I’m confused about what comes next in life. It’s not just me. I see others struggling too. I’ve heard the following statements in just the last few weeks:
- A friend: “I just want someone to tell me what job would be good for me.”
- Someone thinking about changing jobs: “I’m paralyzed by a fear of a misstep.”
- A 24-year-old: “I feel like I’ve squandered my life so far. What have I achieved?”
We worry about our place in the working world, and if we are making the right decisions (as if there is such a thing). We worry about which next step leads to the right ultimate goal. We struggle to figure out what are strengths are and how to use them. We worry that we are missing the right/best/perfect opportunity.
We are struggling to decide what is next in our lives and careers when there is no longer a path, no single road or well-marked junctions. Nothing is mapped out for us with any certainty (let alone smooth paving). No trail guide provided. That’s not how life works.
But life used to work that way, didn’t it? When we were young and in school, there was a prescribed path. There were requirements, curriculums, grades and advisors that kept us in line and on the map.
On my first day of high school orientation, hundreds of us packed into the large auditorium, fresh, eager and impressionable. The Assistant Principal, a large and round man (and also the coach of the bowling team), told us that we were, of course, all there to get into college. To do that, over the next four years we’d have to work hard, get good grades, and do lots of extra curriculars. Even then, we would not all get into Harvard (the presumed goal for all of us magnet students).
Landing somewhere between Harvard and Borough of Manhattan Community College meant that you were still on the path – the path, it was implied, that lead to a good job, a successful life, and happiness. What did we know at fourteen?
I got good grades, went to college, landed my first job that came with business cards. It felt wonderful to have an income and the independence that comes from paying your own rent and not needing much more. When I felt stuck and ready to move on, graduate school was the obvious choice. I was under the mistaken impression that a masters degree would qualify me to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.
It did not. I enjoyed it; I worked hard and met wonderful people. I ended up without a job, and instead with an identity crisis. I was consulting part time and couldn’t tell if I was starting an independent business or just underemployed. Who was I without a job? What was I supposed to do with my life? My career dilemma took on a deep and personal note. Even though my life was just fine, I was miserable. Coming back from a weekend away, I was in tears to return to my existential crisis.
It was then I began to suspect that there was no path. I thought I’d been diligent in following the trail, only to look down and see that the map I’d been clutching was no map at all. Simply a compilation of expectations, assumptions, best practices, and other people’s stories taken out of context.
I was not on a path and had not been for a while. I was standing in a open field. No map, no destination, no sign posts. It feels like cruel trick that the first twenty years of our lives are so prescribed, and the rest entirely uncharted. The momentum I’d built up over those first twenty years propelled me through another ten, until I was left drifting with no more forward momentum. The rules had changed, and no one told me.
No one told me (or maybe they did, and I didn’t know how to hear it) that someday, right after college or perhaps earlier even, the path ends and there is no longer anything to work towards except our own satisfaction and ambitions. No one gently took my hand and said, “It’s time that you figure it all out for yourself.”
What you have are questions: what do I want for my life? Who do I want to become? There are no more grades, no one else’s approval that matters. If you do not figure out your own answers, you end up living someone else’s life, built on their priorities and expectations.
I don’t have firm answers. I go to therapy. I take quarterly retreats, and classes, and try new things. I question assumptions that I grew up with and are embedded in my brain. I move, slowly, non-linearly, towards the things that feel right. It’s messy. It’s two steps forward and one step back. I both worry that I will never end up anywhere and realize that there is no where to go.
When I turn to glance back at where I’ve come from, I see the way the different steps are connected, and it resembles a path, crooked and imperfect.
Image: David Hockney “Woldgate Woods 4, 5 and 6 December” (2006)