We just don’t know.
We live surrounded by so many unknowns that if we think about it, we might never do anything. When we’re in high school or college, for example, we might not know what we’ll do after we graduate, or if we’ll get a good job. We might not even know what we want to happen.
But in reality, that is the lesson. We don’t know. Yet we have to act nevertheless.
Some deal with this by selecting a theory, belief or desire for what will happen and treat it as a fact. We tell ourselves and anyone who will listen how we will do on the next exam or who will win the next election or baseball game. Facing something or someone you know is usually easier to do than facing the unknown, (think about driving your car in some place you don’t know without GPS or google maps) especially if the known is shaped in our favor.
Thinking positively is helpful. It makes us feel stronger. If we are taking a test or going on a job interview, we are more likely to succeed if we feel we can succeed.
Some of us perpetually do the reverse. We fear failure so much we don’t even try to succeed. Or we try to win by labeling ourselves as losers before anyone else can do so.
But if we delude ourselves into thinking we know what we don’t, we close our mind. This might serve as a temporary comfort or rest from something that frightens or stresses us, which can be helpful. But if we pretend we are finished learning when we’re just beginning, then we stop learning.
After I graduated from college, I went into the Peace Corps. When I returned, I was a bit lost. I tried traveling, writing, acting, psychology, teaching and decided to get a MAT in teaching English. After graduate school and a few years in education, I got lost once again and tried out a few more areas of interest, like the martial arts and meditation.
At that time in my life, it was difficult to separate fantasy and desire from legitimate paths to a career. It was difficult to face a fear of failure and fully commit to any possible job. For example, I made a far-out proposal to a university that they introduce a new class in their education program. The class would teach theatre improvisation techniques to teachers, both to improve their skills and to use with students to teach course material.
I never expected a reply to my proposal. But I got one. A Professor wrote to me. There was no job opening at the moment, but he would like to talk with me about my idea. Because he said there was no job opening, I never went to speak with him. Later, I realized that was a legitimate opportunity lost.
But emerging from each moment of being lost was a clarity about one thing: I wanted to do something meaningful, steady, and creative. I didn’t want to just make money. I wanted a challenge. I wanted to feel a sense of purpose, that I was contributing to making the world somehow a better place.
In order to find a path, we need to first find the trail markings we provide ourselves. We must notice what entices us.
One day, a friend told me of a job requiring my unique combination of skills. The school her children attended was looking for someone who could teach philosophy, drama, martial arts, and English. I applied right away, was interviewed and got the job.
I taught at that school for 27 years. It not only provided the challenge and purpose I was looking for; it united all the disparate threads of my life into one thread. I felt all the exploring and confusion I went through was a preparation for this singular opportunity.
When I was teaching, so many students were, like I had been, not clear about a career. But there were some who knew right away what they wanted and left school hot on the trail. But for the rest of us, what can we do?
All we can ever do is make a reasonable assessment and commit to doing our best in each moment. We can do research, to reduce the size of the unknown, and talk to trusted people, friends, counselors. We can be patient with ourselves and treat each moment as an opportunity to learn, not a test we will be graded on. We can’t control much of what happens around us. But how we respond to what happens is what determines who we are.
Every moment, we face the unknown. Facing the unknown provides the deepest curriculum we will ever encounter. It can be frightening, but it is helpful to keep in mind that we do it all the time. Each moment we are alive is the only one we, for sure, have. Every other moment is but a memory or a thought.
And most of those thoughts are about us as characters in a story that we ourselves write. How we think about one moment determines how we live the next. Our imagination can be our greatest gift or obstacle. And if we see ourselves as a character in a story, then we only perceive what the story allows. In order to truly understand the meaning of the story, we must step out of it.
To do this, we can train ourselves to be more conscious of perceptions and of what thoughts we pay attention to and repeat in our mind. We can question images that hurt. And we can use our imagination to prepare ourselves for important discussions or decisions. For example, if we are unsure of what direction to take with our lives, we can try a mindful visualization exercise.
We can take a moment to sit back, close our eyes partly or fully, and relax. Allow yourself to calmly breathe in, and then out. Take another breath in and out. Then allow to come to mind a moment when you felt positive, strong, and engaged, or when you felt a sincere interest and focus, maybe even joy. Name that moment or those moments in your mind. Where were you? What were you doing? Was there more than one moment that you felt so engaged? If so, what, if anything, do the moments share? Now sit for a moment with the feeling of being positive and engaged.
Such moments can be the clues to discern a career path. Or if you have to face some challenge, like a job interview or presentation, try the following: Imagine and hold in mind the person you will be with. Remember this person is not much different from yourself. He or she has gone through moments, like this one, just like you. Picture him or her. He has been interviewed, just like you. She has had to face unknowns, just like you. Notice the sensations in your body as you imagine the situation, and where those sensations arise. Then take a deep breath in, and as you breathe out let go of the sensations and return to noticing where you are, now.
As technology, especially AI, continues to develop and speed up changes in the nature of work and the pace of life, many of us will need to change not only where we work but the job we perform several times in our life. So simply knowing how to pause, calm, and clearly notice what is going on with our thoughts and feelings will be extremely helpful.* Thinking of each moment as an opportunity to learn more about ourselves and the world helps us feel more at home in our self. When we feel at home in our self, it is easier to feel at home wherever we are.
*Historian Yuval Harari, in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, wrote not only about what the future might become but how meditation and mindfulness can help us face it better. I recommend his book.