5 Signs You Are On Autopilot

I was on autopilot for many years. Sure, I was traveling through life with my eyes open and my hands on the wheel. But it seemed as if I was heading toward some pre-determined destination that had been chosen for me by others. In addition, it seemed that whenever I turned the wheel to guide me toward this destination, that there was no conscious thought behind my actions. Are you on autopilot?

Admittedly this can be a tough question to answer. First, it is always hard to be brutally honest with oneself. If you realize that you are traveling through life on autopilot, you may just need to make some big changes. Second, how can you tell if you are? Personally, I believe the best method is to look for particular signs. The following are 5 signs that are either relevant to my life or the lives of some close friends of mine.

1. You know exactly where you will be in 5 years (and it depresses you!)

In many circumstances, knowing where you will be in 5 years time is a good thing as it is a sign that you have direction, goals, and purpose. But if you know exactly where you will be, and it depresses you, it is time to wake up, grab control of the wheel, and change course. I have a few friends who studied accounting at university and yet hated the idea of becoming an accountant. Fast forward 5 years to the present and guess what? They are accountants, and they hate it.

2. Your career is what your parents wanted you to do

Many of us make decisions, whether consciously or unconsciously, to please other people (eg our parents). If you are happy with your choice of career then there is probably nothing wrong with this. But it may be worth looking in the mirror and asking yourself a few tough questions. For example, am I really happy with my choice of career? Am I doing this because it is what I want to do? Or am I doing this to please someone else?

3. You went straight from school to college to work

Have you ever taken some time out to explore the world, find new interests that you never knew existed, or just get to know yourself better? One piece of advice I was given by my parents was this: finish your study (ie school and college) first and then travel. Was this good advice? Maybe. Maybe not. The scary thing for them was that I would take off midway through my university course and then, upon return, would no longer want to complete it. In my opinion, if someone returns home after travel and is not compelled to finish their study, it is a fairly good sign that it does not reflect their calling.

4. You did well in school and automatically chose a college course that was the hard to gain acceptance into (eg medicine or law)

I did quite well at school. Whilst I was not eligible to study medicine or law, I could basically do whatever else I chose. I remember feeling that because I had a relatively high score, I should choose a course that required a high score for entry. The problem with this attitude is that I automatically discarded a number of other potential career paths because I felt I was above them.

5. Your interests and/ or hobbies are all the same as from when you were a child

Once again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. But consider this example from my life: I began playing tennis from a young age, and played competitively at a fairly high level for a number of years. At 21, I decided I wasn’t having fun anymore and stopped playing. In retrospect, I should have made this decision much earlier as by the time I quit I had not been enjoying myself for approximately 3 years. Why hadn’t I quit earlier? I believe it was because I started playing from such an early age and just didn’t know any different. Putting away the tennis racquet, though, was one of the best decisions I have ever made (although, as a side-note, these days I enjoy playing on a social basis). I started to spend time pursuing other interests that had lied dormant because tennis had consumed my life.

Peter Clemens

Peter Clemens is founder of The Change Blog and author of The Possibility of Change books series. Click here to learn more about Peter and his books.

59 Comments

  1. Good post. Too many people today go through life on auto-pilot, just going through the motions. Much needed post in the world today.

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  2. I have definitely been on auto-pilot before. It is easy to become automated… I think it happens when you begin letting life just happen around you, rather than making your life happen. Great post.

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  3. Thanks for the comments everyone. I have to admit, I sometimes feel quite vulnerable openly discussing my life like this. It is nice to know the message of this post has resonated with a few people.

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  4. what if you enjoy your life being on autopilot?

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    • If you genuinely find meaning in what you are doing and are happy with who you are, you are not on autopilot. If you are on autopilot, aware of that, and are deliberately trying to stay that way by avoiding doing anything to change that, I would say that you are simply afraid to examine your life and face yourself.

      Reply
  5. This was a very interesting post…a subject I became very familiar with through the past several months. For me…I had no idea I was on auto-pilot because I had no idea that I was even moving in any particular direction…I just though the conditions of my life were basically the result of the belief I was led to believe in, which basically stated….
    “Life sucks..this is life on lifes terms…get used to it”
    I think many of us never even begin to realize the choices that we have to shape our own lives around a belief system that actually works. We (or I) tend to just go on what we were taught only discovering later that where these teachings led us, were not the places we really wnted to go in life.
    You wrote this so well…and really nailed it on the head.
    Just for today…I’m flying the plane of my own life….and the scenary is so much more rewarding.

    :)

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  6. Do I really need to answer that? Live your life on autopilot if that is what you enjoy. I try not to preach to my readers – I just want to give you ideas for how to live your best life. In this particular case, many people don’t even realize they are on autopilot. At the very least, they should know that there is another way to live. It is up to them whether or not they want to turn off the autopilot.

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  7. Hi 38kia,
    Thanks for the comment. You say “I was on autopilot”….. I am interested to hear what made you realize this and what changes you have made. On another note, at least you have come to come to this realization now (some people only do very late in their lives, if ever). Think of it as an opportunity to live the rest of your life in such a manner that you will have no further need to regret the past.

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  8. Autopilot is easy to engage… you train your subconscious on how to automatically navigate every day, with every thought and decision. You always retain the ability to take your life back OFF of autopilot, however, by building your awareness in the area of your life you want back.

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  9. By the way, is your top commenters thing per month, or did it get reset? I know I had ten or something comments just the other day.

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  10. i was on autopilot for the past… 4 years.. and i totally regret and wish if there was a rewind button for me…

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  11. Great post. Thanks.
    Its a bit like that thing of driving and despite getting from A to B without actually hitting anything you have absolutely NO recollection of ANY of the journey!
    I think we do this a lot in life. It’s not in itself a bad thing. If we had to be consciously aware of EVERYTHING we’d be paralyzed. However, if this is the sole, or main, way of living then we don’t grow, we have a feeling of life just happening to us and I suspect we just don’t get the richest experience of life on what you call “autopilot” – my variation of this word is “zombie” – I think people who go through life on “autopilot” are going through life as zombies. And it doesn’t have to be that way!

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  12. It resets monthly Jason. Good to see you back btw after your short hiatus :) .

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  13. Thank goodness my hobbies (blogging and podcasting at least) were not even invented when I was in college. For that matter the whole fire and wheel thing were pretty new :-)

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  14. The methaphor of an autopilot is an interesting one – try to steer your aircraft of live yourself, and you have a fair chance of crashing it. Quit your job as an accountant to become a globetrotter, but only do so if you know what to eat tomorrow. For some people, keeping the relatively safe auto-pilot engaged is just the right thing to do, no matter how happy they are.

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  15. I never know where I’m going to be in 5 years. LOL!

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  16. I disagree, Martin. Just because you disengage the autopilot doesn’t mean you have to change everything, or anything, for that matter… it just means that you’re consciously CHOOSING to do what you do, instead of doing it by default because it’s what you (or the people you observer) have always done.

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  17. My thoughts exactly Jason.

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  18. I really like this post. I was on autopilot for a really long time and now I am taking some time out, not working and just actually allowing myself time to see what comes along (physically and mentally). I don’t regret the time spent on autopilot though because it allowed me to get to where I am now and I appreciate it so much more!

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  19. Hi Lynsey, I’m glad you enjoyed the article and thanks for taking the timeout to leave a comment. I think you’re right – there is no point regretting the time spent on autopilot. But once you “wake up” and start living consciously there is no other way to live (in my humble opinion)……

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  20. When I dropped out of college for a semester, I thought it was the worst thing that could happen. But I was wrong. It was that experience that made me finally realize I had to study things that I wanted to, even if my parents didn’t like it. I never realized before that I was even doing everything school-wise for their sake.

    So now after a semester break, I’m going back to college to study something I want to study, and now I know I do want to be in college. I didn’t always feel like it was the right space for me, even if I was your typical honors student.

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  21. Thanks for sharing your story Maggie. That is exactly what this article is about.

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  22. I have the problem where I’m not on autopilot . . . I’m thoughtfully cruising toward oblivion.

    1. I have no idea where I’ll be in 5 years and it frustrates me.
    2. I didn’t listen to my parents who wanted me to get a trade like A/C repair under my belt. Instead I became a fiction writer and web designer for money . . . except I don’t make that much money and I don’t have enough time to write.
    3. After college I dorked around and spent too much money on fancy trips around the world, the details of which I can barely even remember any more.
    4. I did well in high school but I didn’t go law or medicine, jesus. If I’d done that I’d have the money to leave that occupation anytime I want and start a risky business like blogging.
    5. When I was a kid I liked eating my boogers and playing with Ninja Turtles. Today my hobbies include working non-stop and . . . nothing else. Being creative is for idiots. Auto-pilot sounds nice right now.

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  23. Except for the last one, I’d agree. I’m 60, and my childhood interests in books, gardening and writing remain become the backbone of who I am when I’m alone. Don’t dismiss the early clues!

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  24. e*: thanks for taking the time to comment. You raise a very good question: once identified, how should one turn off the autopilot? Stay tuned as I am working on a follow-up article to this one in which I will explore this issue.

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  25. I feel trapped after trying to escape autopilot by applying for an executive position and losing out to someone most people who know us both think is less qualified than me. It really appears that this was the one shot for quite some time that I was going to have to find a real challenge that might awaken me. In academe, the options narrow very quickly as you move up the ladder. My attempt to move into central administration was thwarted, and now I find doors closing around the university (it was well-known on campus that I was the internal candidate and did not get the job.) For years, I moved up steadily and found new challenges pretty readily, but those opportunities seem to be drying up.

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  26. I call it living intentionally. It is one thing to go through life as a zombie on one end of the scale or fearless risk-taker on the other end. You need to live life as an intentional measured risk-taker.

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  27. Completely understand the concerns expressed here. But if you think getting a better paid job will solve the problem I doubt it. Just living up to other peoples expectations aint going to solve the problem.
    I saw it quoted somewhere that most people “spend their lives doing jobs they hate, to buy things they dont want, to impress people they dont like”.
    I think the academic term is the “hedonic treadmill”. (Google that)
    Here’s a couple of great reads that show the value of simplifying your life…

    Confessions of a Long-Distance Sailor (Free ebook)
    http://www.arachnoid.com/lutusp/sailbook.html
    Written by a guy who sailed around the world.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Neale
    http://www.amazon.com/Island-Oneself-Tom-Neale/dp/0918024765/ref=sr_1_1/103-4089482-0536608?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1189391469&sr=8-1

    This is a book written by a guy who actually went and lived alone on a desert island. Probably one of the most
    calming, peaceful books I have read. Shows by comparison how complicated our lives are now!

    Jabber

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  28. All very great if you have time to waste. I am from India and people from developing countries cannot spend 5 years of their lives “discovering” themselves — it is a one-way ticket to bum-hood. And, looking around at people around me in the US (I am here now), I am seeing signs that the days of spending time “discovering” oneself are over in the US as well.

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  29. Great post!

    I’ll add my history: I was (and still am) an architecture stundent in Brazil. For 1 full year I was working, studying, playing soccer 4 or 5 times a week, going to the gym 3x and studying german. My day would start at 6:30 when I woke up and sometimes would end only at 1:30 in the morning. I was barely sleeping. That lead to a complete lack of energy on weekend and also lead to to some health problems that I’ve never had.

    Then I realized something was wrong. What I did to fix it? Decide to live abroad for 1,5 years. So I liver in London for 6 months, Italy 2 months, Munich 6 months and now I am moving to Sydney for 5 months.

    It’s only when you go out of that crazy life “hey, this is much more fun, why I was almost killing myself in something I don’t really like? Life is more than college, university, work”.

    I try to always keep the Smirnoff advertising in mind:
    “Life is calling. Where are you?”

    If you have a chance to live abroad for a while, please do. It is the best, by far, decision you can ever make in your life. It has completely changed my life and other’s people life for good.

    Best regards,
    Bruno.

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  30. I enjoyed the post very much – I’m at that stage of life where the road branches off, and I sometimes wonder if I’m on autopilot myself, although I’ve never exactly put the thought into words (which you’ve graciously done here).

    However, we have to be careful here – medicine and law are specifically mentioned, and the implication is that we shouldn’t all flock mechanically to those career. Yet, we have to make sure not to fall into the other extreme – that is to say, to completely discount those who aspire to becoming doctors or lawyers as little better than sheep. There are those who are truly inspired in those fields – I’ve had the good fortune to know a few such figures, and I can say that many such as they would not have had the chance to contribute as much as they had if they had not chosen the career that they did.

    But again, great article. I’m bookmarking this blog. ; )

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  31. Thanks everyone for the great feedback. It’s funny – I can never tell which of my articles will become “popular”. This article really seems to have made a lot of people think about their lives. I hope anyone who realizes they are on autopilot is inspired to disengage.

    Bruno: great story. You’ll love Sydney. If you get time, be sure to head to Western Australia (where I’m originally from) and, in particular, the South-West Corner (eg Margaret River). I am actually living in Vancouver at the moment, so I can personally vouch for how travel can be an eye-opening experience for SOME people (eg ME).

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  32. 3. You went straight from school to college to work

    What about those of us that don’t have a trust fund to fall back on, and can’t afford to backpack around Europe for a year or two to “find ourselves”? The rest I agree with, but this point seems kind of like a slap in the face to all us poor working slobs.

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  33. Greg, there are many ways to travel on the cheap. My trip after university was a working holiday – I was away for 11 months and worked for 9 of those. When I wasn’t working I was staying in backpacker hostels and living as cheaply as possible. I know travel isn’t an option for everyone – but you shouldn’t automatically assume that it is out of your reach because of your circumstances. Volunteering overseas is another option.

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  34. I’m not boring like the people on AUTO-Pilot! I love it! My career, friends, family, hobbies, and sexuality are all diverse and super interesting! I respect myself and I am very , very happy!!!

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  35. Great to hear you are very happy Will. I wonder though if we have the same definition of being on autopilot……

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  36. I agree that auto-pilot is bad. I disagree that these are necessarily signs that you’re on auto-pilot. To me, the ones steering boringly and blindly are the ones with excessive routine: wake up, go to work, feed the kids, help with homework, go to bed. Repeat. They’re the people who “brag” about not having taken vacation time in the last ten years. To me, that’s a sign of a boring, overworked person without much of a life. I don’t think method of career choice or length of hobby involvement have much to do with it.

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  37. Hi R, thanks for the comment. These were signs that were relevant to my life – I certainly don’t expect them to apply to everyone. I think the response to this article, though, shows that many people relate to the examples I have given.

    Whilst I agree that the workaholics who don’t take vacation are crazy, I don’t really agree with your point about routine. To me, a routine of “wake up, go to work, feed the kids, help with homework, go to bed” still leaves a lot of time to enjoy life and live consciously.

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  38. There’s another flavor of clue #1, the flip side of the coin: You have no idea where you are going to be in five years, but your are not actively changing your current situation, nor even asking the question. Just like driving a car, you go along the same road you are used to until one day you wake up and realize you don’t remember making the trip.

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  39. Intrigued to comment as I also used to play tennis a serious amount when I was younger and stopped when I was 17 due to the fact that I didn’t enjoy it anymore and didn’t want to put in the time needed to reach the next level. Even know my mum still comments that I ‘should’ go and play tennis because I used to enjoy it when I was younger even though I don’t enjoy playing anymore.

    Love the idea of auto pilot as well…I’m very guilty of doing that as well school -> university -> work without a gap in between. I am starting to explore other areas a bit more now though so it’s not all doom and gloom! Came across the post from Life Hacker by the way, glad I did!

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  40. Our stories sound very similar Mark. Yes – I get the “why don’t you play tennis again” from family – they don’t really understand my reasons.

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  41. At the age of 18 i moved out and started my first “fulltime” steady job
    10 months later i had enough money saved after rent, entertainment, food…etc after working 2 jobs 12-14 hour days working 7 days a week to go traveling around South East asia.. i dont claim to be a great money person but i still enjoyed myself while i was focused on my biggest goal in life to discover the world.. My point is that with a goal in mind it is not impossible to do great things.. one must plan and concentrate on whats important to make what you want to do possible and within reach.
    Traveling completely changed the way I am, the way I look at the world but it caused me to understand that the citizens of the world as a whole are not equal in choices and comforts. Despite the “rat race” we live, work, and die in; we have a choice of living each day as if it is the worst and the world is against us, or as each day is a challenge, on how to overcome the adversity we face not only within ourselves but also those we perceive around us.

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  42. I feel you can find tourself on ‘autopilot’ at almost any stage of your life. At one point I found myself working only to maintain my pension when I retired. I still had 20 years to go before I reached retirement!!
    The secret is to recognise when you are on ‘autopilot’ and then switch it off. Only then can you start to live your life again!
    I suspect though that many people fear switching off their ‘autopilot’ because they are uncertain what else may lie out there waiting for them. At least on ‘autopilot’ we know (or think we do) where we are going. Without ‘autopilot’ we may not know what we might encounter. What the heck! though, it may be good!

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  43. Peter,

    I’ve only just read your post but I’m glad I did. For a long time my life was definitely only autopilot and so I found myself agreeing with your 5 signs. I’ve moved forward now but these signs serve as a useful reminder.

    My 6th sign would be “You are constantly feeling depressed or numb”. When you are in a rut the clearest signs often come from your most common emotions.

    Great post – now I’m going to check out the rest of them!

    Andrew

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  44. Thanks Andrew. It’s always nice to get positive feedback for my articles, but it is particularly nice when people identify with my more personal ones (such as this one). In regards to the 6th sign you mention, I totally agree.

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  45. Wow – heaps of posts re auto-pilot. I have no idea where I will be in 5 years and never have. When I have predicted it has always changed anyway. When my life seems boring and predictable I remind myself to appreciate it because it will soon change anyway. As per Indian Poster’s comments – we are lucky we have the luxury of being able to discover ourselves, don’t you think? I also find when I become dissatisfied with my life it is often because I am comparing myself to some ideal or some state I think would be preferred but if I am honest with myself I am basically pretty happy with my life, so can’t complain. It did however take me many years to work out what I wanted rather than what I was told I should be. I agree with Anita if you don’t know what you want to do with yourself and you have the money, travel and that broadens your view. Great to read all your posts. :)

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  46. This is a very good article. I think everyone can benefit from standing back and evaluating where they are heading and what they really want to do.

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  47. Because of 2 and 4, I was in autopilot till 2003/4 , decided to voluntarily slow down, which actually was not that easy especially when one lives in a 3rd world country.

    I have to add though that, looking back, I consider #4 a journey in itself. I still think I could repeat studying microbiology, histology, anatomy, radiology, many others at a slower pace. The subject matter very interesting, it is just the bulk per unit time that makes them toxic. If only man could live 500 years, medicine for 50 years would be a very interesting journey.

    Thanks for this post.

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  48. Well, I don’t usually take to heart all the things I “stumbleupon”, but I really enjoyed your post, I think it rings true for many. According to your post I’m on autopilot right now…. seriously, I’ll admit it. Here are your criteria in order with my answers:
    1. Putting my husband through culinary school.
    2. I don’t have a career yet, but the path is something they
    more than approve of.
    3. I went from school to college and am in grad school still.
    4. This is the most incredible one. I’m in law school right
    now. A lawyer? Four years ago I saw myself in West Africa living off the land!! But I wanted to “stay in school” and I
    wasn’t getting into med. school.
    5. This one is different, I used to be into competitive sports,
    now I don’t have time for that…. but on the upside
    I’ve taken up painting!
    But honestly, though sometimes I’m scared that I’m ruining my life being in law school (when I don’t want to be an attorney, but actually make zero money by working for human rights in West Africa), I’m really happy!! I have a wonderful fiancee who I love, I nourish my soul through him and my two wonderful pups, I am incredibly close to my family, and I’ve lived (study abroad) in three different countries and counting! I know it’s common to feel out of sync with yourself when you are doing exactly what society wants you to do…. but if you stay true to your ambitions and principles, your life will be more than satisfying.

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  49. #3, You went straight from school to college to work. Probably you are right, maybe I should go for a short holiday instead of starting looking for a job.

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  50. Hi Peter,

    Nice Article.
    Being on Autopilot is really boring.We should do our best to realise that we are on autopilot and try to change the course.
    #3 is an interesting idea.But even if you move out to a new place to work,it would be exciting,new place,new people.
    Even if you are able to predict where you will be five years from now,life is so unpredictable,you may find your breakthrough in between.That is the beauty of life.
    Thanks for sharing.

    Best Wishes,
    Kannan Viswagandhi
    http://www.growing-self.blogspot.com

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  51. 5. Your interests and/ or hobbies are all the same as from when you were a child
    you make this out to be a bad thing….

    my childhood hobbies have translated into a pretty lucrative career in aerospace engineering probably because I loved to build planes and rockets when I was a kid.

    for me this bullet point was under developed, you didn’t complete the thought

    stay true to thy self.

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  52. You really hit home with this article. I think that most people are on autopilot, and they don’t even realize that they have the power to improve their life.

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  53. i like your articles, some people try to bury the fact that they are on autopilot in order not to face what they were escaping from, pretty dangerous

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  54. So this is what it means when you are under autopilot. I am not actually aware that I am on autopilot by almost everybody around me. This has given me a thought that I have to act now for my own self.

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  55. Man, you really nailed it with this top 5 list. I’m just starting to figure a lot of this out over the last few years. Ever read The Four Hour Work Week? Eye opening.

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  56. I can relate so much with this topic. I lived in autopilot mode many years. When I graduated high school I did so with one of the highest grades. My true passions were History and sociology and psychology, but instead I went on to study Math at one of the thoughest universities, because I let myself be convinced that my desired career choices were below my capacities. I was also afraid I would not be able to make a living if I studied something that had to do with Social Sciences. After 2 years of attending boring classes I didn’t really want to attend, I pretty much realized what you say in Point 1, I knew where my life was heading and I hated the tought of it. So I made the choice to enroll in a different university and continue my education to eventually become a certified translator. It’s been difficult but so much worth it. If anyone out there reads this, it’s worth to try. Life is too short to be stuck in something your heart is not into.

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  57. I come from a family of doctors, I was brought up believing that being a doctor is pretty much the thing to be . I never felt passionate about it, I only enjoyed the status and the thrill of ‘scrubbing in’ some operations in the OR. I graduated and decided to study medical anthropology, where I was introduced to a whole new dimension to the world including medicine. I am done with my degree and I am taking some time off right now to discover what I really want to be.
    Got married for 2 years and was set to AUTO-PILOT trying to make ends meet as a doctor, things didn’t work out and I’m sorry to say, I’m happily divorced.
    I am focusing on self-discovery and purposeful meaning in this world, my advice to everyone whether with or against exploration is never to settle for less, you are a miracle in yourself, there is no one else like you , never was and never will be, love yourself and expand on what you might add to the world.

    TJ

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  58. People beleive life is just happening to them
    Life is not just happening to you – It is responding to your thoughts !!!
    You are a result of what you have thought
    Your present day reality is the physical manifestation of what you have previously thought seconds,minutes,hours and even months and years ago

    Monitor your thoughts and think positively and you will be amazed what will happen in your life

    Reply

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