Back by Popular Demand: Quiz–Are You Drifting?


Every Wednesday is Tip Day, or Quiz Day.
This Wednesday: Quiz — Are you drifting?

I hear from readers so often about the notion of “drift” that I’m re-posting this quiz from a few years ago.

What is “drift”? Drift is the decision you make by not deciding, or by making a decision that unleashes consequences for which you don’t take responsibility.

One of the problems of drift is that we try to deny we’re drifting. Take this quiz: how many of these statements apply to you, in your current situation? The more checks you make, the greater your risk for being adrift.

__ I often have the peculiar feeling that I’m living someone else’s life, or that this isn’t my “real” life, which hasn’t yet begun.
__ I often think, “This situation can’t go on,” but then it does go on.
__ I spend a lot of time daydreaming about a completely different life as an escape from what I’m doing now.
__ I find myself getting very angry if someone challenges the values that I think I’m working toward. (E.g., working like crazy as a fifth-year associate at a law firm, and furious if someone argues that money and security aren’t important.)
__ I complain about my situation, but I don’t spend much time trying to figure out ways to make it better. In fact…
__ I fantasize that some catastrophe or upheaval will blow up my situation. I’ll break my leg or get transferred to another city.
__ I find myself having disproportionate reactions. (For example, I have a friend who wasn’t admitting to herself that she wanted to be an actor, and she decided to give it a shot after she started crying when someone started talking about acting.)
__ I feel like other people or processes are moving events forward, and I’m just passively carried along.
__ I find myself doing or getting something because the people around me are doing it or want it.
__ There is something in my life about which I used to be passionate, but now I never allow myself to indulge in it. In fact, it makes me uncomfortable even thinking about it.
__ I’ve justified certain actions on my part by assuring myself, “I might as well,” “It can’t hurt,” “This might be useful,” “This will keep my options open,” “I can always decide later,” “I can always change my mind,” “Nothing is forever,” “How bad can it be?” “How can I turn down this opportunity?”

According to the First Splendid Truth, to be happier, you need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

Of these four elements, “feeling right” is the hardest to explain. “Feeling right” is feeling like you’re leading the life you’re meant to live; that you’re living up to your expectations for yourself; that you feel comfortable with the life you’ve chosen.

Feeling right might mean being in the right career. One reason I left law was that I was haunted by the feeling that I was…on a tangent, off-center. I can’t describe it any other way. There I was, clerking for Justice O’Connor, and I was haunted by a feeling that it was all a digression. From what, to what? That’s what I had to figure out.

Some people don’t “feel right” because they don’t have the family situation they want, or the financial situation they expected. Or they’re not spending their time on something that’s important to them. My Manhattan-raised college roommate didn’t “feel right” about living in the Midwest; she tried and tried, but her life there just didn’t feel right.

I think “feeling right” is especially susceptible to outside pressures. We drift into certain decisions because other people approve of them. Your sense of what is right for you becomes clouded by what other people think is right. You drift into medical school because your parents will be pleased. You drift into marriage because all your friends are getting married. You drift into a job because someone offers you that job. You want the respect of the people around you, or you want to avoid a fight or a bout of insecurity, so you take the path of least resistance. That’s drift.

The word “drift” has overtones of laziness or ease. Not true! Drift is often disguised by a huge amount of effort and perseverance. Just because you’re working hard is no guarantee that you’re not drifting. For me, law school was drift, and it was hard every step of the way, from the LSAT to the New York Bar exam. In the end, I’m happy I did go to law school — and that’s another tricky thing about drift. Sometimes drift does make you happy. But don’t count on it.

One of my drift-related Secrets of Adulthood is “You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.” And here’s another one: “Approval from the people we admire is sweet, but it’s not enough to be the foundation of a happy life.”

It comes back, as always, to a fundamental truth about happiness, and my First Commandment: Be Gretchen. (Feel free to substitute your own name.) In order to be happy, I have to know myself and build my life around my own nature.

Have you ever found yourself drifting? How did you start, how did you end it — or not?

* There’s a huge amount of interesting material on the Psychology Today site.

* If you’d like a free, personalized bookplate for your copy of The Happiness Project — or as a gift for someone else — email me at gretchenrubin1 at gmail dot com. (Don’t forget the “1”.) Be sure to include your mailing address, feel free to ask for as many as you like, and yes, I’ll mail them anywhere in the world.

  • I started drifting towards the end of undergrad – wound up in law school simply because it seemed like a good answer to ‘so what are you going to do with that philosophy degree?’. Drifted out again (family crisis provided the excuse), and then into massage therapy school, then into a random job The drift continued until one day I decided I should join a rock band, something I’d wanted to do since I could talk. Met my future husband in the band, got a new job within a few months, and things have been changing rapidly ever since. Although I am not drifting now, I may have been… coasting… until last fall when I got married – it sparked some additional changes, like working on my own writing projects, and taking a more active role in deciding when to have children.

  • Hi Gretchen,

    I’ve discovered two kinds of drifting. Drifting on someone else’s river of life, where you end up going places you don’t really want to go – a common situation and what I think of after reading your quiz.

    Then drifting on your own river, going along with the flow of your right life. This type of drifting, I don’t see folks doing enough of. Now that I’m on my own river, I enjoy taking time out to drift. It’s an agenda-free, list-free time, where I’m in the groove of my life, enjoying the relaxing beauty of my personal river.

    Thanks! G.

    • gretchenrubin

      About that second kind of drift–I talked about that in my first post about
      drifting, here:

      I called it the “pathless path” — which isn’t drift, if that’s what you
      intend to do (as in your case). Deliberately chosen, it can be great, as you
      say; “drift” is when you are being carried by something other than your own

      • I’m on the pathless path as well … Have been for over 20 years.

  • Myrlin271

    I took the quiz and i am not a drifter at all. I guess that is because i have always been very focused and always wanting to know what is the most important things for me and how to get there. Drifting for a long time may not be a good thing. However, Now, i am thinking, if i try drifting for a short while and i may discover something new for myself.

  • I think I’ve been drifting since I got married. Mostly because the priority was to keep a roof over our heads and medical insurance while paying for my husband to finish school. So whatever could accomplish that I took. But now he’s done and we’ve both decided we hate where we’ve drifted too. So in May we’re quitting our jobs and moving to a new state so he can write full time (this is not 100% insane, he has a published book and paying blogging gigs) and I can go back in to the field I went to school for and love!

  • Jorunn

    Hi Gretchen!

    My form of drifting is a good example that drifting isn’t always an easy or fun thing to do.

    Ever since I was able to hold a pencil I’ve been drawing, and art has always been my one great talent. As a result I went abroad to England to study, came back home to Norway with a degree in Fine Art and called myself a painter. I also proceeded to study some art history and systematically filled my book cases with art books. However: with my paintings it was always more pain than fun, and I had trouble fitting into the persona I thought a painter should have – troubled, ironic, and able to think about abstract concepts all the time and how to make them into paintings. It was such hard work, but for me, that was drifting. I was fulfilling the destiny I thought I had, seeing as I was so talented. It wasn’t just that other people thought I should become a great artist, I thought so myself.

    A different side to my artistic talent is that I’ve always drawn little funny drawings, and I love reading comic books much more than I like reading my art books. I love to crack jokes and make other people laugh. I’d toyed with the idea of making comics myself, and even entered a contest where I was runner-up. Four years ago, I managed to get some comic strips printed in a local newspaper. To make a long story short – I now make a living from my comics, which is something I really love to do. I had some internal battles prior to making this step, because I considered painting as a much higher form of art than comic-making, and thought it was a waste to spend my working days drawing silly things. But it makes me happy, and it makes my readers happy. So why not?

  • Ann

    Hi Gretchen
    What a great quiz! These are the kind of questions I feel I should be asking myself regularly – once or twice a year – to determine whether I have started drifting or not….
    Sometimes it’s easy to get back on track when you recognise the drift for what it is. Sometimes it’s the impetus that’s needed to makes some big changes.

    Either way, I think you’ve raised some very good points for questioning our life choices.

  • Luna

    This is such an excellent article. I love how you went through every aspect of drifting. I am fortunate in my life in that I have used my inner compass to guide me to where I really want to be. I wait for a feeling to come to me that gently pushes me into the direction I want to go into and I follow that feeling. When I begin to feel that I am not good where I am I let my inner compass direct me to where I need to be. I had a job I adored and had spent a fortune going to university to pursue. When I became pregnant it never crossed my mind I would want to quit my job after mat. leave and stay at home with my child yet when I returned to work my compass told me overwhelmingly I wanted to be home with my child. I have been home ever since and I am so happy. I’ve never worried about what others are doing or what they think about what I do. The whole stay at home Moms don’t get respect thing I’ve never even noticed because I’m so comfortable with my choice. This is such a valuable and helpful article I think I’ll keep it in case I ever lose my way.

  • Peninith1

    This is an amazingly incisive set of questions. I would say that as I age, and find that some options are not wide open for me because I simply can’t physically DO them any more, some of these questions are also a little poignant. I urge younger people who hear the bugle of a wakeup call here to heed it! I remember a time when, without thinking what I was doing, I often imagined what my life would be like in one of the buildings full of efficiency apartements I walked past on my way to work in Washington, D.C. Fortunately, I woke up to my drift, which was about a very unfortunate and destructive marriage, in good time to move along to a life of my own and a HOME of my own that offers me far more richness than the ‘room of my own’ fantasy even dared to imagine.

    • gretchenrubin

      this is such a great reminder of why it’s a mistake to wait for “someday” —
      if something is important to you, try to find a way to bring it into the

  • gilda

    AY mi sra .ud da consejos tan tan ,creibles pero es la realidad popular la q nos hace ,temer a los cambios ,comodice estar a la deriva ,se ve muy bien escrito ,salen palbras muy bien fundadas ,como consejo pero hay realidades ,qson muy duras ,y eso nos hace incredulos de pensar mas bien positivos no se si me entiendo ,meencanta ver q su realidad es ayudar con su escrito ,pero vivmos tambien con nuestro amigo temor ,miedo ,eso es dificil de llevar ,sabemos qhay q ser positivos ,uno lo intenta ,pero gracias ,a ratos mesiento muy bien con sus escritos ,gracias por q ud se toma el tiempo,de ayudarnos ,eso se agradece .muchas gracias ,chilena agradecida .(ojala pueda leer micomentario).

  • I ended an unhappy marriage that I had been content to drift with until the “not rightness” became unbearable – a good signpost!!

    People drift for many reasons. One of the main ones being their perceived lack of deserving happiness – especially at the expense of others.

    How many people do you know who are stuck in bad relationships because they don’t want to rock the boat, or have other people judge them? If they really knew in their hearts they deserve to be happy, they’d cut themselves loose.

    It comes down to self-esteem as do so many other happiness blockers.

    Great thought provoking post re drift.

    Live Life Happy!

    • gretchenrubin

      It’s interesting — I was thinking of drift in the context of career
      choices, but many people here have been pointing out drift in relationships,
      which I hadn’t thought about. Obviously, hugely important there, too.

  • Grayfinn

    Hello Gretchen, so identifying drift in our lives is a first step. What next? How do we deal with drift as a pattern in our lives. How do we keep the rudder down and take control?

    • gretchenrubin

      Ah, this is the big question!! For me, the most important step was to allow
      myself to acknowledge what I really wanted to do. Once I was able to
      recognize it, I was able to make changes — actually pretty quickly – to
      make the switch. What has been other people’s experience with getting out of

      • This is not the most mature strategy, but in the several instances I’ve encountered drift, I have found it necessary to create crisis to “justify” retooling my life. From nearly failing out of undergrad until I moved from engineering to social sciences, to developing a dangerous health crisis when I needed a reason to no longer be the bread-winning lawyer, I’m remarkably good at conjuring drama where necessary. For me, it actually feels necessary to combat my southern girl tendency to suck it up in order to please others. I’m working hard on coming to terms with the idea that it is not in fact “necessary” — that I desperately desire a change can and should be enough.

      • mom2luke

        If you haven’t already, try being a “lifelong learner” by taking a class. Any class! I can’t tell you how many people I know* got on the right track by simply signing up for a class true to their passions/interests/curiousity. Online, in-person, community college, 4-year college, adult ed, whatever, just do it! It doesn’t have to be a degree program or a certificate (tho it might lead to those) just a subject of interest. It’s nourishment for your soul.

        *I wrote about nontraditional students for 10 years for an association of the evening/continuing education divisions of colleges and universities…zillions of inspirational success stories of people who changed their lives, often while working full time and/or raising children. Don’t know how they found the time but they did.

  • Katie M

    “Drifter” is a perfect way to describe me. I qualify on SO many of your points, esp. the fantasies about a catastrophe. Wow. So maybe I need to stop daydreaming about some life-threatening illness that will justify me making some changes and instead figure out how to start rowing and in what direction.

  • wannabevagabond

    I grew up being taught to drift. I still see my parents doing it, like they always have. It was the only thing I ever knew until about halfway through college.
    I made the upsetting (to them) decision to major in art instead of something “worthwhile”. It was one of the first decisions I made for me.
    Then I met my now husband and he encouraged me to be independent and think for myself to really learn who I am.
    I still feel like I’m drifting a little with my current job, which doesn’t make me happy, but, I’m working on that, and that feels good!

  • Sometimes the tides in life can help us drift off course – make a map of intent, a destination route, and keep yourself headed for something real and then you’ll have a whirl in every port!

  • I think everyone is subject to drift every now and then. Sometimes a little drift is necessary to figure out where we are, especially after a major life change when it’s usually unwise to just make quick, snappy decisions. But perhaps this is purposeful drift, sort of putting a decision on the back burner for a while to make sure it’s right before moving ahead. Continuous drift, on the other hand, is allowing life to slip on by without making any decisions.

    Thanks for writing such a poignant, thought-provoking topic.

  • CB

    I took this quiz a year ago and checked off 10 out of 11. Today I checked off only three. Yes, it did take a crisis to change (realizing that my mother needed to be in a nursing home; her needs had gone beyond my skills), but it’s good to not to be drifting in the service of others.

    And all the daydreaming I did (question #3) is now the action plan I’m following by free lancing in my chosen field.

  • Hi Gretchen! Thank you writing the Happiness Project book! I loved it. This blog post in particular definitely speaks to me. I have been a drifter my whole life. I have wanted to be an entertainer as long as I can remember, from being a little girl. My dad and brother used to laugh at me because not only was I chubby, I am also Indian and born and raised in Canada, and browned skinned. Now that I am 24, it seems like a little obstacle that could be easily overcomed, but as a child, I never saw my reflection in the Hollywood scene. I tried pursuing an English degree but I never had the motivation to complete the degree because the program didn’t involve an “atmosphere of growth”. It was the same essays year after year with different books and little actual learning. For the past 3 years since getting the boot from university, I have received a high GPA and great un-paid co-op opportunitites. I am planning to go to university for another 2 yrs to get a degree to get my HR designation. All this is DRIFTING!!! I feel like my family would feel like I am making a huge decision that would place me in an financially unsecure position. This is fair as they have been a huge financial and emotional source of support. I don’t know how to stop drifting. Money can’t buy happiness, but in this case it would give me the ability to stop drifting. I don’t know what to do, but I just needed to write it. I have never told anyone in my whole life.

  • SagCap

    “Approval from the people we admire is sweet, but it’s not enough to be the foundation of a happy life.” This is my truth, that I have been operating almost entirely for others and barely know what it is I want or who I am.

  • Skmfisher

    Great article! After 20+ years at the same company, I’m SURE I’m drifting. I am aware of it and it’s ok. For now. It’s a good job with a good working environment, so-so pay (what isn’t nowadays?) and good benefits but no retirement. Unfortunately, being a family-owned company, the hierarchy is shifting and the company politics are getting extreme which makes for a less than “good” working environment. Ultimately, I’d like to be doing the same job in a bigger or better company. Yes, politics are everywhere, but you simply have to find a place with a level of it that you can tolerate. This place is getting out of my tolerance zone.

    This hits a note with me in this respect:
    When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.
    — Lao Tzu

  • NJ

    I know I am drifting. I consider every day what I should do. My problem is I have no dreams, no hidden talents or desires and no passion. I would love to figure out what I should do because then I know I would move towards it. My sense of feeling right is very clouded, I have sometimes drifted along reluctantly with other peoples ideas and found them to be a great experience and then again sometimes they are not. It makes me doubt my judgement.

    • gretchenrubin

      This is really tough. Hang in there. Just beginning to ask yourself
      questions, and to be aware of wanting to know what you want, is a step.

    • Em Budu

      what did you enjoy doing when you were a child?….

    • K

      I’m in a similar boat, except I do have desires and passions – they just don’t offer me any means of employment. I’m 26, hate my job (as I hated my last job, and the one before that), but don’t have any marketable skills or experience that would allow me to find something better. I have no idea what to do with myself. I change my mind so often about my goals that I don’t know how to actually pursue them – they would all require years of effort (which could be wasted, because I can never make up my mind) and/or money that I don’t have.

      • Phillip Dobson

        Most of the time for most people, a job is a means to an end, not the definition of their life. Work isn’t often fun, and it is rarely connected with pleasure. I happen to love what I do as a writer, but I don’t earn a living at it, and don’t expect to. I do it because I love it, and I work because I need the money to support my writing habit. You can find a balance by designing your life around what and who you love, and if your work is what you love to do, congratulations! Otherwise, work enough to make a living so you can do what you love to do and be with the people you love!

        • Kate Viggiano Janich

          I LOVE your reply. I think a lot of the pressure comes from expectations that our careers will be everything – joyful, fruitful, and meaningful. It’s taken me 10 years to realize – if I like it, if I like the people, if it’s interesting, if I’m making money and supporting myself/my family, then that’s great! I can make time around work to pursue other passions and make a difference in other ways.

  • Hassler

    Thanks for putting a name to what I have allowed myself to do. Naming it was the first step to a series of steps I’ve begun to end the drifting.

  • The other day I found myself saying “I would totally do that in another life.” I say this about a couple of things. Time to consider giving it a try? I think so.

  • Marcela Garcia

    Wow, great quiz. I guess I’m drifting. My problem is that I’m very scared of whatever the right path will be if this one is not the right one… and of what will be revealed about me that I might not like. Also, whenever I think of completely leaving my present occupation, it makes me sad. But I find hope when I read Jorunn’s story: not a painter, in the end, but a comic drawer. Not exactly one thing but a close relative… mmm I will be giving this a lot of thought.

  • James19

    I’m honestly floating in the wind. I have no ambitions or applicable talents, and no real drive to get things done. I do things for the hell of it (when I actually do things), and I don’t enjoy life in general.

  • Shapelle

    I just hit 8/11 on the drifting quiz and it has definitely been dragging my happiness down. For me it’s living abroad for two years on the opposite side of the world – a difficult thing, but also what everyone else is doing. While I love so many things about it, my issue is that I’m in constant limbo, as I can’t start a career, have no money, nothing to work towards, no point beginning a relationship, etc, etc. As a result, I think I may make a decision that other people may see as a cop-out, but which to me is the hardest but possibly most ‘feeling right’ decision – to go home early. I’m coming to see that there is nothing wrong with living abroad for just one year, I don’t have to do two just because the visa office set that arbitrary length of time, and I’m allowed to come home to find my ‘actual life’ again.

  • N.

    Yep, sounds accurate. I picked a profession that is unfulfilling. I often drink myself into oblivion to escape reality and stress and am currently going back to school for the same thing. Haha..sigh.

  • xarie

    This post is old, so nobody will see my comment, but anyway. I think I am actually scared to death about drifting, to the point where it is bad for me. I cant take decisions, not because I just choose to not take on and just follow where life brings me like explained here, but because I am stalled at the same place over-thinking about what the right decision is. When I finally make a decision, I immediately doubt I did the right think I and will have a LOT of anxiety over it. To the point where life just seems to complicated and hurtful to live. I have to learn to go with the flow sometimes…

    • mom2luke

      And now you can read her book Better Than Before and see that, as a questioner, this is a common problem for us! A mindfulness class helped me: “It is what it is and that’s OK.” And you go on from there, doing the best you can with the circumstances you are in. Accept what you must, change what you can, wisdom to know the difference. And courage too. Hope you’ve figured some things out by now! Even tho the post is old, this is my 3rd time reading it and it has struck me differently each time. Life is like that.

  • Chuck T.

    It’s interesting to read this post today, because I recently got the news that my contract would not get renewed.

    As long as the news was still “fresh”, I was getting angry and scared that I lost my stability for work but I soon discovered that although I thought I succeeded to get the job of my dreams, I actually didn’t like the job I was doing,and I hated working there and working with my boss was terrible on my morale. It truly diminished me.

    So now, I find myself avoiding to take a decision on what to do next and daydreaming a lot about what I could do. It’s hard to get out of this pattern, especially when you have no clue where to go or what to go for… The only thing I know is that companies are attracted by my profile, which is good, but all the offers are abroad, which means putting an end to my personal life (leave my friend, my boyfriend etc) for a job that I might not even like. The only thing I know for sure that will make me happy is to stay close to my friends and keep my relationship. But now the challenge is to find what job I can and want to do… and it’s the hardest part to fill 🙂

  • Angela

    Hello Gretchen,
    I have been in this situation before and hope that is not the case presently. I had worked feverishly towards earning my first degrees in both fine arts & graphic design which included all five disciplines, but my hands were tied when I had to drop out of school. It was both financial and also, a lack of support from the institution I was attending. The last six months of 2013, I was drifting and in denial about it. I just couldn’t except that I was somewhere that started to cause me both mental and physical health to decline. I wanted to reach my goals, but each step I took towards them doors were slamming in my face. Needless to say, I left after 5 years of hard work with nothing really to show for my efforts which was very disheartening. I hope that one day I can still go back and strive for my BFA in both majors. Presently, I have humbled myself by going back to work in the service industry until that time comes. I’m trying to keep positive on a project that I’ve been working on for the past year that actually utilizes many of the skills that I’ve learned over the years at college which I’m hopeful will help me going forward into the industry I’d like to be working in right now. My family and I have long discussed moving out of state to where there is even more opportunity for both myself and my husband. It is then that I hope to transfer my credits earned if they are not obsolete by that time. My only goal right now is to finish my first documentary which I have put blood, sweat, and tears into for the last year. I was feeling really good about until today. My partner/mentor has gotten a full time position and even though I am incredibly happy for her, I am also concerned that this will be the one thing to halt work on the film. I may be wrong, but at the same time I need to be realistic about the situation. I will of course go on doing what I am currently doing and pray for things to work out. It pains me that I feel at such a disadvantage in my life’s works and find myself drifting back into depression. My family only has one income~ mine at the moment, until my husband starts his new job in a couple of weeks. My anxiety is really taking a toll on me with the absorption of these changes. I only want to get done what I’ve started and am hopeful that I will get back into what was once a strong passion for me which is creation of artworks on and across all mediums.

  • mom2luke

    Thanks for reminder, Gretchen. Your Wednesday tips and podcasts are a great source of happiness for me and food for thought. I can listen while walking or doing housework and they never fail to make me feel less alone and empowered. I think Elizabeth is way too hard on herself about the novel. As a professional writer I know it is darn near impossible to ALSO write in your limited spare time when you actually need a BREAK from writing! She should put that dream on back burner and do the unrelated goal of learning to cook instead. It will be more fun and might yield fodder for her YA novel WHEN she has energy/sabbatical to write her novel (look at bestseller Julia and Julie!) AND cooking can be a SHARED activity with Jack and Adam. Writing a novel is too solitary an activity for a young mother/wife working full time! Save it for when he is a teen and WANTS time away from her. Right now I know he would love helping her chop vegetables. My son does! (He’s 15 w/ autism, but one of my great joys is teaching/cooking with him).

  • Pingback: Can You “Drift” Your Way into Graduate School? Oh Yes. « Positively Positive()

  • Katie

    I am curious how you have found the tendencies to influence drift, particularly for obligers. I am an obliger, and as such I have spent much of my life living to expectations of others – parents, bosses, teachers, etc. I have been trying to be more purposeful in my pursuits because I do feel like there’s something more…something that I’m just not quite getting. I’ve been working to undo years of conditioning myself to look at things from another’s point-of-view. I’ve been able to recognize that the voice inside my head is someone else’s voice (parents, teachers, boss, etc.) but I haven’t quite found my own voice yet. Any tips or strategies you’ve encountered that can help an obliger like me start to recognize my own passions and goals?