IDK What to Do with My Life: Student Edition

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“IDK what to do with my life.”  It’s one of the most common phrases expressing the angst and struggle of purpose, vocation, and calling.  So common, in fact, that we usually laugh it off and change the subject.

Thankfully, there are some people out there who do take it seriously.  Not only that, but who are working on helping others make progress on the issue as well.

Today, a high school teacher wrote to me asking for advice on how to help his students gain some clarity on vocation, calling, and work.  I couldn’t be more thrilled!  It always makes me happy to find people doing good work around these ideas.  And it makes me even happier when they are teachers.

We all have “IDK What to Do with My Life” moments (for the non-millennial speakers in the room, IDK means “I Don’t Know”), so I thought I’d share my response (with a few minor edits for blog readability):

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IDK What to Do with My Life: Student Edition

Hi there!

I love this question, and I’m so glad you’re addressing it with high school students!

There’s a ton I could say about this, but due to time I’ll offer a few points and point you to some free resources — which you might find helpful for the class.

Solving IDK What to Do with My Life Problem

First, work is about identity.  The question of what to do with your life and what your work is about has everything to do with who you are and what you believe about the world.  Work at its best is an expression of who you are.

This means that the task of finding meaning and purpose in work begins with knowing who you are.  And the best way to do that is to tell the stories that have made you who you are.

I would recommend that you spend time with your students having them write out narratives from their lives.  Have them write in story form one of the best moments of their lives.  Then have them share those stories with others in the class.  Invite others to respond and offer insight.  As students hear stories shared, ask them to pay attention to themes that might come out or curiosities that they might have.  Have a conversation about each story.

Then do it again with the painful and hard moments.

Through this process, students will begin to understand a little bit more of who they are and what drives them.  They’re doing the work of languaging their experience— which will give them more comprehension of its meaning.

Stories Keep You Stuck

Second, the realm of work is crowded with voices and rules about what each student should and shouldn’t do— often these rules and voices even conflict with one another.  It can be really helpful to have students write out every “should” and “should not” they have about work just to get it out.  Awareness is the first step in change, and as we become more aware of the voices in our lives, the more we will find freedom amidst them.

One activity I like to do with groups and particularly with students is to give out stacks of post-it notes and have participants write all of these things out— one per note.  Then have them stick all the post-its on the wall or board in the classroom. 

Finally, invite the class to go to the board and read what everyone has written and put a star on any that they resonate with.  By seeing others’ responses, we realize more that we may have neglected to mention.  And when we see that others have drawn stars on our own responses we realize that we’re not alone.

You Can’t Plan it All Perfectly

Third, you can’t plan it all out in advance.  Career paths today aren’t as linear as they once were.  Your students will likely make a few changes as they progress through their careers.  Give them the permission to do so.  Permission is so important.

A Good Mentor is Hard to Find

Finally, (and very much related) I believe the greatest gift you can give your students is your presence with them.  To have someone like yourself who believes in them, advocates for them, and is available to talk about the big and hard decisions is invaluable.  I hope you lean into that.  And I’m so grateful you do what you do.

A couple quick resources that may be helpful: 1) the Calling Process on Amazon, 2) this article about rules and voices 3)this article about finding your calling  4) and The Meaning Movement Podcast (of course!)

I hope all of this helps!

Thanks for doing what you do.


Your Turn

What advice would you add?  What would you tell your high school aged self knowing what you know now about life, meaning, and career?  Share in the comments.  I’ll see you there!

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  1. Hi Dan, love reading your articles and your work, thanks so much! My advice to my high-school self would be to just trust my inner sense about what it is telling me about my calling in life. I would tell myself to not doubt myself while trusting others’ (parents, family) judgment about what I can do well in instead. I would tell myself that there is no absolute ‘right’ or ‘good’ path to a satisfying career and work and life. Everyone’s different and what has worked for someone in the family may not work for me. And if the path that my inner sense wants me to take seems untested or new or scary to my well wishers, with abysmal failure more likely than tiny success, it is still the path to take.

  2. Hi Dan. This article was one of my favorites. Probably because I have a son (my oldest) who is in his last year of high school. There is so much pressure this year and I want to help him over the mountain. Sometimes, I think I help. Other times, I think I’m just another voice of pressure. Your concrete ideas on how to help were awesome! You have such a gift in this area. Thank you for staying committed to the call.

    1. Thanks Kira! I’m glad it’s helpful. Having a parent who is tuned in and trying to help is better than the alternative. You may be just another voice at times, but that’s the challenge of parenting. You can be a positive voice in his life— offering hope, freedom, and helping him know himself 🙂

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