The Problem of "What Now?"

I have been running toward some sort of finish line for most of my conscious life. Externally imposed goals have kept me going ever since I can remember. Internal motivation played a role, but the goals were always set for me and I simply followed point A to B and so on. Everything has been pretty formulaic, pretty paint-by-numbers. Some call this drive, determination or ambition… But I sort of see it as taking the obvious route.

After finishing college, medical school, residency and fellowship, I am “done”. I have no more huge and mandatory milestones. Even though everything is seemingly in place, I have never felt so utterly lost. I have gone from living by life by a syllabus or checklist to just… living. After years of aiming for the goals so tidily laid out for me, I have completely atrophied with respect to creating my own goals. I can’t help but think, “What now?”

Don’t get me wrong – I love my life and I am proud of and thankful for everything I have accomplished. I have a career, a great relationship, wonderful family and friends, an adorable dog, and a lovely home. I don’t want more, I just want to know what is next. I want to know what to want, what to try for. It is a great and inspiring problem to have. It’s hard to imagine settling into cruise control already, and I am eager to find out what else I am meant to do. I never thought to fantasize or imagine life beyond finishing my medical training, and now that I am here, I am overwhelmed and paralyzed by possibility. No one is going to tell me what to do. No one is going to knock on my door with an inspiring new project. I have to want something. I desperately wish I had kept up hobbies during my school and training, but I just sort of shut everything else out.

I guess one has to realize that everything is really about the journey and not the destination. I sort of always knew this, but now that I am temporarily out of distinct end points, I am really feeling it. I enjoyed my time in school and residency immensely, and I can say I enjoyed every day (albeit admittedly through the rose colored glasses of nostalgia). I continue to enjoy every day, but I am missing that undercurrent of drive to “complete” something that I grew so used to. Yes, it’s hard to be challenged by outside forces, but I am learning that it is harder to truly challenge ones self. Dreaming up the challenge is as hard as facing it; it’s twice the work. This is why I admire artists of all types so very much. I admire anyone who forges their own path and goals. Hellooooo, Lena Dunham. Wow.

I guess if there is anything I would like for someone to get from this essay, it is to hang onto yourself (if I may quote David Bowie). Keep setting your own goals in addition to doing the things that you have to do. Don’t get so caught up on that treadmill that you have to re-learn how to run on your own. Was that a horrible, gross, cliché analogy? I don’t know. I am just learning how to write creatively again. Sorry to put that on you. It’s part of figuring out what I want to do now.

Does anyone have some inspiration to throw my way? Has anyone else faced the “what now?” How do you all set personal goals? Is there a creative life after so much school? What are you creating?

As always, thanks for reading!

Image via Shutterstock

  • Kate Legnetti

    Minus the part about being a Doctor, I could have written this. So much so that when I finished Graduate School almost two years ago (after two Master Degrees) I started a blog called Ummm Now What?

    That’s how confused I was.

    I read a lot. I took up crocheting which I love. I blog which I’ve found a real passion for.

    I also applied to a doctoral program and am waiting to hear back. And I applied for a new (higher level job) because I felt like I was not making professional progress fast enough (whatever that means).

    I would love some advice, too.


  • Chrissa Hardy

    Love this piece!

  • Gianina Crisostomo

    I was in the same spot about 3 weeks ago so… here´s some advice:
    1) You have worked so hard to get where you are that you really need to enjoy what you accomplished! I guess that means enjoy the chance to put all your knowledge and training into each and every patient. Let each one be a challenge, in their own level
    2) “No one is going to knock on my door with an inspiring new project” – how about improving others´ projects? I mean, sure there are some undergrads, interns or such who have projects who need supervision. I´m sure one of those can become a new item in your “to do” list.

    But most importantly, just enjoy life! It is hard to let the ship travel by the wind but, if anything, Life of Pi taught me that a loose boat can lead to great visual scenarios and adventures.

  • Katelynn Ropars

    It so funny to be reading this now because just this week I found myself thinking the same thing. I started pre-school when I was 3 or 4 and now I am finishing grad school and will have my Masters degree in May. After the end goal of landing a job, “What now?” is exactly what I will be thinking.

    It helps me to think “Hey, you’ll have a Masters degree, and that is freaking awesome!” Reminding myself about my accomplishments helps me because even though I have accomplished a lot, the stress and frustration of school makes it not always feel that way.

    A part from school, I find when I start a project such as knitting or crochet, I feel pretty accomplished when it is finished. Plus I have something cool to wear and show off. Which is nice because I’d look silly carrying around a framed diploma.

  • Helene


    I do feel this way since few years now. I’ve obtained my accounting degree and CPA title, got maried, had two kids. When I went back to work after my second mat leave I felt that all that was left to do was to work untill pension. It’s been 4 years now and I still don’t know “what now”. It’s hard to find time between a carreer, kids, husband and the day-to-day choir.

    I’m happy but I feel something’s missing. Sorry I’m not much help but it is good (at least I feel good) to know that were not alone and that it might be normal to feel that way.


  • Amanda Ann Garner

    I think that most people experience this at some point in their life. If they don’t, they are just lying to themselves. I, myself, at the age of 24, seem to be stuck at the biggest ‘what next?’ crossroads of my life. The thing is, I know what I want to do. The problem is that my family doesn’t agree that what I want to do next is necessarily what I should do next. So the question presents itself: do I take a risk and pursue my dreams and make myself feel happy and fulfilled or do I go the safer route and make my family happy while possibly sacrificing the chance to do what I really love? And while my adventurous nature constantly urges me to follow my heart, I also need to consider the future implications of my choices. There is no easy answer but most people, especially in this generation, will have to face this choice sooner or later.

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