July 24

What to do if you don’t know what to study: 15 things to try



My teacher doesn’t say a word when she hands me my A Level results. She simply goes on to the next person and says,

Well done! Only 1B!

I look down at my results.

My results are bad. In fact, they spell BBAD, or BAD.

This must be a joke.

In an instant, all my dreams of becoming a doctor, are crushed. I’m not sure what to study now.

Fast forward 2 years. It’s time for me to make a decision. In Singapore, boys are given two years to decide due to the unique circumstance of having to serve 2 years in the army.

It doesn’t make the decision easier. For the past 3 months, I have been trying to decide.

But I vacillate between all the different courses that are available to me. For my final decisions, it looks like I closed my eyes, and sent out applications, without a clear theme.

Here’s what I eventually sent out applications for.

  • Engineering
  • Accountancy
  • Business
  • Social Work
  • Medicine
  • Law

What was the common theme? I don’t know.

Maybe you’re in a place today where you don’t know what to study in polytechnic or university. You’re faced with many different choices. You’re scared of making the wrong choice.

How do you pick what you want to study?
How do you pick what you want to study?

Why is it so hard?

When I was faced with the need to decide a university course, I ended up falling into depression.

Daily, I would take a chair up to the highest floor of my block, stand on it, and wonder if I should flip myself over. After all, with no chance of getting into medicine, what was the point of studying more in university? To cope with the anxiety of not knowing what next, I stuffed myself with food. Daily, I would eat entire cakes, cookies and chocolates to comfort the deep feeling of unease within me.

Within a month, I grew by 8kg.

I hope that’s not you today.

But faced with the decision of what to study next, you may feel anxious, worried and scared.

Why? Why is it so difficult? Isn’t it just a course of study anyway?

Before talking about how to move forward in deciding your course of studies, it’s useful to take a step back to understand what you’re going through.

You fear you will end up stuck in it.

When you look at the decision you’ve to make, you’re probably thinking,

What if I get stuck in something I hate for life?

What if I have to be stuck studying something in polytechnic, for 3 years, which I hate?

What if I have to do this for the rest of my life?

It’s scary, isn’t it? You hear the horror stories of people dragging their feet to work, stuck in a career they hate, and you tell yourself,

Never! NEVER will I do something I’m NOT passionate about!

But take a step back. It’s not that big a decision. You’re not marrying someone for life. You’re not putting a tattoo. You’re not doing something irreversible.

You’re simply studying.

It’s probably the biggest decision you have to make so far.

Since kindergarten, you’ve probably not had much of a choice over what you want to study. You’re given a set list of subjects to study. There’s no choice.

Suddenly, when given the freedom to choose, you find yourself paralysed. You need to ask yourself questions such as:

  1. What am I interested in?
  2. What am I good at?
  3. Where do I want to go in future?
  4. What do I want to do in my life?
  5. Why do I want to study this?

These are deep, searching questions that can make the decision difficult.

Therefore, the freedom and flexibility to choose makes things more difficult for some, rather than easier. Especially when you’ve been used to being told what you’re told. You’re not used to taking a step back and asking,

Why am I doing this?

You’re probably used to asking,

What do I do now?

How do I do this?

Questions around process are definitely important. But questions around purpose, your why, are more difficult to answer. That’s why your decision is made harder.

How do you make it easier?

There are no guaranteed ways that will work, but these have been ones that have worked for myself, and other clients I work with as a social worker.

They are classified according to the time period you have for making a decision.

  1. General principles – Tips 1-7
  2. Less than 1 months – Tips 8 – 13
  3. 1 to 6 months – Tips 14 – 15

1. Know your deadline.

There’s the practical aspect where you need to submit your application. Knowing that date helps you to be sure of when exactly you need to make a decision. Amidst all the uncertainty, at least the deadline is certain.

2. Don’t wait for ‘it’.

The answer to “What should I study” probably isn’t going to drop down from heaven. If you’re thinking that the heavens will open, and you will be struck with a moment of enlightenment where you go,

Ah, this is what I’m going to study!

That may happen… but it probably won’t.

Discovering what you should study is an active process. It’s an active process of building, measuring and learning. This concept, taken from the Lean Startup movement, gets you acting, running small experiments to determine what you’re skilled at.

3. Stick with what you’re good at.

There’s something you can do that no one else can do as easily. That’s your skill.

As you look back over the course of your life, I want you to ask questions like,

  1. Where have I succeeded?
  2. What have people said is good about me?
  3. What comes to me more naturally than anything else I do?
  4. What do I enjoy doing?

When you study something you’re skilled at, you anchor yourself in something you can grow in.

You also become more fulfilled as you grow in the skill you’re great at. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi recognised and named the psychological concept of flow, a highly focused mental state conducive to productivity. When you’re in flow, you’re engaged in your work. You’re not looking at the clock. Time seems to just flow away.

You find yourself enjoying the work, and not wondering when it will all end.

How to find flow
How to find flow

Ultimately, this brings you greater success in your professional life. In Shane Melaugh’s podcast, he describes the idea of the skill ceiling and skill floor. The skill ceiling is your maximum ability, whilst the skill floor is your minimum ability.

As you look at something you’re skilled at, you will notice that even on the bad days, you are producing work of a better quality than your peer.

For example, there are days when I don’t feel motivated to write at all. Squeezing out another article feels like wringing dry an empty toothpaste tube. I’m squeezing with all my might, but nothing comes out. But I know that when the article is eventually shipped, despite it being poor, it is better than something my friend spent his whole day writing. How do I know this? Because my friend tells me how he spends 6 hours eking out a 1000-word essay, and I do that in 1 hour.

He’s not skilled at writing.

I don’t say this to boast.

But the point is to show that when you study something you’re already skilled at, you become more engaged as you find yourself progressing. You find yourself growing in your knowledge. From knowing something, you begin to realise the limits of your knowledge.

You’re excited to expand the bounds of your knowledge. And you’re desperately trying to grow your knowledge.

No one is forcing you to study this.

You’re studying this, simply because you’re good at it, and you want to get better at it.

The Johari Window is a reflective model to reflect on what you know, and don't know.
The Johari Window is a reflective model to reflect on what you know, and don’t know.


4. Stop chasing passion.

Angela Duckworth studied how athletes, prodigies and chess-masters became successful. She formulated two equations for their success.

  1. Talent x effort = skill
  2. Skill x effort = achievement

Notice two things.

Firstly, passion does not feature at all.

You might think that for a person to rise to their top of their game, they must definitely have passion!

But when James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits asked an elite weightlifting coach what he felt were the factors that determined the best, here’s what happened.

“What’s the difference between the best athletes and everyone else?” I asked. “What do the really successful people do that most don’t?”

He mentioned the factors you might expect: genetics, luck, talent.

But then he said something I wasn’t expecting:

“At some point it comes down to who can handle the boredom of training every day, doing the same lifts over and over and over.”

James Clear, in Atomic Habits

They were most used to boredom.

Expecting yourself to be passionate, excited by what you study everyday is a great dream to have. But it probably won’t happen. And what do you do if you don’t feel passionate about anything?

There are bound to be things you hate studying. So rather than trying to chase the most interesting course of study, find something you’re good at.

It’s great that you’re passionate about it. But see that as a bonus, rather than a necessity.

It's not all about passion
It’s not all about passion

Secondly, notice that skill counts twice.

Skill compounds. It’s not an additive effect. When you focus exclusively on your skill, you end up compounding your competitive advantage over someone else. You don’t just get a little better than someone else.

You get multiples better.

5. See your studies as a ticket to the working world, not a straitjacket.

You’ve probably heard this already.

Most people don’t do what they study.

Your course isn’t a straitjacket. What you study, is more of a ticket to the working world, to show that you’ve ‘made it’ and are certified to work. It doesn’t restrict you to work in a particular field. At the end of your studies, you might find yourself wanting to do something else…

And you can!

6. See your studies as a way to learn how to think better.

You’re going to build ways that you can think better, communicate better, and understand better.

You’re not only there for the knowledge. Because you can get all the knowledge off Google today.

But what you’re studying for is a way to apply that knowledge.

Therefore, see your studies as a way to better know how you can use knowledge, rather than to gain knowledge.

Today, expertise has become commoditised. As Michael Port and Andrew Davis argue in their book, The Referable Speaker,

Picture Expertville for a moment. While it sounds like a quaint little town, the moment you arrive you realise its massive.

There are experts everywhere. Each expert sharing their tips and tricks. Just when you think six secrets to success is enough, someone pushes past you with seven. Around every corner, in every window, at every coffee shop is another exert. In Expertville, everyone is a commodity. No one is famous and everyone is frustrated. They work hard. They hustle hard.

But they just can’t seem to rise above the noise.

Today, you can learn anything off YouTube. Even things that we thought had a high barrier of entry, and needing a formal institution’s recognition can today be learnt off the internet.

For example, you can learn how to be a financial analyst through a course on the internet.

If you want to make the most of your studies, see it as a way to learn how to think. You’re not studying to learn how to do. If school is teaching you how to do something, the eventual job you do, will be commoditised.

Someone somewhere is going to be able to do it far cheaper, and maybe even better.

But your thinking, your thinking is something that can’t be replaced.

Go to school, and study something that teaches you how to think better.

Build visionary thought leadership through your studies.

When you eventually go out to the marketplace to get a job, people may buy you for what you can do. In that kind of market, it’s a market where you are the commodity. Your skills are the commodity. In those markets, its a race to the bottom. That’s why companies are outsourcing services like customer support to cheaper nations.

If you want to make the most of your studies, use it as a place to hone your thinking, not your doing.

7. Talk to people

If you’re interested in a particular study, talk to someone you know who might have done that.

This comes with a caveat though. When I was searching for my course, I talked to people. Too many people. I ended up being more confused than helped by my chats with others. I got stuck in a place where I was guilty of analysis paralysis, rather than making a decisive action, and moving forward with it.

Talking to people helps if you’re clear about what you’re looking for. Three questions help:

  1. Why did you choose this study?
  2. What was the thing you enjoyed most?
  3. What was most frustrating?

This will help you build a better understanding of the possible pain-points, and whether you can deal with it.

8. Work through Richard Bolles’ book – What Color is Your Parachute?

Finding your passion might seem like something scary. But here’s the good news. Millions and billions of people face that too. That’s why there’s an industry devoted to career guidance, and people pay hundreds of dollars to understand what they should study.

I should know.

I once paid $750 to a coach to get his advice on what I should study. I should have paid $7 to get Richard Bolles’ book.

If you haven’t read this book, read it. Described as a bible for job-hunters, this helps you, especially if you don’t know what to study. One useful exercise inside is the Flower Exercise, where it asks you to write down 6 stories of achievement in your life.

Inventory your skills from your stories (Credit: What Color Is Your Parachute by Richard Bolles)
Inventory your skills from your stories (Credit: What Color Is Your Parachute by Richard Bolles)

Then it asks you to pull out the skill themes, related to:

  1. Data
  2. People
  3. Things
Example of skill themes you can pick out (Credit: What Color Is Your Parachute)
Example of skill themes you can pick out (Credit: What Color Is Your Parachute)

This exercise helps you to find out what are the skills you love to use and are good at using.

8. Define what success means for you.

The following four tips are extracted from Daniel Wong’s book, The Happy Student. If you have time, you can get the book. But if you don’t, think through these questions.

What does success mean for you? If you define success for yourself based on the actions you take, you can be a success today. You don’t have to wait for an outcome before you consider your own success.

Base your definition of success on actions, rather than outcomes.

What you study can contribute to that sense of success.

For example, studying social work fitted with my definition of success in:

I help people to understand their potential, unlock their skill, and unleash their purpose for the good of the world.

Live Young and Well – About Page

Even when I was reading a boring article, I knew that this was contributing to my sense of success to better understand the people I worked with.

9. Understand your values.

Here’s a question.

If you saw a friend stealing today, would you report him/her to the police?

Tough question? Such a moral dilemma becomes easier when you’re clear about your values. If loyalty was a value that mattered greatly to you, you might choose not to report it. But if integrity is more important, you might choose to be congruent to the rule of law, and to be truthful, whatever the cost.

Knowing your values helps you to choose your course of study.

It helps you determine what’s important to you.

Try these 2 exercises.

What is important to you?
What is important to you?

For the first, as you see from the above, pick the ones that are important to you and write down why they are.

For the second, write down on two separate columns:

  1. what is most important to me
  2. what I currently spend the most time on

When you observe those two columns, you might realise certain differences.

But looking at them also helps you determine what your values are. It makes the decision about your studies easier.

10. What do you want to be remembered for?

Only two things are certain in life.

Death, and taxes.

Benjamin Franklin

You will die. At your funeral, what do you want your loved ones to say of you? Stephen Covey introduced this exercise about living (and leaving) with the end in mind in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Write down what you want your life to be summed up as when someone writes your eulogy. When you do that, it becomes clearer what you want to study. For example, if you want to be remembered as someone who created possibilities from engineering better machines in the world, you may not want to be studying social work.

11. Elucidate what your purpose in life is.

Ah… purpose. Maybe you don’t want to address such existential questions like

Why am I here on earth?

But answer it you must.

Just try. This is an active process of discovery, re-discovery and reshaping your purpose. You won’t get it right the first time, but you can try to write it down first.

Then adjust it as you begin to understand more about yourself.

12. Realise that there is no perfect decision

You can only make your decision on the balance of probabilities. There’s no decision that will be 100% guaranteed to work out. As you look at these responses you’ve written, there may be some ideas that are coming to mind.

Choose, and move on.

Don’t think too much. Have an action bias that moves you towards more action, rather than more thinking about action.

13. Enjoy the journey

This is a journey. Enjoy it.

Enjoy it is about accepting that you don’t need to be excited and happy everyday in your studies. Accept that you can be content, where you are, as you are, right now. You don’t have to get everything sorted before you can be happy.

Happiness is a choice. Its also a chance to celebrate yourself.

Here are some practical things you can do.

Firstly, write a letter of love to yourself. Write down the 3 most important qualities to you, and how you’ve shown them in the past. As you write that down, you see that your qualities are there regardless of whether you know what to study or not.

Secondly, meditate. The simplest way is to sit and breathe in and out for 5 minutes.

This helps you to be more comfortable with the state of being, rather than doing.

14. Experiment with many different things.

For example, you may have an inkling that you’re good at writing. Is there an internship you can take to be a writer, and determine if that’s something you would like to study?

You don’t have to look for formal opportunities too. There are experiments you can run by being a volunteer.

Before I chose social work as my university course, I was volunteering weekly with MINDS, an organisation that serves the needs of the intellectually disabled in Singapore. It helped me to see that I was great at building rapport with clients, and also to come up with creative ideas about how I could help them.

Thus, if you have a vague hypothesis that you would like to study X, try it out first.

But what’s more important is what happens after the experiment.

15. Reflect after your experiments.

Whenever you try an experiment to determine if this is something you want to study, reflect. There’s no point doing something without thinking through what you have done.

As Aristotle once said,

The unreflected life is not worth living.

Two questions help.

  1. What worked for me?
  2. What didn’t work?

These two questions help you to think through whether its something you want to commit significant resources towards.

Take time to write down your thoughts to these questions.


Finding out what you want to study can be something scary.

But recently, as I was sharing with my friend about how lost I felt, he said,

John, life is like a book with many chapters. For this chapter in your life, you may feel that you don’t know where you are going.

But it’s okay to simply exist and go through it.

Similarly, in your phase of life now, choosing something to study may seem discomforting. You may feel lost and uncertain.

It’s okay to simply choose and move on. Realise that there’s no perfect decision.

But trust yourself that no matter what happens, it will be okay.

Life is not all about what you study and work
Life is not all about what you study and work


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