TIME Education

How Can I Figure Out What I Really Want to Do With My Life?

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Answer by Oliver Emberton, founder of Silktide, on Quora

You know how anyone can be anything they want, right? Well, they can’t.

Had Bill Gates been born in a different time – or just a different town – he might have spent his days as an illiterate peasant scooping up potatoes with his hands.

Your circumstances matter. Bill’s real childhood had what mattered most: the opportunity to stumble upon what he was born to do, and to go completely bananas doing it.

Few are so lucky, but there’s still hope for the rest of us.

Kids are geniuses

We rarely prize people for acting like a child. The world is forever telling us to “grow up” and “take responsibility”, as if anything else is a bug in the system. On the contrary – childish behaviour can be quite brilliant.

  • Kids try many things. Stupid things, like eating soil or rollerskating on ice. But they’re fearless and relentless.
  • Kids don’t know what they don’t know. So they question everything.
  • Kids are easily bored. They live in fantasy worlds because present reality is limiting.

Such behaviour is spectacularly good at figuring out the world and your part in it. Acting like a kid is a brilliant way to explore your boundaries and deduce your strengths. Ideally, your childhood is when you stumble upon your passions, leaving your adult years to focus on them.

Unfortunately many of us – like Bill the Potato Farmer – aren’t so lucky. The good news is, modern life gives you more chances than ever to fix that.

Grown-up children

Childlike behaviour is generally frowned upon as an adult.

The great advantage of being an adult is you can direct yourself. Children don’t have the freedom or the awareness to steer their own development. Maybe your childhood wasn’t what it could have been – but you can fix it now:

  • Play. The first time baby John Lennon picked up a guitar, I doubt he seriously ran a cost benefit analysis. If you’re trying something out, don’t be in too much of a hurry to take it seriously. Aim to simply enjoy. The effort will come if the passion is there.
  • Get reckless. If you really don’t know what you want to do, you’re going to have to try things you haven’t done yet. And you’re going to fail – a lot – trying many different things, most of which won’t work. Kids find this a lot easier because they don’t worry about consequences. I encourage you to do the same. If it helps, make it a proud part of your identity: you’re making a point out of fearlessly trying as many things as possible, you sexy roguish daredevil you.
  • Question everything. You know how everyone knew the world was flat until it wasn’t? You have similarly limiting beliefs in your head right now – probably things like “artists can’t earn a living” or “I’m not smart enough to do this”. Maybe, but have you checked? Have you tried – really tried, like a gun is pointed at your kneecaps – to find an alternative? Most really successful people didn’t just find a way, they created one.
  • Ignore reality. You know how kids always dream of becoming astronauts, pop stars and giant transforming robots? Barriers don’t apply when you’re five years old. And whilst that seems like a stupid habit that you’d be wise to grow out of, if you’re not sure what you want to do, don’t be in such a hurry to shut your dreams down. Explore the impossible. Often it doesn’t lead to exactly what you’re after (say walking on the moon) but it finds something else instead (like a love of science that starts a whole career). You can’t know this in advance. Just dare to follow where your heart takes you.

Chances are, even if you don’t know what you want, that your childhood at least left you some hints. Are there things you think of fondly, but never find the time for? Start there.

The great solace you have is that – by virtue of reading this – you automatically have better options than potato farmer Bill. Access to the entirety of human knowledge (The Google) for one. Better economics for another. And more freedom than most of your grandparents could ever conceive of.

Now get outside and play.

This question originally appeared on Quora: How can I figure out what I really want to do with my life? More questions:

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