Recently I was on the phone with a client, an articulate, ambitious, great-head-on-her-shoulders young woman, who confessed that after a year in her first post-collegiate job, one she felt was important work that she should be doing, she felt lost. Another young woman in my life, a college junior with a commitment to learning and to making a difference in the world, said, “I have no idea what I want to do with my life.” She felt that by this point, the end of her junior year, she “should” know which direction to go, but her internship and volunteer experiences had only shown her what she did NOT want to do.
It’s college graduation season, and a lot of young folks are going out into the world believing that their newly-minted degrees are going to launch them onto a straight and straight-forward career path. Many will land jobs in their chosen fields and set forth into the future with high hopes--only to find out that, like my client, they feel lost. Sometimes they have landed in an organization that is not a good match for their own values and goals. More often, they find that the career field that seemed like the one that they “should” pursue is not satisfying for one reason or two or twelve. They try and try to make the career a good fit. They tell themselves that they “should” be happy because this was the career they planned. They hear friends and loved ones tell them what they “should” be doing.
To paraphrase that wise philosopher Carrie Bradshaw, they are “shoulding all over themselves.” And other people are “shoulding” all over them. And they feel frustrated and lost.
In all my years of college teaching, I heard similar stories from my upper level students and from recent graduates. Everyone tells young folks that college will launch them into wonderful adult lives. They receive many messages from our culture that they just have to “find their passion” and land that great first job and everything will be fine. But for most people, “it just ain’t so,” and young students and clients always seem relieved when I tell them that their feelings of frustration and dissatisfaction are perfectly normal. “No one EVER told me that it was normal to be confused about my life in my twenties,” a former student once told me. “They told me that once I earned my degree, everything would fall into place.”
I know about post-collegiate floundering from personal experience. In college, I trained to be a high school social studies teacher, but I graduated at a time when there were precious few jobs for teachers (especially female social studies teachers who couldn’t coach football or basketball). I thought I had a passion for teaching, but a teaching job was not in the cards.
Still, I was lucky. I had worked in the institutional advancement office at my alma mater throughout college, and I enjoyed the work, so I was thrilled to land an advancement job. I saw the job as an opportunity to help promote and help grow an educational institution I loved. I wrote news releases, published the in-house newsletter, ran the annual giving campaign, and organized alumni events. Mostly I felt challenged, and I was learning a lot.
There was a problem though: I was paid peanuts. I had to work a second job tutoring kids to make ends meet. Each month, as my bank balance neared zero before the next payday, I felt enormous anxiety. I knew I needed a better job, and I started to wonder whether my dad was right when he said that I “should” have majored in business where I could make “good money.”
I hatched a plan to land a better institutional advancement job at a university which offered MBA programs. I reasoned that I could increase my salary and get my graduate tuition paid by my employer. And I did just that. I moved cross country, starting a new job and a graduate program in the same summer.
But my great plan turned out not to be so great. I gradually realized that, for a variety of reasons, for the longer term, neither the job nor institutional advancement were the right fit for me. Two semesters into my MBA program, I realized that I really didn’t like my business courses, and I really didn’t want to shift to a business career. Now what do I do, I wondered?
To make a long story a bit shorter, I floundered. I worked my way through the exercises in the classic career exploration book What Color is Your Parachute? I decided on a different field within higher education and started a different graduate program—one I was paying for myself while working full-time. Halfway through that master’s, driving home after a class on a rainy December night in 1990, I had an epiphany: what I really wanted to do was earn a Ph.D. in history and become a historian. I quit my master’s program at the end of the semester, applied to doctoral programs, and started putting things into motion. And once I started grad school, I knew I was on the right path.
Becoming a historian had crossed my mind, of course, but for five years after college, I kept that idea to myself and repeatedly dismissed the notion. A Ph.D. seemed like a big investment of time. It seemed irresponsible to take more years out of the full-time workforce for an uncertain career path. I felt like I “should” be settling into a career and moving up a ladder, buying a house, and doing all those things that people five years out of college “should” be doing.
The moral of the story is this: if you’re a twenty-something, and you feel like you can’t find the right path for yourself, you’re not alone, and there is nothing wrong with you. It takes most of us time and maturity and exploration to find our paths. (And those paths may circle round in crazy directions over the course of our lives.) If you’re floundering, don’t beat yourself up and don’t try to force yourself into a mold you think you “should” fit. If you’re in a job, don’t quit for the sake of quitting, but invest your time outside work in exploration. Ask questions. Talk to people in lots of different fields about their career paths. Go to professional conferences. Do some soul-searching. (Maybe even see a career coach.) But whatever you do, don’t feel like you have to twist yourself in knots to remain committed to a career path that is not a good fit.
I don't think this advice applies exclusively to young adults. While there's a particular pain in the lostness that a lot of us feel in early adulthood, as we try to figure our exactly what "adulting" is all about, you can feel lost at any age. So whether you're twenty-something, forty-something, or seventy-something, if you're feeling lost, treat yourself with gentleness, give yourself permission to explore, talk to others (you'll find out you're not alone), and above all, don't "should all over yourself." Eventually, you'll find your way back to the path that feels right for you.