process.

Let’s take a look at them and see what we can do.

Step 2: Adding some more possibilities

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Many different kinds of stews exist, and often the freedom to make all of them can be very daunting, so you don’t know what type of stew exactly to make. Sometimes we start a stew and realise that it’s not really what we wanted – don’t worry! A stew can always be saved with a bit of time and effort.

Look at each of the possibilities on the page. You know what? It might seem like a strange thing to do considering the possibilities are endless, but there are a few that are missing – a few that might really surprise you (don’t worry the stew won’t get too full – just finish the recipe). Get a couple more really weird possibilities out of the fridge in your brain and put them in your journal too – possibilities that you had never considered before because your parents never put them into any stews they ever made. Perhaps things like long term solo travel, or moving to a new country, a Vipassana course or studying something completely new to you. Whatever it might be, however crazy or however hidden in the back of your mind – the best meals are experiments!

Step 3: Figuring out if the flavour is right

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Look at each of the possibilities and in a few words on the page describe why each of them is important to the future of the stew (that is, why you are considering them as something to do next in your life).

After understanding the why of each of these possibilities you should be able to see which are the best flavours and which are not so good (IE the choices that draw you to them). Choose your top 3 endless possibilities and get rid of the rest.

Look at that! We are down to three – not so endless after all! But they are still a bit too big to stomach…

Step 4: Cutting the choices down to size

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Now, make a separate page for each of these three. It’s time to cut them down into manageable chunks, ones that you can eat one at a time and slowly make real progress through your soon-to-be delicious stew.

For each of your remaining options write down the steps to getting there. This is the process of chopping them up. What are the things you need to do in order to pursue these possibilities – the steps to achieving them? What are the deeper meanings underlying each one, how do they align with your values? What are their practicalities, main advantages, disadvantages and challenges? Continue writing on each until you feel like you feel like you could stomach them more easily – that is, you feel more comfortable with the choice of each one.

After having done so, their manageability should have gone up, along with their ability to properly cook through – put them back in the stew and let’s move on!

Now, give it a stir and… Hold on. Someone left a huge stick of fear in the bottom. It’s fear of making the wrong choice! Nothing’s going to cook with that in there – we had better take it out.

Step 5: Getting rid of the Fear of Making the Wrong Choice

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In every stew there are choices to make. So many choices for so many different stews. Some people think that more choices makes life better for people. They don’t, they just make things more difficult. When too many choices exist and the result seems very important, often what’s known as the Paradox of Choice will occur. Which leads to paralysis. People choose not to make any choice, due to a fear that the choice won’t be the best one. Sometimes this can act as a flavour enhancer and be beneficial, but most of the time this is not so. If we can’t decide what to put in our stew we end up with no stew and a ravaging hunger!

So how do we realistically learn that it is best to actively choose, than to be paralysed into a state of indecision? It is something that can only be learned through repeated experience, but here’s some theory that might help.

We are afraid to choose because we do not want to choose the wrong thing. However, the truth is – the is no wrong thing. Every ingredient will make a stew – it is true that some stews will taste better than others, but we cannot go through life without first making some bad tasting stews before we make some delicious ones! Likely, most of the outcomes will be very similar, regardless of what we choose. So get to it and make some stew!

That is, every stew you cook, every outcome of every decision you make, matters only because of this one fact: you will gain the experience of cooking, of life. To make mistakes is an unavoidable aspect of life, and actually a good one – every choice we make gives us the opportunity to develop wisdom.

To gain acceptance of this fear completely is a long process, and it involves realising that fear is a necessary step in any new endeavour, the understanding that fear isn’t what will dictate your life. We can begin here with this exercise to better understand the outcomes of actions that we take. With a wooden spoon, stir the stew and think back to three mistakes you’ve made in the past, at least one of them serious. Write them down. Write down under each the lessons they taught you, and what you learned because of them. Write about how each turned you into the person you are today and how important those lessons were to you. Sit back briefly, close your eyes and take 9 deep breaths. In groups of 3 slow, deep breaths, try to feel thankful for the lessons those mistakes taught you – and understand that you would not be who you are today without them. Smile and appreciate.

The stick of fear should have dissolved. If not, repeat the breathing exercise. Don’t worry if it left a taste of bitterness, that is normal, fear comes and goes throughout life.

If after a few slow breathing exercises you still feel overwhelmed – don’t worry. Feeling overwhelmed in the face of life is a normal thing, too. In the end, if you feel as though you’ll never be able to make a choice – just choose one arbitrarily! If it ends up being not for you, you will figure it out on the way and learn a valuable lesson! Check the link to the video at the end of this post for more.

Step 6: How to add structure to you stew

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Hey! The sprinkling of paralysis should have turned into some tasty actionable items thanks to the dissolution of fear and the observation of some legitimate future options – congrats you are well on your way to making one tasty goulash!

These last couple of steps are often forgotten by people, but they are just as important as all the others! You’ve got to add some structure to your scrumptious dish, otherwise the flavours won’t support each other and it will fall apart!

The institutions of life – namely school, University and work often give to us the goals and structures that direct us where to go next – they give you pre-packaged, premade stews that some old men cooked like a hundred years ago and everyone just keeps eating them because it’s easy and that’s what people have been doing for ages. As soon as you leave the institution you realise “holy stew, I gotta cook for myself!” – scary, right?

There are benefits and costs to prepackaged stew. You don’t have to make the big choices, you have more time to do recreational things instead of cooking, the stew has instructions about reheating it on the packet – just follow them and if you figure out how to do it right you get perfectly warm stew each time. You can also communicate with mentors about the stew reheating instructions and get instant feedback and even get graded on your ability to reheat it. But there are only a few set flavours of stew, and the mentors often only know those flavours. If you want to experiment and try different stews for yourself often you will be discouraged. Imagine how many different ways to make stew there are – and institutions only show you how to heat up a couple of types!

I hope you got the metaphor. If not, it’s saying this: Institutions give us structures to live by, immediate feedback, and suggestions for where to go next and how. They are great places to learn generically about how to exist in other institutions. Often, however, they don’t teach you about real life – the struggles and vicissitudes, ways to know what you actually want to do, how to understand yourself and people around you etc. It is expected that those lessons and more (basically how to live life) are your responsibility to learn yourself. Unfortunately, not many people realise this until they are out of the institution and floundering.

One of the ways I’ve found to keep some stability when I want to get things done is to take some of the benefits of institutions and apply them to life: structures in the form of feedback, goals, habits and an internal culture.

Step 7: Actually adding the structure

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Well, you have some possible directives to follow, now you have to figure out how to stick to them! You don’t need any of those institutional structures – individual structures are much more flavourful and natural!

Choose your number one possibility and at a medium heat take another look at the pieces you wrote about it earlier. Add a pinch of mixed herb S.M.A.R.T. goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timely) by writing those down also.

If applicable: set a regular time for when you are going to perform the things necessary to achieve the goals. If they can be broken down further, do so – chop up those herbs as fine as you can! Each time you sit down to work on your goal, work with tasks rather than a time limit – it’s more effective for actually getting things done. Know what you will complete at each sitting and complete it! A few days later, give yourself feedback on your tasks and figure out how you can improve with the next action. If you just read that paragraph and didn’t set the time – stop, go back, set the time.

Consider doing some research on the direction you wish to go online. Find the contact details of a potential mentor and ask them out for coffee to get advice (on life… Or how to cook). All of these things will add more structure and increase your chances of success.

Step 8: Give that stew body!

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You have a nice tasty stew on the go but it still isn’t ready! You have to simmer down that stew and thicken it up – and that takes time!

Continue to work on understanding your future options for the next stage in your life. Think about why those are the things you want to do and if they are really intrinsically good of just the residual effect of institutions. If you just finished up with school, work, or university you have such a huge opportunity to try something completely new and rediscover yourself – don’t miss out! Try to think outside the box. If you want some examples of how to do so, and why it’s important, check out this article on How to Engage With Yourself.

Do the actionable items that will help you reach your goal – only then will your stew have simmered down to thick, sloppy deliciousness. The flavours of hope and direction should get more powerful with time.

Sorry, I should have told you this recipe would take a while – come back to make this stew again anytime you need help in finding direction in life!

Summary of Exercise:

  1. Write down all your potential future options
  2. Add things that seem crazy
  3. Write down why you want to do reach, what will they give you, and then choose your top three desired options
  4. Write a page on each of these three options – what are the steps to getting there? Why would you do them over something else?
  5. Think about some big mistakes you’ve made in the past, write about how they turned you into the person you are today. Breathe and experience gratitude.
  6. Realise how subs structures to support yourself will make your life flow more easily.
  7. Create goals, set times to work on them, reflect and give yourself honest feedback.
  8. Continue to work on these options
  9. Revisit your choices and this strategy when you are reconsidering your future

Lots of Love,

Cookie McPractical

P.S. please leave comments with your thoughts/suggestions/feedback/results for the technique, I would really value your input. Also – still experiencing existential dread all all the future options? Watch this very short and hugely helpful video on what to do with you life!

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2 Replies to “How to Know What to Do Next in Life

  1. I really dig the recipe/cooking metaphor that you’ve got going on in this article.

    I do have a couple of comments and questions.

    Instead of reviewing mistakes from the past, a better exercise could be to reflect on moments where you actually have already confronted fears, as this would keep the whole exercise positive.

    A practical suggestion I have is to design this article so that people can type their thoughts on the same page in order to make it easier for people to complete. Obviously getting a journal and pen is not that hard, but it can always be simpler.

    Lastly, a big thing from the video you linked is how important people are in your future, and it didn’t seem to play much of a role in this activity.

    Keep up the unique work!

    1. Thanks for the tips! I’ve found looking at the negative moments but framed with a growth mindset can actually have the benefit of turning them into positives, despite bitterness or sadness. I think sometimes to confront your fears you first need to realise the moments when you were unable to do so – but I like the thought of centring the exercise around more positivity, too!

      Yeah, same page would be awesome. For me it generally spills over the page but I tend to write a lot, so single pages are probably easier to handle.

      Yeah, people are a big one. I’m still working on figuring that out I think.

      Josh

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