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How to figure out what you want out of life

What society expects of you and what you actually want in life can be different things.

Allie Volpe is a senior reporter at Vox covering mental health, relationships, wellness, money, home life, and work through the lens of meaningful self-improvement.

Berrak Sarikaya always knew she wanted to be a lawyer. In high school, she threw herself into mock trial and debate. The oldest child of Turkish immigrant parents, Sarikaya understood the gravity of getting into a good college and the necessity of scholarships to fund that schooling. “One of the biggest reasons that we came to the US was for me and my brother to get a good education and have better opportunities,” Sarikaya, 37, says. “So there was definitely that pressure of if I don’t go to college, then all of it will have been a waste.”

When it came time for higher education, Sarikaya’s hard work paid off. She enrolled in her dream school, George Washington University, and lived at home. Her freshman year was enjoyable, she says, but grueling, with full days of classes, studying, homework, and working at a grocery store and a bank. By her sophomore year, however, the sheen had worn off. Her classes weren’t challenging, and she wasn’t feeling fulfilled by the coursework. What’s more, tuition jumped, and her parents took out loans to supplement her scholarship.

By this point, Sarikaya was working at law offices and she felt this experience provided her with more real-world training than sitting in a classroom. Though college was the thing her family and society “expected” of her, an achievement many young Americans also feel pressured to attain, Sarikaya dropped out of college.

“There was a lot of having to get over or step away from people’s expectations,” Sarikaya says.

Among life’s many chapters and milestones, Americans have come to see some events — like college, marriage, homeownership, child-rearing, and career success — as achievements they must fulfill in order to maintain the status quo. Because so many follow these “traditional” paths, both in real life and in Western popular culture, we learn from a young age to model and emulate these behaviors. Family and cultural traditions can dictate what is expected of us throughout life, particularly among women, which can elicit anxiety when those benchmarks aren’t reached. When people are rewarded and celebrated for graduating from college or getting married, we internalize these events as being desirable. Thus, people can feel pressured to fit an assumed mold or fear being alienated when bucking convention.

“What researchers have found is that people conform their behaviors to those around us, mostly to gain acceptance,” says Daryl Van Tongeren, an associate professor of psychology at Hope College. “So a lot of times, we go along doing what other people do because we want to fit in, we want to be accepted, we want to be liked.”

When culture provides limited road maps for the future, these life events can seem nonnegotiable. External pressure from family, friends, and media further muddies the waters, potentially creating an emotional conundrum when it comes to determining what you really want for the future. Through time and reflection, you can use your values and motivations as guides for a fully authentic life.

Living on autopilot

Many people don’t stop to consider what they truly want out of life, Van Tongeren says. They consume media and observe loved ones moving through the world checking familiar boxes, “and we usually try to dutifully follow those scripts,” he says. When life is full of “shoulds” — you should go to college, get married, buy a nice house, have kids, become the boss, etc. — there is very little room for improvisation. Because so many of these milestones are tied to wealth, those without the means to afford tuition or a mortgage can feel they lack an accurate model for how to approach life.

However, it isn’t until you stray from the path — either purposely or accidentally — that you consider whether the road well traveled is the right one for you. When Sarikaya realized college wasn’t all she’d hoped, she took more chances in her career, moving from taking roles in law-adjacent positions to working in communications and government affairs, and finally to striking out on her own path as an independent content marketing strategy consultant. (She maintains her dream of going to law school.) “At times, there are these inflection points where we can evaluate our behavior relative to what society is telling us,” Van Tongeren says. “In those moments, we try to gain clarity as to whether or not we’re living a life of authenticity.”

Look internally

To home in on the events and activities that make your life meaningful, you have to get to the root of your motivations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people feel more competent, more connected to others, and more independent when they are intrinsically motivated — that is, internally or self-motivated. When parents, friends, or other outside forces pressure you to, say, pursue a career in medicine when you really want to work in fashion — known as extrinsic motivation — you might feel stressed, afraid of missing out on what your peers are doing, unfulfilled, or concerned you’ll upset a parent if you stray from the path, says Jeremy Nicholson, a social and personality psychologist.

The things you’re intrinsically motivated to do are the ones that will feel the most authentic. However, if you grew up with certain expectations, obligations, and social examples, knowing what fulfills you can be difficult. Nicholson recommends paying attention to your feelings when confronted with significant milestones. Are you running away from something or running toward it? Are you afraid of being seen as a failure if you don’t aspire to be a supervisor at work?

People should think about how competent, connected, and autonomous they’d feel when faced with certain responsibilities, like parenting. “For example, if they believed they would make a good spouse or parent, enjoyed being around a particular partner or kids, and felt free to make the choice, then the decision would likely be self-determined,” Nicholson says. “In contrast, if they felt entirely unprepared for the role, didn’t really see themselves connecting with a spouse or kids, and were being pressured into making the decision by other people, then they might not personally value reaching the milestone at that time.”

Another question to ask yourself is why you might want a big house, to send your kids to a certain school, or to climb the corporate ladder, says licensed marriage and family therapist Mercedes Coffman. “Is it because you want the validation from others? Are you in med school because your mom and dad told you that that’s a career that would make them proud?” she says. “That is just going off of validation of others. That’s not an authentic goal of yours.” That external fulfillment never lasts long, Coffman adds, and you’re likely to feel disappointed and to search for the next “thing” from which you can earn approval. Alternatively, if you’ve always wanted a house with a big yard so you can rescue dogs and host your large family for get-togethers because of your genuine appreciation for animals and loved ones, your motivations are internally driven.

Remember, your self-worth isn’t measured by validation and acceptance from others, says therapist Natasha Sharma, the CEO of NKS Therapy. “It’s not about asking the question, ‘What do you want out of life?’ which sets you up for external measurements again, and some kind of ‘measured entity’ or ‘output,’” Sharma says. “Instead, ask yourself: ‘What do I enjoy about life?’”

Consider your values

Simple enough at face value, “What do I enjoy about life?” is a deceptively difficult question. Since no one enters this world as a fully realized human, this takes some trial and error. Coffman says to consider what naturally excites you and to feed those desires. “If you lived on an island and there was nobody around to people-please or to impress, what is it that you would want in your life?” she says. “What is it that you would be doing? What are your natural passions and skills? What excites you naturally?”

Think about the things you value most in life and weigh your decisions against these values. For instance, if you’re considering accepting a higher-paying new job that perhaps looks good on paper but would involve moving away from your community, reflect on how much you value your autonomy, relationships, and finances. “If people really value autonomy, and they really value relationships, but maybe they value financial freedom a little bit less so, can they pick a job that will give them autonomy and allow them to pursue deep relationships, even if it means they take less money?” Van Tongeren says.

Or, if you and your partner are wondering if you should get married, each of you should reflect on what shaped your views of marriage. Did your parents constantly fight and you fear your marriage might be similarly mired in conflict? Do you want to get married because all your friends are doing so and you feel left out? Having answers to these questions can help you move forward authentically.

This work is difficult and, frankly, terrifying. Few people would willingly embark on a thought exercise that puts their entire life into question. However, consider the alternative: coasting along in a career or relationship you don’t quite feel passionate about because you never considered other possibilities. At any age, setting aside time and intentionality to decipher what motivates you and whether you’ve been living authentically can be enlightening. This isn’t to say a life full of “traditional” markers of success and happiness isn’t worthwhile, but some contemplation can determine if these milestones are desirable for you.

Correction, September 19, 10 am: A previous version of this story misstated Berrak Sarikaya’s number of siblings. She has one brother.

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