By Steve Pavlina

Deciding what to do with your life isn’t remotely easy.  Most people never make this decision at all.  But since we all end up doing something, if we don’t make this decision consciously, then a decision will still be made, but it will be an unconscious one.

If you don’t decide how you’re going to live, then someone or something else will decide for you.  Most likely you’ll yield your life to a combination of unconscious influences, including your genetic predispositions, your upbringing, your social conditioning, your environment, the other people in your life, and perhaps pure chance.

This might be a good way for pets to live, but not for human beings.  We can do better.

Allowing your fate to be decided by external influences will, historically speaking, produce absolutely pathetic results compared to what you could achieve with your life simply by consciously deciding what you’re doing to do with it and why.  You might get lucky if you let fate handle the details, but it’s more likely you’ll end up spending your precious time here serving other forces whose plans you probably wouldn’t agree with.

As you grow in awareness and become more fully conscious, at some point you’ll come face to face with the question, “What the heck am I going to do with my life?”

Obviously there’s a lot riding on your answer.  It’s not even just about your own life but also the lives of everyone else you might affect during your lifetime.  You could choose to be insignificant, but you might also be able to play a hugely significant role in the future direction of this planet.  Conscious choice gives you that option.  And yielding this option to others doesn’t relieve you of any responsibility whatsoever.

Once your awareness has reached a certain level, it becomes clear that it’s better to answer this question consciously than to allow someone else to answer it for you.

However, as you begin tackling this question, there’s a good chance you’ll find it such a daunting task that you soon yield to the temptation of returning to unconscious living.  Please don’t do that.  Although answering this question is indeed one of the major challenges you’ll face as a human being, it’s a problem you’re capable of solving — and well worth the effort.

Let me share with you some ideas on how to approach this question that might make it easier for you to answer intelligently.

Strive to understand reality as accurately as possible.

A key component of deciding how to live is developing an understanding of how this universe you find yourself in actually works.  You need to know the rules of play before you can devise a basic strategy.  So the search for purpose begins with the search for truth.

Ideally once you develop an understanding of how the universe works, enough that it makes sense to you intellectually, emotionally, and intuitively, then you can begin figuring out what role you’ll play within this universe.

If you don’t have an accurate enough model of reality, you can’t intelligently decide how to live.  You can still make such a decision, but most likely it will be a poor one.  Imagine that you’re playing a game of checkers and decide how you’re going to play.  But what happens if it turns out you’re really playing chess?  Your strategy simply isn’t going to work.  It’s the same with deciding what to do with your life.  If your model of reality is too inaccurate, then all your decisions will be bug-ridden, and most likely you’ll crash a lot.  In practical terms this means you’ll have a hard time making progress towards your goals.  Weak results will become the norm for you.

I’ve written previously about how I perceive reality, and I’ll certainly write more about it in the years ahead.  By experimenting with different belief systems over the past 15 years, I’ve seen radical changes in my results.  Last year was my best year ever by far, and I attribute this to developing a model of reality that appears to be in sync with the way reality actually seems to work.  My model certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s accurate enough that I’m starting to achieve my goals more and more easily.  I’m working with the rules of the game instead of fighting and resisting them.

As I mentioned in a previous post, three key qualities to develop in your pursuit of personal growth are self-trust, awareness, and fearlessness.  Together these three components make up my definition of intelligence.

While there are many ways to understand reality, my approach is basically that of Jnana Yoga.  This means that I try to comprehend reality through the mind.  I try to use my intellect to figure it out.  Ultimately this boils down to running a lot of personal experiments and noting the results.  But there are other valid paths to an understanding of reality too.  If you’re a more heart-focused person, like my wife, then intuition may be a more powerful guide for you than the mind.

If you encounter difficulties in choosing a life purpose, the problem may be further upstream.  Dive deeper into your understanding of reality.  Question your beliefs, especially the ones you were taught never to question.  What if you’re wrong?  My current beliefs about reality bear little resemblance to those I was raised to adopt.  Through interaction with the real world, I found my initial beliefs to be inaccurate.  And that led to more than a decade of searching for truth, one that still continues to this day but which has gotten a lot easier.

When you understand reality accurately enough, your purpose will practically jump out at you.  Ultimately when you understand reality, you understand yourself.  Your role in the world then becomes clear.

For example, based on my understanding of reality, it’s clear to me what I should do with my life.  I’m here to grow and to help others grow.

Does your purpose make sense in the short term?

In this very moment, are you happy?  I’m not referring to mere contentment.  A potted plant is content.  I mean… are you passionate about your life?  Do you get more excited about going on vacation than you do about doing your real work?  Are you in love with your existence?  Are you delighted to be here on earth at this particular time?

I was on vacation about 10 days ago, and honestly I was just as excited to return to work as I was to leave for the trip in the first place.  My work is so pleasurable to me that I’m overjoyed to have the privilege of sitting here at my desk, turning thoughts into words that will be seen by thousands of people around the world before this day is up.  Does that sound like suffering to you?

If you’re the type of person who goes around saying that passion just isn’t your thing, then you’ve sacrificed too much.  If you’re living on purpose, an intense inner excitement will be your normal modus operandi.  Don’t be afraid — this passion won’t suddenly transform you into an emotional moron that bounces around like a fairy on drugs.  Passion is emotional fuel.  It will push you to live at full capacity.  Without passion you’ll frequently stop short and let opportunities pass you by again and again for lack of will.  Mere intellect can only get you so far.  There’s a difference between deciding to achieve a goal and actually achieving it.  Your intellect can handle the former, but it’s pathetic at achieving the latter.  Wouldn’t it be nice to achieve some goals instead of just setting them again and again?  Paper goals are nice to look at, but wouldn’t you rather have the real thing?  Passion will help you get there, sometimes at a pace that will make people’s heads spin.

In order to do your best, you must learn to harness the fuel of passion.  If you were an android, you wouldn’t need passion.  Use your powerful intellect to recognize that you do have emotions whether you want them or not, and accept that a Vulcan lifestyle is suboptimal for human beings.  As you develop emotional intelligence, you can learn to utilize the powerful fuel of passion without running afoul of your intellect.  You want to be passionate and smart, not passionate and confused.  Passion + intelligence is a powerful combination.

If your decision about what to do with your life doesn’t take advantage of the daily fuel of passion, then you’ve made the wrong decision.  Go back and try again.

When you experience passion, it means that at least in this present moment, your decision about how to live makes sense.  It’s congruent with reality.  Your body will begin burning the fuel of passion because it believes you’re heading in the right direction.  It’s worth the effort to light that fuse and to keep it burning instead of conserving energy by turning you into a couch potato.  But if your decision looks too dumb, your body will hold back.  It won’t expend the energy — it’s saying, “Nope, not worth it.”

If you find the passion is gone from parts of your life, see the message behind its absence.  Listen to the, “Nope, not worth it” signal you’re getting.  Maybe it’s a dead-end job, a dead-end relationship, or a dead-end exercise program.  Whatever it is, if your body hasn’t kicked into high gear with the fuel of passion, you’ve made the wrong choice.  It’s time to make a different decision.

Passion is a force multiplier.  With passion you become much stronger than without it.  It’s truly amazing what a single passionate individual with a clear purpose can achieve.  If you were to subtract perhaps the top 100 such people from history (out of billions of humans), we’d probably still be living in caves.  And I’d be chipping away with my stone tools an article on how to organize your rock collection.

Does your purpose make sense in the long term?

Many decisions seem fairly intelligent in the moment, but when you imagine how they’ll play out over the next 10, 20, or 50 years, their weaknesses become apparent.  When choosing a life purpose, it should not only fuel you with passion in the present moment — it should look even better across a variety of time frames.

Consider your job, for example.  Where will it lead you in the long run?  Think about where it will take you between now and the end of your life.  Imagine you’ve reached your final day on earth, and you look back upon your career.  How do you feel about it?

If you’ve made the correct decision about what to do with your life, then you should feel that overall, this was the best possible choice you could have made without the benefit of specific hindsight.  You will see some mistakes you made along the way, but you’ll also see that given what you knew at the time, they were largely unavoidable.  When you look back over your life, your dominant thought will be, “I did my best.  I may not have lived a perfect life, but I did the best I could.  And for that reason, I have no major regrets.  If my life must now end, then so be it.”

If, on the other hand, this scenario scares the bejesus out of you, then you’ve got some work to do.  It means your current direction isn’t sound.  It will not pass the test of time, and at some point you’ll have to face reality.  It’s better to do it now than to wait, since the longer you put it off, the more catastrophic the results will be.

Yesterday I watched a documentary called The Smartest Guys in the Room, which is the story of Enron.  Enron was the 7th largest corporation in the U.S., employing tens of thousands of people.  Instead of focusing on value creation, its leaders put making themselves rich as their highest goal.  The company lost money year after year, yet it kept reporting substantial profits.  Its stock price went higher and higher with no value to back it up.  Obviously this was a house of cards that was doomed to eventually collapse, and over a period of just 24 days, the company spiraled down into bankruptcy.  The trial of Enron CEO Ken Lay is just beginning.

Is your life an Enron?  What do you see when you project your current momentum years, even decades, into the future?  Are you building a house of cards that will eventually collapse?  Are you hiding from the truth?

It can be very hard to face the truth today when the consequences may be years away.  But eventually you will have to face that truth at some point.  In fact, it’s with you right now.  When you clog your consciousness with the burden of falsehood, you lower your awareness.  By refusing to face what you perceive to be the unfaceable, you begin living a lie, just like Enron.  And then instead of living honestly, your energies are consumed by the perpetuation of that lie.

Perhaps your sins aren’t as great as those of Enron’s leaders.  It doesn’t matter.  If you don’t feel you can be honest with the rest of the world just yet, at least begin by being honest with yourself.  You needn’t experience a crash if you can learn to raise your consciousness instead of lowering it.  This is the gentlest path out of falsehood and towards truth.

If your relationship is dead, at least admit that truth to yourself even if you can’t admit it to anyone else.  Journal about it privately and explore your honest feelings.  If your career is unfulfilling and you work just to pay the bills, admit that to yourself, and also admit that you want something better.  It’s OK to be weak and helpless.  It’s not OK to lie to yourself.  Being weak will not lower your consciousness, but being false will.

Your decision about how to live needs to make sense from ALL time perspectives, including now, yesterday, today, tomorrow, next year, 10 years from now, and at your death.  It also has to make sense from the perspective of different scenarios, including:  you die tomorrow, you die a year from now, you die in 50 years, you live forever, you become disabled, you get married, you stay single, you have children, you remain childless, your country’s government collapses, all your possessions are destroyed in a fire, etc.

While there will be implementation issues that depend on the specifics of your current situation, your high-level decision about what to do with your life shouldn’t be based on elements outside your control.  It should be flexible enough that you can adapt it to changing circumstances, even when the changes are massive or brutal.

My choice of living to grow and to help others grow has a terrific outlook across all time perspectives and scenarios.  In order for me to be unable to continue pursuing it, either all of us would have to achieve perfection, or my consciousness would have to become frozen or damaged in some way such that further growth would be impossible.  And in those situations, any other decision would be corrupted as well.  So I genuinely feel this is the best I can do.

It was only in 2004 that I really began embracing this purpose consciously.  And when I look back over the time that has passed since making this decision, I have no major regrets.  I made plenty of mistakes along the way, but I still feel I did my best.

This feeling also leaves me at peace with the possibility that I could die unexpectedly at any time.  I don’t know when my time here on earth will come to an end, but I’m OK with that because my decision about how to live isn’t time-bound.  It works for me in the present moment while also helping me devise a long-term plan for what to do over the next 50 years, should I live that long.

I often ask myself, “How would I feel about my life if it were to end this very minute?”  If I don’t like my answer, I know it’s time to make some changes.  But lately I’ve been feeling really good about my answers.  I just hope that if it does happen this minute, my wife can finish this article for me and post it, since I’ve spent a lot of time on it and would hate for it to go to waste.

Does your purpose make sense at different levels of consciousness?

Long-term inconsistency used to be a serious problem for me as I explored different belief systems.  Every time I changed my beliefs, parts of my life would rupture because they were dependent on the old belief system.  That paralyzed me to some degree.  I had to chose between pursuing my own growth (and experiencing great upheaval in my actions and results), or I could try to hold my beliefs fixed (thereby suspending my growth) in order to complete certain projects.  Ultimately I chose to pursue growth and just deal with the upheaval, figuring that eventually I would stabilize at a higher level, and that approach seems to have worked out nicely, although it certainly wasn’t easy adapting to so much change.

Suppose you work for a company that develops software.  When you first begin working there, you may be focused on the idea of landing a good job, doing interesting work, and beginning a career with strong long-term potential.  Or perhaps you’re just a geek who loves coding.  At first you may be happy, even fulfilled in this situation.  But as you mature and your values change, you may begin searching for more meaning in your life, and this could lead you to raise your standards about the type of work you’re willing to do.  The same old projects no longer seem as interesting as they once were, so you look for more challenging and interesting assignments.  As you continue along this path, you may begin looking more critically at the overall contribution you’re making, both to your company and to the world.  Suppose you know that your company’s real motivation is simply to make a profit and that the software it develops isn’t really needed.  Perhaps it generates income largely from market inefficiencies and buyer ignorance rather than by providing genuine unique value.  Now you have a tough decision to make.  Do you stay with the company and try to justify your decision (thereby lowering your awareness), do you leave (thereby keeping your awareness high), or do you attempt to transform the company from within (thereby using your awareness to raise the awareness of others)?

This isn’t an easy decision to make, but the key to living in a way that works in the long run is that you need to keep yourself from becoming stuck at a fixed level of consciousness.  If you pursue the development and expansion of your consciousness, you will experience some upheaval in your life.  But that doesn’t mean your purpose is poorly chosen — it just means you need to go through a process of shedding that which is incongruent with your purpose.  And if you’re like most people, that’s going to mean a lot of shedding.  It will probably take years.  But you’ll come out the other side much stronger and a lot happier.  The tunnel is hard, but it doesn’t last forever, and it leads to a wonderful place that you’ll never want to leave once you experience it.

In truth we go through multiple tunnels as we raise our awareness.  These tunnels are what has been referred to as the “dark night of the soul.”  This is what happens when your awareness elevates to the point where you’re now out of sync with your current life situation, but you don’t see any viable alternatives just yet.  The alternatives will eventually present themselves if you continue to focus on raising your awareness and allowing the incongruence to exist for a while.

A well-formed life purpose should be able to survive your passage through these tunnels of awareness.  Each tunnel should only clarify and strengthen your purpose, not force you to throw it out.  If you feel your purpose will not survive the growth of your consciousness, you’re probably right.

A life purpose that is tied to a particular level of awareness is no purpose at all.  It will only keep you trapped at that level of awareness.  For example, if your purpose is tied to making money, then what will happen if your awareness reaches the point that money holds a completely different meaning to you?  Perhaps it will become meaningless.  Try to imagine how you might continue to grow, and choose a purpose that is flexible enough to grow with you.  For example, if your purpose is to create abundance for yourself and others, then that is much more likely to survive the growth of your consciousness than a purpose based solely on making money.

What I really love about my purpose is that it adapts well to changes in my core beliefs, including my spiritual beliefs.  It’s hard for me to imagine a belief system in which it’s impossible for me to grow or to help others to grow.  If I can experience something, I can grow from that experience, and if I can communicate with others, I can share some of that growth as well.

What will become of your purpose after you die?

Ideally your purpose should be deep enough that it even has the possibility of surviving your own death.  Let’s consider the perspective of what happens to you after death and what happens to the rest of the world after you’re gone.

First, consider what happens to you.  There are after-death scenarios where decisions you make today won’t matter and other scenarios where they will matter.  But the first case is irrelevant because if you go to oblivion after you die or enter some immovable state of consciousness independent of your earthly life, then any decisions you make here and now won’t make a difference beyond your own death.  So unless you can be 100% certain of the first type of scenario, you must at least consider the second case when deciding how to live.  When you imagine what it might be like to continue to exist in some form after your physical body dies, does your purpose still make sense?  Can you continue your purpose even after you die?

If this subject interests you, you may enjoy reading the article “Life After Death,” which goes into these various scenarios in more detail.

Since my purpose is to grow and to help others grow, then if I still have some form of consciousness and there are other conscious beings around, I should still be able to continue my purpose in some form.  “Personal Development for Smart People” will become “Personal Development for Dead People.”  And instead of turning bears into eagles, I’ll work on turning demons into angels.  Sounds like a fun job to me.  So if I’m already dead when you’re reading this, look me up when you get there, and I’ll continue torturing you for all eternity.

Next, what will happen to the rest of the world after you die?  Can your purpose continue on after your death?  Can you plant enough of a seed that it can continue to grow even after you’re gone?  Part of the reason many motivational speakers build their own corporations is so that they can institutionalize their work in a way that will allow it to survive their own death.  Their purpose then becomes almost immortal.  I remember hearing Tony Robbins say that institutionalizing his work was very important to him — I think he said it on one of the bonus CDs included with his Personal Power II program.  It’s the whole idea of leaving a legacy.

I’d like to leave behind enough of a legacy that even after my death, my work can still continue.  One thing I love about my writing is that it can actually outlive me.  That’s a conceit, but it’s a healthy one.  (Yes, that’s a line from Star Trek: TNG, and 1000 points to anyone who knows which episode.)  (Plus another 1000 points to anyone who knows the source of the 1000 points reference.)

Every year that passes, I want to leave behind a stronger legacy.  This even gives meaning to my very survival.  The longer I live, the greater the legacy I can leave behind.  I’m only 16 months along this path, but I already like what I see.  I’ve created some small ripples already, it will be nice to see where they lead.  I’ve also helped my wife get started on this path, so if she outlives me, there’s already someone to keep the work going for a while.  But ultimately I’d also like to institutionalize the work I’m doing in order to give it more of a life of its own.  And I’m certainly not the only one doing this sort of thing, but from what I can see, I’m one of the youngest.

What kind of legacy would you like to leave behind?  If you were to die today, how will your contribution to the world be remembered?  Will it be remembered at all, or will you simply be replaced like a burned out light bulb and soon forgotten?  What ripples are you creating today that have the potential to continue oscillating after you’re gone?

Your own death is something your decision about how to live needs to address.  You cannot decide how to live without also deciding how to die.  I’m not talking about whether you’re going to die of cancer or be gutted by an axe murderer.  I mean that you need to live in such a way that death will not rob your life of its meaning.  Your purpose must be so strong that even death cannot stop it.

Don’t give up!

I know it’s not easy to discover your life purpose.  It may take years for you to figure it out.  But no one who has discovered their purpose will tell you it wasn’t worth the effort.  It’s a long journey, sometimes over difficult terrain, but the rewards you will experience along the way are without equal.

If you don’t yet know what your purpose is, then your purpose for right now is to figure it out.

At some point you’ll hit one of those big obstacles that makes you want to give up and slink back down into low awareness living.  You’ll catch yourself thinking that maybe you should just model your life after the fictional characters you see on the TV, or perhaps you’ll long to just be “normal” and fit in like everyone else.  But that kind of life isn’t for you, and you know it.  If you’ve read this much without turning away, then your awareness is already too high for you to be happy living like the sleeping masses.  It’s time to wake up.  The bright light will hurt your eyes at first, even make your eyes water, but you’ll get used to it.  And then you’ll receive your own high-powered awareness flashlight.  And I have to tell you that it’s oodles of fun shining that thing in people’s eyes when they least suspect it… for kicks and giggles, you know.  Of course it’s great for helping people raise their awareness too.

This article is copyright © by Steve Pavlina and is reprinted with permission. For more personal development articles, visit Steve Pavlina’s Personal Development for Smart People.