How To Make A Change When You Don't Know What You Want

Feeling stuck can be debilitating.
For me, I noticed that I began to dry up... My enthusiasm, motivation, and ambition – in short, everything that was my internal compass in the pursuit of happiness – began to flag. I knew that I wanted to make a change but complicating everything was the fact that I didn't know what it was that I wanted. It was like being low on fuel and not knowing where the next stop is to find more, so you simply languish in place.

You can receive the best of advice, but sometimes it just doesn't click. I do not intend to tell you want to do, nor do I plan to give advice on how to discover what it is that you want. Rather, I hope to impart understanding that will enable you to reach a conclusion on your own. To that end, this article is divided into 4 parts: The Nature of Change, The Necessity of Change, Where to Start, and Why "What If" is Irrelevant.

The Nature of Change
Here is something I would like you to consider: Change is constant.

Absolutely everybody and absolutely everything is changing all the time. The cells in your body, the water in the ocean, the solar system's position in the Milky Way are all different now than they were a moment ago. This moment in time is constantly moving into the next: seconds change, days pass, seasons turn, years advance. Change is constant.

Knowing this helped me understand that I was already more comfortable with change than I realized. I do not know what changes tomorrow will bring, nor could I know what the outcome of that change might be, but I do not allow myself to be intimidated by the uncertainty of it.

Here is something I would like you to ask yourself: Is there ever a perfect time to pursue a change?

Dinosaurs inhabited the Earth for somewhere around 170 million years, and yet are no more. I trust that my house is safe, but just because it did not burn down yesterday does not mean that circumstances will be the same tomorrow. Those examples are bleak, but my point is that the idealized moment we await might never arrive, and so much else in life is already changing that we may not recognize the moment even if it does arrive.

So, no... There is never a perfect time. If you are waiting for the right time to effect change, then remember that perfect is the enemy of good and that this moment is as good as the next, for every moment you have will change to the next until there are no more.

The Necessity of Change
But, what if you don't know what it is that you want? Well, allow me to be the first to welcome you to the club! How many people have you heard mention that they still don't know what they want to be when they grow up?

When you don't know what you want to do next or where to start looking, all you know is that you're stuck and just not happy, you are at an impasse. When it comes to figuring out what to do about a job or career, Timothy Butler, psychotherapist and senior advisor for career development at Harvard Business School, calls such stages as these Career Impasses.

According to Timothy (in his book Getting Unstuck: How Dead Ends Become New Paths), "we build these mental models of what's important for us and what we need to do in our lives. These times of impasse when we've hit the wall about what we want to do [require] shattering those mental models." So, contemplate the humble hermit crab. "Hermit crabs are constantly changing shells as they grow bigger," Tim says. "If we are growing, we have to say, 'As much as we like this shell, we are going to have to throw the whole thing away.'"

If you want to grow, then change is required.
When you are stuck, you will remain so until something changes. But, when you don't know what it is that you want, deciding on a change is intimidating. We worry it might make things worse or take us further away from where we want to be even when we don't know where that place is. When you don't know what you want, thinking by itself will not answer your question.

Though change can be unsettling and scary, remember that change is already a constant reality. Even so, if you are ready to embark on a change it's likely that you will be your own biggest obstacle. People can rationalize a variety of reasons for why not to undertake something, and when we don't know what we want the most common issue is that we don't know where to start. Well...

Where To Start
Know your reasons for wanting to make a change because it can help center your purpose.

Know the things that give you joy in the work that you do now. Identify the roots of why you are unhappy in the work that you do now. These can help you evaluate options as they arise.

Inventory your strengths and list your skills. How does what you are good at overlap with what brings you joy or dissatisfaction? Are there new skills you want to learn or weaknesses you want to improve?

Find what gives you joy in life. Family, a passion, a hobby... these are your values. Let them take the place of a job or career when someone asks you to define yourself or what you do.

If you are intimidated, then start by developing yourself. If you like fiction, read a biography. Try a restaurant you've never visited. Take an online class or devote time to learning a new subject. Begin the process of introducing small changes and getting comfortable with taking in new information. Trust in yourself. Believe in yourself.

When you are ready, start taking steps. You go nowhere without movement, so begin by making small changes - big changes don't have to happen at once: Rome took - I dunno - at least a couple weeks or something. It could be updating your resume, surfing career sites to see what other occupations exist, taking night classes in programming, enrolling in a cooking class, attending networking events, joining toastmasters, investigating graduate degrees, creating a savings account specifically for housing and bills... No matter what that change is, each is a step in some direction. Eventually, a direction will to take you closer to something you feel a worthwhile goal. You might not know where that path will ultimately end up, but you are moving in a direction toward something that interests you and away from something that does not. So, begin taking steps by starting with small changes.

Why "What If" is Irrelevant
Again, we can rationalize a variety of reasons for why not to undertake change. Once we figure out what it is that we want, it's tough to feel ready without the perfect plan and the perfect time. But, 1) change is constant - there is no perfect plan because there is no perfect knowledge: plans will always need updates to accommodate constant change, and 2) there is no perfect time.
Ok, but even so, I can't help thinking what if?...

What if I make a change and I don't like it?
What if I go to grad school, a grueling and expensive education, only to come out on the other side not wanting to work in that field?
There is nothing wrong with that: Gandhi went to law school. You are not painted into a corner merely by knowing a subject well.

What if I switch to a different career and I don't enjoy it or it's not what I thought it was?
There is nothing wrong with that: Vera Wang was a figure skater and then a journalist before entering the fashion industry at age 40. Today she's one of the world's premier designers.

Forethought is good, multi-level thinking is important, an anticipating risk is necessary. But spiraling downward in endless "What If" scenarios is anathema. Drifting in a river of fears will only carry you to anxiety and indecision, and thus inaction. Instead, understand that recognizing bad outcomes exist will keep you vigilant, and vigilance can help you avoid the dangers you fear.

And if it doesn't work out, so what. You are not prohibited from changing something you've changed before. A career change may seem bigger than others, but happiness is important. Remember Teddy Roosevelt's words, "the greatest gift life has to offer is the opportunity to work hard at work worth doing."

Hell, do you know what?

  • Julia Child worked in advertising, media, as well as serving in the OSS - working her way up from typist to researcher during WWII - all before writing her first cookbook at age 50 and becoming a celebrity chef.
  • Terry Crews had a 4-season run as an NFL defensive player for various teams in the mid-1990s before becoming an actor who has received numerous accolades for his comedy work on award-winning shows and as the celebrity face of numerous products.
  • Martha Stewart was a full-time model until, as a 25-year-old-mother, there were few gigs coming her way. After leaving her follow-up job as a Wall Street stockbroker, Martha began using her love of gourmet cooking and creative presentation to build her Martha Steward Living Omnimedia empire.
  • Jonah Peretti was a middle-school computer science teacher who spent his time instructing children how to use Microsoft Office before launching media sites such as Buzzfeed and The Huffington Post in his 30s.
  • Walt Disney was fired as a newspaper editor because "he lacked imagination and had no good ideas."
  • John Mahoney was 37 when he started acting.
  • Ellen Degeneres was a paralegal and "oyster shucker."
  • Harrison Ford was a carpenter.
  • Ken Jeong was a doctor.
  • Elvis Costello was a computer programmer.
  • Allen Ginsberg was a dishwasher.
  • Andrea Bocelli was a lawyer.

There is no path you can take that you cannot later choose to change course, there is no time that is too late to start. Change is constant. There is never a perfect time. To grow requires change. There is no wrong path. You know more than you did yesterday, and you will know yet more tomorrow.

March 2018

About the Contributor

Jon doesn't really have an agenda here beyond trying to help.
At Epic, he originally authored the "100 Lessons Learned for Epic Project Managers" as well as the "develoPMent memo." If it isn't obvious by now, he is no longer at Epic and so tries to help in this way.

In his spare time, Jon enjoys reinventing "sandwiches" by stuffing tortilla shells with random combinations of food because, "everything tastes better as a burrito." The goal of undertaking such endeavours (and in proclaiming such absolutes) is to achieve an eyeroll from his wife since that's one of his favorite measures of daily success 😉

Still doing good, working hard, and having fun... just my own way.

© 2019