The “What I Am Going to Do With My Life?” Anxiety

One recurring theme in emails I get from twenty-somethings is the "what I am going to do with my life" anxiety. Often this anxiety involves a mixture of emotions: self-doubt about one’s supposed strengths, no discernible "passions" (that all-important word career counselors repeat until it’s devoid of meaning), the temptation to do what your parents want or what society will see as most prestigious as opposed to what you really want to do, etc etc. All normal issues to anyone who is lucky enough to have meaningful choices about how they spend the early years of their life.

I’m hardly the expert on how to resolve these questions — heck, I grapple with them myself! But it can be fun to brainstorm with people about their options.

My high school friend Ted Conrad, now a sophomore at UCLA, airs these emotions out loud on his blog in his traditionally funny and intelligent and honest way:

I’ve been (jokingly?) telling people my most recent five year plan for the past few days. It involves: a junior year in Scotland, an on-time graduation (you’re welcome, Mom), a trip to the 2008 World Cup in South Africa, wandering around Africa and Madagascar, a return to San Francisco, a job, an apartment in the Mission (Whats up, Natty), and general carousing and traveling. Then it gets serious. In this hypothetical life, I will apply to both UC Berkeley’s Law School and the PhD program in Geography. I will dedicate my life to whichever program accepts me, putting my future in the (capable?) hands of the State of California.

Now I seriously doubt that I will be indecisive and foolish enough to do something like this, but the point is that I have: a relatively broad range of interests, a semi-rational adoration for Cal, people urging me in many directions, poor decision making, and a perceived need to have impressive diplomas. Now, I know the correct course of action is to calm the fuck down, try my hand at a variety of things, and make decisions based on my needs and wants, rather than catering to the wishes of others. But this is easier said than done, and my dreams of San Francisco liberal domesticity (coupled with a vicious stranglehold on City Hall) are as powerful as my aspirations for youthful dalliance and exciting near death experience. As they say, "life is short" so perhaps I should fast-track my plans of a South of Market household and two kids named J.T. and Barry. And wouldn’t this require a career choice sooner rather than later? Answer… I’m not choosing anything until after World Cup…

Ted’s approach seems wise: give the post-college years serious thought but don’t let any resulting stress hijack enjoyment of the present, make some loose plans but be honest that life often gets in the way, and most of all, just be conscious of all the conflicting advice we young folk receive from people with their own agendas.

Of course my advice to Teddy — not that he’d ever ask me — would be to spend a couple years focusing on his ping-pong game. Chicks dig a strong backhand, and Lord knows he could use some improvement in that area.

9 comments on “The “What I Am Going to Do With My Life?” Anxiety
  • I’m probably the poster child for not living up to societal expectations during my twenties.

    My plan was to graduate from college, then get a starter job in the publishing world. And I did. In Ann Arbor. Which meant that I could spend some post-college time in my favorite town. Then, a year or two later, I’d move on to a job in publishing’s bigtime city, New York.

    I was laid off from that job a year later.

    During my post-college Ann Arbor time, I fell head over heels in love with bicycling. And I joined a bicycle club full of people who liked to talk about their two-wheeled trips to here, there, and everywhere.

    “Hmmm,” I thought, “You can sure go a LONG way on a bike.”

    And, thus, a seed was planted in my little Martha-brain. When I heard about the layoff, I hatched a plan to pedal to Minneapolis, where I’d been for a friend’s wedding right after my graduation. I liked the city, and figured that it might be a nice way station on the way to New York.

    So, I had a touring bike custom-built, and I headed out to the highways and byways of the Upper Midwest. Along the way, I met a fellow (also a bike tourist) who said that he planned to pedal in all 50 states.

    Well, that idea got me going, and I did get my wheels into all 50. But it took 12 years because I kept having to stop and take “job breaks” to replenish my funds.

    I wrote and self-published a couple of books about my travels, and, oh, boy did those ventures ever provide an entrepreneurial education!

    And, no, I never worked a day in New York publishing.

  • Great post Ben.

    Like the old adage of letting yourself work through an emotion, whether it be anger, anxiety, excitement, so on, career choices are so emotionally linked to so many people and events around us that until we’re ready (mentally, emotionally, physically) stalling will be the stalemate we’ll have to accept.

    Having been there, I know its tough going, but you learn to really rely on yourself and your instincts through the process. I think that’s better than any Myers-Briggs telling me I should’ve been a farmer. 😛

  • Sometimes, only time and experience can give you the answer.

    When you were 5, you may have wanted to be a policeman.

    When you were 10, you may have wanted to be a professional baseball player.

    When you were 15, you may have wanted to be a rock star.

    When you were 20, you may have wanted to be an investment banker.

    The point is, just because you turn 18 (or 21, or 25, or 30) doesn’t mean you’re supposed to know what you want to do.

    I often tell people that I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life until I was almost 30.

    If you know exactly what you want to do, recognize that things change. If you don’t, welcome to the club.

    The trick is to preserve the option value of your life by avoiding making decisions that cut off your flexibility.

    If you’re not dead certain that you want to be a doctor, borrowing $200,000 and sacrificing 7 years of your life probably isn’t a good idea, because if you suddenly decide to become a Buddhist monk, you’re going to have a hell of a time fending off the collections agencies.

    I’m off to practice my backhand!

  • @”…if you suddenly decide to become a Buddhist monk, you’re going to have a hell of a time fending off the collections agencies.”

    What, you mean the Lord Buddha doesn’t take care of Dharma bums?;-)

  • My simple philosophy on this is to focus on what you are good at, your strengths. If you focus on your strengths you will be successful which will in turn make you happy.

    Save your passions for hobbies; that way you won’t have the pressures of performance and success drive you away from your passions.

    However if your passions are your strengths then you’ve got an edge up on most people.

  • I always pick guys on the basis of their ping-pong abilities… But seriously, great post. I think the ideal teens/twenties experience is spent developing the ability to adapt to unforeseen – and, often, suboptimal – situations.

  • There is a distinct retreat that our school puts on called “Halftime”

    I went on this retreat my sophomore year and really feel like I received the tools to help me figure out my life.

    The retreat focused around 3 key questions.
    1) What brings me joy?
    2) What am I good at?
    3) Knowing those two previous questions, what can I do to make me happy?

    When you ask yourself these questions it is hard to come up with answers because you have to think…but as you think you come to find that what you want to do appears right in front of your face…because they lead you to that natural default of where you want to go and why you want to get there….

    The “What do I want to do with my life questions” Can only be answered by you…and because of that it is up to you to figure it out for yourself… These questions will help get you started!

  • I find it ridiculous (being 22) that even though I have no idea what I want to do with my life I am still expected to get a degree and possibly take out student loans for that degree so I can get a “good” job while I figure it out. If I figure it out when I’m 30 do I then go back to school? Or do I just stay out of school until I figure it out? In which case how am I supposed to pay RENT in the state of CA or save up money to move anywhere else for that matter. Because 8.00 minimum wage, not cutting it. I NEED ANSWERS!!

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