Like most teenagers, I didn’t know what I wanted to do (or be) when I was older. So, I picked some low-hanging fruit and went with a version of what I thought I should want, with an assumption that it would both please the people I wanted to please and check the box of making enough money.
Too bad I chose poorly, however.
Like most teenagers, I didn’t know how to figure out what I wanted deep down. I certainly didn’t know how to match what I wanted deep down with a real career opportunity, either. So I plead the fifth, took a path of little resistance, and wasted years of my life.
I don’t want my kids to do what I did, I want them to do better.
Figuring out what you want to do with your life is still the central conundrum of growing up. But most people in advanced years still joke about their own lack of clarity. Most people just shrug their shoulders at the idea and laugh it off.
I don’t think it’s very funny; I think it’s tragic.
I’ve been fascinated for over twenty years now about figuring out how to figure things out. A few days ago, I stumbled upon a pocket of psychological research that got me fired up. It’s the same exhilarated feeling I got when I found a Ken Griffey, Jr. Upper Deck rookie card in 1989 (ikyk). It’s called Self-Determination Theory (SDT), and it’s all about knowing what to want and set your sights on—the process by which we pay attention to the deeper parts of ourselves and learn to live in alignment with our core nature. I cannot wait to tell you all about it!
In a quick overview, the theory starts with a premise that in order for any human being to find fulfillment and happiness, they need to experience Autonomy (doing what you choose based on your inner values), Competence (doing it well), and Relatedness (connecting to other people in the process).
But before we even dig in at all, those three concepts are central ideas that can provide signposts and clues to someone who’s trying to figure out what they want to do with their life. Rather than other traditional ideas like do what makes money or do what makes you happy, pursue Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness (in my terms: a healthy identity, a motivating purpose, and a sense of belonging).
Without having those three concepts in good measure, we will experience a sense of disappointment on one side and perhaps despair on the other.
Soon, we’ll dig into what the leading research says on the process by which we can guide young people (and ourselves) into figuring out the autonomy piece: what we want and why we want it. Hidden inside are the keys to discovering the most important parts of life.
For years we’ve been studying what a young person needs in order to transition into a healthy, thriving adulthood.
They're uncommon sense ideas, really.
Download this checklist and use it with your students (or kids).