The past couple weeks (and honestly months) have been full of stress for me as I’ve been trying to figure out what to do next with my life and how to start my career. After graduating in May, I bought myself some time from having to find a job by doing a summer fellowship, though the entire summer, the thought of what to do next (and after that and after that) was relentlessly weighing on my mind. Finding a job in the museum field with just a BA proved difficult, so I decided to get more experience (and buy myself more job search time) by doing a fall internship. Now that I’ve finished that, the weight of figuring out my future is resting heavily on my shoulders again. Sometimes it feels like an elephant is sitting on my chest with all the stress I put on myself to figure my life out.
I’m not great at decision-making. I hate even choosing what to eat. So making choices that can seemingly determine the course of the rest of your life entail a lot of stress for me. Add to that the complications of relationships, finances, second-guessing whether your career field is a good fit, deadlines for applications, decisions about grad school, etc. and it’s enough to make you want to cry or just give up and stick your head in the sand, binge-watching Lea Remini’s docu-series about Scientology to reassure yourself that other people’s lives are more screwed up than your own.
As I’ve been working on approaching career and life choices without stressing myself out completely, I’ve been figuring out some ways to make the process a little easier. It’s important to take time out to rest during the process, and to make sure that you’re not letting other people’s opinions take over your choice. Here are a few other thoughts:
Schedule a “freak out” time. I oftentimes find myself letting anxiety take over my thoughts constantly, turning over decisions constantly in the back of my mind. Or I would spend hours on job listings, stressing myself out with the long list of positions that didn’t work for me. This can make the decision hold more weight than it should and just makes your miserable. Try scheduling an hour or two a day to focus on weighing choices, making pro and con lists, applying to jobs etc. When your mind drifts to your decision the rest of the day, tell yourself you have to wait until later.
Get in touch with your priorities. It’s easy to be swayed and overwhelmed by others’ input and expectations when making choices. While it’s worthwhile to listen to the advice people have to give, ultimately the decision is yours and it’s your life. Try making a list of what are the external pressures your feel from others and what are your feelings about what you want, what your priorities are, what experience you want to have, etc. It’s easy to get caught up in ideas of what someone your age is supposed to be doing, but you are the one who has to live in that place or work that job or date that person, so you need to make the choice that’s best for you.
Think long-term, but not too long-term. It’s good to have some sense of what direction you want to be headed in to guide you in terms of what skills you should try and gain in a job now, but don’t get overwhelmed trying to plan too far ahead. Sometimes, especially when you’re young, it’s helpful to just give yourself permission to think in terms of a simple, “What do I want to experience next?” It can be easier to break life into semesters, with a general goal of “I want to graduate in May 20-whenever with a BA in History.” I find myself trying to trace how my future would pan out if I took this path or that path, but ultimately I stress myself out for something that isn’t practical. We can’t predict the future, so sometimes you have to look at what opportunities are available right now and trust that things will work out in the future.
Remember there’s no right or wrong path. Again, you don’t know what the future will hold, good or bad. A certain school or job or relationship can seem like your only ticket to the life you want or the only thing that can make you happy, but I’ve found that dream opportunities often can be very different in reality. Not to mention, you could take a job that you never thought you would and end up finding your passion. You could go to a school that was far from your first choice and form lifelong relationships. You could not end up with one guy but then months later meet the love of your life. We don’t know what life holds and sometimes we have to accept that some doors close and others open. There’s not a fixed path and we’re not doomed if we don’t do certain things in life, though it can easy to become convinced as much with the pressure other people put on us and the emphasis on Ivy Leagues, big-name companies, and meeting milestones.
Whatever paths you’re looking down, have faith that life is full of surprises. It’s easy to get discouraged about not getting jobs or not having relationships work out, feeling like that was our best chance. But so many people I talk to found their career by accident, practically falling into it, or met their partner when they swore they would never find love. So much pressure is put on figuring things out when you’re young, and it’s easy to look at all of the teenagers and 20-somethings in the worlds of sports and entertainment and feel stupid and accomplished for not having found your life passion or made a name for yourself, but those cases are the exception, not the norm.
Many great people whose accomplishments we celebrate didn’t peak until their thirties or even later. It takes time to build up a skill set, refine your craft, and gain experience and a network of people who recognize your abilities. Be patient with yourself, don’t stop pushing yourself, and don’t devalue the experience and skills you already have built. Seeing all the jobs, etc. you’re unqualified for or sitting in an interview where it becomes glaringly obvious that you’re not the right candidate can make you question whether you have any worthwhile skills, but you do. Know your worth and have faith in the future, but also remember to enjoy the present.