Youth of America: Don’t know what to do with your life? Read this.

[Author’s note: Its graduation week here in Madison, WI.  This post is for all of the thousands of students getting their diplomas.  Congrats!] 

One of the benefits of working with college students is listening to the banter.

You know what I’m talking about.

“Where are we partying tonight?”

“Your team sucks.”

“Did you see last night’s episode of ___________?”

Some people consider these conversations juvenile.  Now that I’m 40, I find they keep me young.

Of course not all of the conversations are happy.  As spring arrives and graduation approaches I always hear the dreaded topic of:

“WHAT AM I GOING TO DO WITH MY LIFE?” [insert Chewbacca moan]

After spending the last 17 years listening to people agonize over their future, I’ve reached a few conclusions.

For all of you who are totally lost, this post is for you.

The Problem is in Your Head

Most of the graduating students I’ve worked with fall into one of two categories:

Those who panic.

“Holy crap, I can do anything and that freaks me out.  What if I make the wrong choice? What if I fail? What if I end up sleeping in a car board box under a bridge?”

And those who see opportunity.

“Hell yeah, I can do anything I want.  I can dive with sharks. I can be an actor.  I can herd sheep in New Zealand. I can make tortillas all day.  Wow, freedom is awesome. I can’t wait to start doing something cool.”

If you’re in the opportunity camp, congrats, you can skip this section.

But, if you’re in the panic camp (most people) the solution is in your head.

In other words, you need to change your mindset.

Before I tell you what an opportunity mindset looks like, let’s take a step back.

Your reasons for panic are normal.  Many of us grew up spending our energy fighting for independence but not thinking about what we would do with it.  When I was 16 all I wanted was a car. I never thought about where I would go with my car. I just dreamed about having a car and being able to go… somewhere.

When adulthood arrives, if you don’t switch gears from fighting for freedom (adolescent thinking), to making the most of your freedom (adult thinking) things are going to suck.  And it not like you can go back. Being an adult who depends on her parents isn’t cool or desirable.

So if you’re freaking out about entering the world, first take a deep breath.

Second, start paying close attention to your thoughts.  If you’re still thinking like you’re fifteen years old there’s most of your problem.

Third, develop a new relationship with what’s freaking you out.

Most likely this means:

Embracing uncertainty instead of fearing it.

Accepting responsibility instead of fighting it.

Seeking challenges instead of avoiding them.

Build a mindset on these principles and you will feel less scared and see more opportunity.

Does this mean money will start raining down from the sky and things will be easy? Fuck, no.  All it means is that you are open to pursing an extraordinary existence.

Ok, I know what some of you may be thinking.

“This sounds great BUT……”

“I have a ton of student debt.”

“My parents want me to be a lawyer.”

“I’m really not interested in anything.”

I get it.  Some people have more obstacles than others.  But here’s the rub. Regardless of your particular circumstances the opportunity is the same.  The opportunity is time. If you are in your 20’s – that magical decade in between graduation and starting a family – time is on your side.  You have time to make money. Time to make mistakes. Time to explore. Time to take risks.

One of the best decisions I’ve made in my life was to start a business at 23 years old.

What I lacked in money and experience I made up for with youth, energy and enthusiasm.  I also had little to lose.

You have those same things too.

Still with me?  Great.

Let’s continue to the next step.

Figure out what success looks like for you

If you don’t want to go through life flailing around hoping something good will happen you need to have a vision.

What is a vision?

It’s a picture of what your life looks like in the future.

Some of you are going to immediately judge this as hokey shit.

That’s fine.  When I was first introduced to this I thought it was hokey too.

Here is why having a vision is important.

If you’re clear on what success looks like for you, you can focus your energy towards achieving it.

I’m a big advocate of visioning work because most of us do it anyway.  We just don’t realize it. It happens when you’re daydreaming about where you’d like to live, or whom you’d like to date.  Or what kind of wardrobe you have. Some of these daydreams are totally unrealistic (I have a cape and I can fly). Others may seem unattainable, but with some work, are actually possible.  Visioning work is capturing the later and making it an actionable plan.

The first step to creating a great personal vision is to do a brainstorm.  There are two rules to follow. What you end up with has to be 1) inspiring 2) strategically sound

Let’s look at both of these points before continuing.

Figuring out what inspires you can be hard.  Sometimes it can be buried in so much emotional stuff it can be painful to admit.  Sometimes you just don’t have enough life experience to know what it is that excites you.  If you’re really struggling, start by thinking about an experience that was incredibly fun or exhilarating.  What were you doing? Who were you doing it with? Why did you like it so much? The answers to these questions can be the basis of your vision.

As you are writing pay close attention to how you are feeling.  The goal is for you to feel excited. A little nervous is okay too.  But mostly you want to feel pumped up.

If you don’t feel anything, you’re on the wrong track.

You’ll tank this exercise and end up frustrated.

My local plumbing supply store, for example, had a boring two-sentence long vision statement. It said something about providing awesome customer service and being a great company but I don’t exactly remember.  Their employees clearly didn’t remember either. No one cared because the vision was shit. Appropriately, it was framed and displayed next to the bathroom.

If you end up with a boring, forgettable vision you’ll end up lost.  Make sure you don’t do this.

The second guideline of vision work is that it must be strategically sound.  This means your vision has to make sense.

– Being the first person to climb Everest (already done)

– Starting a business that takes people to space for .99 cents (not economically viable)

– Swimming across the English Channel with no training or escort (suicidal/illegal)

These things are called indulging in fantasy.

If your vision is easily attainable you are going to get bored – quickly.

If your vision is strategically unattainable life will turn into a Sisyphean sufferfest.

The “sweet spot” is having a goal that is challenging enough so its pursuit is worthwhile regardless of the outcome.

Think about JFK’s vision to put a man on the moon by the end of the 60’s.  At the time it was a bold vision with no guarantees of success. NASA had no clue how they were going to do it.  But they got to work, made a bunch of mistakes, learnt a ton and ultimately developed technologies that paid big dividends.  Oh, and they got us to the moon.

Figuring out what is and what is not “strategically sound” may take some research and soul searching.  One person’s challenge is another person’s walk in the park. My personal experience is that if you’re sizing up your vision and feeling, “Wow this is going to be fucking hard, but I think I can do it” you are on the right track.  On the other hand, if you’re feeling dread or lack of motivation you may need to start over.

The Brainstorm

First, pick a date in the future, maybe it’s two years from now.  Or five. Or ten. If you’re having a hard time thinking very far our, pick a shorter time frame.

Now start writing bullet points of what you want your life to look like.

Many people start with a job.

“race car driver”

“advertising executive”


Some will gravitate towards relationships

“Married with three kids and a dog”

“Hot brunette wife”

“Husband – Tall, blonde, funny”

Others will include material objects

“Big white house by the beach”

“Sporty black convertible”

“Fat tire bike”

As you go through this brainstorm keep two things in mind.

The more you write the better.

Focus on lifestyle rather than material possessions.

Yes, a Ferrari can definitely bring happiness.  But it’s short lived. Hanging out with your best friends, learning new skills, taking awesome trips, spending lots of time doing your favorite activities.  These are the things that make for a rich, rewarding life.

Some people will have no problem imagining their future and writing it down on paper.    Many of you will really struggle.  You will stare at a blank page for too long, start having bad thoughts and wish me ill.

Here’s why most people get stuck:

Writing a vision requires choosing what our life looks like but most of us will immediately focus on how we will get there.

This is natural.  But also debilitating.

Let’s say you are broke, overweight and living with your parents.  You do this exercise and the first draft is a vision of biking across Europe.  As you’re writing you start to feel excited.

This is going to be awesome!

Then you review what you’ve written and panic.

How am I going to get in shape? How am I going to get the money? How will my friends react?

The more obstacles you list off, the more your vision seems impossible.  Even embarrassing. Frustrated, you delete what you’ve written. You may think you’ve wasted your time, but you’re on the right path.  An exciting, inspiring vision, something that is worth busting your ass to achieve, requires both honesty and courage.

There will be time for figuring out the “how”.  For now just focus on the “what”!

“Today is January 1st  2025.  I’m a movie producer.”

“Every morning I wake up to three beautiful children and a loving spouse.”

“I pilot a 777 across the Pacific.”

Once again, whatever you do don’t continue to the next step until you have a list that gets you excited.   Even if this takes awhile to figure out that’s okay.  It’s important to nail this.

Writing your Vision

Now that you’ve got a bullet point version of your vision you could call it and be done. To make this really effective though, I say take it one step further.  This means translating your vision from bullet points to prose. The reason is simple. Your vision will be richer, more powerful and easier to share. Lists are functional and utilitarian.  Stories keep people up at night.

Taking a list and writing it into prose can be challenging.

I know there are some of you who hate to write.  Relax. We are not writing a prize-winning novel.  If you can write basic sentences you can do this. If basic sentences are a problem, get help.  Just don’t give up or beat yourself up over shitty first drafts.

And don’t sweat the length.

Somewhere between 3-4 paragraphs to a few pages is all you need.

Let’s look at a fictional example starting with a brainstorm.

Vision Brainstorm

I’m 27 years old

1. Live in Miami

2. Awesome partner

3. Freelance, web design business

4. Work with clients across the US and world.

5. Make my own schedule – work 30-40 hours per week

6. Earn 80-100K year

7. Work remotely two months per year in a different city across the globe

8. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

9. Get together with my “crew” every other week and chill.

Now let’s translate into prose.

Today is January 1st 2020.  I am 27 years old and I live in Miami in a sweet one bedroom in the design district. Every morning I enjoy waking up early and running along the water.  I am currently dating an awesome person.  We connect on a number of levels. Whether we are clubbing, discussing current events, or hosting a dinner party for our friends we find ways to enjoy each other’s company.

I am a successful web designer who works with clients around the world and the US.  I do all of my work remotely from the comfort of my home office. I love having the freedom to work when I want.  I have a stable roster of clients who supply me with rewarding work. Last year I made over $100K.

Several times per year I pack my bags and do my work overseas.  Living in a foreign country for a few weeks keeps me fresh and gives me a new perspective on life.  It also leads to some amazing adventures. Last year, for example, I did a five day trek through the Sahara dessert.

When I’m at home I’m an avid practitioner of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I’ve got a great teacher and I’m currently training for a tournament later this year.

Another aspect of my life in Miami I love are my friends. They rock!  We get together regularly every other week but spontaneous dinners or meet ups are common.   Just yesterday we met up at a block party in South Beach. It feels amazing to have a community of people I can count on for a good laugh or a serious conversation.

That’s it.  5 paragraphs.  300 words.

Maybe the content of this particular vision does nothing for you, but hopefully you get the point of the exercise.  For the fictional owner of this vision, this is what success looks like for them and now they can start working to get there.

Going from paper to reality

Congrats you’ve got a vision! Now comes the hard part: Turning it into reality.

First, share your vision with the important people in your life.  This includes family, significant others, friends, mentors and religious/spiritual leaders.

This may feel a little weird in the beginning.  Don’t wimp out.

Your inner circle of people are the ones who will support you through your journey.  If they know your goals, they can help you better.

As you start to work your vision, share it with more people you think can help.  This doesn’t mean emailing everyone a copy. Sometimes a casual 10 second synopsis is all you need.

“I’ve got a 5 (number) year vision to do be an independent web designer (profession) in Miami (location).  I’d love to connect with you to explore how we could help each other.”

Next step is to strategically pick the items you are going to work on first to accomplish your vision.

If I’m working on accomplishing the fictional vision in the previous section, I might choose to enroll in some web design classes.  Or move right away to Miami. Or look for internships with web design firms I admire.

What I’m not doing is spending all my time looking for cool loft apartments I can’t afford.  Or figuring out where I’m going to decamp overseas. Those things will come.

I’m also not enrolling in an auto body class or exploring other career possibilities.  The benefit of having a vision is that it helps you focus. Use it as a filter to decide how you spend your time.

Once you’ve started to work on your vision, it’s good practice to re-read it every few months.  This will help you stay on track.

After you’ve completed the initial steps, move on to the secondary ones.

This means embracing uncertainty (remember that one?) Sometimes what you should do next isn’t always clear. Just like there are different routes to go from home to work, there are different ways how you can accomplish your vision.   When you hit inevitable roadblocks, change your tactics, not your vision. Again, this is supposed to be challenging. Adjusting your strategy requires ingenuity and resourcefulness. It’s part of the fun.

When things get crappy

One of my mentors, Paul Saginaw, likes to say that after completing a vision  you can encounter the “zone of doubt and blame”.  This is a period of time when nothing seems to be going right. You doubt whether you can accomplish your vision and blame the things working against you.

Like the zombies in the “Walking Dead”, the zone of doubt and blame can strike at any time.  It can even get you more than once.

I’ve gone through the zone of doubt and blame a few times.

One time was during a scouting trip for locations to start my pizza business.  Most of my friends had jobs and were settled. I was nearly broke, had no place to live and chasing a dream.   Passion and enthusiasm had kept me going. But then, out of the blue, an unpleasant dose of doubt rained on my parade.

“Am I delusional?”

“This out of my league, I should do something else.”

“I don’t have the money to do this.  I don’t even have enough experience.”

“I should quit and get a job.”

After spending a good 45 minutes indulging in some negative, messed-up thinking, a different thought entered my mind.

“This may be screwed up, but I shouldn’t quit.  If there is even the slightest chance I can pull this off, it’s worth pursuing.”

The next day I got back to work.  I plotted out the rest of my scouting trip and then figured out where I was going once it was done.

Looking back at that particular moment, I was lucky.   I got into a dark hole, but didn’t stay there very long.  I also got out on my own. That hasn’t always been the case.  Throughout my personal journey I’ve relied on the support of friends and family countless times.  Don’t try to go it alone. When you get in a jam, reach out.

Parting words

Ok, that’s it. Go conquer the world.

If you still don’t know what to do with your life after reading this, then I guess you’re hopeless.

Just kidding.

Send me an email.  I’ve been listening to people complain about this topic for the past seventeen years.  I can listen to you too.

Good luck,


Photo by Kevin Schmid on Unsplash