Life at uni: What do I do with the rest of my life?

By Gordon Rugg

It’s that time of year when final year students are uncomfortably aware that the rest of their lives will soon be starting, and that they don’t have a clue what they want to do with their lives, although everyone else seems to be reasonably sorted out and under control.

If you’re feeling like that, you’re not the only one. It’s an understandable feeling. This article is about non-threatening ways of moving towards finding out, and achieving, what you really want in life, particularly if you don’t even know what you actually want. It’s a story of hammocks and exotic sunny beaches and carnival masks. I’ll start with the masks.

bannerSources for original images are given at the end of this article.

First, masks.

Most people suffer from low self-esteem to at least some extent, and this tends to lower their expectations about what they can achieve from life.

It’s an understandable feeling at one level; we see other people looking glamorous and successful, and we think that we are just ordinary. The reality, though, is different. Life is like a carnival where everyone wears masks. We see the outside of other people’s masks, looking like the gorgeous feathered and gilded creation below. However, we can only see the inside of our own masks, and masks on the inside usually look rough and ugly, like the one on the left below. That doesn’t help much with self-esteem. So, a useful starting point is to stop worrying about what the outward appearance of your mask may or may not be, and to start thinking about what you like and dislike in life.

masksv2Sources for original images are given at the end of this article

One issue is that you can’t know what you don’t know; a related issue is that you can’t know how much you’ll enjoy something until you’ve given it a fair try. Both those points are true, but they’re easy to get past.

The pair of images below illustrate a couple of ways of starting to clarify what you really want to do with your life.

choicesSources for original images are given at the end of this article

The hammock is a nice, gentle place to start. Imagine that you’re in that hammock, looking back on a happy, fulfilling life, thinking how glad you are that you did X and Y and Z. What would X and Y and Z be? Don’t worry about whether you think they’re possible or not; in your ideal world, what would those things be that you look back on fondly?

If you’re more used to the grim daily grind, and you can’t face the thought of nice things, then you can use the flip side of the same process. Imagine that you’re looking at some contented soul in a hammock on a tropical beach, or that you’re being ferried to the Island of the Dead; what would you regret never having done or tried in your life?

These two methods between them give you a list of concepts to start with. You can now plug them into the diagram below.

likes and dislikes3

The “Me” at the centre is you, where you are now.

The first oval around you is about specific things that you like or dislike. For instance, you might like the prospect of a well-paid job, but dislike the prospect of office work.

The outer oval is about the reasons why you like or dislike something – your goals, values and motivations.

Some of the items on your list from the hammock/ferry session will belong in the inner oval, and some will belong in the outer oval.

You now go through each item in the inner oval, and work out why you feel as you do about that item. For instance, you might like the idea of a well-paid job because it would let you do interesting travel. You might dislike the idea of office work because of it feeling pointless to you.

The next stage is to stop for a while, and to sleep on it. You’ll probably find that your subconscious will produce a lot of good insights while you’re asleep, so you have a far clearer idea of what you really like and dislike in life.

You’ll now have a list of likes and dislikes. That’s a good start. How, you might be wondering, do you get from there to a good ending?

There are several ways.

One useful point to remember is that you don’t have to commit yourself forever to one path at this stage. It’s okay to decide that you’re going to take two or three years to try out some of the options that interest you, but that you’ve never experienced at first hand.

Another is to remember that there are usually many different ways of getting to any destination. For instance, there’s a standard set of requirements for getting onto a PhD, if that’s what you really want to do, but if you don’t meet those standard requirements, there are other ways of demonstrating that you’re suitably qualified.

This is where professional networking comes into the story. It’s emphatically not the same as favouritism, preferential treatment, corruption, or any of those other vices. It’s about asking people for the professional courtesy of giving you advice. If you’re polite and professional about it, people tend to be very helpful about this.

For students, the lecturing staff are a good place to start. You can book a meeting with an approachable member of staff, then tell them about your likes and dislikes, and ask their advice about career paths that might suit you. Often, they’ll know about possibilities that you’ve never heard of. Often, they’ll be able to put you in touch with someone who can help you along that path, by giving advice and information.

Another invaluable resource is the book What color is your parachute? This is solidly evidence-based; the advice in it is based on extensive sets of data. It’s an excellent guide to finding what you want to do with your life, and to making that happen. The website for the book is also excellent (though with a very unflattering photo of its author…)

Closing thoughts

This article was a quick introduction to the topic of working out what you really want in life. We’ll return to this topic in later articles, where we’ll look at approaches such as using card sorts to clarify your job and career preferences, and using laddering to work out your higher-level goals plus different ways of achieving them.

I hope that you’ve found this article a helpful starting point on the journey towards your own personal hammock on the beach…

Notes and links:

Banner images:

Hammock image:

“Venice Carnival – Masked Lovers (2010)” by Frank Kovalchek from Anchorage, Alaska, USA – Couple in love at the 2010 Carnevale in Venice (IMG_9534a). Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons –

Masks images:

Image of back of mask: Copyleft Gordon Rugg. You’re welcome to use Hyde & Rugg copyleft images for any non-commercial purpose, including lectures, provided that you retain the statement that they’re copyleft Hyde & Rugg.

“Musee de la bible et Terre Sainte 001” by Gryffindor – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –

“Venetian Carnival Mask – Maschera di Carnevale – Venice Italy – Creative Commons by gnuckx (4701305147)” by gnuckx – Venetian Carnival Mask – Maschera di Carnevale – Venice Italy – Creative Commons by gnuckxUploaded by russavia. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

“What and why” images:

Hammock image:

“Arnold Böcklin – Die Toteninsel II (Metropolitan Museum of Art)” by Arnold Böcklin – 1. The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.2. Metropolitan Museum of Art, online collection. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Overviews of the articles on this blog:

3 thoughts on “Life at uni: What do I do with the rest of my life?

  1. Pingback: Discovering what you actually want in life | hyde and rugg

  2. Pingback: Will the world end if I don’t get a job soon? | hyde and rugg

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.