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What if you don’t know your life work?

In terms of the really big picture – what we’re all supposed to be doing as children of God – we can look in the Bible and find clear answers: 1 Thess. 1:9-10 is one among many great summaries. But what about how I’m going to spend my life in particular – what job? what organisation? what cause? what path? where am I going to focus my energies and efforts? how can I best serve Christ? If we’re floundering in terms of direction or paralysed by the possibilities, Matt Perman, in What’s Best Next has some helpful counsel: 

which direction

  1. Do what’s before you with excellence. When you don’t know what your goals are or what your vision in life is, the last thing you should do is nothing. As Spurgeon has said, “If you stop and do nothing until you can do everything, you will remain useless.” Instead, do what’s before you with excellence. That is often the path to identifying what you should be doing, or at least opening up opportunities that will help you find greater clarity. Related to this is doing what you most enjoy as well. You might say, “That’s the problem; I don’t know what I want to do.” And, of course, you might not know on a macro scale. But you do know which activities are most enjoyable to you. As long as those are things that make a contribution, keep doing those (or start doing them) and see where it takes you. As part of this, be willing to move forward imperfectly. You learn by trying things and making mistakes. This isn’t contrary to the point about doing what you do with excellence. It means that, when making a decision about next steps, sometimes you might find you were wrong, and this can be an advantage in the long run because of the knowledge you will have gained from the experience. You sought to make that decision with excellence, but it turned out not to have been the best decision. You couldn’t have known that before. As with everything, so with mistakes: make excellent mistakes. Make mistakes of forward motion, not mistakes of sloth. Try things, be bold, and see what happens.
  2. Take steps for fundamental reasons, not instrumental reasons. Doing something for fundamental reasons means doing something because you love it in itself. Doing something for instrumental reasons means you are doing it because of where it might lead, even though you don’t necessarily enjoy it in itself. Don’t take a step you are not going to enjoy simply because you think it will open up a door to something you do enjoy. It seldom works this way. As Dan Pink, one of my favorite authors on the world of work, points out, the most effective people make choices for fundamental reasons rather than instrumental reasons, most of the time. Keep choosing what you enjoy most and are best at, and let that guide your path.
  3. Care about who as much as what. When there are several different types of activities you enjoy, pay special attention to what type of people you like to work with and be around. Some of my best decisions are decisions I made because they enabled me to join forces with quality people who love the Lord, whom I respect, and who make me a better person. When you aren’t sure what to do, the next best thing is to navigate your course on account of who you want to be with. Notice that my point here is not to follow the crowd or seek the approval of others. I’m talking about being integrated with people who make you a better person, not seeking popularity or trying to feel good about yourself. “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Prov. 13: 20).
  4. Increase your opportunity stream. Learn, network, and do things. The more you do these things, the more you increase your opportunity stream. And to make this work, you have to be open to surprise (point three above in “making your life goal happen”). Put yourself in the path of surprise and unplanned opportunities, and then seize them. Scott Belsky captures this well in his article “Finding Your Work Sweet Spot”:

Unfortunately, this is often where we get stuck, discounting the potential opportunities that surround us as inadequate. There is no such thing as equal access to opportunity. Old boy networks and nepotism run rampant in all industries. And most opportunities are entirely circumstantial. As such, you must simply define “opportunity” as an action or experience that brings you a step closer to your genuine interest. Opportunity is less about leaps forward and more about the slow advance. Most folks I meet recall their greatest opportunities as chance conversations. This is why personal introductions, conferences, and other networking efforts really pay off. Just surrounding yourself with more activity will inherently increase your “opportunity stream” — the chance happenings that lead to actions and experiences relevant to your genuine interests.

  1. Read inspiring books and biographies, and watch inspiring movies. Developing your vision is just as much a right-brain, creative, imaginative activity as it is a left-brain activity. To help tap into this, read biographies and books that encourage you to do hard things and dream big dreams for God and the good of the world. This is also one of the overlooked benefits of watching movies. God invented movies, in part, so that we can find inspiration in the visual presentation of stories with a hero who overcomes massive obstacles for the sake of a great cause.
  2. Stay faithful in prayer! Don’t just try to figure things out on your own. As with all planning, involve God and make him the center (Prov. 16: 3). You are not the captain of your ship. God determines what happens to you and where your ship goes, and he is a good God who looks out for you and is eager to make your life count for his glory and his people’s good. This is always true, but if you take it for granted by not involving him in thinking through your plans and pleading with him in prayer, the course you are on will suffer: “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4: 2).
  3. Take action and commit. You shouldn’t be thirty years old and still trying to figure out what to do with your life. Don’t live in your parents’ basement playing video games all day while you “figure out your life’s aim.” Get involved in the world of work, get a job that is challenging and calls on the best of you, and live your life. Don’t be aimless, even while seeking to discover your chief aim in life. Do something. Not something to bide the time, but something meaningful, and you will discover your life goal on that course.

(Matt Perman, What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done, p. 175-7.)

See also Guidance and the Will of God.

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