The best part of adulthood is the small talk, hands down. Meeting new people, sharing that perfectly firm and definitely-never-clammy-on-either-end handshake, exchanging pleasantries on all the most exhilarating of topics. Never gets old!!
Within the wide realm of questions brought up most frequently in these generally uncomfortable little back-and-forths, the favorite seems to be the following: “What do you do?” Ingrained in this one tiny question are, of course, a million other inquiries: “Do you like your job?” “How much money do you make?” “Where do you rank on the wholly subjective career hierarchy I have in my head?” and (no pressure or anything!!) “Is what you do your passion?”
Ah yes, that last one, the biggest kicker of them all—is what you do your passion? I, millennial that I am, cannot say whether previous generations felt this so strongly, the pressure to do what you love. But it seems that, given the across the board delay of other milestones that once signaled success among twenty and thirtysomethings—home ownership, marriage, having children—the generation in which I’m firmly planted has saddled itself with new definitions of success: the places you’ve traveled, your selfie-taking proficiency, and your career success, to name a few.
Maybe I’m projecting. Maybe I’m flinging my own ingrained insecurities and self-doubt onto you. If it feels like I am, you are more than entitled to yell, in my general direction, “Woah, Jackie! Settle down! Have you considered that not everyone feels the way you do??” And in that case, thank you for calling me out! No, really, thank you. If you are one of those people who has always known what you wanted to do, since you were a youth; who mapped out a path and followed it and are genuinely happy with where you’re at in your career. Well. Hot damn. I am genuinely happy for you. Keep on killing it, okay?
The words I’m writing today, however, are for the other folks. These are for the people who had one million different interests in high school, who had a bunch more in college, who were never quite able to distill all of those singular activities into their *one true path*. They’re for the people who did find out what they wanted to do, but feel like they found it too late, and without a linear career trajectory plus 18 perfectly aligned internships under their belt, they feel like they can’t quite catch up. They’re for the people who sometimes feel like they’re merely drifting along through their careers, directionless, discontented or stuck.
Maybe that’s you. Maybe you feel behind. Maybe you’re in your twenties or your thirties or your forties or your fifties and maybe you feel lost. Maybe you dread being at a party and meeting new people and being asked that one seemingly innocuous question: “What do you do?” Allow me to say, firstly, THAT IS OKAY. I am saying it in all-caps because I mean it!! It is okay to feel behind. It is okay to feel lost. It is okay to dread small talk at parties. It is all okay.
Allow me to say, secondly, that I am right there with you, friend. At the ripe old age of 28, I am still figuring it out as I go. I am still a work in progress. I am still learning what interests me and, as I do, I am learning not to be so damn afraid to pursue those interests.
My personal career trajectory has been windy and disjointed, a road weaved together out of both passion and obligation. I entered college as an interior design major, and pursued that path for the impressive length of an entire few days, before switching my major to architecture. I loved a lot about the program, but toward the end of my four years, I decided that pursuing architecture as a career wasn’t for me. My heart wasn’t in it, and I think another part of me didn’t believe I was good enough at it (a fun, reoccurring theme in my life!).
I left college with a degree, yes, but also with hardly an ounce of direction. I didn’t have a job lined up. I didn’t have a clear career path to dive into. Yet, with the naiveté and occasionally blinding optimism that seems synonymous with being in your early twenties, I went after the opportunities that felt right to me then. I applied for countless jobs; sent countless cold emails to people I admired; pursued a graphic design internship with a website I loved. I took an internship at a nonprofit, a field I’d always considered entering, if only for a long-held, deeply ingrained desire to help people. At the end of the summer, I was offered a full-time job with that same nonprofit and, simultaneously, after 3 months of persistence, I landed the graphic design internship, too.
That was my life for a good, long while: I worked full-time during the day and spent many late nights and weekends working on the ol’ side hustle. The graphic design internship turned into a graphic designer role, which then turned into an editorial role. I loved what I did, in many ways, but a lot of my time was also spent exhausted—both physically and mentally—and, after two and a half years, I decided to let that side hustle go. A few years later, I still work at the same nonprofit, and while it’s an amazing organization, there is an ever-growing part of me that knows I have other interests to pursue.
Most of my twenties have been spent in a deep, dark cave of ennui—never knowing, assuredly, which path to take. I’m learning, ever so slowly, not to fight so hard against the unknown. I’m learning it’s okay not to have everything figured out. I’m learning that we’re all making it up as we go.
I promise that if you feel lost, I believe in you to find your way. You don’t have to figure it out right now. You don’t have to figure it out tomorrow. You don’t even have to figure it out next week. Unless you’re a person of the clairvoyant variety, you can’t know ahead of time which of your decisions will be fruitful, or which precise course of action will propel you toward your ideal career. All you can do is take one step at a time; all you can do is keep moving in a direction that feels right.
Maybe open up a word doc or a fresh, crisp notebook, and write down one thing (tiny or otherwise) you’re doing each day to move your career in a different direction. Maybe make a commitment to connect with one person each week who works in a field that piques your interest, whether it be face-to-face or via e-mail or through social media. Maybe take that course you’ve been meaning to take. Maybe apply for that job you’d so hastily convinced yourself you weren’t qualified for. Whatever it is you do, just don’t stop trying. Don’t get lost on the well-worn path of believing you’re not good enough. Don’t give up on yourself, okay?
I recognize that I am not an expert in, I don’t know, ANY area of life?? But I know what being lost feels like. I know what being behind feels like. I know other people feel this way sometimes, too. And I know it can be nice to have a reminder that you’re not wading through the occasionally murky waters of life alone.
So if we ever see each other at a party (I just go to SO MANY PARTIES, you know??), please come say hello. I promise I’ll ask you what your hobbies are, what you like to do for fun, and if you have any pets. I promise I’ll do my best to find that one conversation topic that lights you up. I promise I won’t start by asking what you do.