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Silly Question: How do I know what I *want*?

A bit off topic, and somewhat embarrassing as I've seen advice questions here before and, at times, scoffed at them.

In any case, I'm having a difficult time deciding what I want to do, career-wise.  Let me explain:

There's so many books that emphasize the importance of a long-time goal or goals, and then structuring your immediate activities towards that end.  This is very powerful, and I've been eager to do something like this for some time.

However, I have a difficult time figuring out what I want to do.  It'd be so easy if I knew--then I could just make decisions accordingly and be secure that I was making progress, however slow, towards my goal.

I've always had the problem of not really specializing--only did so in college after being forced (and then in an eclectic field).  I've done IT work since school, and am fairly certain that's where I want to stay (but recent trends do alarm me), but I'm beginning to feel a bit burned out and I don't know if it's the field or the immediate work.  There are many, many things to do in the IT field, and I'm not sure at this point whether I'm interested in everything (what I  thought before) or nothing (what I'm fearing).

I've done systems and network administration, some management, software development, systems engineering (in-house and field work).  I've always been bright, but I get into these funks where I can't seem to get myself motivated to do much of anything.  I read with great interest the tales of entrepeneurs and business leaders, but for all my supposed brightness, why am I still in an unremarkable job doing unremarkable things?

To summarize--I'm suffering from a lack of motivation.  Goals would help, but I have none, and I'm coming up with blanks when I try to set some.  I feel like I'm performing to my potential,/ being underutilized.  I'm 29, FWIW, which seems slightly old to be this aimless.

Apologies if this is too far out of scope.  It does seem fairly similar to some other advice asked before, but I guess  if it's too far out of line, you won't see it for long! :)

Lost and Confused
Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Hey, I just turned 29, and it's anything but "too old" to wonder what you're supposed to do with the rest of your life.  My dad's changing careers yet again... he's 54, and still doesn't know what he wants to do after he finishes the book he's working on.  ;>

I'm constantly going through this process of evaluation.  I try not to come up with any long-term plans that are *too* specific (e.g., "By August 2008, I want to be writing a veterinary software package that tracks the gestation periods of left-handed albino cows"), because, hey, nobody can predict the future that accurately.  But if you figure out what your general values are -- what kinds of work gives you that brain-reward sensation, and what kinds of areas you read about or follow in your personal time -- that'll help direct you a bit.

For example, I know I like databases, working for smaller companies, and helping improve other people's standards of living.  All of which are very broadly stated, but even having a few general preferences can help you narrow your options.  Knowing this, I tend to avoid applying for web coding jobs at megacorps or law firms, where I know I wouldn't have a viable future.  True, knowing what *not* to do is only half of the picture, but if you're overwhelmed, being halfway to a solution is still twice as far as you are right now.  ;>  On a longer-term basis, I might like to do stuff with molecular assemblers (I'm still young enough to think I can change the world) -- no idea if I'll even have a shot, but it gives me something to work towards.

One other thing:  "I read with great interest the tales of entrepeneurs and business leaders, but for all my supposed brightness, why am I still in an unremarkable job doing unremarkable things?"

Not everyone can be a Gates, or even a Jobs.  Holding yourself to that standard is an excellent way to undermine your confidence in the good work you may have already done.

Sam Livingston-Gray
Tuesday, November 18, 2003

This thread strikes a chord. Anyone want to start a hunter-gatherer JOS group devoted to a sustainable post-technological lifestyle? <g>

Bored Bystander
Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Oh, and speaking of Jobs, see if you can read some of the early history between him and Wozniak.  If I remember correctly (I no longer have the book I read this in), Jobs burned Wozniak more than once on some projects they did, and at one point, started working with Wozniak again because he just needed a few grand to buy into a cooperative farm somewhere in northern California.  Doesn't sound like someone with a business plan, does it?  ;>

Sam Livingston-Gray
Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Look into the contracting biz.  Typical contracts are 6-12 months long.  I learned MPEG 1 & 2, cell phones, robotics, and FDDI while contracting.

The down side?  Right now the contracting biz is in the toilet.  I want to get back into it, but it's been dead for 3 years now.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

You want money, enough that you don't have to worry about not having it, and you don't want to be miserable earning it. Correct me if I'm wrong.
Tuesday, November 18, 2003

"You want money"

what _is it_ with americans and money?  I mean..there _are_ other things that he might want as well...

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Money doesn't buy happiness, but it does buy the ability to pursue happiness.

Dennis Forbes
Tuesday, November 18, 2003

"Money doesn't buy happiness, but it does buy the ability to pursue happiness"

to paraphrase the move "Cool Runnings"

money is a nice thing to have, but if you are not happy without it then you will never be happy with it.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

"Many people think that by hoarding money they are gaining safety for themselves. if money is your ONLY hope for independence, you will never have it. The only real security that a person can have in this world is a reserve of knowledge, experience, and ability. Without these qualities, money is practically useless."
- Henry Ford

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Hello Lost, join the club. I've never wanted a specific career other than to provide for my family. That's where I've found the most satifaction and the most comfort after those miserable days of self doubt that happen in even the best of assignments, jobs, and careers.

Careerwise you'll probably survive your current doldrums and you should realize that your tastes will change. If you don't mind me suggesting it: Volunteer for something you are interested in. A few volunteer hours a week can be a great jolt to your system, even if you are happy with your job.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Money doesn't buy you happiness, but happiness doesn't buy you a Ferrari...

Rhys Keepence
Tuesday, November 18, 2003

There was this interesting thread

Basically, figure out what you enjoy doing, and then choose some career that would let you do things you like doing. Just think about what you do on a regular basis, and those things that you enjoy the most are likely candidates to base your wants around.

Mr Curiousity
Tuesday, November 18, 2003

I am utterly lost too.  I am a very good musician and mathematician, but settled for programming because that would make the most money immediately, because it's what my parents pushed me into, and because I am risk-averse (also inherited from parents).

Now I'm on the verge of getting fired (because I was never a natural programmer anyway, stopped programming at 14 until college, and took all math courses in college instead of CS).  And I'm too old to be a good mathematician (24), and too scared to devote my life to music (plus that takes money).

But I think getting fired might be a good thing.  It would make me wake up, and find out what I really *will* pursue.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Money can't buy happiness, but then again, neither can poverty ...

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

" Basically, figure out what you enjoy doing, and then choose some career that would let you do things you like doing. "

And the sperm bank is inundated with people from JoS signing up for a new career. ;)

Sum Dum Gai
Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Sam Livingston-Gray

You sound like you are enjoying this image you have created of yourself in a quandry.

The truth is the answer will come from action not thought.

You can post, read, write, think, describe, imagine, reason, model, wish, dread, worry and fart yourself silly, for many hours a day, and guess what ?

There is no epiphany or phrase or thought that will save you. 

Throw yourself into things, sports, business, women (a personal favorite), new technology, old technology, books (read some Noam Chomsky), with the focus on 'What is out there that stimulates me ?'.

Instead you sit around saying 'why am I not stimulated'.

In life, as a wise old imaginary bearded sage once told me, you either watch the play or you shoot the president, it's as simple as that.    I think he was stoned.


Wednesday, November 19, 2003

"I don't care too much for money, because money can't buy me love" - The Beatles

What impact does the statement "Money can't buy happiness" (which I agree with) really have on the quest for a career you enjoy?

A career is something you do with a purpose (as opposed to job hopping) typically for at least 10 years, up to about 40 years, in order to earn money.

Does anyone disgaree with this definition of career? You might disagree with the particulars (10 years doesn't make a career, some people stumble into careers and don't pursue them purposefully, and so on), but by and large I think this is a fairly decent definition of a career.

So, we all agree that you can't trade money for happiness. Lack of money may decrease happiness due to worry, but little green pieces of paper don't bring happiness. You get off of work and go to the video store and rent a movie and take it home and watch it, and you may enjoy it, but it's not real happiness.

What then, do we trade for money?

Lost and Confused said he/she/it wanted an enjoyable career. Again, a career is something we do for money. Was I not then, just summarizing what he/she/it said?

What Lost and Confused wants, it seems to me, is to add some purpose, some meaning, and/or some enjoyment to the necessary pursuit of money. This sounds about right from a Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs point of view. Once food is on the table you want to get some meaning out of life.

So to say the same thing yet another way. Money doesn't give us meaning - What meaning should we give to the acqusition of money?

"Follow Your Bliss" - Joseph Campbell

A few years ago I met a woman who came to NY to pursue a career in acting. She gave up acting because she didn't want to be at the mercy of "rich kids" who could afford to put on a product, star in, and direct it. So she turned to music because she could determine when and where she plays. I heard her play, and to be honest, I knew she wouldn't make it.

I bring this story up because while she was pursuing her acting .. err, music career, she put everything else on hold. In her mid 30's, she was a waitress at a hotel, and probably had very little savings. It really broke my heart to see that much naivety in someone so old - living in New York and working as a waitress, how many years would she have to work before she could retire? At what point would she "give up" her dream of acting / music and start to focus on a "career" i.e. building marketable skills so she could get a higher paying job.

Okay, sure some waiters can make a lot of money, that's not my point. My point is she put the rest of her life on hold to pursue a dream.

Anyway, I tell this story because I agree that money does not buy happiness. Conversely, the things you do for happiness do not automatically bring money either.

So a balance must be struck. Daniel Day Lewis, the actor, went to Italy for a number of years to become a cobbler. Cobbler strikes me as a noble, and fairly enjoyable profession. It's a craft, you're working with your hands, and I always found that kind of thing enjoyable.

I saw a special on TV about people who quit their high paying jobs to pursue something more enjoyable. Stock brokers quitting their jobs to sell hand-made greeting cards, that kind of thing.

I believe this kind of thing is healthy, and the people inolved knew the risks they were taking - that their businesses might not make money, and certainly wouldn't make as much, at least in the beginning, as what the were doing previously.

Where then, do you draw the line between earning money, and enjoying what you do? How do you earn a living while keeping in mind that the job supports your life, and not the other way around? How do you pursue your bliss, while keeping in mind that you must also earn a living.
Wednesday, November 19, 2003

People always say "figure out what you enjoy doing" as though you hadn't tried that, and all it required was a half hour walk in the park to contemplate it and get it all sorted out.

I find, and I bet a lot of people feel similarly, that I enjoy a lot of things, but even things I enjoy I don't necessarily want to do full time or for the long term or as a way of earning money, because then I very likely won't enjoy them in the same way I do now.

Obviously having an an unchanging end goal makes life easier to plan for, and some people do seem to find one career path early on and never waiver and appear satisfied all along the way with their choice, but I believe they are the minority.

I have personally given up trying to pin myself down to one goal, and instead try to constantly test what I am doing against what I like and don't like, and changing accordingly in reasonable increments.

As a result, I am now self employed, which was better than being an employee, and I now focus on products, which I found better than being a consultant. And I expect that the products I focus on will change over time as I move more towards things I find even more rewarding than what I currently do.

I guess you could say that constant incremental self improvement has become my new long term goal, and it seems to be working- no idea where the road is going, but at least it keeps getting smoother and smoother... :)

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

In the immortal words of Paula Poundstone: That's why adults are always asking little kids what they want to be when they grow up -- they're looking for ideas.

Troy King
Wednesday, November 19, 2003

braid_ged, in addition to possibly partaking of some interesting substance before hitting the JoS forum, I believe you have me confused with the original poster.  ;>

Sam Livingston-Gray
Wednesday, November 19, 2003

I ran across this answer from Pud (The F*ced Company Guy):


There are three common traits that every business-successful person I know shares (and I know both of the people you referenced).

1) They don't give a fuck what anyone else says, they just do it.
2) They're passionate about what they do.
3) They don't let fear get in the way.

You probably have a problem with step 2 -- you don't know what your passion is, or you deny it.
To help find your passion, think about all the stupid little things you like to do, then picture building an empire on those things and how fucking cool it would be.

Fear is the biggest obstacle for most entrepreneurs.
It's embarassing to launch and company and then have it fail.
It's scary to think you might start out making less money than you make today.
Just remember that the potential rewards far outweigh the risks and go for it.


So, maybe point 2 applies.

I had a talk with some friends two days ago and it turned out that most of them are wanting satisfying lives and at the same time do not dare to take any risk. Needless to say, they are stuck to where they are.

"If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always got".

As far as I am concerned, I walked the talk and run my own show for 3 years now. I am about 34. Seems that I got the same "blues" at 29 and kicked in the biz the year after :-) [proof at]

Just  my € 0.02

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

"People who say there are things money can't buy don't know where to shop."

Stephen Jones
Wednesday, November 19, 2003

So many people to respond to..

Sam Livingston-Gray: "what kinds of work gives you that brain-reward sensation...that'll help direct you a bit."

That's interesting.  It seems strange that essentially the question is "what makes you happy?" and *I can't answer it*!  Makes me wonder if I'm hiding something, or something.  Interesting way of putting it, though, and one that bears some thinking about.

"Not everyone can be a Gates, or even a Jobs"

Well, you have a point there.  But, maybe I'm selling myself short if I just roll over and decide I'm not up to their talent!  I've read enough to know it's more perseverance than genius, usually, that leads to success.

MarkTAW: "You want money..."

Well, yes.  I do have to earn money.  On a related note, one thought experiment I've used is to imagine I'm independently wealthy--then what would I do?  Obviously, this didn't bear much fruit.  In any case, I figure that for most cases if I can just figure out what I like the money part I can worry about later.  Maybe I can't even do what I want right away because of money constraints, but I'd least know what it is.

braid_ged: "Throw yourself into things..."

There's a kernel of truth there, I think.  From personal experience, I don't think the road to self-realization is acheived by withdrawing and musing about it.  The more I think about this, the more elusive it gets--like trying to touch the north poles on two magnets.  It feels like something out of an eastern tradition, the more I try to grasp it the less it can be grasped.

MarkTAW, again: [careers, money, and meaning]

Well, I do worry about, say, the movement towards offshoring programmers and the potential fiscal impact should I commit in that direction.  It seems that I'm more worried, usually, about the opportunity cost of going in one direction--it means I can't go in another direction at the same time!  I know, it sounds funny, but...

Matt: "People always say "figure out what you enjoy doing" as though you hadn't tried that, and all it required was a half hour walk in the park to contemplate it and get it all sorted out. "

Yeah.  In this part of the movie I'm supposed to have some startling insight...doesn't quite work that way, unfortunately.

Troy: "...looking for ideas."  Ha!  Hadn't heard that one.

Phil: "They're passionate about what they do"

Yes--I'm missing passion, exactly.  I feel like that with passion, I could do some really cool stuff, and feel fulfilled.  But, where is it?  All this potential, wasted, is what it feels like.  I mean, I'm no genius, but I certainly feel that I'm capable of a lot with motivation.  I need to create that motivation myself, but as yet cannot.

It really comes down to knowing oneself, of course.  But if I can't figure that out, who will?  Not to mention that such aimlessness is hardly a trait of success by most any measure, humble or grandiose.

Lost and Confused
Wednesday, November 19, 2003

"I'm 29, FWIW, which seems slightly old to be this aimless"

LOL! Some of are wayyy older than that and in the same situation!

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

What you don't talk about is your personal life which is probably the most important factor.

When I was 29 I worked for a small local charity.  The money was crap but paid for a rented flat and as much beer as I could wrestle down my throut (a lot back then), the work was vaugely interesting and not that hard.  Like you I was aimless.

When I was 31 I hooked up with my wife, who had two kids from a previous marriage.  So here I am 6 years later earning 3 times as much as I did then with a detached house and three kids.  My lifestyle is completely different.

In my case, responsibility brought direction.  At 29 the sort of direction I have now would have got in the way of what I wanted  - at 37 the lack of direction I had then would be a real cock up. 

I know a lot of pundits bang on about the importance of goal setting and I do think it is important if you want to achieve a goal to clearly decide what the goal is.  However,  I think the pundits insistence on goal setting says more about their own personalities than about the right way to live - so I wouldn't worry too much about what they have to say. 

Think of it this way - the same pundits bang on about the importance of delegating to subordinates.  That is true - unless you're the bloody subordinate who has to do all the bloody work. 

A cynic writes
Wednesday, November 19, 2003

I'm 29, and what I do is try to picture myself aged 79 on my death bed looking back over my life. Suddenly my perspective changes on what matters and what doesn't... And in 50 years time nothing much I've worked on between now and then will make a whole lot of difference, only the experiences I've had and the people I've met. :)

John C
Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Does everyone also have this very problem?  I'm 28 and trying to figure out whether I should continue employment, go for further studies or get out and start my own offshoring company.  Whatever I do, I will be doing it long term.  Only that I'm not very sure of what  exactly I want!  May be, afew more beers down the year I will have finally decided :)

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Anybody read "Die Broke"?  It basically says your job is just for one thing:  Earning money.  If you're looking for God or Love or Growth, seek it elsewhere.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

I find that increasing the quality of the product that I'm working on or increasing the quality of my work increases my motivation and satisfaction. Peopleware is about this. Find something you can do well. Then do it well. Take pride in it. Identify with the quality.

This is what you *ought* to do. Doing what you *ought* to do is immensely preferable to doing what you *want* to do. Doing what you ought to do is good for you. Doing what you want to do is good for the economy.

Knowledge Maker
Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Hey, you might enjoy

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

recommended by our own Joel...

It has a few chapters on what the author calls 'Gumption traps' which sap motivation.

Knowledge Maker
Wednesday, November 19, 2003

This is a universal problem I think.

It begins with the fact that we DO have a choice these days. Our lifes are no longer dictated by class or background, unless we let it be. When we see that we could probably acheive pretty much anything if we only sufficently passionate about it we begin flailing around for something to be passionate about.

But I think this is a fruitless approach. I think one must begin at a much deeper level. Who do I want to be? Thats the question. And to find the answer is really simple. Look to your childhood dreams.

Now, the childhood fantasies of most people are very diverse and detached from reality. But if you search your memory using the mindset you have when looking at some other dudes uncommented code, you will find patterns.

You will find that in all your dreams and fantasies there is one or maybe two distinct roles you play in relationship with your imaginary surroundings.

When you analyze it, youll find that it probably wasnt just being the greatest swordsman/space pilot/gunman/whatever...

Think about starwars or some fantasy novell, and youll find that there are not just one "hero". There is almost always a spectrum of charaters with different roles. Did you identify with Luke, Han Solo or maybe Obi Wan?

If one succesfully identifies what "function" one desires to have, or what role one wants to play.. it makes answering the "what to do" question a whole lot easier.

Eric DeBois
Wednesday, November 19, 2003

"Did you identify with Luke, Han Solo or maybe Obi Wan?"

I was always Luke, and my best friend was always Han Solo.  Not sure what that says about us.

What would you say to the person who identified most with Darth Vader? :)

Jim Rankin
Wednesday, November 19, 2003

"What would you say to the person who identified most with Darth Vader? :) "

Andy Grove did pretty well with Intel...

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Though no-one will read this...

Join the club man...

Do what you like, hope the money will follow.

Anyway, the thing about "doing what you like" is that you WILL BE ABLE to do it every day for a long time without THROWING UP.

I graduated from mechanical engineering but I HATE mechanical engineering. I can't imagine myself designing shafts, bearings and shit.

I CAN imagine myself poking the keyboard all day writing good software. All day and all night, because it's "my thing."

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Hmm, if I'd posted this a couple of hours ago it would appear above Alex's post and wouldn't seem quite so bad, but...

Maybe the problem isn't that you don't know what your passion is, it's that you expect to have passion in your job.

If the population at large doesn't know what they want to do either, then you're normal.
Wednesday, November 19, 2003

"Maybe the problem isn't that you don't know what your passion is, it's that you expect to have passion in your job. If the population at large doesn't know what they want to do either, then you're normal. "

Well, maybe.  I suppose I can resign myself to passionlessness ;) , but I'd rather save that for a last resort.  And I'm not too concerned about whether it's "normal" or not.  Everyone's unique--the idea represented buy the average of everyone else's feelings is not all that important to me.  I'm trying to find myself here, and whether someone else is also trying to or not is probably not too helpful.

Lost and Confused
Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Hey, I'm playing devil's advocate here and rattling a few cages.

I assume you know all the standard advice - what would you do if you had unlimited resources, list the things you enjoy and then list the related careers, etc., so why not give some offbeat advice?

Another cage rattling idea. The media and marketing sell you the idea that life can be perfect - if you buy their products. Your life can be just like the cast of Friends if you buy our product.

Life is messy and imperfect, but that concept isn't very marketable. It's blatent on infomercials, and much more subtle in major corporate advertising, but it's there.

Maybe Ray Oldenburg's "Third Place" is what we're really missing. This sense of continuity outside of your work life minimizes the sense that work is all there is, or that work is the most important thing in your life.

I've often felt that the work that you do is less important to happiness at work than liking the people you work with.

Someone in an earlier thread mentioned, and I frequently mention, saving your money so that you get to the point where you can accept a lower paying job, or live for a while without working as a way to change your attitude towards work. When you're poor you take any job because you have to, when you've built yourself up to the point where you don't have to work constantly, then you can approach employment in general and any particular job you're at differently.

I don't have this amount of savings yet (I'm just a bit younger than you are), but I could imagine thay my attitudes would be different if my employment was truly "at will" where if I don't like the way thing are, I'll challenge them, and if I don't like the work, I can choose to leave.
Wednesday, November 19, 2003

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