Updated: Jun 7, 2021
If you're confused about next steps, you're not alone.
If I am an expert at anything, it is the ability to not know what's next. I know that sounds ridiculous, but truly, I have made so many transitions throughout my life and career, and each one of those transitions came with a nice long period of not knowing.
There were always things I did know, however. For example, I knew that I became uninspired by most of the jobs I had. I knew that I wanted to be doing meaningful and helpful work. I knew that I tended to need a change of scenery, location, and even city or country. Those are themes that I can recognize now, but in those moments of transition, it all felt so vague and unclear, especially when I asked myself what I would like to do next.
Dr. Nancy Schlossberg is a an expert on transition. In this interview, she talks about her own experience of moving to Washington after living in Detroit with her husband for ten years. Even though this move was her choice, and something she wanted, she found herself struggling deeply and internally with the change. I can very much relate to this feeling.
Every transition begins with an ending, which requires us to step away from something we have become familiar with - our comfort zone. This can be challenging, even if we are stepping away from something that we no longer enjoy, and into something we feel excited about. The truth is, even if we are excited about the next step, we really don't know how it's going to go, or what it will be like. Stepping into the unknown can feel like the rug is being pulled out from under us.
Often times, we know we want to make a change, but we don't know exactly what the change is, or how to get there. We may find ourselves adrift, feeling lost, confused, and even depressed.
Here are some simple things to try when you don't know what's next, from an expert at not knowing what's next.
I don't know about you, but when I find myself in that murky area where the ending of the last thing and the beginning of the next thing don't touch, I want to crawl out of my skin. It feels like I'm stuck in a void, and I understand why Dante made limbo the first ring of hell.
It can feel like a death and in some ways, it is, but only symbolically. When we make a change, whether it is changing a relationship, a job, a location, a habit, we necessarily must leave an old version of ourself behind and thus, spend some time not recognizing ourself. Like a butterfly, we have to spend some time in our cocoon, as a blob of goo, before we can emerge as the new version of ourself. Not everyone has the courage to spend time as a blob of goo because it can be truly scary and uncomfortable.
The best way I have found to cope with these blobby limbo times, is to practice being present. The impulse is to run as fast as you can to the next thing, and often times, this leads us to grasp onto whatever precarious stick or branch we can in order to avoid what feels like a free fall into the abyss. The problem is, that those precarious sticks or branches won't hold us for long, and eventually, we find ourselves right back where we started.
The good news is, when you get present, you begin to realize that in this moment, you're not actually free falling. You're ok.
For me, meditation is the best way to get present. When we simply focus on the breath, we realize that the inhale, pause, exhale, pause, is all that is really happening and all that really needs to happen right now. You can always come back to this simple practice in moments when the fear of the unknown gets to be too much. Sit down, breathe in, pause, breathe out, pause. Do it for five or ten minutes each morning, and throughout the day as needed. It can be that simple, and very impactful.
Follow your bliss
Ok ok, I know this is such a cliche, but hear me out. More than likely, there are things that you really enjoy doing. Maybe it's working in the garden, or baking cupcakes. Maybe you love walking your dog or doing yoga. Maybe it's DIY projects or going on long drives. What are those things that make you feel like your time was well-spent? That doing them feels effortless and enjoyable?
These are things that bring us into the flow state, and trust me, this is where we all could be spending a lot more time. The flow state occurs when we are doing something that keeps our attention so easily that we no longer realize how much time has gone by.
Maybe you haven't had much time to engage in these bucket-filling activities, or maybe you've discounted them as unimportant in gaining the clarity you seek. But trust me, the flow state is gold.
Now, this doesn't necessarily mean that you'll become a professional dog-walker, or driver, or baker, although it might! But it does mean that the more time we spend doing things we genuinely enjoy, the more open and receptive we are to allowing the nuggets of wisdom, inspiration and opportunity show up naturally.
Remember earlier, how I talked about wanting to crawl out of my own skin in the limbo place? Well, the flow state is the antidote. It gives us the space and presence to actually use the limbo stage productively, even if it sometimes feels unproductive. Trying to force the next thing to happen is the fastest way to find yourself right back in limbo, wondering how and why you're still there.
Inspiration can only come to us when we are open to receiving it. This is why artists and writers put a lot of emphasis on creating a lifestyle and physical space that allows them to be free. Most creatives will say that they are more productive when they have plenty of time to play and be spontaneous. Children are masters at living this way, and they have no qualms about spending an entire day playing outside, using their imagination, and doing whatever their spirits move them to do.
The reason that receptivity is key in gaining clarity on next steps is that this is where the best possible next steps come from. Think back to the best things that happened in your life. Maybe it was meeting your partner, or taking an amazing trip, or getting a job that you loved. Now, remember the events that led you there. Some of them may have been intentional, such as joining a dating app, researching vacation spots, or applying for jobs in that field. But I would be willing to bet that there was also some amount of happenstance that occurred in there as well.
Perhaps you didn't feel like going to that party, but something inside told you to go, and that's where you met your partner. Or maybe you had a friend who took that same trip and you felt compelled to go after they shared their experience with you. Maybe you reached out to an old friend who had been on your mind, and they helped you get that job.
Sometimes the inspiration to do something seems counter-productive, or pointless. I encourage you to practice doing it anyway. Listening to that inner guidance, those quiet whispers telling us to take seemingly meaningless actions are really the best way to get to where we actually want to go.
Dr. Nancy Schlossber's transition theory states that when we are struggling with a transition, it is helpful to consider the 4 S's: Self, situation, supports, and strategies. Sometimes, getting the support you need is helpful, not only to validate your experience, but also, to help you move through the limbo phase and into the next thing.
As a college, career, and life-path guide, I help people navigate transitions of all shapes and sizes. I know that getting clarity about where you're headed is the first challenge, and getting to that next phase is the next. So many points in my life, I wished I had someone with the expertise to help me get past the blob of goo phase, and into a place that felt fulfilling and rewarding. So in response to my own, struggles with transition, I have decided to become the person I wish I had during my adolescence and early adulthood.
Navigating these things can be so tough. Not only are there truly infinite choices we can make, but we are complex beings with many layers to work through. If we know where we want to go, but lack the confidence and self-efficacy to get there, how can we be expected to achieve our goals? If we are riddled with self-doubt, or limiting beliefs that tell us we are incapable of accomplishing our dearest wishes, how can we possibly take the first, and next steps? And if we accept these limiting beliefs as truth, how can we ever live the life that we are here to live?
Life is meant to be enjoyed. You are here for a reason. Your gifts and talents are yours to be shared and utilized. Please don't settle for anything less. Life is too short and too precious for that.