Living life is like swimming through a vast and open river.
The current pushes you forth. You kick to keep your head above water. You turn your head as you breathe, seeing where you came from, then turning back to see where you’re going.
You have a destination. You can see it. You can feel the current pushing you forward.
Except, sometimes, that doesn’t happen. Sometimes, the current disappears. The fog rolls in. Suddenly, that destination in the distance is all but invisible.
Where were you swimming, anyway? Why were you swimming there?
As the fog gets thicker, all you can do is tread water, slowly kicking to keep yourself afloat.
You’re lost. You don’t know where to go, you don’t know why to go. Life, in these moments, feels murky, uncertain, and impenetrable.
These are the moments when you say, “I don’t know what I want” — out of your career, your relationships, life itself.
So what do you do? What do you do when you don’t know what you want? When you’re lost in the waters of life?
Pause life for a moment
Ok, I know you can’t literally pause your life, like with a remote from the movie “Click”, but you can take a breather.
Imagine you’re back on that river of life. Instead of treading water, flip onto your back and float.
Not so hard, right? With a little balance, you can buoy yourself.
Practically speaking, this means to put aside the minute things you’re doing to tread water.
What is treading water?
- Distracting yourself with numbing content such as flipping through social media, binge-watching Netflix, other mind-numbing activities where you aren’t engaged
- Producing work just for the sake of work, going on dates for the sake of going on dates
- Any activity for the sake of doing an activity
Basically, treading water is when you perform an activity that takes effort but leaves you in the same place. It’s not the same as surviving but is where you expend effort and gain little in return.
Instead, you need to flip on your back — even for a brief moment.
How to flip on your back
First, identify, then cease the ways in which you have been treading water.
From there, sit with yourself. This could be through something as simple as meditation, where you calm your mind, focus on your breathing, and simply become mindful of the thoughts and feelings that enter your brain.
Or, if you find yourself to be a more active person, you could go out and exercise, getting outside for a walk or a jog to clear your mind.
The key here is not to add on “busy work,” but to get into positive mindsets where you can better understand your own emotions and feelings.
Why is this?
Because when you “don’t know what you want,” the odds are that you aren’t in touch with yourself.
Get to know yourself
“I want” seems like it would be a simple concept, but when you tease it apart, it is a little more complicated.
You have to know “I,” that is you have to know who you are. Then, beyond that, you have to know something that you lack in the present that you would like to have in the future.
For a two-word concept, it’s quite complicated. So let’s take a step back, and look at “I am.”
“I am” is in the present. It’s who you are.
When you’re floating on your back, take some time to answer the question “who am I?”
What’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Your job?
That’s pretty common. That’s what most people say when they’re introducing themselves. “I’m Nathan. I’m a writer.”
Your job, though, is what you do. It is a component of who you are, but it doesn’t answer “who you are” entirely.
Sit with that. Think of more answers to “who am I?” No answer will be perfect, but the more you answer, the more you’ll begin to understand yourself.
As you go through your answers, see if there are any that don’t fit right.
Maybe you said, “I’m in marketing,” and that left a sour taste in your mouth. Why is that? Pay attention to answers you don’t like.
Sometimes “I have” is easier than “I am.”
When you say, “I don’t know what I want,” it’s helpful to get back to basics. One of those basics is answering “who am I?”
But even defining “who you are” can be difficult. The answers can be overwhelming.
At this point, you can go a step simpler. Ask yourself “what do I have?”
I have an apartment. I have a computer to write on. I have a dog.
Evolutionarily, there is an argument that the concept of “mineness” as in “this is mine,” meaning “I have” may predate self-awareness, meaning “I am.”
In short, I have maybe simpler to define than I am. Embrace this. List the things that you have and hold — the ones that are valuable to you.
Put them together
Here’s what I want you to do next:
I want you to take the answers you have to “who am I?” and put them together with “what do I have?”
Then I want you to add one more component: “what do I know?”
For “what do I know” these should be things that you know about yourself. Things as simple as, “I know I like ice cream,” or “I know that the finale of Game of Thrones was terrible.”
Or, you can get more complicated: “I know that I am afraid of being alone.”
Once you have a solid list of your “I knows,” then it’s time to add these to your previous list.
This list, when combined, will give you a strong blueprint of who you are.
Look at it: see how you define yourself. See on the list what you have, what you know, who you believe yourself to be.
Do you like what you see?
Is there anything on that list that you don’t want? Is there anything on that list that is missing?
Feel the current
Looking at that list, odds are that you’ve found something that feels out of place.
Maybe you looked at your list of “I haves” and saw that you don’t have a house, but an apartment. For billions of people, that’s awesome. Me personally, I love apartment living.
But for you, looking at that list, seeing “apartment” felt off. In your ideal “I have” list, you hoped it would be a house.
Or maybe you were looking at your “I am list,” and saw that the first thing you did was define yourself by your job. And, for some reason, that made you wince.
I am a banker.
Am I really just a banker?
In that moment where you felt confusion at your “I am,” you felt something — a twinge of wanting to distance yourself from “banker” to figure out who you are.
Think of these small wantings as currents in your river.
When you’re treading water, it’s almost impossible to feel these tiny currents. But when you’ve flipped onto your back, you can finally feel the way the water is pushing you.
Let yourself drift a little, guided by these almost imperceptible currents. Once you’ve begun to drift, you’ll figure out something: your direction.
What do I do once I have direction?
Direction is a huge step forward to figuring out the answer to “I don’t know what I want.”
When you figure out your direction, you’re basically saying, “I still don’t know exactly what I want, but I know where I want to go.”
Maybe the direction you’ve discovered is simply away from where you previously were.
If, after sitting with yourself, you’ve discovered you don’t like being with your friend group, or you dislike your job because of the long hours and stress, then you’ve figured out some direction: anywhere but here.
From there, your next steps are going to be to push in that direction.
You don’t have to know what you want. You need to get going in the right direction
So you don’t know exactly what you want. But you do have an inkling of where you want to go. That’s great.
The best thing to do in these circumstances is to go there.
Feel that current beneath you, and swim in that direction This is different than treading water.
When you tread water, you are going through the motions of your life just to simply stay put. When you are swimming in a direction, the actions that you take move you to a different place.
If you’ve decided that “yep, it’s time to move out of my parent’s house,” then all the actions you start to take go into that goal.
Every future decision you make can be made by asking yourself, “does this help put me in that right direction?”
What’s stopping you?
The waters of life’s current can be still, choppy, murky, or clear. Sometimes, however, the current is slowed because of a dam in the river.
Let’s go back to “it’s time to move out of my parent’s house” — the direction of the current you’ve discovered.
Earlier, I said that every decision you make can be in support of going in that direction. That’s true, but before you start swimming forward, you need to ask yourself: what’s stopping you?
What’s stopping you from moving out of your parent’s house?
What are some answers?
- Familial obligation
- Haven’t gotten around to it
If the only “dam” in your way is that you simply haven’t gotten around to it, congratulations! You’re pretty much swimming unencumbered.
But what if there are some obstacles in your way? What if money is tight? You don’t have the money to pay for a down payment or a security deposit.
Well, this is where you start making decisions in support of that direction.
If a lack of money is the dam, then it’s time to focus on making and saving money. Finding a job (or a second job, or a better job), and cutting back on excesses are great first steps.
Then, once you have enough money saved up, you remove that dam from the current of your life.
And you keep on swimming.
I’m swimming, but I’m not content
Ok, let’s say that you felt the current, you started swimming in a direction, you removed the obstacles in your way, and you still feel…unfulfilled.
What do you do then?
1) Remember that you’re not alone
First off, understand that you’re not alone in feeling you don’t know what you want. It’s a common experience that most people will go through in their lifetimes.
Take comfort in knowing that nobody has it all figured out.
2) Find things to be grateful for
Just like how earlier, you spent time writing down who you are and what you have, take some time to list the things you are grateful for.
The things you have currently may be the things that people spend their life trying to achieve.
You achieved them! Be happy and grateful that you’ve succeeded so far.
3) Ask yourself “what do I love doing?”
Look at the activities of your life: your work, your hobbies, your tinkerings, your passions.
Do you love these?
Which of these do you wish you could do more of?
Let’s say it’s playing soccer (or Football for pretty much everyone outside of Americans). That’s what you love doing.
Now, odds are that, unless you are a hidden Messi, you’re probably not going to play professionally. But that’s ok! You can still figure out ways to get more soccer in your life.
Maybe that means joining a neighborhood league.
Maybe that means reorienting your work schedule so that you can leave work once a week at 5 on the dot so you can make practice.
Whatever it is, when you start making active decisions to increase the activities you love, you’ll gain an immense sense of agency over your time and your life.
And making these defined, concerted decisions will make you protective over your activity.
Suddenly, making that Thursday soccer practice is non-negotiable. It’s sacred. It’s something you look forward to, that grounds you, and gives your week purpose.
It may seem silly, and perhaps even overblown, but carving out time to pursue your passions will decrease your listlessness, the feeling you have of treading water, and replace it with direction and purpose.
4) Embrace the uncertainty
Life is uncertain.
You could wake up tomorrow having won the lottery. You could wake up to find you have cancer.
Life isn’t certain, life isn’t solved.
Yes. Think about the game tic-tac-toe.
Tic-tac-toe is what is called a “solved game,” meaning that there is an optimal move for each player and that if each player plays optimally, the game will always result in a tie.
Chess, on the other hand, remains unsolved. This means that neither a human nor a computer can determine who wins before the game begins or at the initial move. It also means that “perfect play” isn’t determined.
In fact, many theorists believe that Chess is so complex it’ll never be solved.
Life, clearly, is infinitely more complex than chess. Life isn’t solved. This means that there is no “perfect play” to life.
The vision of a perfect life you may have been fed by society (job, car, wife, house, kids, retirement) is just that: a vision. It’s not necessarily the direction you need to take your life in.
And if it is, there isn’t a “perfect play” formula to get there.
Instead, you’re your own piece, on your own board, playing by your own rules to your own endpoint.
You’re swimming in your own river. That’s a gift!
It means that you can choose to swim in the direction of what you value. And if you stop valuing a certain direction, you can swim back the other way.
When I was in high school, I was certain I wanted to go into the Foreign Service. A few years later, I wound up going to Art School for Playwriting.
And hey, I’m still writing! I got a poetry book coming out next month
You can change your mind
So you say, “I don’t know what I want.” I hear you. And I want you to know that what you feel is valid, and can be scary.
But I want you to understand that the solutions you can take to this problem aren’t etched in stone. They are options — ways that you can achieve self-fulfillment, self-satisfaction, and a sense of purpose.
But they aren’t a miracle answer. And if you find yourself having swum aggressively in one direction, only for the current to go slack again, that’s ok. Take the time to flop back on your back and float on the river for as long as you need.
It’s life. Enjoy it.