So… what are you doing with your life?

This question, often asked around the holiday season by a family member with seemingly too much time on their hands, is known to send many a millennial reeling into a pit of despair. It feels like nothing you can say will satiate the underlying question you suspect is at the bottom of this ruthless confrontation—“What’s your plan for how to stop being a failure already?” It can put you on the defensive, to say the least.

Fret not, because this dreaded holiday tradition can actually be a good thing. Think of it as a vicious sucker punch that makes you realize you need to work on your reflexes and be prepared. (This might actually also be a lesson you learned from family during the holidays.) By demanding that you be able to articulate some sort of response, the “what are you doing with your life” conversation can push you to define what you want to yourself. So instead of approaching the conversation unarmed, take a moment to ask yourself what you want. And be prepared to share it with loved ones who genuinely want to be let in. That said, it’s still a tricky question to navigate so we came up with a few tips to help prepare you for battle. Now say it to yourself: you will make it through.

1. Share your immediate goal instead of your whole life plan

Instead of getting bogged down by the daunting idea of what you are going to do with the entire rest of your life, consider what your goals are for the next year, the next few months or even the next few weeks. Acceptable answers include: “I’m planning a few meetings with friends in the (____) industry to see if it could be a good fit,” or, “I’m taking an Coursera class on (____) to gain a new skillset and see if I enjoy the work,” or “I’m working on a side project to add to my portfolio while I save up money.” Be sure to preface this with something smart-sounding like “I don’t feel like it makes sense to plan ten steps ahead right now when life is changing so quickly, but I do know what I want to do right now.”

2. Be brutally honest

Remember that if you don’t see or talk to your relatives very often, their questioning may be coming from a place of legitimate wonder, not just worry. It could be their way of showing that they care about what’s happening in your life. They will be most alarmed when you seem to have no goals or vision at all, so as uncomfortable as it may be, your best alternative is to let them in a little. If you’re at a difficult crossroads in your career path, don’t put all your efforts into sugar-coating it. Explain what’s really going on. Maybe you say something like, “I thought I wanted to dedicate myself to (___), but it struck me this year that it just won’t make me happy. So now I’m focusing on figuring out how I can pursue something more meaningful.” If you share your struggles with your family, not just your high points, you may be surprised by their support. They could even offer you an unexpected contact or useful advice. At the very least, by explaining what you’re looking for, they won’t keep bothering you with “opportunities” that don’t fall in line with your actual interests.

3. Go vague: share your values and ultimate goals in life

As you have these conversations, one thing to keep in mind is not to let the smaller picture interfere with the bigger picture and let you lose sight of your values. You can make sure to avoid this is by answering family question with what you ultimately want out of life. Whether that’s becoming a recognized leader in your field, adding something new and unique to the world, or finding the stability to build a family, it will clarify what makes you happy in life and what doesn’t. Perhaps your relatives, as many of us often do, assumed you both prioritize the same things and were offering you the advice they would want. By clarifying where you’re coming from, you won’t be comparing apples to oranges in every conversation.

4. Explain your career goals and choices in terms they understand

It’s a certifiable fact that career trajectories for younger generations just don’t look like what they did for our parents and grandparents. We tend to job hop, switch career trajectories and embrace jobs and industries that didn’t even exist a couple of decades ago. This can make our life choices all the more difficult to explain. One approach to remedying this distance is to compare your situation to something in your relatives’ wheelhouse. Do you manage social media for a brand? Instead say that like marketers and ad agencies, you represent the voice of a brand for customers.

Another approach is to explain what the purpose of your job (or dream job) is, while skipping the technical description. You want to work at a data analytics consulting firm? No no no, you want to help identify patterns for companies to give them an edge against competitors. To be clear, it can be a dangerous road to begin this conversation. You may end up explaining the internet for hours on end. Your best shot is to give the condensed explanation with as many people around as possible so you don’t have to repeat yourself.

5. When all else fails, be thankful

You might try every trick in the book and still be faced with a puzzled look and disapproving nod. It won’t always be possible to get everyone on your page, but at the end of the day, you’re family. Use that! (And we mean that in the most loving way possible.) Try saying this: “I’m thankful that even though you may not understand where I am right now, you care enough to ask.” Depending on the feedback you’re getting, you can even add in a little, “and I know that you’re there for me no matter what.” Self-fulfilling prophecy!

Have a wonderful holiday season! For more career advice and tips, see the rest of our articles here.


Amanda Sol Peralta

Amanda is Live in the Grey's Editorial Specialist. She is a pop culture fanatic, social media baby and feeler of emojis. Tweet at her @amndsl.


  • Brilliant post Amanda. It can feel like so much pressure to communicate what you’re doing with your life when you really have no idea. From the work I do with clients, lots of them didn’t know until their mid-thirties (which was the same for me). When you’re unsure, it can feel like time is slipping away but the truth is, it’s never to late to start something new. I have one client who started a new business in her early 60s!

    I love all of your tips but the first one about focusing on the short term goal for now is so helpful. Often those tiny action steps lead you to where you want to be. You just may not know where that is right now.

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  • Palesa Ntlamelle

    This is such an insightful post .
    I graduated last year round about this time. I have been at home trying a number of things to make money. I recently found a new love, Digital Marketing and I now want to pursue a career in that sphere.
    However I am not yet a novice and every time family,or neighbours ask me what I am doing, I literally freeze.At some point I started avoiding being around people, just so I can avoid answering that question.
    But now I stopped being miserable and I have started managing a friends social media page. As much as I tell people about this achievement they seem to not believe in it.Thus they still send me vacancies to apply for.
    It can be tough trying to start a business and actually get people to understand what it is you are trying to do. BUT I just got what I needed from your tips. Thank you.

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