Mental Health 101: Living the Life You Want to Live?: Five Questions for Discerning Your Life Path

[Mental Health—that which promotes the optimization of mind, body, soul, and interpersonal relationships]

How many times have you been asked some variant of the question, What do you do for a living? That question strikes at our identity: What we do is an integral part of who we are. And it is a question that we ask ourselves throughout our lives in various forms: What do I want to do? What do I feel called to do? What’s next along my life path?
And where do we find the answers?

In his celebrated interviews with Bill Moyers, Joseph Campbell answered with a challenge to follow our bliss.
Parker Palmer in Let Your Life Speak enjoined us to ask if the life we are living is the life that wants to live in us.

James Hillman in The Soul’s Code invited us to discover the unique destiny to which we are called, a destiny present from our earliest years and often revealed through our childhood stories and fantasies.

The identification of one’s life path is a larger challenge than the decision to pursue a particular career; in fact, for some the life path precludes that of a career, as in the choice to be a stay-at-home parent. Nonetheless, for most of us the career we choose is an integral part of our journey, defining how we respond over time to what the world is asking of us. Therefore, in the spirit of Campbell, Palmer, and Hillman, I offer the following five questions to evaluate a possible career path:

1. Are you passionate—or could you imagine yourself being passionate—about the career choice? Could you imagine yourself joyfully anticipating doing this work?

2. Do you have the talent, training, education, life experiences, and/or personality for this work, or could you develop the skills needed to compensate for any shortcomings in those areas? Could you see yourself being good at this work?

3. If you were doing this work, would you be doing good in the world through it? In the microcosm of the world in which you might have some measure of influence, could you see yourself contributing to the betterment of others and/or the protection of the natural world?

4. Does the world need this work? Does it address some current physical, spiritual, aesthetic, technological, cultural, or social need? The humor columnist Dave Barry once wrote an article about a group of middle-aged men who met regularly on Saturday afternoons to build and activate catapults and trebuchets for fun. Whatever your opinion of the historical value of catapults and trebuchets (or of the maturity of middle-aged men), we can all agree that in our twenty-first century world there is little market interest in them (catapults and trebuchets, that is, not middle-aged men!). For these men, playing with medieval siege weaponry is a hobby—an avocation, not a vocation. If something you’re passionate about isn’t needed in today’s world (or, sadly, needed but not appreciated as such), you are free to continue to enjoy it—as an avocation.

5. Could you provide food, clothing, shelter, health care, education, and recreation for yourself and those who might depend upon you through this work? Could you make an adequate living? I place this last intentionally as I believe that if we can answer the first four questions in the affirmative, this fifth will fall into place.

Discovering one’s life path is no simple task. And, of course, it is a path with twists and turns and occasional forks, demanding that we repeat the five-question discernment process multiple times throughout life. As I approach age 70 and find myself anticipating one more alteration in my career path, these five questions have once again been put to the test. And my passion, education and life experiences, persistent (and persistently annoying) save-the-world complex, sense of what the world wants and needs, and minimalist life style all respond with a powerful yes!

Mike Brock, PsyD, LPC, is currently teaching “Discover Your Life Path” at the University of Dallas, where he is also director of the Counseling Center. In addition, he has a private counseling practice in Dallas, which he is expanding in this new phase of his life journey.