What to Do When You Don’t Know What You Want

March 1, 2021

Two years ago, I was at the dentist’s office with my four-year-old son. He was crying, and the hygienist and I were trying to coax him back to his happy self.

“Do you want some water?” I asked.

“Do you want to watch a show?” asked the hygenist.

My son climbed into my lap and wailed. “I don’t know what I want,” he cried.

I gave him an empathetic hug… and chuckled a little inside. If only that feeling was unique to childhood, I thought. Here I am as a grown adult, and I still have moments — or, let’s be honest, months — when I don’t know what I want.

I’m in one of those seasons now. I vaguely know what I want — to grow another company — but I don’t know yet exactly what that looks like.

This uncertainty can feel uncomfortable, even scary. At times in my life, uncertainty, and not knowing what I wanted next, made me feel lost

But I don’t feel lost now. I feel full of opportunity.

I think that optimism stems from how I’m approaching this season of uncertainty, how I’m thinking about this phase of my career and what I’m doing to make it meaningful. 

If you’re struggling to find clarity because you don’t know what you want, I hope this strategy will help you move forward.

Focus on the process, not the end goal

I turned 40 last month, which prompted me to reflect on where I’m at in life.

Overall, I feel satisfied. Happy. A lot of things I’ve worked toward for years have come to be: I have a wonderful husband, two healthy kids, a lovely home, and hiking on our doorstep. And we have managed to stay healthy during a pandemic.

Career-wise, I’m content with working for myself again. My husband and I have had some financial success with our businesses, which takes pressure off in terms of choosing what’s next and makes the in-between space easier

But there’s still so much more I want to build and experience and learn. I’m eager to start something new, and this pandemic year has forced me to move more slowly than I’d like. For months, I felt awkward and uncomfortable not knowing what’s next. Then my business coach helped me reframe how I think about this season.

The focus, she helped me realize, shouldn’t be on the decision about what to do next. The focus should be on the exploration.

This reframe feels counterintuitive in some ways, because I’m used to making progress by focusing on the outcome. But putting my energy into the process instead makes my actions toward that outcome more thoughtful — and more effective. 

When you don’t know what you want, you might actually move faster by focusing on the process of exploration, rather than on the decision itself.

This idea echoes a theme in James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits. He says goals are useless without systems. “It’s your commitment to the process that will determine your progress,” he writes.

Using this reframe, my job isn’t to grow something new, it’s to explore what that might be. My success is based on exploring well, not on choosing a next step. I’m not lost; I’m exploring.

This isn’t a season of uncertainty; it’s a season of exploration.

How to figure out what you want in life

Once I came around to this idea, I realized that by focusing solely on the outcome, I was missing the best part. I was wishing away what I call a “looking-up phase” of my career — a creative, fun time in contrast to my seasons of head-down execution. 

Still, even phases of exploration benefit from structure. So here’s how I’m thinking about this looking-up phase of my career.

In other words, here’s what to do when you don’t yet know what you want.

1. Experiment

A common tendency, when we don’t know what we want, is to sit still, to wait for inspiration to strike and then take a step toward it.

But inspiration isn’t likely to strike when we’re sitting still. It’s more effective to take little steps in lots of different directions and observe the results. How did trying that new thing make you feel? Did you see any promising signs? Did you learn something about yourself?

I think of these steps as experiments because we don’t know which ones will work. The word “experiment” takes the pressure off; it’s no big deal if you try something new and you don’t enjoy it or it doesn’t gain any traction. 

You can’t really fail with an experiment, because if it doesn’t work, you just put it aside and move to the next one. In fact, if all your experiments work, you’re probably doing something wrong.

So what experiments can you run for yourself? How can you take action in little ways? What can you start or dabble in? Can you take a class? Talk to someone in a field you want to learn about? Push yourself to try something new?

Some of these steps will feel like they lead nowhere. But with each little experiment, you’ll learn something about yourself. You’ll learn what you enjoy and what you want to stay away from, what you’re good at and where you can beef up your skills. By experimenting, you’ll make far more progress than you would if you sat still.

I’m experimenting by putting ideas out into the world ― through these blog posts, Twitter and other safe online spaces like Kern.al — and seeing what resonates. I’m writing business plans to flesh out ideas as a low-risk way of asking myself, is this really something I want to commit to for the next few years?

Sometimes you can earn income while you experiment; for example, I’m experimenting with different ways of structuring my consulting work (I help startups hire writers). 

But most experiments aren’t income-generating, at least not immediately. Still, they’re a tiny way of investing in yourself, and can lead to great rewards if they help you identify a spark that turns into something bigger.

2. Meet new people

Connecting with other creatives and innovators helps you build community — and offers new energy and inspiration. 

Sometimes I’ll have a conversation with someone about what they’re working on, and afterward they’ll apologize for talking for so long about their project. What they don’t realize is that conversation was valuable for me, too, because it got my creative juices flowing. We might have been talking about their project, but we lit a fire under mine, too.

I find new people through Twitter (it’s been fun to re-discover this network after years away), participating in online communities like the Wise Women’s Council and A Media Operator’s Slack group, and reaching out to interesting people I hear on podcasts.

While connecting online via written messages is a starting point, in my experience the true value of a new relationship doesn’t begin to emerge until we’ve made the effort to talk on the phone, by video chat, or using Voxer. Hearing someone’s voice and how they talk about what they’re excited about offers more meaningful connection points and makes it easier to identify how we might be able to support one another. Through these conversations, I’ve found some brilliant sounding boards for my ideas, and even — this is best-case scenario — new friends.  

Voxer in particular has made it easier for me to deepen my connections and truly get to know others; it’s been my choice communication tool for the last couple of years. It’s audio, which offers more context and depth than an email, and it’s asynchronous, so you can respond whenever is convenient rather than scheduling a time. And it allows for multitasking, so I can listen or respond to a Vox while I’m walking, driving or folding laundry.

A bonus of forging new relationships is growing my network, and this probably broadens my audience, too. But my primary reason for connecting with others is to feel inspired.

3. Consume voraciously

Consuming information is vital to an exploratory season. What can you learn? What will inspire you? 

Meeting people and hearing what they’re working on is one form of consuming. You can also absorb new information through podcasts and audiobooks, newsletters and books, and (efficient use of) social media. Online courses count here, too.

During my last (long) head-down phase, my consumption decreased dramatically. I was so deep into the making of a media company and juggling my family that I didn’t have the energy or time to read newsletters, listen to podcasts or enjoy books. I kept up with industry developments that directly related to my work, and that was it. I remember missing the feeling of going down a rabbit hole purely because I found a topic interesting.

Now I let myself follow those rabbit holes. I read through my Twitter feed, click lots of links and go wherever they take me. I subscribe to every newsletter that interests me, knowing I can always unsubscribe later. I look for opportunities throughout the day to pop in my earbuds and listen to part of a podcast, and if they mention another podcast I might like, I subscribe to that one, too. Often, these twists and turns lead to insights about my own projects.

I also look for ways to combine consuming with meeting new people. If I hear someone interesting on a podcast, I send them an email or LinkedIn note letting them know I enjoyed their interview. When I find a newsletter insightful, I reply and share that with the author. 

Finding ways to take consumption a step further and turn it into a point of connection makes it more meaningful. If you’ve identified someone who inspires or energizes you, why not invite them to play a slightly bigger role in your world? The insight you took away from a podcast will stick with you longer if you interact directly with the person who said it. And by offering positive feedback to someone else, you help them better hone their message. 

Occasionally, those interactions turn into relationships, and both parties get more out of a relationship than one-sided consumption.

4. Process and find meaning

Finally, find a way to process your experiments and the information you consume. What did you learn, and what ideas came to mind? How could you elevate your ideas and explore their potential?

I process through writing. Writing this post, for example, helped me process and clarify how I should spend my time in the coming months. Sometimes I process by fleshing out business plans, because writing out all the details of one of my business ideas helps me see clearly whether it might succeed.

Working with a coach is another method of processing. Or maybe you write in a journal. Or sketch out your ideas on a whiteboard and save them as images. Or talk into a voice notes app while walking outside. Or have deep conversations with friends.

Saving your learnings so you can review them later is a nice perk of processing. But the real benefit is organizing your thoughts so the best insights float to the top. Ideas aren’t much on their own, but when you connect the dots between them, something bigger might emerge.

One way to connect the dots is to pull apart each idea, look for the piece that most excites you, and see if that’s a theme across other ideas. For example, I noticed a trend in how I felt about a handful of business ideas by breaking them into parts. The parts that most excited me related to growth marketing, which for an online business usually means getting people to visit the website. When I pushed myself hard, I was able to nix a few of my ideas because I realized I was interested in growing the audience more than the idea itself. With this new insight, I’m now exploring potential projects that have growth marketing at the core.

Everyone processes in different ways. But the goal is the same: to find meaning behind all of your experiments and exploration, so you can eventually get to a place when you figure out what you want.

When it’s time to choose

Of course, at some point, we all have to say, “enough with exploring, it’s time to get on with it.” 

None of your options will ever feel perfect, and you’ll always have more to learn. So you’ll probably have to push yourself to choose your next step even before you feel ready.

But until then, remind yourself that you’re not lost. 

You’re exploring. You’re experimenting, meeting new people, consuming voraciously, and processing and finding meaning.

You’re focusing on exploration, rather than on the decision itself.

And you’re not sitting still. Through this exploration, you’re moving forward.

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    5 Replies to “What to Do When You Don’t Know What You Want”

    • Radharani says:

      I’m excited about exploring now

    • I read your newsletter at the exact right time. I’ve been feeling lost and stuck in my career, and this ended up in my In Box like a giant sign. I love consuming knowledge and going down rabbit holes, and thanks to you, I’m going to do exactly that for a while, and not feel guilty about it.

      And I’m going to follow your advice, and reach out here to tell you that this newsletter helped me. I’m not usually someone who does that, so you’ve already helped one person.

    • Irv says:

      Thoroughly enjoyed your article and it will inspire me to take action. Loved your focus on experimenting…look forward to keeping up with your blog. Take care.

      Irv

    • Joe Wasylyk says:

      Question- What do you want to do for the rest of your life after you have been unceremoniously dumped from your traditional job during the COVID-19 pandemic? I think that this is the best time to experiment and try different things before you choose the right options for yourself.

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