I feel lost. As I write, this is my emotion, and I have some thoughts on this topic that I would like to convey. This is not the first time I have felt lost — indeed, I feel like this often when I have finished a big project and am looking for my next venture. In general, the advice I hear from people when someone says they are lost is to either: (a) go on vacation or; (b) discover yourself by trying out new things. Why does going to a different place help you find yourself? Why does doing new things help you find yourself? In my opinion, neither of these things help you when you feel lost.
Let’s address these responses individually. Firstly, going to a different place will never help you find yourself because your true self is not in that different place — it is with you everywhere you go. Your true self is not in another city or country, it is inside of you. Many people say that going on vacation will help you find yourself because you will be surrounded by new things, and you do not have to worry about everything that previously made you feel bad.
The problem is, though, that as soon as you come back from vacation, everything will still be there — you will have the same problems to address. The Stoics thought that going on a retreat or vacation was “unphilosophical” because finding yourself occurs from within. There is no greater place to think about one’s self than inside their own mind. When someone feels confused or lost, the best thing to do is to address the problem head-on, and carefully consider one’s own existence and why they feel the way they do. Vacations only allow you to defer this consideration for a few days.
The second response — that trying something new will help you find yourself — is also largely unhelpful. Consider this: if you feel lost, why will exploring new territory help you find your way back? Let’s say you were an explorer in the jungle. Would you take a new path to find your way back when you are lost, or would you retrace your steps until you found your way back? I assume that you would do the latter. The same thing applies in the context of “finding yourself”. If you feel lost, then the best thing to do is to reflect on your life, and what made you feel great before. This is because your past experiences are part of you, whereas exploring new paths and imagining the person you want to be is artificial — it is a thought.
I find that often when I am lost, it is because I have let other people get too involved in my life. When someone says that my contrarian path will never work, or disputes research or starting a company as a legitimate path for a young person, I sometimes start to think twice about my own decisions. I know that I should not do this; I am internally driven most of the time. I am merely stating that this is one of the propellants of my feeling lost. There is a quote by Emily McDowell which is very appropriate in this context: “’Finding yourself’ is actually returning to yourself. An unlearning, an excavation, a remembering of who you were before the world got its hands on you.” Suffice to say, most of us feel lost because we let other people get too involved with our lives — it’s an easy mistake to make.
A lot of us feel lost because we have let another person make our decisions for us, or internalized someone else’s opinion on our own decisions or life. The thing is that someone else is not you — they have no idea what is best for you. Your parents, for example, may think it is best for you to go get an internship for a local business, but if you are a programmer who has a job offer in front of them, then you know that your parents advice — while helpful — does not apply to your circumstances. This is one reason why I don’t like giving advice: I am not uniquely qualified to help anyone. Indeed, I struggle to make my own decisions (and many of those are deferred to my shareholders anyway!). The point is that if we try to live a life that is based on the decisions others have made for us, then of course we will be lost — we never get the opportunity to express our true self, and be who we want to be.
When I feel lost — as I do right now — I do not schedule a vacation or try something new. Rather, I reflect on my life. I think about what has made me happy in the past — what has given me a sense of purpose — and what makes me feel as if I have made an impact on the world. I go on a self retreat, where I consider all of these things and more in my own mind, and where I have the benefit of being able to analyze anything that I want. I walk around my own mind and try to figure out what has made me feel like a great person in the past. After some introspection, I realize that my self was not in fact lost — it was with me all along. Rather, I had simply become detached from the sense of self I have worked hard to cultivate because I have let what someone else has said interfere with my own thoughts.
Even when I do not feel lost, I frequently go on self retreats to evaluate my life, my progress, and my habits. These frequent evaluations allow me to gain a firmer insight into what is working in my life, what I should stop doing, and what should be changed in order to allow me to be my best self. At first, self retreats can be very difficult — it is just you by your lonesome. You have to train your mind to become comfortable with being itself. Sometimes your thoughts will get distracted, but that is a good thing — your mind is exploring its old thoughts. Sometimes your mind will travel to a place you have been trying to ignore. That is a good thing too — being conscious of your problems makes it easier to address them, and understand whether they are even a big problem anymore.
Don’t go on vacation or try something new; go on a self retreat. Think about your self, your interests, and your passions. You will find that you were never lost — your self was with you the whole time.