Taking the Helm: Your Guide to Rediscovering Direction in Life

Taking the Helm: Your Guide to Rediscovering Direction in Life
It's time we make a course correction.

What do you want?

What do you really, really want?

That’s not an easy question to answer, and certainly not a comfortable one to ask. Even just considering it forces us to stand back and examine our lives with brutal honesty. We’re forced to grapple with the very strong possibility that we’re just not happy.

But why is that?

There’s no shortage of reasons for those of us who are just now leaving college behind. We’re still facing a barren job market that’s especially inhospitable towards young folks. What’s more, once we’re (largely) cut off from family and friends, plenty of us are going to find ourselves immersed in a “quarter-life crisis”. And beyond the daily trials and tribulations of trying to figure out adulthood, there’s always the looming existential question of “Where on earth is my life going?”

Retaking The Helm

Admitting that we’re not quite satisfied with where we are in life isn’t going to be pleasant or easy, but it’s the first step in taking control of our own lives. Too often many of us are simply drifting rudderless through life waiting for good things to come to us. Some folks are hoping to one day, out-of-the-blue get “discovered” by some talent agent. Others of us are banking on the lottery. Heck, things are so bad that there are even people out there half-hoping to get run down by a city bus, just for the subsequent settlement money.

Let’s get real here – opportunity is not going to come knocking.

No dying pirate is going to use his final breath to press a treasure map into your hands. You will not be told that you’re the long-lost heir to some royal family. An eccentric millionaire is not going to drive by and throw you the keys to his 65 Mustang and his penthouse in Manhattan. You will not be bitten by a radioactive spider.

It’s time to stop waiting for the winds to take you where you want to go.

With fate not around to provide us direction, we’re left to decide for ourselves what direction to head towards, and that brings us to our first step:

Finding Our Destination

You’d think this’d be the easy part. After all, we just “want” the things we want, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple – especially not at this stage in our lives.

There’s probably no time we’re more at risk of tricking ourselves into chasing someone else’s dream than in our twenties. We beat high school, we beat college, and as we get jobs and careers, a lot of us are going to look around and wonder what we’re supposed to do next.

Cue the torrent of well-meaning but ultimately harmful advice from friends, relatives, and even strangers. There’s no end of self-proclaimed “wisdom” offered when it comes to this question.

Old-schoolers maintain that you’re supposed to settle down, get a family, and buy a house with a white picket fence. Other folks will urge you to experiment with different jobs, or travel the world, or find some noble cause to fight for. Still other people are going to just urge you to get out there and “live” (though they never explain exactly what that means).

Do this, do that – the list goes on forever.

And even if someone out there has discovered what final destination works for them, well, that doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you. One man’s paradise is another man’s prison, and what gave your father or grandfather a sense of fulfillment isn’t necessarily going to do the same for you. Again, you can’t live out someone else’s dream.

And this is all just to say that you really need to sit down and consider it. Hash out the things you’ve been told to desire from the things you actually do. If, ten years down the road, you want to be an innovative captain of industry, well, that’s fine. If you’d rather be living a simple but comfortable life as a video game tester – hey, that’s just as valid. Maybe you want to be twice as strong or twice as smart or twice as rich. Maybe all three. Or maybe you’ll be satisfied just having your student loans paid off at long last. What you want is what you want. Noble or selfish, lofty or base – whatever it is, you have to sail by your own stars.

X Marks The Spot

And before anyone gets a chance to say it, no, you can’t get away with some blanket statement like “I want the people I care about to be safe and secure” or “Hey – I just want to be happy”.

Everybody wants to be happy. Let’s hammer out the specifics – what does happiness look like to you? Is it some dollar amount? A house on the lake? A dream job? An inspiring political career? And what’s the exact dollar amount? What kind of house? What kind of lake?

We need to be absolutely specific when it comes to setting our goals. Nebulous objectives and vague achievements might sound easier, but are in reality a lot tougher to pursue. Just imagine trying to find buried treasure with the only clue being “It’s on this one island with all these palm trees”. Specifics let us know exactly where it is we have to go and what we have to do, and at this point in our lives that’s essential. Our 20s are the time when we’re still (relatively) energetic and independent. We’ll probably never have fewer constraints on our time than after college, and if we’re drifting aimlessly we’re wasting a literal once in a lifetime opportunity to develop ourselves. Don’t be afraid to be ambitious here – the pain of failure is nothing compared to the agony of opportunities lost.

Of course, simply knowing where we want to be is only half the battle.

Charting Out Success

Have you ever had a fly get stuck inside your house? No matter how much you open the window and try to shoo it out, it just keeps tapping against the glass. Now that little fly knows exactly where it wants to be – in fact, the only thing it can see is where it wants to be. But the thing has no concept of where it is now, and so it just keeps plinking away in vain.

As frustrated as we might get with the bug, the simple truth is that we’re not all that different. Plenty of us know where we want to be, but that’s really about it. Visualizing success, while important, is still useless without knowing where we are now.

Again, this is going to mean taking inventory and putting ourselves under some really uncomfortable scrutiny. We’re looking for all the things we don’t have, and that’s going to take the kind of unflinching self-assessment a lot of folks just aren’t ready for. As difficult as this can be, it’s still an utterly indispensable part of the process. If you want to be making a dollar amount, well, what are we going to need to achieve that? A second source of income? A new job entirely? If it’s the latter, well, how are we going to get the skills and experience to qualify for said job? What networks are we going to have to develop? Once we get that job, what are we going to need to do to fight and claw our way up through the ranks to get to that pay grade?

You’re not going to get through frigid arctic seas in a pair of shorts or cruise through the tropics in a parka – know exactly what you need (and who you need) to get to where you’re going.

Point A To Point B

As you can probably see already, there’s a clear and concrete system emerging here. Get your bearings on where you are now, pin down where you want to be, and chart a course on how to get from here to there. The beauty is in the sheer simplicity of it, but of course there are a few points we need to remember along the way:

Set a (Steady) Course

First and foremost, this is to keep ourselves honest. No matter how zealous or motivated we might feel today, when tomorrow rolls around with all its stresses, inconveniences, and hurdles it can be easy to procrastinate. After three customers-from-hell in a row, bumper to bumper traffic, and a busted AC unit in a roachy, little apartment, the last thing on your mind is some pie-in-the-sky dream of where you’ll be in a decade. Still, the steady, relentless, and uncompromising glare of a deadline will keep us progressing forward, even on the tough days (and tough days there will be).

But it’s not all whip-cracking and chaining yourself to the oars. Concrete timeframes are just as useful for keeping ourselves from getting over worked.

Pushing too hard is often as responsible for failure as not pushing hard enough, and if you’re trying to do everything at once, well, you’re almost certainly going to be burned out in the first few weeks. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and you need to pace yourself. Set achievable objectives and fair deadlines – it’s always easier to ramp the challenge up than to recover from a stumble.

Measure Progress

As much as we need to remember our final goals, it’s important to be able to measure just how far we’ve come along. Along with burnout, another major challenge to achieving our long-term goals is simple frustration. After weeks of working out, studying programming, or whatever voyage you might embark on, if you’re not seeing any change there’s going to be the definite temptation to just give up.

Those of us freshly out of college are really going to feel the strain of this. We’ve spent the past twenty-two years with clear, concrete milestones: grades, GPAs, course credits, semesters – you name it. Out in the great, wide world however, these objectives abruptly disappear. With nobody keeping score it can be easy to assume that there is none. When one wave looks just the same as any other it can be easy to imagine that you’re going in circles. It’s going to come down to you and your ability to keep track. A personal reward system, a journal, or even an online program (I can’t sing the praises of HabitRPG enough), is going to help keep yourself grounded by knowing that you haven’t gotten lost out there.

Adjust Your Sails

Even the best laid plans can be disrupted by the winds of change and the waves of uncertainty. It’s important that you be able to adjust accordingly. Maybe you’ve spent the past year studying a computer program only for some new technology to come along and make it obsolete. Maybe you’ve been investing time and money into getting qualified for a position that a company just up and eliminates. Maybe you’ve been working like a dog to save up for that house for you and your fiancée, only to have the wedding fall through at the last moment.

Hey – these things happen. Time and tide don’t care much for our plans and dreams.

While there’s nothing we can do to change that, the last thing we want to do is discard all of our progress and effort. Just because you can’t get where you first intended doesn’t mean you can’t get damn close. No matter how specific your goals are, there’s still going to be a way to meet your underlying criteria. You can still use your skills as a jumping off point for more study. You can find a job that gives you the same kind of fulfillment as the one you originally wanted. You can use all those savings to keep you afloat while you reorganize your priorities.

Still, one of the best ways to prevent this kind of crisis is to have your long-term goals broken down already. Think of it like island-hopping, rather than trying to cross the Pacific in one fell swoop. If your goal is to be an established author by the time you hit thirty then set one-year goals along the way and evaluate your position every time you hit ‘em.

Use Your Resources

At no point in history have there been so many resources right at our fingertips as there are now. While even just considering our futures can be terrifying (to say nothing of the effort it’s going to take to get there), there’s really no excuse for not taking advantage of everything we can.

For those of us with a career goal, there’s networking site after networking site available to us. For anyone trying to master a certain skill, there’s a mountain of research right there for the taking. Heck, for those of us trying anything challenging (and we all should be), are we using those around us to keep us on track? Any major city is going to have hiking clubs, writing groups, public speakers, wine connoisseurs, amateur mechanics, ferret enthusiasts – you name it. And there’s discussion board after discussion board available with just a few clicks of the mouse (I recommend CritiqueCricle for the aspiring wordsmith).

Will this mean a bit more work? Of course it will – but all worth it in the name of getting to that horizon.

Jettison The Dead Weight

As important as it’ll be to use every resource you have, it’s just as important to cast off anything holding you back. For some of us, it’s going to be some profound fear, like public speaking. For others, it might be an obligation or commitment that needs to be dealt with. And for almost all of us, it’s going to be folks who simply don’t think we can (or should) pursue whatever it is we want to pursue. Folks who try to tell us not to embark on certain ventures. Not malicious people, but friends and family who often think they have our best interests at heart. They don’t want to see us fail or get hurt, and so they warn us not to stray too far from the shore. These people need to be thanked for their concern but made to understand that we have to sink or sail on our own terms and no one else’s. Get those barnacles off the hull – they’re just weighing you down.

And finally…

Enjoy The Voyage

It’s going to be a harrowing journey, but the truly dedicated will see their destination drawing close after all their time and effort. And as it draws nearer and nearer, there’s a strong chance that you’re going to think to yourself:

“Is that it?”

The paradox of doing anything is that you don’t just shape your work, your work shapes you. A goal which might’ve seemed monumental five years ago will, as you draw closer to achieving it, seem more mundane, maybe even trivial.

So what do we do?

Keep going.

A constant desire for more is one of the defining characteristics of a master and a self-actualized person. That’s not to say there isn’t going to be a sense of satisfaction, but that the objective has changed. It’s no longer about a destination but rather the journey itself – the constant trek to new and uncharted lands. So one last time, the question stands:

What do you really want?

Gordon Brown is a former ex-pat recently moved back to the US from the Middle East. He spends his time working as a vocational counselor and downing more energy drinks than is healthy and/or sane. You can find more of his fevered scribblings and subversive, revolutionary tracts over at CultureWarReporters.com..

  • Rt1583

    “Cue the torrent of well-meaning but ultimately harmful advice from friends, relatives, and even strangers. There’s no end of self-proclaimed “wisdom” offered when it comes to this question.”
    Since this paragraph implies that advice is pretty much worthless doesn’t it go against the core of this article specifically and this site generally?

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      It’s intended to suggest that you have to stop and figure out what works for you, specifically. Advice when taken as gospel from any source can be destructive or at least counter-productive to your life or being happy. Big picture, Primer isn’t intended to be a hard and fast answer to every single reader’s life and unique problems, it’s here to act as road signs to offer suggestions for direction.

  • http://www.discardedanxiety.com Aaron J Kelley

    Hey Andrew and Gordon,

    I really enjoyed this post. I think it’s practical and real, and is something that we need to hear more often. It’s ok to say that we’re not satisfied with where we are, but I believe it’s not OK to just stay there when you have opportunities to change your situation.

    I’ve actually been working through this very process in my own life. Earlier this year I found myself settling into a pretty good job, making good money, and not really chasing after the things I truly wanted anymore. I wrote about my experience in a guest blog post for The Change Blog entitled The Shocking Result from a Career Aptitude Test. I tell the story of how after settling in, I start seeing all the people with 30-40 years of service retiring, and growing weary that i would end up like them.

    Anyway, since then, I’ve started a blog and have been writing about overcoming anxiety which I know is the reason I stopped chasing my dreams. I’m just starting out, but I’m really enjoying it, and I’m finding out that there are a lot of people in the same perdicament who want and need help. This is a great post, and I’ll be sure to share it!

    Andrew, I hope this is OK with you, if not, I apologize and please feel free to delete it, but I wanted to post a link to my guest post. I believe it will really help some people, especially if they enjoyed this blog post.

    http://www.thechangeblog.com/career-aptitude-test/

  • TJ

    I enjoyed this article. I especially liked the part titled “Adjust your sails”. Things are going to change and they won’t always work out but you have to keep going and adjust to what life throws at you.