How to Know What to Do With Your Life

by Neal Frankle, CFP ®

I was speaking with a recent college-graduate who was really struggling. He had his degree but didn’t know what to do with his life. Although I am not a psychologist, I thought I might be able to help.

When I work with people they usually share their inner-most feelings about success and failure with me. As a result, I’ve learned that the happiest people are those who live in a way that is consistent with their values. Interestingly, my experience tells me that happy people have more money and financial security because they attract opportunity rather than repel it.

In speaking with this young man, we went through the following questions to help find a solid direction for his future. If you are trying to find out what to do with your life, these questions should give you a pretty good head start in finding your answer too.

In order to make this exercise most effective please jot your answers down on a piece of paper and take your time. The more you put into this the more you are going to get out of it. And keep in mind that there are no right or wrong answers. There are also no moral judgments being made. You are who you are and you are where you are. You don’t have to apologize for that or hide anything. Just be as honest as you can be as you go through these questions.

1. Who

  • Who do you want to spend your time with?
  • Is your family a number one priority?
  • Is it very important for you to be around professional people?
  • Do you need the company of people who stimulate you intellectually?
  • Do you prefer to be alone?
  • Who do you most want to help?

2. What

  • What do you want your day to look like?
  • Are you OK being in an office most of the day?
  • Do you need to be physically active and have an outdoor job?
  • What is most important for you to get out of your job – financial reward or self-satisfaction?
  • Is it very important to you to be financially well-off?

3. Where

  • Where would you love to spend your life?
  • Do you need to be near the ocean or the mountains?
  • Do you like city life or do you prefer a slower pace?
  • Is it important to you have a big house – or many homes?
  • Is travel very important to you?

4. When

  • When do you want to work and when do you want to play?
  • Are you willing to work a ton of hours or is it very important to have as much free time as possible?
  • When do you want to quit working and retire?
  • Is your retirement date very important to you or are you flexible?

5. How

  • How would you make your living if there were no constraints?
  • What are you especially good at doing?
  • Do you require a fixed salary knowing the upside is limited or are you willing to work on commission?
  • Do you prefer to work for yourself or do you like having some direction from superiors?

Now that you’ve answered the questions, it’s time to prioritize and learn about what you value most. Look at each question under each of the 5 main topics. Which question under “who” really gets your heart racing? (It doesn’t matter what your answer is right now. It matters which sub-topic question rings your bell.) Highlight that question in yellow. What is the next most important question? Highlight it in blue. Highlight your next most important question in red and the least most important question in green.

Now work your way through each of the 5 topics and mark up the questions. You are just about done.

Now take the main topic headings and prioritize them as well. In other words, if the “how” you live your life is more important than the “where” you live your life, “who” you live your life with, “when” you work or retire and “what” you want your day to look like, mark “how” in yellow. Go through each of the topics to determine where your priorities are.

Now, take the topic in yellow and the question under that topic that you’ve highlighted in yellow, and you know how to live your life. Pretty simple huh?

Why is this important?

People generally think that “how” they make a living is the most important question but my experience tells me it isn’t. If for example, you value free time, time with your family, working outdoors and living by the mountains, you should be willing to be flexible on the “how”.

If on the other hand, it’s so important to you to be well-off that the “what” topic is most important, you should be willing to be flexible on the other 4 topics.

When I first started my family and career, my main goal was to create financial security. I was very flexible on “where”, “when”, “who” and “how”. As I grew older and my business became established, my priorities shifted quite a bit. Now “who” is far more important than anything else. That’s just me.

But whatever your priorities are now, realize that they will likely shift too. So the question of “what should I do with my life” has to be addressed every now and then.

By looking at the who, where, what, when and how, you’ll be able to pinpoint where your focus should be. It will be easier for you to prioritize and determine what you should be doing with your life right now.

Are you certain that you are doing what you should be doing with your life? How do you know?

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

tim October 23, 2013 at 5:41 AM

Neal- I filled this out maybe a year ago and it really helped me think through some things and restructure my career.

I’m about to run through it again- I think it’s a worthwhile exercise to do annually.

What tools or resources helped you construct this list? I want to dig deeper into how people can figure out what they want. I think it’s the very hardest question.

thanks!
tim

Reply

Neal Frankle, CFP ® October 23, 2013 at 5:49 AM

Tim. Glad this was helpful. That means a lot to me. What did you conclude? How did it change your path?

Reply

tim October 23, 2013 at 6:58 AM

Neal, a year ago my results showed I value having a self-directed day more than other stuff.

I inadvertently tested this by taking a FT job about a year ago. I knew beforehand and have definitely confirmed that I’m a far better boss than I am an employee.

I’ve also since come to understand that I’m strongly introverted and what those ramifications are.

Today: I spend most of my workweek in my home office, alone. My income is up since I left the FT job. I have time to work on projects that are interesting to me. I come up with new ideas (some are even good ones!) all the time.

One I had yesterday is to develop an in-depth product or course to help people who struggle (like I do) to figure out exactly what they want. I remembered this post and how helpful it was. That’s why I’m revisiting it- and I’d love to know what resources helped you write it, if you don’t mind sharing.

Thanks again Neal!

Reply

Neal Frankle December 31, 2012 at 9:53 AM

Emily……nice…

I am 55. I am learning that the “what to do with the rest of my life” takes on new meaning as each year passes……

Reply

Emily December 31, 2012 at 6:05 AM

I recently told my 15-yo niece that she wouldn’t really know what she wanted to do when she grew up until she was somewhere between the ages of 30 and 40. She looked at me like I was nuts.

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