A few years ago I was financially strapped, pretty sad, and totally clueless about my direction in life. Basically, I was living an internal script that went something like this: my true passions are too hard to reach and not worth the risk.

I had entered my twenties as an imaginative but fearful third-year art history major, seriously doubting my decision to pursue such an impractical (but fascinating) discipline. As a fresh graduate, I felt uncertain and unemployable. So, I did what any clueless, idealistic kid would do: I immersed myself in service.

I moved into the inner city to work in after school programs and local church ministry. In many ways I was out of my depth, timidly herding a class of 20 behavioural preteen boys from the basketball court to the computer room. At my leanest, I never bought clothes or went out because I was making $600 per month in donations (mostly from Dad).

Writing always helped me through the worst of times and it’s the common thread of my colorful resume. But like most writers, I had never given myself full permission to go after my passion.

Things are different now. I’ve launched a freelance writing business that now fully supports me. And while I’m not making heaps of coin, I have a much better relationship with money.

But the best part is, I don’t feel lost or out of touch with my true passion. I’m living in alignment with my calling.

The principles I want to present here are personal lessons that helped me get to where I am now. If you’re feeling stuck, lost, or apathetic, I hope they inspire you to steer your life in an authentic direction.

One: Stop living someone else’s life.

Many of us live in the comfort zone of supporting someone else’s agenda to compensate for our lack of purpose.

That’s what happened to me in the inner city. Don’t get me wrong, building someone else’s dream to mentor at-risk kids was a noble thing, but it wasn’t my thing. That’s the point. It doesn’t matter how practical, logical, or spiritual it is – if it’s not satisfying your deepest values and needs, it’ll make you miserable.

One day my I confessed to my pastor my dissonance between my sense of calling to write and the work I was presently doing. I’ll never forget what he told me: “If writing is what you love, then you just need to start doing it.”

Easier said than done. At first, I didn’t act on this. I was scared to share my writing or look for opportunities to get paid. I figured there was too much catch up work to do, and maybe my purpose was here after all.

So I continued to aim low. While my friends got married, got promoted, and traveled the world, I procrastinated and second-guessed. I applied for a master’s degree, got rejected, applied for another, and had a second quarter-life crisis midway through. I did more than my fair share of toilet-scrubbing and hour-clocking at a soul-crushing cubicle job.

Worst of all, I let the comfort of the familiar, the certainty of external validation, and my own shortcomings restrict my steps.

Two: Start asking yourself what you want and value.

Probably the most powerful question I’ve ever asked myself in my twenties has been, “What do I want?” For a long time, it felt like I was so caught up in just “surviving” that I’d lost touch with my true desires altogether. Honestly, I figured creative types like me weren’t practical enough to indulge our dreams.

For the most part, I never even thought to ask. I assumed that was selfish. That is, until a conversation with my boss at the time, who was a professor of leadership. We were talking about my goals. I was telling him about goals that didn’t excite me, but were things I thought I should work on.

After patiently listening to me ramble, he looked at me thoughtfully and said, “What you need to think about is, what does Amy want?”

That question, or more so the fact that I had no answer yet, gnawed at me for months. But it unlocked a powerful discernment ability that I didn’t even know I could access.

Many people in their twenties are out of touch with what they want because they’ve never stopped to listen to their deep desires (including what they find themselves fantasizing about during work hours) or notice their behavioural patterns.

The key is to uncover your deep desires and integrate them into your journey of finding purpose. Often these desires are pushing and pulling us in different directions without us even knowing it.

Three: Absorb only as much information as you need to put into practice now.

I notice a shift that happens when children become adults and it’s this: we lose the learner’s mindset. We start cramming for tests, skim-read, and take crash courses, expecting the same results as someone who’s studied thoroughly. When our efforts fail, we over-compensate by absorbing even more information. Then one of two things happens: we become paralyzed, or we become addicted to the entertainment factor of information consumption.

But if you’ve ever had to be taught a new skill, whether it was piano or weight lifting or Spanish, you know a good teacher only reveals as much knowledge as the student needs to master at their current level.

Likewise, I’ve discovered, we often absorb more information than we know what to do with. Most advice is useless because we don’t take the time to test it for ourselves.

Don’t wait for the right advice before trying something. Find one thing you can apply from what you know already, and put it into action immediately. We learn by doing, and failing, than by endless theorizing.

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Four: Put yourself out there.

I’ve noticed this myth among people who talk and write about success and it’s that successful individuals are all one-man or one-woman shows. Anything we do in life that’s worthwhile is hard, and hard requires outside support. People who are good at getting outside support are more successful.

Things started changing for me once I told people I wanted to write. I discovered that most were happy to show support, whether through giving encouragement, ideas of where to start, or referrals to people working in companies that needed a good writer.

People cared more than I assumed, and they opened up opportunities that were otherwise hidden to me.

If you feel lost, develop your self-awareness. Ask yourself what you want right now, take time to identify your greatest values, and evaluate whether those values are being met in your life today. This is not selfishness, this is learning to walk with integrity.

If you already have a sense of what you want, take the next step! Take one small action that will start the process of learning how to get there. Ask for support and advice, and explore opportunities.

Amy is a freelance writer helping companies strengthen their brand with compelling, creative content. She holds an MTS from Tyndale Seminary and currently resides in Toronto, Canada.