Admit it, you’ve asked yourself this question before. “What the $#!% am I doing with my life?”
Or you’ve asked someone else this question in the past. It’s the eternal struggle in our lives, thinking we have to have it all figured out all the time. The reality, however, is quite the opposite. Aside from the small handful of people who knew what they wanted to be since they were 5, the rest of us are stuck figuring out what we want out of life in real-time, on the fly. Now, in the midst of COVID-19, and hopefully soon in a post-COVID world, the rules of careers will need to be redefined.
What should I be doing with my life?
New high school grads are struggling with whether or not to take a gap year rather spend their freshman year of college sitting alone in their parent’s basement listening to lectures online. Or there are people like my sister, who is learning in real-time how to teach first graders remotely when they can barely focus when they’re in the classroom.
For me, I was always jealous of the people who seemed to have it all worked out. When people ask me what I want to be when I grow up, I still don’t have an answer. “Uh…happy?”
To make matters worse, the people who have already suffered through the stress of finding themselves in real-time are the ones who set the rules for career success. If you want to be a doctor, you have to do X, Y, then Z. If you want to get a PhD, you have to study THIS, research THAT, and then hope to god someone in the randomness of the application process likes your stuff. If they don’t, then you should do more of the same until you’re discouraged enough to give up and look for something else to do with your life.
No, this is the wrong way to empower the future leaders of our society. This is also how we systematically engrain bias into our system. No one is recommending that you forge a path unique to you, and then use that to stand out from all the other applications to whatever it is you’re applying for. I can’t tell you how many people have told me I was making the “wrong” career decision every step of the way. Its easier for me to count how many times people told me I was making the right decision rather than the people who told me I was making the wrong one. It took a decade of seemingly “bad” decisions before people started to trust that I knew how to make the best decision for me, rather than for them.
You’re not alone
To a generation of young people trying to find your way in the world, I’m here to tell you that the only way to be is to be you. But being you is stressful when you are wonderfully unique. It’s easy to wish for a recipe for success. In my experience at least, the easiest is rarely the same as the happiest route. So, in the spirit of transparency, I’d like to tell you about my wandering story. I’ve loved every moment of it, and I’d like to give you just one example of someone who has struggled to know what I wanted in life, and how I found my way though it all. And for any of you who know me, you’d likely agree that it’s turned out quite well for me, despite often asking myself “what the $#!% am I doing with my life?”
Freezing in the arctic – what am I doing with my life?
It had been raining for ten days straight by the time I snapped. My fiancé looked at me and quietly asked “why don’t you go get in the tent and warm up?”
We’d been riding our bikes 50 miles a day in standing mud because the dirt road we were riding on had absorbed the 3 inches of rain that fell every day. About eight days in, I had started asking myself “what the $#!% am I doing with my life?”
We had just quit our jobs, sold all our stuff, and packed two bikes into boxes and flown to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and we were 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle. As you may have imagined, when we told our parents our grand plan was to spend 18 months riding our bikes from Alaska to Argentina, their first reactions were “WHAT THE $#!% ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR LIFE?!”
This wasn’t the first time they’d asked me that. I chose where to go to college because I knew the president of the Kayak Club. When I graduated, instead of accepting my offer to go to grad school in New York City, I turned it down and moved cold turkey to Silicon Valley without a job and before I had a place to live – I found a basement in true Silicon Valley style and got to work looking for a job. Despite being a biochemistry major in college, I eventually found my first job at a startup on the recruiting team. I hadn’t even vested all my startup equity, however, before I quit my job and bought a one-way ticket to Guatemala.
And after spending a year traveling internationally, I moved to Seattle without a job, or a place to live. Again, I found a solution that worked for me, and shortly after I meet the woman I fell in love with. It wasn’t a year after we met that we quit our jobs and flew to Alaska.
As you might imagine, every one of those career decisions were met with “what the $#!% are you doing with your life?”
The common wisdom, I was told, was to go to grad school at all costs, never quit a job without another one lined up, and never leave money on the table. I was told over and over again that employers don’t like when you have gaps in your resume, and if you do, make sure you have a good reason for it.
So, there I was, sitting in a tent, freezing, asking myself “what the $#!% am I doing with my life?”
But a week later, we were riding through central Alaska in the sun with beautiful scenery everywhere around us. Every hour of my days after that were each worth the ten days I spent cold in the rain.
Eventually, we made it from the Arctic Circle to Silicon Valley before we decided we were done with our ride. And wouldn’t you know, many of the people who told us that it was a bad idea to start the ride in the first place were now telling us we couldn’t stop because we “would be quitters.”
Well instead of listening to the voices carved from the stone of bad advice, I decided I wanted to go to grad school finally. But to pass the time until I could start, my fiancé and I moved to Detroit, where we lived in the Motor City Casino, my fiancé worked, and I played blackjack full-time.
Yep, you can hear the voices now…” what the $#!% are you doing with your life?”
We need to redefine career rules
I don’t tell you all this because I think you should follow my career path. In fact, you most definitely should NOT try to follow my career route. With more time, however, I could give you an in-depth explanation of why every decision along the way was right for me at that time, despite the advice I was getting. You have to make your decisions based on your situation. Do you want to stay at home with your kids, or take time off to write a book, or take dance classes, or maybe work in a job that isn’t directly in your career path?
You’re the only one who knows all the details behind your decisions. Most people can only give you advice based on general guidelines, and those guidelines are usually along the lines of never quit a job without another one lined up, go to grad school, don’t have gaps in your resume, don’t be “job hoppy”, make sure you always stay at your job >X years, never walk away from money, and the list goes on and on.
The fact of the matter is, however, that all this advice is based on the average of all the careers around the world. This advice is also almost always from the perspective of employers. Of course, companies want you to stay longer, and when you are not employed, a company can’t benefit from your labor.
You are not the average of anyone. You are wonderfully unique. That means, however, that you have to take that into account when you make decisions. Based on my unique set of experiences, I strongly believe that we should hire people who quit their jobs to travel the world, and that PhDs are only one tool of many to thrive in the biotech industry. I also believe we should value writing skills more and that more people should work in public service.
All of this, however, comes down to redefining success and failure. If our only metric of success is how much money we make or the school we went to, then there’s a pretty clear route of how to spend your life. But, if you want to develop the career that’s best for you, then you have to make the tough choices and sometimes go against the grain. You have to be you, because that’s what really matters in the end.
So, the next time you ask yourself “what the heck and I doing with my life?” remember that you’re not the only one asking that question. Reach out to your friends, your family, and your mentors. Hear them all, but you don’t have to listen to them all. Take feedback, filter for yourself, then make your decision.