It isn’t always easy to choose a path in life.
Sometimes we just do what we must, and that can have positive and negative aspects. Sometimes we have choices, which can make things even harder, though choice may be seen as a luxury, depending. What do we do with that choice when were lucky enough to have some say? No one necessarily teaches us how to use our lives. One of the consequences of growing up in a diverse and multicultural environment is that there isn’t one prescribed way to live one’s life. In some communities, there still is a right way to live life, a right way to find a mate and a right way to be in a profession. Or do we live for love and passion?
Not everyone likes it, but the social pressure to conform is tremendous. Historically, there’s hardly any room to go over or against the grain, but outside perspectives are making cracks in (the structure of) how we think about our lives and conceptualize the future together. The world is changing so rapidly, many of us are feeling psychological whiplash. The old adage that “the more things change, the more they stay the same” may no longer hold true as our cultural and technological revolutions change the actual nature of physical reality.
If we idealize self-actualization, the concept of finding meaning or a path in life, finding passion, can have too much power. Compared to an impossible standard, we’ll never feel satisfied and won’t let things unfold in their own time. If we are too cynical, we fail to be reasonably optimistic and resilient, and fail to launch. Luckily, there is a huge middle ground. You don’t even have to choose between eudaimonic and hedonic approaches to well-being. There’s a gazillion other factors which go into sorting out how to use one’s time, but I want to focus on the high-level issue of how we position ourselves in relation to the question (if there is a question).
My work over the years, personal and professional, has given me a lot of time and material for reflection. Trying to find my own way, and my way of thinking about finding my own way, and working with others, has led me to think about several different ways people approach life. I describe them here. Some are missing (please let me know if I missed something major), and they can overlap, and shift over time. It may be that the last one contains the previous seven, at least in principle. Different personalities lend themselves to different approaches, and that is worth considering. I hope this stirs readers up in a constructive way even if it is a brief treatment of a complex state of affairs.
1. Not Overthinking It
There’s no reason anyone has to give concerted thought to the question of what do do with one’s life. The timing may not be right to ask, and it may be too anxiety-provoking or full of uncertainty to fruitfully contemplate. Preparations may be necessary before giving serious consideration, as well. It may be too obsessional and lead to unconstructive spirals of thinking, inaction and frustration. It may simply not be your cup of tea, given your personality and style of approaching life. You may already be on a path, at least for this phase of your life (e.g. school, raising children, engaged in work, pursuing various goals and/or seeking pleasure, etc.).
2. Intuitive Approach
Going with intuition can work for a lot of people, trusting inner decisions without making them too explicit. Things are laid out and don’t require a lot of thought, or there are more important issues than dealing with finding your path in life. This approach can work well when our core is integrated and the direction is a good fit overall.
However, if we are ignoring serious issues with the direction our lives are headed, this approach only lasts as long as we can suppress or otherwise cope with the mismatch. The timing is important because there are usually defensible reasons for not addressing issues like this, but waiting too long can make it harder to re-orient if it emerges as a crisis to do so.
This approach requires logic and strategic planning, and is based on a linear model in which goals are defined, and steps toward those goals are identified and executed, with adaptation and assessment along the way. Course-corrections are made as appropriate, but generally the longer-term goals are fixed in advance as invariant targets.
This can be very useful for people who “know what they want”, but can be problematic if they find their goals drastically change and they hold on to their initial aspirations, which can become tied up with identity. If that happens, the command-and-control model can break down, being too inflexible. Having a “wildcard” factor for the unknown and unexpected can be helpful to put on the radar. Passion may or may not be a factor here. This can also come up in a less “control-freaky” way, less neurotically picking a path and staying with it.
4. Collective Identity and Social Conformity
This may feel like “going with the flow”, a path of lower resistance or even emancipate from thought or effort, doing what presents itself without needing to choose. Examples could be going into a family business, or taking the advice offered by a mentor and going into a ripe field of research because of opportunity rather than (necessarily) interest.
On the other hand, rather than feeling effortless, going with available options may require more effort if they are not easy to achieve, for example getting recruited by a Fortune 500 company in college, securing a coveted internship, and parleying that into a career―even if it is a very conventional, well-traveled path. In this model, there is a risk that the fit may not be very good in the future, as identity develops into adulthood. If this happens, sorting out whether to change things or stay on the same course can be a complicated and decision with sweeping implications, regardless of what the outcome is.
5. Authenticity and Agency
In this variation, genuineness and passion are highlighted, and may even be idealized (which can become problematic). The underlying assumptions are of a strong, agentic sense of self, often with an overlay of post-modernism and constructivism, in the sense of making meaning as a conscious process. Making meaning and finding one’s purpose in life is a prototypically heroic undertaking, involving self-reflection and narrative construction of self.
This does not have to be individualistic, though it can be based on American pragmatism, for example. From a more relational point of view, this approach can also be based in more social, relational dialogue-based processes intimately involving going along responsively with others.
6. Unconscious Dynamics
Development exerts a strong influence on adult behavior, personality and what choices are viewed as acceptable and what are unacceptable. This can affect how people conceive of their life path. In terms of traditional psychoanalytic thinking, for example, we may be more or less at odds with our family (parental) expectations. Some folks may be more likely to go along with how they were raised, even to the extent of picking careers and mates who are less suitable in order to avoid conflict with internalized beliefs and external others over their choices, leading to a variety of problems.
Others may experience a “reaction formation,” becoming rejecting of and rebellious against conforming to cultural and family norms, and head in a totally different direction altogether. This way, as well, may be more or less congruent with who we end up being in the future, especially if we learn that by rebelling, while we have not walked the prescribed path we may have been equally influenced by the forces around us. The noise from outside pressure to be or do one thing or the other may drown out our inner dialogue. If we are more internally integrated, arguably we are better able to find a balance with outside influences.
7. Fate and Destiny
Depending partially on a sense of being tragic or heroic, we may feel that we are slated to follow a certain path. This can be along the lines of a calling to a particular profession (often ones with a strong service component) or life partner (soulmates), or it can be more mystical or even shamanistic, being allied with a spirit animal or totem, or following the dictates of karma or past lives. If it is more tragic in tone, one line of thinking goes that it will feel more negative, that we are at the mercy of fate. On the other hand, the idea of destiny tends to have grander implications for life’s purpose and meaning.
8. Complex Adaptive Systems
For this perspective, there may be no prescribed path. Moreover, looking so hard for the answer, or the right path, may prevent a trajectory from taking shape over time by interfering with the back-and-forth of finding a responsive fit. This is not mystical, but a consequence of how complex living systems emerge and self-organize. In this model, the idea of the path is more vague and lies in the future, and when setting off at the beginning we are not setting foot on a particular path, but we are heading in a direction which we think makes sense and feels good enough. The goal is to gather information and see how it goes, and revise and clarify along the way.
Between individual development and how the environment takes shape in response to our efforts, we get a clearer sense over time, eventually possibly ending up with path-locking, as individual and context co-influence one another to approximate closer and closer to a good fit. The complex adaptive systems view can be helpful when plans and desires are unclear, and especially when the pressure is high to find an “answer” when it is premature or unavailable. A challenge with this approach is holding the anxiety which and come with not knowing, which John Keats referred to as “negative capability”.
9. Go Back to Number 1.
It’s a lot to think about. Hopefully there are useful ideas here, without being overly simplistic. My goal is to raise awareness, evoke curiosity, and stimulate reflection.
Originally published at www.psychologytoday.com.