Good News! Your Life Isn’t Limitless!

by Brett & Kate McKay on April 29, 2013 · 74 comments

in Money & Career


“You can do anything you put your mind to!”

“The sky’s the limit!”

“You’re the best!”

“Follow your dreams!”

Did you hear these kinds of things growing up? Your parents sure meant well. They really felt like you were the most special creature to arrive on planet earth – a beautiful boy full of limitless possibilities. You could do anything in the world!

But now that that boy is grown up and in his twenties, you might find that such encouragement has become more paralyzing than motivating. If your possibilities really are endless, how will you ever decide which path to take and what to do with your life?

Meg Jay is a clinical psychologist who specializes in counseling young patients who are struggling with navigating their twenties. One of the case studies she talks about in her fantastic book, The Defining Decade (we have and will be referencing it a lot here on the blog – it’s really a must-read), focuses on “Ian,” who can’t decide what to do with his life. Should he pursue something in graphic design, go to law school (which would please his parents), learn Arabic and do some kind of foreign service work, or maybe postpone the decision altogether with a trip through Asia? He feels like he’s drowning in a vast ocean of choices and doesn’t have any idea which direction to head. Jay writes:

“He couldn’t see land in any direction, so he didn’t know which way to go. He felt overwhelmed by the prospect that he could swim anywhere or do anything. He was equally paralyzed by the fact that he didn’t know which of the anythings would work out. Tired and hopeless at age twenty-five, he said he was treading water to stay alive.”

The Alluring Myth of a Limitless Future

As we all intrinsically know (and for reasons we’ll discuss more below), nobody’s future is in fact “limitless.” But holding onto the feeling of endless possibilities, instead of going after a few of them, is very alluring — even if doing so makes us anxious or restless. Here’s why:

It feels freeing. People love having as many choices as possible (even if an overload of them can make us unhappy). Believing that every avenue is still open to you is both comforting and liberating. We love the sense of the unknown and the intoxication of vast possibilities.

For this reason, we may hesitate to choose one door, as it can feel like doing so closes a bunch of other ones. Getting an MBA and going into business likely means you won’t be an orthopedic surgeon; we want to hold to the belief we could do either one, yet we choose neither. As Ian put it, “claiming something felt like losing everything else.” Plus, in contrast to the noncommittal task of peering in each direction from the middle of an intersection, picking a single road to start traveling down can feel boring and constraining – as well as a lot more work. Once you choose a path to take, that decision comes with necessary next steps and responsibilities. It’s much easier to sit on the curb and watch the world go by than to hustle and make something of yourself.

You have incredibly high expectations. Because many in Generation Y (I’m right on the tail end of it myself) were raised to feel as though we were (and are) very special, we often say we don’t want to settle for an “ordinary” life. We want our lives to be different than our parents’ were in some way — to be extraordinary. People feel very convicted about this, but if you ask them what having an extraordinary life means, they’re usually not sure. They’re likely to say something about not wanting a regular 9-5 office job and wanting to do something they love, but even here they’re vague on what this might actually look like. They know what they don’t want, but aren’t sure of what they do. They figure they will simply know it when they see it, and so keep their options open in the hope that the path to an “extraordinary” life will somehow reveal itself.

You don’t know how to get started. Sometimes those who say they don’t know what to do with their life in fact really do know. What they don’t know is how to go after that dream, so it feels better to tell themselves, and others, that they’re still trying to figure things out. As Jay puts it, not knowing what to do with your life brings great uncertainty, but “the more terrifying uncertainty is wanting something but not knowing how to get it.”

If you don’t start, you can’t fail. Even if you do have an idea of how to get started on building the life you want, you might be scared of trying and then failing. If you keep all your choices in the realm of mere possibilities, you don’t have to risk finding out you don’t have what it takes.

You’re afraid of making the wrong choice. This is a huge reason people hold onto the myth of a limitless future. What if you choose one of the possibilities you’ve been endlessly examining and then you don’t like it? What if you get stuck doing something “ordinary” – something that doesn’t fit your idea of what your life was supposed to be like or what you were really meant to do?

It’s easy. When Jay asks Ian how he thinks he can find his way out of this paralyzing ocean of choices, he answers: “I don’t know. I would say you pick a direction and start swimming. But you can’t tell one way from the other, so you can’t pick. You can’t even tell if you’re swimming toward something, so why would you use up all your energy going the wrong way?” Then he adds with relief, “I guess all you can do is hope someone comes along in a boat or something.”

That’s the mindset of a lot of twentysomethings – they’re waiting for their ship to come in. They want their life to be great and exciting and adventurous, but they think that it will just sort of fall into place for them somehow. Jay explains how this mindset is actually just a defense mechanism, a hedge against fear:

“There is a certain terror that goes along with saying ‘My life is up to me.’ It is scary to realize there’s no magic, you can’t just wait around for something. Not knowing what you want to do with your life—or not at least having some ideas about what to do next—is a defense against that terror. It is a resistance to admitting that the possibilities are not endless. It is a way of pretending that now doesn’t matter. Being confused about choices is nothing more than hoping that maybe there is a way to get through life without taking charge.”

Basically, what all the points above have in common is that they allow you to feel safe. But as we’ll discuss below, this feeling of safety is merely an illusion.

So how do you stop intentionally keeping yourself confused and let go of the myth of limitless possibilities in order to take charge of your life? The first order of business is dismantling that myth.

Everybody Starts with the Same Common Parts

The feeling of limitless possibilities, coupled with the barrage of “lifestyle design” rhetoric that is so popular these days, can blind you to the fact that life is still built out of the same, relatively few components that it always has been. Your future may seem vast and featureless at times, but it will be constructed – no matter how extraordinary you want it to be — with the same common “parts” that everyone uses.

Jay used the metaphor of a custom bicycle to finally get through to Ian. Ian worked at a bike shop and rode a custom model for transportation. He had put the bike together from various custom parts he had handpicked. But those parts were simply specialized versions of ones all bicycles include – frame, wheels, seat, gears, and so on.

Our lives are like that custom bike. We can all choose the parts that suit us best – and you may go out of your way to select unique, non-mass-produced versions — but they will come from the same main categories everyone else selects from. In building your life you basically have the following categories to work with: relationships, children, vocation, and travel/hobbies. So we can already narrow down our “limitless” possibilities into four divisions. How you arrange and how much you invest in each “part” is up to you. You might want a tandem bike (you prize marriage), but with mountain bike tires (you want to spend a lot of time outdoors), and a baby trailer on the back (definitely want kids). Someone else might want a one-seat bike with road tires meant for speed (doesn’t want to settle down) and a fixed gear (dedicated to a free, hip, artistic lifestyle). The combinations are endless, but we’re all just arranging the same common parts.

Getting Down to the Brass Tacks

”So everyone builds their life out of four main parts, but how do I know which kind of part to select from each category – we’ve organized the choices but there are still so many!”

Let’s think about this for a minute. The marriage and children question, if sticky in real life, is very straightforward – you either want to get hitched or you don’t, and want to have kids or you don’t. And when it comes to hobbies and what to do in our spare time, people feel pretty free in picking things up and putting them down without much pressure.

So when people say they don’t know what to do with their life, they’re really talking about one thing, even if in their cloud of uncertainty they don’t realize it: they’re not sure what to do for their vocation. Here the choices seem endless and the stakes terribly high. The fact that most of us still want those “ordinary” things like marriage and kids only creates an even greater sense of pressure about choosing a really special vocation; we fear if we don’t balance our traditional choices with something really unique, our lives will never rise to our vague vision of the extraordinary. We’ll have the same kind of lives our parents had! It is here, we feel, that we must hold the line on diverging from the ordinary, or risk never becoming the “special” people we always felt we were.

Thus there’s really only one category at the root of people’s gnawing uncertainty about their future. And despite the pressure we may feel in choosing the “right” career, the possibilities are not limitless here either. Our choices are greatly narrowed by several things. First, you’re not a blank slate; you’ve had more than two decades of experiences that have shaped you into the man you are today. All these years have strengthened some talents and abilities and weakened others, developed your values and beliefs, and honed some very distinct interests. Put these things together, and what you find is that as opposed to there being endless possibilities, most people are really drawn to, and have the aptitude for, no more than half a dozen vocational paths. Six is far more manageable than infinity. And of the handful of possibilities that really suit your talents, abilities, values, and interests, there’s probably one that calls to you the most, that nags at you the most often – even if questions and doubts about how you’re going to get there make you sometimes push it aside. This frontrunner choice, Jay suggests, may be for you what psychiatrist Christopher Bollas called the “unthought known” – “those things we know about ourselves but forget somehow.” You may shy away from thinking about it, and saying it out loud, but it’s there nonetheless. 

But What If I Make the Wrong Choice?!

Whether there’s one vocational opportunity that sticks out to you the most, or several that you feel equally drawn to, you may hesitate to move forward and claim one out of fear of making the wrong choice. As we discussed above, this fear can keep you in “my options are limitless” mode as you wait for the right choice to magically manifest itself. Here’s why you shouldn’t worry so much about making the “wrong” choice and should start on something, anything concrete, instead of living in limbo:

Not making a choice is a choice. The first thing to realize is that not making a decision isn’t any safer than making one. It feels safer in the short-term, but as Jay warns, “The consequences are just further away in time, like in your thirties or forties.”

Failure to make a choice is in fact a default choice. While making a concrete decision will shut some doors, at least for a time, not making a choice also closes numerous doors as well. Jay worked to get Ian to realize this:

“Ian would say, ‘I don’t want to settle for some ordinary thing.’ And I would say, ‘I’m not talking about settling. I’m talking about starting. Twentysomethings who don’t get started wind up with blank resumes and out-of-touch lives only to settle far more down the road. What’s so original about that?”

While deciding to pursue one path does close down other routes, at least for a time, it also opens up new ones that would never have been available if you remained at your initial starting point. For example, I went to three years of law school and yet never took the bar and became a lawyer. Was going to law school the “wrong” choice then? Not really. It prompted me to start a blog, which became my full-time profession. I never could have seen or even imagined that option from my starting point — never could have conceived the way one thing would lead to another — no matter how hard I squinted down that road.

Choosing one path doesn’t mean you’re stuck with it forever. Another thing to keep in mind is that just like the parts on a custom bike, if you try a part out, and it doesn’t work for you, you can always switch it out for another. Yes, every choice brings consequences, some that make it much harder to change course, but you don’t have to think of starting on a vocational path as a death sentence. As we previously wrote, learning new things throughout your life is easier now than ever before in history.

Employment experts say that this generation probably shouldn’t think they’ll have the same kind of job their whole life anyway. And many don’t even want to do the same exact thing their whole life, even if it’s something they enjoy.

What this generation needs most to succeed is both expertise and a broad range of skills (creativity, judgment, decision-making ability, social skills, etc.) – “identity capital” — they can take with them anywhere they go and will serve them well in any position. And here’s the good news, any experience, even if it doesn’t end up being your lifelong career, will build this important skill-set…

Every experience builds your identity capital. Seeing vocational pursuits as right or wrong is really the wrong way to look at it. Some experiences are better for us than others, but all experiences, if we have the right attitude and navigate them well, can be for our gain. Experiences are never a complete waste, as they can all add to our store of identity capital and connections with others. A course is only wrong if you see life as a linear pursuit, where each thing must lead directly to the next. If you instead see the point of life as gaining as many rich experiences as possible, learning and growing as much as you can, making a difference and contributing wherever you are, each avenue you pursue can be the right one, at least for a time.

You’ll never know if you like it, unless you try! You can, and should, do as much research about things you’re interested in pursuing as possible. But for many avenues, there isn’t any way of knowing if you’re going to like it before you actually try it. With that said, when you’re on a path, really be on it. Throw yourself into experiencing it; don’t sit on the fence and take a superficial temperature reading that won’t tell you what it’s really like. Before you decide you do want to change course, make sure you’ve run the one you’re on for all it’s worth.

Live with confidence and certainty. Believing that your options are limitless is intoxicating, but also anxiety-producing. Once you choose a path, you can feel the confidence and security that comes with having your feet firmly planted on the ground. That doesn’t mean uncertainty is a bad thing, or that you’ll never feel it again – it will return when it’s time to make another big decision. But it’s better to go from uncertainty to confidence and progress, then back to uncertainty and onwards again, than to completely stagnate in a cloud of bewilderment.

After Ian made a decision and went after and landed a graphic design job, he wrote to Jay:

“When I made the decision to come to D.C., I worried that by making one choice, I was closing all the other doors open to me at that moment. But it was sort of liberating to make a choice about something. Finally. And, if anything, this job has just opened more doors for me. Now I feel confident that I will have several iterations of my career—or at least time for several iterations—and that I will be able to do other things in life…

Above all else in my life, I feared being ordinary. Now I guess you could say I had a revelation of the day-to-day. I finally got it there’s a reason everybody in the world lives this way—or at least starts this way—because this is how it’s done.”




The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter and How to Make the Most of Them Now by Meg Jay, PhD

{ 74 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Matt Lane April 29, 2013 at 4:48 pm

Great Article! Talk about some perspective! One of the best things I’ve read in a while. Thanks Brett!

2 Chris Humphrey April 29, 2013 at 5:50 pm

Awesome article! As one of those twenty somethings struggling with choosing what I want to do with my life this article has given me clarity.

3 Matt Abraxas April 29, 2013 at 6:23 pm

I’ve been sort of creating a new career for the past month and stepping off the cliff of my old career in 3 months. It’s scary as hell, with trying to make choices out of what seems like a blank slate. I’m an artist (painter) and I should be used to this. In any case, this article is awesome. I’ll be reading it again in the next few months.

4 Josh H April 29, 2013 at 6:43 pm

This is the best explanation of this sort that I have seen or heard. It seems like every well meaning mentor wannabe trots out the ‘your not that special’ talk, and normally it degenerates into “you can’t do anything, you know nothing, you’re useless”. Which is hardly inspiring. This one however makes me want to leap in action, which I shall do now.

5 Robert April 29, 2013 at 6:49 pm

Thank you for posting this article. As of late I have experienced these feelings of paranoia and confusion, and I tried to cheer up by thinking about my “limitless possibilities”. This has been a major pull back into reality and I can continue on my path to becoming a man. Thank you again Brett!

6 Jessica April 29, 2013 at 7:16 pm

What a great reminder that “not choosing is a choice”. It can be easy to be paralyzed with fear over life choices, this article makes an excellent point that the act of doing is paramount.

7 SteveC April 29, 2013 at 7:45 pm

Wow, that was great! I’ll humbly admit that sometimes, when pressed for time, I’ll just read the short, fun articles and move on with my day. I am ALWAYS happy, however, when I make the decision to read these longer, more philosophical pieces. Bravo.

8 Doug April 29, 2013 at 8:20 pm

I can attest to this quite directly… I’m an (almost 21) year old college student who has followed this website for some time now. I started my journey into college like most guys, right after high school, and started off with a degree in Emergency Management. I wanted to be a firefighter, because that was really I knew I had ever wanted to be; I never really gave much thought to anything else. When I got to college, that quickly changed, however my major did not, and for the next two years, I felt very lost and just drifting around, seemingly *cough, cough* paralyzed by fear of what I didn’t know I wanted to do. Long story short, I did an internship working for a utility company, thinking it would give me that hands-on, in the field experience I desired, and when it didn’t, I thought a lot and made some very serious thinking. I finally manned up, and am pursuing a different career plan now that will put me in that direction. Every man (and women) has that strength down inside of them, and I fully believe that they will at some point in their lives undergo some scenario that causes them to realize that they do in fact have this power inside of them. I found out, and although my college career is extended longer than I had hoped for, I’m thankful I discovered it.

9 JG April 29, 2013 at 8:24 pm

Very good post. It reminds me of a quote I stumbled onto a while back, a copy of which I keep in my wallet:

“In any moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

– Theodore Roosevelt

10 William Reed April 29, 2013 at 8:26 pm

This was an absolutely well done article and one that I could have used not too long ago. I’m not too far into my twenties, but felt life begin to stagnate. I was at the point where I wanted to leave all of my options open, even though I knew what I wanted to do. This past Friday I decided to pick a path and go. I went to the recruiters and began the enlistment process to become a nuclear engineer in the Navy.

11 Leandro April 29, 2013 at 8:29 pm

Que haría sin ustedes… suerte que los encontré a tiempo (tengo 21 años). Larga vida Brett!!!

12 Colin April 29, 2013 at 8:39 pm

Thanks for the article, just what I needed. Been pretty depressed thinking about my options in life and what I have to do and what’s expected of me. There’s so much pressure for every decision I started losing perspective – this really helped.

13 Nick P. April 29, 2013 at 9:05 pm

I have to agree with what has already been said. I am now in my thirties and have just recently started my own new venture in life. There was and at times still a fear of making a choice or what direction to go in. It is comforting to know that you are not the only one that feels like that. Something about knowing others are struggling in the same way to make a mark in life let’s you know that you may be on to something and you are part of something universal among all people.

14 jsallison April 29, 2013 at 9:32 pm

The wife-unit is one of those that, while she insists on having choices, refuses to choose. And moi, after making a choice, do not want to hear about alternatives. Too late, ya had yer chance. 23rd anniv upcoming, so yeah, I’ve heard this song before. ;)

15 Tom April 29, 2013 at 10:42 pm

Great article, was glad to see this. Conquered this myself. The article really strikes the issue at the core. Enough said – thanks for the insightful read!

16 Ian April 29, 2013 at 11:15 pm

This article makes me feel weird. It’s applies to me exactly. My name is even Ian… yiiiiiiiiiiiikes!

17 Wayne April 29, 2013 at 11:47 pm

Some people know exactly what they want to do from an early age, and others take longer figuring it out, some of us take college courses while trying to figure it out cause we don’t know what else to do and in the meantime making the grade feels like forward progress towards the unknown future, I would add the question “How do we know that our existence has anything at all to do with what we want?” We seem to exist within a reality where everything from poisonous snakes to terrorists and tornados are trying to end us without regard of what we want, what we feel our special purpose(s) are, or what we had planned for next year. If reality is any indicator of the truth It simply doesn’t matter what we want, feel we should have or would like things to be, so we accomplish what we realistically can unsure if anything we do either for ourselves or others actually matters or ever really did at the end of time

18 Thad April 30, 2013 at 12:19 am

Thanks for the article. It has really put me in a different direction than the one I have been going.

19 Gernot_Freiherr_von_Donnerbalken April 30, 2013 at 5:16 am

Being part of Generation Y myself, I couldn’t agree more to this article, especially with regards to the high expectations we have.
Keep on with this great site. Greetings from across the Atlantic.

20 J April 30, 2013 at 6:48 am

Really enjoyed this article and it completely resonates with me and many friends I know who are the same age as me.

I am ‘successful’ (by some measures at least) having started my own business a few years ago, (now 30) you’re right, taking the plunge and committing to it and building on it really does open new doors that you would have never imagined.

HOWEVER – here’s the truth… I STILL often have those feelings of “wish I’d gone traveling around the world straight after university” etc.. Turning 30 makes you feel them more-so.

I think the point I am making is that these feelings you have written about “fear of choosing the wrong path” we can still have, even when you are successful in a particular path you have now chosen… It’s looking back and playing the “what if?” game a few years down the line.

The problem for our generation is we all want to be a Zuckerberg / overnight sensation in any given field and then feel let down when that doesn’t happen (even though, actually, you may be doing very well so far).

21 Remy Sheppard April 30, 2013 at 7:20 am

Man, I thought this article was going in an entirely different direction lol

I think vision is essential to our young people. To a degree the sky is the limit, you just have to know where in the sky you’re pointing your life, and then work HARD. Flying is impossible, so if you’re shooting for the moon you’re going to need a running start and one hell of a jump.

But nothing in life comes down to luck – everything is hard work and fighting for your dreams.

At least… that’s my philosophy.

22 Drew April 30, 2013 at 7:54 am

Thanks for the article, Brett. Well written as usual, and very insightful as usual.

23 Nico Chapman April 30, 2013 at 7:58 am

What a fantastic article! An absolute joy to read for someone like myself who has been going through similar situations. It has definitely made things much clearer. Huge thanks!

24 Ron Callahan April 30, 2013 at 8:02 am

I wish that I could anonymously send this article to parents of one of my son’s scouting mates.

As far as the parents are concerned, there is nothing that their little bundle of joy can’t do.

Once, we were doing a meeting on bicycle safety. The cubmaster brought a bike and several boys rode it as part of the safety exercises.

The boy in question decided that he wanted to help demonstrate as well. The only problem was that he didn’t know how to ride. The boy didn’t even know how to get on a bike. Did the mother stop him? No. Did she indulge his MANY attempts to get on the bike and ride while everyone else was waiting? Oh, yeah. Did she discipline him when he tossed the bike because he got frustrated? Not even.

This is just one of several examples with this boy. I wonder how he will survive when he gets out in the real world. He’ll be one of those kids whose parents come to their job interviews.

25 Devilhorn April 30, 2013 at 8:08 am

Describes me to a “t.” To bad I’m 42 now.

26 John K. April 30, 2013 at 8:08 am

I’ve read some of your articles in the past, and I have to say, your timing is somehow extraordinary! You always release stuff relevant to stages of my life (or I feel that way).

I’d like to share my experiences on this, because there was a simple technique that helped me get through it all, and it might help others trapped in this state of limbo.

I realized it all when I turned 22, that I’ve wasted a great deal of my time, doing nothing what I love. So I quit college and going to travel around, learn what I can, and work on the road. Because that’s what I want to do. That simple.

Might seems strange, but just sit down, let the distractions go and talk with yourself for a bit. Think about how you were, when you were a child. What did you want to become, what did you want to do, what is the thing that really defines you? Write it down, if there are more than one, write it all down.

Determine your goals. Even if they don’t match with the above stuff, it’s OK. Write each one down, and give them a date, on which you’ll reach that goal, and make it clear how much time do you have to achieve each one.

Start, today. Not “tomorrow”. It’ll never come, and you die by the minute.

Here’s an example:

Until you’re 30:

1, Learn Japanese (Exam in Dec. 8 months)
2, Chinese (Exam next year Dec. 1 year)
3, Charleston, dance (1 year)
(There’s a lot more but you get it)

Goals to achieve before turning 25.

1, Japanese fluency (above date)
2, Speed reading (1h/day)
3, Meditation (30mins/day)
4, Start a business ( 1 year left, until birthday)

You can do it with work, or really anything you want. It’s just that I use different lists for each group.

The point is to plan what you want to achieve, put a date to it, and start doing it right away. The crucial thing is to determine what you really want, then it’s awesomeness. And as said in the article, if you make a wrong turn, you can still change path.

Hope this helps!

27 Brewsurfer April 30, 2013 at 9:22 am

Wow! Very poignant. I think this well done article is important not only in our 20s, but clear on through the rest of our lives. I turn 40 this year and have had several careers including a teacher and a fireman. None of these ultimately were the right choice and it is frustrating at my age to still have to ask the question, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” Luckily for us, there is AOM and a slew of other blogs that have helped, me at least, to realize the skills and abilities that have been there all along and to find a way to capitalize on them. Thank you Brett.

28 Humblefire April 30, 2013 at 10:38 am

Great post, many thanks Brett and Kate. Like Brewsurfer and a couple of other commentors I’m going to be 40 this year having procrastinated through most of my 20′s and 30′s.

This article really helps but do you have any advice for guys who have already seen their ‘defining decade’ come and go?

29 Jay April 30, 2013 at 10:48 am

Great article! I’ve often felt this way even though I was fortunate enough to choose a career early on…I’m now nearing 30, and working on changing careers by starting my own brewery business. I will say though, I can’t imagine being in the position I am now without having the experience of working at my current job the last 7 years. Choosing a direction and going for it is surely the best advice!

30 Ginger April 30, 2013 at 12:07 pm

This is why all those societal expectations that our parent’s generation fought so hard against were actually useful.

Sure, marriage, kids, mortgages do tie down and limit other options. But I don’t know too many of my generation who are any happier. They’re just less productive members of society.

By keeping our options open, we’re just sort of free-floating purposeless.

31 Lance April 30, 2013 at 12:27 pm

I still want to tell my kids they can do anything. But that it starts with making sure they will have those opportunities. Which means do well in school now so that all options are on the table later.

32 Martin April 30, 2013 at 12:33 pm

@ Devilhorn – Amen, brother.

I love, love, love the articles here, however it seems that the focus is more for younger men though. Perhaps that’s as it should be.

Or maybe if you and I haven’t figured it out by now, we’re out of luck. :)

Say Brett–out of curiosity, are any of your guest writers ‘older’ men?

33 Nick April 30, 2013 at 12:34 pm

As per usual , i love the articles on this site. This one is so motivating as they are all. The comments section aint bad either. Thankyou people.

34 Daniel April 30, 2013 at 2:16 pm

This was just what I needed to hear. Thanks for the great post, Brett, and keep up the good work. It matters to more people than you’ll ever know.

35 Andrew April 30, 2013 at 8:02 pm

My expectations all crashed sometime after I graduated college. So much for all the pie in the sky stuff. I definitely agree with this article, but despite being one of those twentysomethings, I don’t really see how to apply this.

For me, the problem is less “too many options” and more “few options and none of them good”. As in, my training and experience really limits me to two or three career paths, which is fine, but none of them are ones I care to follow.

Frankly I feel stuck and there is no obvious way to get out of it. I’m going in the fall for some retraining in a vocational school (ridiculous that a bachelors degree isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on, but I digress). It isn’t glamorous, but it’s something.

36 LJ April 30, 2013 at 9:47 pm

A great read. As a mother of 2 x 20 year olds, I am often frustrated about this very same thing. Although I would like to add that I think 20 somethings have this idea, that they must have a career and a job that they enjoy every minute! As you said your vocation is only a part of your life. Another point is that sometimes you top 6 career choices aren’t going to support the lifestyle that you want for yourself. That sometimes a reality check could be in order, and a switch of ideas, from a vocation to a hobby. What I want my children to understand is that sometimes your vocation is a means to an end. You will not love it all the time, but you can study and change as you progress through your life. Always acquire a balance though – we only live once!

37 Josh S. May 1, 2013 at 9:34 am

I gotta say, being in this age bracket meant the article was interesting, but its also kind of annoying. These are not problems of the average 20-something, these are problems of an average upper middle/upper class 20 something. Questions like “Should I travel around Asia or go to law?” are all questions of a person who has been given all the opportunity in the world. Be glad you have the choices not sad because you don’t know what to do with them. A lot of 20-somethings are doing what they are doing because they had no choice

38 Eric May 1, 2013 at 9:45 am

Superb. I wish I had read something like this when I was 18 or 19.

39 Sam May 1, 2013 at 10:14 am

I found this article really interesting, especially because it was what I did when I first got out of college. I wanted to be a high school history teacher (or so I thought) but after school decided that wasn’t for me. Then I was a back-country guide for a while but found that, though fun, it wasn’t fulfilling my desire to help people. So then I began my masters in Clinical Counseling but after a year and an internship I found that it wasn’t quite the right match for me either. I am now heading toward the Seminary (I’m Roman Catholic). What’s crazy is this is what I thought I was going to do back when I was a freshman in high school but kept running from it because I felt like this would close so many doers to other options in life. Instead of feeling trapped though, I find myself feeling freed and a huge amount of peace came along with this choice. It absolutely freaked me out to make this step but now that I did it just feels right (finally).
What’s cool too is that all my former experiences, including dating some incredible young women, seems like it has prepared me for this choice in life. I have a better idea of what I’m laying down and I also know what I’m gaining in the long run. Plus, the experiences have helped to make me what I am today. Even when it felt like I was running (or swimming) in circles, I realize now that the trick was to keep moving rather than just treading water and wearing myself out doing nothing. Whatever you find yourself doing you’ll learn something (even if that’s just that you don’t like doing that) and so that time isn’t wasted. The only time that is wasted is that spent doing nothing.

40 Nicholas May 1, 2013 at 10:24 am

This article is brilliant, very well written. Exactly my experience, one step at a time, one door after another.

41 Kammes May 1, 2013 at 12:04 pm

This was a good topic to read on. I am almost out of my 20′s and I remember a lot of frustrations with seeing all the choices open. Which one to take? Seeing a bit of the world and studying anthropology really added to the options, too. I think insecurity with not knowing what was right for me and feeling safe within the infinite potential I thought I harnessed was okay for awhile. Then, I noticed I wasn’t happy or challenged or becoming anything but older. Teens, twenties, and beyond, thank God for inspiration, awareness, and opportunities whenever they show up in our lives.

42 Greg May 1, 2013 at 12:26 pm

Brett and Kate, I think this is the best men’s blog on the internet. The issues tackled are deep and meaningful. I was starting to wonder if, based on other blogs, there really was anything more to manhood than growing your beard, intimidating weaklings, and sleeping with women.

I’ll put in two cents, in case my experience helps anyone else. I was tired of feeling helpless and confused, so I was reading a lot of self-making and success. I read thousands of pages on the subject and listened to hundreds of hours of people talking on it. But it wasn’t until I found the one person who could say it all in a language that was meaningful to me that my life started to change. For those who are interested, and for anything I can do in his memory, the person who changed my life was Jim Rohn (RIP). There are a lot of great, free talks he did on YouTube.

The content he spoke wasn’t necessarily different, but whether it was just my coming around, or his particular skill in communication, things started to make sense for me, and my direction started to clear up. I started seeing connections and patterns in the lives of people I admired, and I became less cynical and more active. The right person, or the right idea, at the right time can change everything. But no one is reaching out to pull you from your existential funk–you have to do it yourself. You have to read the books, go to the seminars, listen to the audio programs, and practice the disciplines. It can change everything.

I also recommend Plutarch’s Lives, especially the lives of Coriolanus, Pelopidas, Brutus, and Pericles, but only after you’re in a receptive mindset to learn the lessons of great men and their biographers. Autobiographies of Andrew Carnegie and Ben Franklin were helpful, too. All of these are in the public domain at this point, so they’re available for free.

43 David May 1, 2013 at 1:56 pm

I just LOVE your website! I am a 57
yrar old (disabled) man with a 20 year old son who I will definitely be steering
toward this site.I cannot get out to do things with him anymore and he doesn’t seem to listen to my advice. No matter what I say it’s wrong (typical generation gap). You seem to have good advice that is as good today as it was 30+ years ago. Good values are always in style. :)

44 Cameron Marston May 1, 2013 at 5:14 pm

In this same vein, I’d recommend “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love” by Cal Newport and “Mastery” by Robert Greene.

45 Rob May 1, 2013 at 6:26 pm

This post came to me at the perfect time.

Being a 19 year old taking a gap year before college, this has given me a clear idea as to why I have been avoiding deciding my future. While I have an idea of “what I want to do when I grow up,” my fear of getting it and not being satisfied is what holds me back. I can relate to every point made and I no longer feel like I am the only man without a plan.

Great blog, Brett. If all men read this they would be set for life. Keep it up.

46 Darshan Donni May 1, 2013 at 10:09 pm

I see this article is as relevant to a 32 year old man like me as much as it is to someone in his twenties. I especially liked the way life has been divided into four parts. I feel it is an arbitrary division but it makes things a lot easier. So, now I have a better understanding of how I should design my “custom life” around that classification.

Also, this song from John Mayer summarizes how most of us feel/felt in our mid twenties:

I am driving up 85 in the kind of morning That lasts all afternoon,
I’m just stuck inside the gloom

Four more exits to my apartment
But I am tempted to keep the car in drive and leave it all behind
‘Cause I wonder sometimes about the outcome of a still verdict less life

Am I living it right, am I living it right?
Am I living it right Why, why Georgia, why?

I rent a room and I fill the spaces with wood in places
To make it feel like home but all I feel’s alone
It might be a quarter life crisis, just a stirrin’ in my soul
Either way I wonder sometimes about the outcome of a still verdict less life

Am I living it right, am I living it right?
Am I living it right?
Why, why Georgia, why?

So what, so I’ve got a smile on
But it’s hiding the quiet superstitions in my head
Don’t believe me, don’t believe me when I say I’ve got it down
Everybody’s just a stranger but that’s the danger in going my own way
I guess it’s a price I have to pay, still everything happens for a reason
Is no reason not to ask myself if I’m living it right

Am I living it right, am I living it right? Why tell me, why Why, why Georgia, why?

47 Brett McKay May 1, 2013 at 11:29 pm


The largest segment of our readers are in the 25-34 age range (as am I), so we do tend to focus more on that age group than others. It’s a time where you make a lot of big life decisions, and shape who you are to a great extent, so I think it’s a time that needs a litte more attention. But of course many of the principles discussed will apply to men of all ages — older and younger alike. Like on the flip side we also have a surprising number of teenage readers and I think they can benefit from reading about stuff they haven’t yet, but someday will encounter. And as I age myself, so will my interests to some extent. For example, I’ve definitely done more fatherhood pieces since becoming a dad!

Most of our contributors are aslo in their 20s and 30s, but some like Marcus Brotherton and Darren Bush are older.

48 Mike Breslin May 2, 2013 at 8:33 am

Wow! What a fantastic article. I work in career planning at a university and these ideas have been on my mind for years…but never with this clarity and cohesion.

I have never been so committed to a job as I am to my current one. It is amazing the difference in my productivity, happiness and satisfaction. Full commitment is just so damn powerful.

This article and the “Be a Mr. T.” article are two wonderful gifts that keep on giving every time I read them. Thanks so much.

49 Combat Scholar May 2, 2013 at 11:40 am

I think that it is very unlikely that someone can pick the “wrong career”. One can get the wrong job or the wrong company or wrong boss, but there is a reason one ends up where one is and that’s because he made many many choices that lead himself there.

As for picking the “right” career, I think that nearly anything you do can be the “right” one. Remember how Tom Sawyer got those other kids to paint the fence because he made them think it was fun? Well it WAS fun for those kids. And more to the point, they CHOSE to do it. Choosing to do something is what makes it “right” – you arent forced to do it; you wanted to do it and that is what makes it right for you.

For example, I enjoy martial arts and I help juniors build their skills. But if it somehow became my career, then much of the spontaneous joy I feel would be taken from me because it is now “work”.

The key, at least in my 20-something life, has been that I have never defined myself by my job but rather by my interests.

50 Jack May 2, 2013 at 12:40 pm

Great article, the only thing I would say is worse than doing nothing is doing things just to keep up with the Joneses. I saw a lot of people in my 20′s chase the meaningless things their co-workers were doing only to end up broke and unhappy. Make a choice and act after you have thought it out for yourself.

51 Jeff May 2, 2013 at 12:52 pm

Great article!

52 Mitchell May 2, 2013 at 1:40 pm

Story of my life so far. I have literally seen multiple therapists and advisers over this very feeling: that I am somehow wasting my life, that I could be doing something more than I am, and that there are simply too many options. Great, great article.

53 Kenny May 2, 2013 at 3:07 pm

I’ve been visiting this blog for a couple of months now. It’s the only blog on my top sites. In addition, I’ve created a folder with many of your articles, those that really it home. Well guess what? This is another one of those articles. I’m 25 and graduating college and I’ve lost sleep over what I’m going to do. What will be my craft? How do I know if I have made the right choice? This article has helped me answer these questions.

Thanks Brett and Kate.

54 Andrew S. May 3, 2013 at 7:55 am

Brett and Kate,

Excellent article! I can’t say it anymore concisely than that. As a late twenty-something who struggled greatly with this same issue after college, I can really relate. I think this is an issue that many, many twenty-somethings face right now but its abstract in nature and very hard to define. With that in mind, you deserve great praise for being able to identify the issue and offer such helpful advice. I think the concept of being overwhelmed by a “limitless” future is hard for our parent’s and grandparent’s generations to understand and even if they want to help, sometimes I feel they don’t know how. Personally I find the old cliches that its a “different world now” and “things were simpler back then” somewhat tiring, but as best I can tell (since I wasn’t around back then) its true. It really is harder for twenty-somethings now than it was in the 50′s, 60′s, 70′s or even 80′s. My only wish is that this article had been published about 5 years ago when I was trapped deep in the mire of a “limitless” future; but your advice about choosing something, anything, and how that choice can lead to unforeseen opportunities is spot on. My father owns his own business and even though we have always had a great relationship and I have a lot of experience in his field, we had always shied away from me coming to work for him and one day taking over the family business. I drifted along hoping something better would float in front of me and he, patiently, waited it out. About a year ago I finally pulled my head out of you know where and came to work for him and I have to tell you, its been great. It’s not my dream job but its a great opportunity and there are constantly new and unforeseen doors opening in front of me. I can identify with the relief that one feels by making just one simple decision. Your research, writing, and advice on this one couldn’t be better. Keep up the excellent work.

Andrew S.

55 Grayson Pope May 3, 2013 at 1:08 pm

Great article. You hit the nail on the head in so many ways. I sometimes call the decision paralysis the “honor roll student syndrome.” Growing up, most men are told their special and smarter than everyone else, so when they grow and and find that’s not the case the become fear-shocked and don’t know what to do with themselves.

56 Michael May 4, 2013 at 1:56 am

I felt compelled to comment since this topic hits so close to home.
My tendency to get lost in possibilities hit a low point right at college graduation. Instead of following through with my original plan of being a teacher I basically relapsed into aimlessness. I entered a phase where I was anxious at best and utterly miserable at worst. After moving in with my brother, coming across Meg Jay’s book somewhere on this site, pondering its’ points and fending for myself I returned to my original plan with a new resolve. I realized that I let knit picking be one of the main factors to derail me, and that I should follow the clearest path ahead according to my passions and abilities. Now even the negativity of others doesn’t faze me, let alone the old fogginess that used to plague me. Even though my goal of teaching will take more time than I’d like, the peace and contentment from having solid purpose is invaluable. Thank you for introducing me to Meg Jay, who in turn brought me back to reality and the truths within.
I’d also add, for any younger readers, to not let well meaning but ignorant people toss you off of your path, just as you should be cautious of kind people who act as enablers for aimless drifting.

57 Derek May 5, 2013 at 6:41 am

Thank you so much for this article. I’ve been frozen in place for the two years since I left college, and this is precisely what I needed to hear. It’s time I stop second-guessing myself.

58 Alex May 7, 2013 at 6:45 pm

As a newly unemployed recent graduate, this article really hits close to home. I really think it’s true that too many choices make people unhappy. Great article!

59 Gert May 8, 2013 at 6:43 am

Incredible article and one I wish I could have discovered 10 years ago!

Sadly, though, I find that it fills me with more apprehension than hope and excitement for the future.

As a man turning 30 later this year, I have serious misgivings about the fact that I have little to show for my twenties at this point.

Perhaps an idea for a future AoM article, one aimed at the older set? How does one make the best of your thirties if you still feel adrift at the end of your twenties?

60 newbe May 8, 2013 at 6:47 am

Wow. Now in my mid 40s and realise I have spent
my life waiting. I now wipe the tears from my face and look forward to the new day, write the list of me and run for the open door that I choose. THANK YOU and all the other comments. Don’t wait as long as I have.

61 Matt May 11, 2013 at 4:22 am

I’d go out on a limb here and say this is a byproduct of our industrialized society. In a more traditional society, you did the same job your father did, and your son does the same job you do. If your Dad was a blacksmith, you’ll be a blacksmith, and your son, and so on and so on.
Modern Capitalism insists on progress, growth and (in theory) competition. Part of this process requires each generation to redefine their significance in a world that requires more education and specialization than ever before. This redefinition is the root of that crisis, and it manifests in parents giving their children ego-boosts and telling them to do what they want.

They say it’s more important to praise children for working hard and being dedicated than it is to being successful. being the smartest person on the block matters less than staying on task and being determined. Being “smart” or “talented” is bound to be a byproduct of practice and experience in your niche, in my opinion. The trick is to encourage creative thinking and problem solving while promoting work ethic.

62 Mark May 15, 2013 at 10:10 am

I’m turning 20 this year and this article has really helped.

I’ve been pretty set with my life (the little amount I have lived compared to you guys anyway ;)) and with the direction I’m heading in. However lately I’ve been getting discouraged about the amount of hours that are expected in my line of work. The hard hours were so discouraging I was thinking of changing professions to the game industry almost straight away, possibly for the ‘dream’ (not that, that’d be a bad choice haha…).

This article has really been a breather and has motivated me to keep going in this direction. I have a hunch I’m headed in the right direction, and the prospect of going through with everything and opening previously ‘locked’ doors is very exciting. Thanks AOM! I feel ‘enlightened’!

63 Adam May 16, 2013 at 10:54 am

This hit home for me, when I was 20 I made the rash decision to leave a graphic design job to become a Firefighter/Paramedic. Almost 9 years later I have no regrets and am very happy and passionate about my career.

Unfortunately, I am coming up to the next big defining point, the big 30, and that restlessness is setting in again

64 Ethan Z May 18, 2013 at 11:31 pm

This blog seemed ironic in my current situation. I felt like i had so many choices, but the jobs in my area are very very limited, so i wasnt sure what exactly i was supposed to do, i took a step, i spent 12 hours applying to anything and everything, and i was so narrow-minded before, that i realized….theres plenty of jobs in my area, i just never paid any attention to them because i was unfamiliar with anything out of my ordinary routine. i now start my new job this week, i was scared at first because its something ive never done, but this article made me feel like it was a great idea to take that step, that i should utilize every available resource to expand my knowledge in all fields that can benefit me, not a specific one or two, and even if i can only go with 1 field of expertize that suits my career at the time, if i feel it isnt right for me, i can pursue another while i work at what i need to do at the time to enjoy what i want to do in the future.
thank you art of manliness
i have been been reading for a long time now, and will continue to do so, and i must say i feel like you took the right step at doing a blog, this kinda shit changes lives.

65 John May 21, 2013 at 1:06 am

The “don’t be ordinary” or the anti-normal that pervades today’s popular media is hugely ironic.

66 Adam May 30, 2013 at 12:07 am

Guys in your early twenties, you would do well to read this article three or four times and really let it sink in. I’m 28 and I have spent the last ten years learning all these lessons the hard way. Just pick something and go, you can always change things up later down the road. If you want to do something you are passionate about, figure out what you’re passionate about and do it, don’t fear failure, life teaches us through failure. Stop waiting for life to start and go do something.

67 Silvio June 29, 2013 at 9:48 am

I needed this article too many years ago then i care to mention even though ill be 26 next week on the 5th. Learning all these hard life lessons and fooling myself to believe i was on the right path but i was just in conflict with my current situation and my desires. It even lead me from one side of the country with everyone i know and love to the polar opposite even though cali is emmensly beautiful. Ill be moving back to ny at the end of july and i pledge, to all you who seek what it is to be man, to finally do what i know i must do, to become who i know i should be. A great man in my sons eyes. I needed to read this. And i want to grab that book now. Thank you.

68 Kriss James July 6, 2013 at 12:59 pm

Sage advice.
Why cant parents say this to their teenage children instead of trying to reason with them.

69 David July 10, 2013 at 9:57 pm

Great article.

I teach in a co-ed high school and I am 30. I see first hand this mentality that everyone is going to do something that is incredible, be happy, and make tons of money – all the kids I teach think they are going to be rock stars by the time they are 23. I have tried to knock this out of them, but they have a misperception of reality that only reality will cure them of when it all comes crashing down on their 23 3/4 year old head.

I can’t stand it when the guidance counselor comes into my classroom and asks them what they want to be when they grow up. When a student states they don’t know the guidance counselor replies that he doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up either – the guy is 50. I feel like shouting to the man that he had better figure it out soon because he is passed growing up! In addition, all the high school kids need to pick a category and start narrowing down the path. Start with deciding between medicine, office/non-physical labor, or manual labor careers. Then go from their to more specific categories and close some dadgum doors!

This article was refreshing.

70 Noah September 12, 2013 at 2:15 pm

Thanks for this new perspective on what people have been telling me. I always thought it was bullsh*t, but you cleared everything up for me.

71 Andrea September 26, 2013 at 4:25 pm

@Mitchell – yeah, whoa. I’m with you. Let’s take the time to read this article, slowly, every single day for weeks. It will change us.

I’m (if it ain’t obvious) a chick and creeping up on 40 so this isn’t just a 20-something problem. Don’t let those feelings in your 20s persist for very long. You can change your mind, you can make new careers, you can make more money… but you can NEVER MAKE MORE TIME.

Great, great article, Brett. Thank you for the dozen therapy sessions you’ve allowed me to bypass, as well.

72 Niokis October 17, 2013 at 4:09 am

This is a great article, but it does not factor the economic situation into the picture. That part is huge, and it’s criminally ignored when it comes to life-designing, or whatever the concept is called. I think it is a lose-lose situation unless you are really into a certain kind of thing, while that depends on the personality. So yeah, there are fit ones and those who are not.

73 Shea January 5, 2014 at 1:00 am

EXACTLY what I needed to hear. At the age of 31, I can relate to Ian’s perspective and feelings of anxiety about having a vast sea of possibilities in front of him.

74 Alan Z April 3, 2014 at 8:50 am

Loved this article, very relevant to my life right now and reassuring.

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