Not knowing what you really want is at the root of anxiety. When you don't know where you want your life to go, then you'll constantly vacillate. And vacillating is a surefire way to make no progress, which always feels bad.
When you don't know what you want, everything seems seductive. Every person who pretends that they've got it all figured out - which is nearly everyone these days - will seem worth emulating. I spent part of today watching a YouTube video of someone else working - and I was taking notes!
There's an effort chasm between following a known path and forging your own. When you make the jump off a known path, you have to start figuring out what is worth doing, because nobody else will be able to show you. This is really fucking hard. In the beginning, it's a constant tax you pay. It's like a universal basic handicap. With every task you choose to do, a part of your brain will worry about whether that's really the best thing you could be doing.
Welcome to my current reality: with every task, I compulsively re-derive my path from first principles. All you can do is reassure yourself to trust your own process. That will feel a lot more credible if you can arrive at a process worth trusting, so get there, too. Ask your friends for feedback. Develop your own Master Plan. Once you've got it, and it passes the sniff test from a few allies, then trusting the process gets a whole lot easier.
Continuing to work backwards here: how do you figure out what you want?
That's a centrally good question. There are lots of ways. Ask yourself (and those same friends) when you were happiest. Ask yourself when you felt most fulfilled. Are there any patterns?
For me, I'm happiest when I feel like I'm growing rapidly, and when I have the freedom to focus on that growth. I'm happiest when I feel like I belong to a group of friends that love each other, where every pairwise relationship is strong. I'm happiest when I'm building something with a small team of buddies that are all excited. I'm happiest in beautiful places outdoors, reading a great book.
I'm happiest when I tell a friend that I love them. I'm happiest on warm summer nights. I'm happiest in a happy crowd, like when supporting my friends playing a concert or while playing beach volleyball. I'm happiest when I'm dancing uninhibited where there's room to roam and no one to judge. I'm happiest when two people get excited about ideas together. I'm happiest when Rose and I get excited about our future together.
I'm happiest when I make someone laugh. I'm happiest when Rose and I wake up in the morning and she moves over to my chest to snooze. I'm happiest when the band hits a sublime groove. I'm happiest when I post on social media and I get messages from old friends that I haven't talked to in years.
I'm happiest when a friend and I decide to go on a walk without knowing where the road will lead. I'm happiest while enjoying a morning latte, and then again after a few hours of deep work before noon when I've already won the day.
I'm happiest while writing and it flows and I'm surprised and delighted by what's coming out, like right now.
But is happiness really all that there is to life? Honestly: maybe. I used to think that happiness wasn't all it was cracked up to be, because I had a period of life in my mid twenties in which I was constantly partying, laughing, and racking up great stories, but I still felt empty inside. But now I wonder if that was just because I was only experiencing a narrow slice of the things that make me happy. Happiness is multivariate, and if you're only experiencing laughter but not intimacy, or excitement but not growth, then that isn't a state that feels complete long-term. It was wonderful for the year or two that it lasted, but I was occasionally dissatisfied with my life.
It's because I didn't understand what I wanted.