There are the days. When you don’t know what you’re doing. You feel like you’re wandering around in the desert with no end in sight. You’re lost. Worse still, you feel like you’re all alone. You don’t know where you are. And you don’t know where you’re going.
These feelings of being ‘lost’, of not knowing the way ahead, is something scary.
Today, we want to talk about why this happens, and how you can move forward from this journey you’re at.
Why it happens
Same shit, different day
I laughed the first time I heard this from a youth I was working with.
You might laugh too. But beneath the laughter lies an element of truth. That sometimes, in the work we do, we feel there’s an overwhelming amount of work, and no possibility of that changing in any time.
That’s why some of us may be burning out.
At the frontlines, where you see emotional distress on a daily basis, your mind can think that is representative of the whole population. But it’s not.
We can definitely push hard for a certain period of time. But when we keep pushing and pushing, with no end in sight, and no idea when the upside will come, we start feeling,
I don’t know what I’m doing.
Therein lies two important things.
- Your capability – your ability, whether you can or cannot resolve the problems that you’re currently facing
- Your capacity – your motivation, whether you are willing to resolve the problems or not.
That’s why Adam Grant’s article on languishing struck such a familiar chord with everyone. It wasn’t that you were depressed. Your mood wasn’t that low.
But yet you couldn’t say that you were genuinely joyful. You were just pretty ‘meh’ about life. We experienced this during the pandemic because we weren’t sure about when it was going to end. Everything seemed to be constantly changing. There was no end in sight.
You don’t feel you are making significant change.
When you see problems happening over and over again, that can fuel the sense of hopelessness and helplessness around what you’re currently doing. You start wondering whether what you’re doing will actually help in resolving the problem.
After all, when familiar patterns of challenges emerge repeatedly, you question your own ability to make a meaningful change. It’s not that you’re perfectionist. But it’s that nothing you do seems to make any progress with the issues at hand… which can fuel the sense of ineptitude and incompetencies, making you feel like you’re not making any significant change.
When I was a volunteer teacher in Peru, I remember waving goodbye to the students I taught. Leaving the school, I know that my CV was significantly enriched by this ‘overseas experience’. But I felt this sense of not knowing what I was doing. Because I didn’t see them demonstrating much changes over the 6 weeks I had been with them.
It felt like I was simply being a passive consumer of their resources, with no tangible output in exchange.
You’ve lost something dear
I returned to Singapore in September 2019, and promptly fell into grief. I lost the place I called home. The people I called family. The peace I came to enjoy. And in that process, I had to seek therapy.
I couldn’t understand it. Why was I in such a sorry state? It wasn’t as if I had lost anyone dear. My therapist reminded me,
John, grief doesn’t only happen when you lose someone.
It also happens when you lose a cherished experience.
Over COVID, we’ve all lost something. The ability to gather in large groups. To walk around without our masks. The novelty of travelling. Being around your colleagues. Talking with your boss.
Without addressing the loss you’ve experienced, you may continue feeling the yearning in your heart for something more. You feel a physical stab in your heart. You come to this point of nihilism, where you think,
What’s the point of working?
What’s the point of anything?
You lose your drive.
You don’t know where you are
This feeling of dislocation, of not knowing where you are in this current season of life, can be discomforting. When you start in a job, you may feel a sense of buzz as you get to know more new things. As you look for new jobs, the prospect of finding new work may fill you with greater excitement.
Now, when you may be doing the same thing over and over again, and the mundaneness of repeated work gets increasingly boring, you may find yourself questioning:
What am I really doing with my life?
You don’t know where you’re going
Many of us prefer a destination with clearly laid markers along the side.
But during a volatile time like the pandemic, when things are constantly changing, you start wondering whether your nicely-laid plans will actually work.
You may have come to the point where you’re tired of having to constantly change your plans. Or you may feel that your career development plan, where you were moving steadily from organisation to organisation, is now coming to the point where you’re not moving. You feel stagnant. You don’t feel like you’re growing from your job.
That can make you wonder whether you truly know what you’re doing, and where you’re going.
What can help
Celebrate progress, not perfection
This has been the most useful advice I’ve heard. Everyday, write down two things you are proud of, and one thing you think you can improve. This can help you to feel that you’re progressing, and not simply stuck. Celebrating the small steps you’re taking, however small, can help you to move closer to exiting the feeling of ‘not knowing’ what you’re doing.
Go for scary things
Think back to the times when you felt excited about life. It’s likely that those came during times when you were challenged and not when you were comfortable. If you can find small challenges at your workplace or your home that make you feel scared, go for it.
Try a grief letter.
Try addressing what you’ve lost with a letter of grief to those lost aspects of that cherished experience.
- The emotions you feel
- Why those experiences mattered to you.
Dear JOHN of 2019,
I know you feel sick and tired, of being sick and tired.
I know there was a time when you looked forward to travelling, and exploring the big world we lived in. All’s that lost now.
There are days when you come to the time when you say – I don’t know what I’m doing. In times like that it’s vital to recognise, we don’t always have to know.
We don’t always have to know what we are doing. It’s okay not to know. That can sound like a meaningless cliche at times, but what has really helped me on my own journey is to have moving targets.
Rather than having the fixed 1/3/5 year plan that I used to have, I plan around projects now. Focusing on projects that you’re excited about, that flow into your strengths, are things that can bring you greater joy, fulfilment, and into a state of flourishing.
Try that. You might be surprised.
Thanks so much for this great post! I love the practical advice and how you shared from the bottom of your heart. Thank you!
Thank you. It resonated with me.