Making It Up As I Go Along

Like most twenty-somethings (if not all), I’m trying to figure out what to do with my life. And it’s hard as shit. I was supposed to do this when I was eighteen, but I’m a bit of a procrastinator, so I’m still trying to decide what it is that I want to spend my one and only existence on. It’s kind of overwhelming.

Not only am I trying to figure out what to do for the next (potentially) 60 or so years, but I’m also trying to figure out who I am as a person. Honestly, I don’t really know. I thought college would help me figure it out. It’s supposed to, isn’t it? But I think it made my identity crisis worse.

I think there was a time that I was so sure of who I was, but when I look back on it, I realize I was just a list of surface-level labels that I identified with to make myself feel special. I’m left-handed, an only child, a non-believer, far left, yada yada yada. When I was in high school, all these things made me different. After all, there were only two other only children and two other left-handed kids in my grade, and I was the only one that was both.

I was vegetarian from when I was 12 to 18, so basically all through junior high and high school. I remember one day one of my classmates said I was only doing it to be different, so I could feel unique. While that’s not exactly right, it’s at least partially true. Sure, like 90% of the reason I did it was for ethical/moral reasons, but I can’t deny the fact that I loved being different in that regard. I had another label to add to the list that made me stand out.

At the time, I thought all the things that made me different from everyone were what made me special. It’s who I was. I was the odd one out, and I liked it.

Now, I realize all these things aren’t who I am, they’re just things that I happen to be. And I don’t want to be defined by these attributes anymore.

At some point (I think in college, probably), I started defining myself by an entirely new set of attributes. My narcolepsy, my depression, my weight, my regrets, and my failures.

But I have seen time and time again that people are more than their disabilities. And I have been told over and over again that I am more than my mental illness. And that weight is just a number. And that I am not only made up of my mistakes. And I have been told repeatedly that I’m not a failure.

So then, what am I?

Who am I, if I am not these things?

What makes up me as a person?

If I could pick, I think I’d like to be made of the fun times I’ve had with my friends. I’d like to be made of the dinner party I had in high school, the weekly late night romcoms in my dorm’s basement, and the spontaneous iHop trips in my minivan.

I’d like to made of the places I’ve traveled. I want to be made of Puerto Rican sunshine and the crystal waters of Anguilla, Canadian castles and New York City skyscrapers, California palm trees and Grand Canyon rocks.

I want to be made of the things that make me happy. I want to be comprised of pins and stickers, old books and chai lattes, sweaters and cookies, rainbows and stars.

I want to be a writer, a photographer, a baker, an actress, a florist, a gardener, a painter.

I want to be kind, generous, friendly, helpful, nice, and most of all I want to be a good person.

I don’t really know who I am yet. Or what I’m doing with my life. But I hope that while I’m figuring it out, I manage to do some good things along the way.

-AMS

108 Comments on “Making It Up As I Go Along”

  1. Kelly Sedinger – Buffalo, NY, USA – I write by night and work with hand and power tools by day...I have unhealthy obsessions with books, movies, music, food, and bib overalls. I live with my wonderful family (brilliant wife, brilliant kid, three lovable but dumb-as-post cats) near Buffalo, NY.
    Kelly C Sedinger

    One of the colossal absurdities of American life is the notion that people are supposed to know who they are and have their life paths charted before they even turn twenty years of age.

  2. Athena, you’re likely to get a LOT of advice in response to your post. And I am neither qualified nor in possession of the wisdom to advise you any better than you can advise yourself or that which you can obtain from your loving parents and family.

    What I can say is be confident in yourself. (Is that still advice?) Go after your pursuits wholeheartedly and do not be denied. You will still endure the regrets, second guessing and other maladies that all of us old farts (ask your dad) experience, but at least you will have come by them honestly.

    Okay, that kind of sounds like advice, but let’s call it non-advice.

  3. Dave Higgins – Bristol, United Kingdom – Dave Higgins writes speculative fiction, often with a dark edge. Despite forays into the mundane worlds of law and IT, he was unable to completely escape the liminal zone between mystery and horror. Born in the least mystically significant part of Wiltshire, England, and raised by a librarian, he started reading shortly after birth and has not stopped since. He currently lives in Bristol with his wife Nicola, Una cat, a plush altar to the Dark Lord Cthulhu, and many shelves of books. It’s rumoured he writes out of a fear that he will otherwise run out of things to read. Discover more here: http://davehigginspublishing.co.uk
    Dave Higgins

    I changed career completely ten years ago after many years of being happy and skilled at the one I had, so I don’t feel one ever needs to define who one is to be an adult.

    Have you considered painting pictures of cakes you’ve baked as a career? It’s no more strange than being famous for being famous.

  4. Very nicely said. I am in my very late 50’s and I am still searching but as the old cliches says, “the joy is in the journey”.

  5. The idea that you only get to be one thing is a crock. It’s another one of those lies we feed kids…some day you’ll be “grown up” and know what you’re doing. In reality, we’re all making it up as we go along and growing, changing, editing our identities. So why not be those things that make you happy and make you feel like a good person?

  6. You don’t have to decide on one thing for 60 years. You can have three 20 year careers that are entirely different. Or a couple of 10s and some 15s. My daughter is 26, did some college, worked at a luxury hotel (where she got to meet a bunch of Hollywood folks, famous rockers, and Pres. Obama!), and then trained as an aesthetician. Now after a successful stint doing that, she’s headed to nursing school.

    TLDR: throw yourself off the cliff in pursuit of what you love and build your wings on the way down

  7. I didn’t start doing what has become my real career until age 37, so it’s no surprise you’re uncertain now! At each decision point I basically asked, “what’s the most INTERESTING of the options available to me?”

    That approach has taken me on a very interesting career path. I’ve also made a reasonable amount of money, which is nice, but the most important thing is that I have stuff that was both interesting and worthwhile.

    One silver lining from the ongoing global disaster is that it’s gonna make the world far more tolerant that it ever was before of (1) people whose paths don’t fit the standard molds, (2) people who want to work remotely, and (3) people whose education got interrupted.

  8. Athena, I don’t have any advice for you. But I do want to tell you how deeply honored I am that you share these thoughts with me, and the rest of the Whatever audience.

    You are an unusually thoughtful person with a real gift for expressive writing. Many writers find it easy to be expressive about the stories they tell, or their observations or responses to external things. There is some self-revelation in that, but what you’ve shared with us is the next level.

    I don’t post many comments here but I did want you to know that like many, I do read and value what you write. It opens my understanding a little further.

  9. Judging by this post alone, you already are a writer. Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts in the coming decades, whatever else you do!

  10. I’m 57, don’t always know what I want to do with the rest of my life (or the back 40, you might say, should I live to be 97). I’m not bad at finally figuring out who I am, but that didn’t happen in my 20s, so relax and enjoy.

  11. It’s hard to believe, but you’re probably doing just fine. I was 26 before I graduated college, and quickly realized that what I’d majored in was never going to make me happy. Then I had 4 careers over the next 10 years before settling on one for the past 13. And while I enjoy it, I’m not sure how much longer I will be doing it.

    Find something you enjoy doing that will support your lifestyle, but don’t define yourself by it.

  12. Look, nobody knows. Its just that a lot of people latch onto something and insist it true. When i was growing up, playing atari2600, a common refrain from my parents was “you cant make money playing video games”.

    And now gamer streamers make more than my parents could ever dream of, colleges offer esport scholarships, and people get paid to mine in-game items.

    You’re fine.

  13. Multiple careers are what a lot of young people will probably have to contend with more often in the future, but it has also been a feature of the past. My uncle learned to fly with the Fleet Air Arm during WW2 (British naval air force) but he was still only 20 or 21 when it ended and hadn’t gone into combat. He then spent 10 years as a farmer, due to a family connection, then went back to flying as an airline pilot. He was grounded in the early 70s with a heart murmur and had started turning his hobby as a potter into a third career when died aged 54 in 1978. (He had also managed to have four children who were all in their mid-late 20s by then).

    As for your possible career paths and occupations, I notice photography in your desire list. I know everyone and their dog can take photos with their phones, but nonetheless I think photography is a great starting point from which to launch in all sorts of directions, especially if you study it in depth.

    As well as developing basic image-making arty and creative skills, if you tackle historical technical stuff like developing film you get into optics and chemistry; with digital photos you have to get in deep with computers, file processing, data management, colour theory and image manipulation programs like Photoshop; there’s a fascinating photographic history of politics, war, culture and art and plenty of other stuff; it can be a springboard into cinematography (Stanley Kubrick started as a stills photographer), videography and visual effects; and professional photographers are still needed for news, in science imaging, rock music, sports, industrial packaging, real estate, weddings, natural history, advertising and a world of other stuff, not to mention fashion, fine art, architecture, portraiture and landscape imagery. Food photos, flower pics, theatre photography and travel pics too, and creative art as well, to tap into some of your other desires. Everything is there! Plus it is personally satisfying.

    I can’t say I have followed this advice in terms of my own career path, though some of what I do now involves a smidge of image work.

  14. Your excellent attitude is a really good start.

    I’m 70 and don’t know what I want to do when I grow up! I do my best to be kind and helpful as I figure it out.

  15. The early twenties identity crisis is hard and very real. I had a crushing depression in college, and I was happier when I was a year behind with my people who had struggled. A lot of bipolar people will experience their first episode of mania in their early twenties, and that it hard.

    The thing where you want to pick a thing to do with your whole life is a little less real. The world is changing so fast that we are always reinventing ourselves. You can do all the things you want, but there will be more emphasis on one or the other at any given time. There may be cool things that you want to do that you haven’t even figured out yet.

  16. If you can figure out what helps you be healthy (physically and mentally), then go for that mix between work and personal life. Usually this is composed of varying degrees of stability, novelty, learning, people-time, feelings-of-productivity, feelings-of-contributing-positively, etc. And then varying degrees of Not Having whatever is a big negative for you: trolls, busywork, etc.

    Some people need lots of people-time; some need lots of not-people time; some do well in competitive environments; some shrivel up and die in competitive environments. A lot of this tuning is value-neutral – it’s not better to be an introvert or an extrovert – but if you figure it out, you can aim, wherever you have choices, towards what will make you personally thrive better. (also, I second the endorsement for going for whichever is most interesting, with the “but health” caveat – if something’s fascinating but burns right through you, then: nope.)

    Very few people personally thrive on what US culture says is success, because more money and more titles and more fame don’t actually end up satisfying people (as author Glennon Doyle said at some point: “there’s no ‘there’ there” – if you primarily chase fame/money/popularity, there’s no real end to it – you keep aiming at the next thing, or you try to ‘keep up’ your level of fame/success in a culture that tends to move on to being excited about the next thing).

    Some people have trouble thriving without general “oh, yes, you are worthwhile” approval of their lives/jobs/accomplishments. If you can escape that, it is a Good Thing; if you can manage to not care [all the way down within you, not just surface not-caring] about trolls, that is also a Good Thing (although admittedly harder if troll activity extends into real life).

    But yes. We are a composite of our adventures and our mundane lives, and especially of fun nocturnal pancake trips and the gifts we bring to the world. :-) Keep aiming at curiosity, at morality, at fun, at life; it’s a good habit. :-)

  17. Bad news. This is no longer a one time thing. Research as well as my own experience suggest you may go through this two or three times during your lifetime. Many people are no longer limiting themselves to just one career during their lifetime. Whatever you choose may grow stale in 20 years.

  18. Two diseases that require a lifetime of treatment. Been there, still doing that. The still doing that is the hardest part.
    I recommend learning how to meditate. University of Massachusetts Medical school has a mindfulness program.
    Being an actress; at the bare minimum in ALL of your father’s TV and Film contracts you should have, at a bare minimum a “Stan Lee” speaking clause appearance.
    Weight is just a number, most male body builders are considered obese. At the Atlanta Olympics I saw the Women’s Olympic Gold Medalist in Shot Put. She is a massive slab of humanity. She looks like an NFL lineman. And is by definition a world class athlete.

  19. No one knows what they are, only what they want to be. You’ve already got that nailed, so stop sweating the small things and just go out and BE.

  20. I’m nearing forty and am still figuring it out. I had my life planned in my early twenties. Owned a house, married, trying for kids. Well, that all changed and then I was left with no direction. I’ve learned you can’t map life out. You can try, and sometimes it works, but for most people in my life those plans rarely work out as expected.

    On the bright side I wouldn’t change my life now for the one I envisioned/planned on in my twenties.

  21. Just to echo what everyone else has said, if you actually figure out who you are and what you want to be by 21, you are WAY ahead of the game. Most of us figure it out much later (I’m amused by how many responders in this thread have given specific ages within a few years of mine and said they don’t know yet either or just figured it out).

  22. I read somewhere that most people have seven careers in their lives. I’m about on track, at 65. I won’t try to advise you what field to pursue, you are the one who knows what draws you most. Like with a life partner, at your age, you probably don’t need to be looking for the Right Job, but the Right-now job. Good news is that some of the other loves in your life, you can pursue while also doing work that earns money and gives you experience and a track record. Such as being a writer.

    I’d advise taking the pressure of “life long decision” off yourself. Ask yourself what you want to do for the next, say, 3 to 5 years. You might even try to do 2 or 3 different part-time jobs (while you can still be covered under your parents’ health insurance) to get more experience in different kinds of things. Can you physically bear a job where you stand all day, such as a florist? Is working in an office for someone else tolerable? Are you capable of the self-discipline of working for yourself (my biggest revelation of starting my own business, was the need for retraining my motivations)?

    In the process of getting out there and actually doing different jobs, what you really want will make itself clear to you. No one should be compelled to abide by decisions made before their brain matures. You should have a good general education, but surprise, unless you’re a mathematical prodigy, most people learn their jobs ON the job. College is not a vocational school. It’s a learning school. So figure your first 10 years after graduation are going to be learning, both the world, and yourself. Particularly since the years between 20 and 30 are the ones in which we all change, maturity-wise, the most.

    So chill. And concentrate on enjoying what you do, and doing what you enjoy. The career will make itself known to you. I suspect that in 20 years, you may be working in a field that doesn’t even exist today. Ah, to have all that in front of you.

  23. I have these questions all the time, and have never really gotten good at the answers, but every time I try an enumerate my life in terms of things that I have done, people look at me like I’m some kind of polymath. I’m in my 50s and am always surprised when I remember that. Never underestimate the possibilities of change. I have changed countries, careers, living situations, passions, everything. I think the me of my twenties could not even comprehend how I ended up where I am, and yet it just all feels like a natural progression of “Well, I just did it cause it seemed the right thing to do at the time.”

  24. Kate George – Vermont – Award winning author, Kate George is the creator of the popular Bree MacGowan mystery series, which started when she took up a dare to write a book; the result was Moonlighting in Vermont. She was born in Sacramento, California, was raised on a ranch until the age of eight, and graduated from UC Davis with a degree in anthropology. She is currently working on her MFA. She has been, in no particular order, a paste-up tech, a motorcycle safety instructor, an actor, and the assistant to the dean of a medical school, all of which provide plenty of fodder for her novels. Currently, she lives in an old farmhouse in the backwoods of Vermont with her husband, four kids, and two rescue dogs, where by day she teaches and by night, she dreams up wild adventures for her characters. Visit her at kategeorge.com, or contact her at kate@kategeorge.com. She always loves to hear from readers!
    Kate

    It’s taken me my entire life to figure out who I am. I think that’s the point – it’s in the living that who you are becomes clear.

    Spend a lifetime enjoying finding yourself. That’s my ass-vice.

  25. (For reference, I’m in my mid twenties)
    I read the first few sentences and my first thought was: „Oh, I’m glad that I’ve known for years what I want to be“, until I realized that „what“ only describes very generically which professional direction I want to end up in, as if that decides who I am. I used to view that as a single thing.

    „The kid who is good with computers“ both described the job I wanted to get and sort of also my personality.

    Later, I thought about who I was mostly as the darker sides. The depression, social awkwardness, loneliness. On bad days I still need to be careful not to go down that route.

    I also went through a phase to describe myself as who I wanted to be, but that failed miserably. Partially, because it chronically collided with my absolute low points, so it always ended with a „but I keep failing to be like that“.

    Nowadays I try to go the route of defining myself using my hobbies. I’m still struggling with that, and I’m not yet there. I’ve found for myself that it helps to find who I am, by defining the state of the world I’d like to move towards. It fits myself better than tying it to my personal goals (it excludes personal failures!) and many of my own views are bigger than what I can personally achieve.

    Have I found myself? Nope. But I feel like I’m slowly moving towards the right direction and this will have to do!

  26. One of adults’ deep dark secrets is that we make it up as we go along, too. Some of us know “who we are,” or at least know “who we are at this time,” but it’s not a fixed thing. Others of us never figure it out and generally muddle along anyway.

    More than that, though, is “who we are” is not the same as “what we should do with our lives.” That changes too, sometime even more often than who we are.

    Figuring these things out is great, and a worthwhile endeavor even if you don’t figure it out, but don’t get wrapped around the axle if you don’t – now or ever.

  27. John – He chose to sample life through a seemingly random series of occupations... I make wine, beer, music and very cool stuff out of wood. Sometimes I write words
    John Clark

    I shall share with you dark wisdom from someone who has been on this planet about as long as your dad. We all spend a huge amount of time thinking about what we are going to do with our lives, when the truth is we are already doing it. Each day, you are doing something with your life and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Perhaps today is spent in a curious pursuit of knowledge, perhaps it is spent with snack foods and a good book. Who you are changes daily and so does where you are going.

    My point is, making plans is good. It gives the universe something to giggle maniacally at. Just don’t mistake the plans for life as actual Life. We redefine ourselves with every day that passes and that’s fine. You ask good questions, value kindness and doing good things. I think your odds are pretty solid for most things life will throw at you.

  28. “Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.”
    –https://www.chicagotribune.com/columns/chi-schmich-sunscreen-column-column.html

    “Bad news. This is no longer a one time thing. Research as well as my own experience suggest you may go through this two or three times during your lifetime.” –@Ron Beilke above
    Dunno — doesn’t seem like bad news to me.

  29. “The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives, some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.” ― Baz Luhrmann

  30. Hey I can see 60 from where I am right now and it was only last year I finally worked out what I want to be when I grow up. And what I want to be when I grow up is — retired.
    If I had ever tried to plan out how to get to where I am now I would never have ended up here — working from home in a section of healthcare I only ended up in due a phone call I made one day when I was sort of maybe looking for another job. I didn’t want the one that was advertised and asked them what else they had — and promptly found myself employed in a very unexpected place.
    Considering that my first full-time job after school was in an armed service (as a librarian) I am often surprised by the direction my life has taken. But I still want to be retired when I grow up…

  31. “I don’t really know who I am yet. Or what I’m doing with my life. But I hope that while I’m figuring it out, I manage to do some good things along the way.”

    Even if you’re still saying this 70 years from now, you’ll be able to look back and know you lived a good life.

  32. I’m 52 and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.

    It used to bother me that I didn’t know. Actually I don’t know if that’s quite right. I used to feel a little bad about not having a grand strategic plan when it seemed like everyone else had one. Then I came to the conclusion that I really didn’t care that much.

    Now it’s only an issue during work one-on-one meetings with my manager. Part of their script is to try to get you to plan a career and they are somewhat put off by my shrug in response. I like my job and if something else interesting comes along either internally or externally I might decide to pursue it. Until that happens… I’m just over here chilling.

    Let’s see…* Unsolicited advice: Do what you enjoy unless it’s leading to somewhere you want to go.

    *Damn some kid on TikTok! They talked about how only people of a certain age use elipses (…) and now I notice it every single time I use one.

  33. I’m 40 and don’t have it figured out. But I’m happy. That’s what’s important. Are you content with who and what you are and do? I’d ask if you’re working to not cause harm, but it’s clear that you are, so you’re good to go.

    Besides, the best revenge is being happy when others try to get you down. I have people in my life who look down on me because I work as a cook and barista. People who think I must be feel like a failure because I’m not using my university degrees. Guess what? Nope. I love who and what I am, and who I choose to surround myself with. What other people think reflects far more on them than you.

  34. Athena,

    Figuring out ‘who you are’ and ‘what you want to be’ are never easy for anyone. Some folks know, some don’t. Let’s be honest, MOST don’t not really.

    When I was in my early to mid 20s a buddy of mine was in law school. He finished, passed the bar and started in with another lawyer and was partner in his own small family law practice.

    And, after around ten years in university – he found something out. He HATED being a lawyer. He still could be, he keeps up his memberships etc. but he doesn’t practice. He moved over into IT security and is far happier. I had another friend who went to school to be a pharmacist, yet somehow never really considered that he’d have to deal with sick people. He finished school and quit after a couple weeks when he encountered a patient with scabies. Years later he did go back to pharmacy, but as an online pharmacist.

    I didn’t have a clue myself and, after several years of weird odd jobs in warehouses, cleaning carpets and working in automotive shops and for carpenters I joined the military out of the blue. It was interesting and it definitely kicked my life into an entirely new direction, but even so I bounced from job to job over the years before eventually settling into a sort of business management combined with IT work. But that took a LONG time to figure out.

    All that being said, let me offer you a small amount of advice, for what little it may be worth. Based on your post, I think you actually DO have some idea WHO you are. I think what you haven’t quite figured out is ‘how do you want to contribute?’

    Pretty much everyone wants to contribute in some way to society. That doesn’t have to be a ‘job’ per se (although it’s hard to survive without some form of income) but for most people it does have to be something that pays them for the considerable time they are going to spend on their contribution. There’s an old saying – ‘Work where you like – but like where you work’. People and the nature of the work itself will both be important. Your dad is actually particularly wise in this regard, he found something that he loves doing and figured out a way to get paid well to do it. He literally has the best of both worlds – contribution and income.

    Whatever it is you do, try and find something where you contribution matters to you and where you can in some way keep a roof over your head and food on the table. And remember your first ‘path’ may not be your last one. It might just be the road from one milepost to another before the area where the settlement gets built.

    So think of that. How can you contribute in a meaningful and practical way. When you know that – you’ll at least know the start of your road and you can see where it will take you.

    Best of luck!

  35. I believe that we get to choose who we are, by deciding who we want to be and doing our best to become that. I think choosing to be kind and thinking about others is a great start.

    I decided a while back that I would determine who I was by grounding myself in aspirational labels and then working to make those labels more true today than they were yesterday. Don’t always get there, but there’s no time like the present to try again.

  36. Hello from middle age. The next 60 years! Oomph. That’s a lot of pressure. Most people do many things & have several career iterations over the course of 60 years so my unsolicited advice is to pick something that interests you now, pays reasonably with benefits, and do that whole-heartedly. See where it takes you and follow that interest until you feel the need to change course. Definitely plan on, and save for, changing your plan as you go. Definitely start contributing to your retirement now while you’re young. And enjoy moving your body as much as you can! Young bodies are so amazing and you probably won’t know that until it’s gone. I’ll shut up now. Unsolicited advice is so annoying at every age.

  37. I’m 72 and I never did figure that out. Have finally stopped wondering what I want to be and started focusing on what I actually am.

  38. Since the door has been opened for advice-adjacent blatheration, I shall contribute some. :-)

    First of all, everybody else said good things, and it’s true: there is no age by which you have to figure out ‘who you are,’ or what you want to do with the rest of your life, or even what you want to do next year.

    I have a master’s degree in history, but I work in patent law, in one of those hard-to-define positions wedged in between the artists formerly known as secretaries and actual lawyers. That happened because I fell into a law-office job while I was in graduate school, in 1989. I was in graduate school because everybody else in my immediate family had an M.A. or M.Ed. or M.B.A. and I wanted to keep up. I was managing a mall bookstore that was about to get shut down; the law job not only paid better but was closer to the university; and here I still am (via many jobs at many firms along the line). It’s a living.

    It’s okay to do something that’s just a living, especially if you can make a living in 40-50 hours a week. That leaves a lot of time to do other things, like be a writer or photographer or actor or philosopher.

    I am a writer. I am a dancer, even though at the current moment I haven’t danced for a year. I am a nonconformist, even though from the outside my life looks quite conventional. I am a gardener, even though from the street it looks as though I just throw things into the ground and occasionally pull up a weed.

    I believe the things we love define us more than the things we do.

  39. The advice I always give people is to NEVER identify yourself by what you do for money. Everyone is much more than just their job. Even if they truly love what they do (as in your father), you’re more than that. There’s nothing wrong with being a work in progress. Mine’s been lasting 61 years so far.

  40. When I entered college we were told that a large proportion of us would end up majoring in something different than we’d planned. After all, there were majors in things I’d never even heard of before! And I quickly learned that the major I’d planned on wasn’t a good match for me.

    I took a long time to figure out what I was going to do with my life. Seriously, I have a BS and three masters degrees, all in different fields. I was 29 when I figured out the right career for me – and it was something I hadn’t ever heard of until I was in my second round of grad school! And my mother and I graduated with masters degrees a week apart.

    I don’t feel like any of my studies were wasted. I pull on the knowledge I gained in my life and sometimes also in my work. And I’ve had a successful career despite coming to it late.

    This is all to say it’s fine to let yourself take the time you need to figure things out. It’s fine if you end up deciding your first choice isn’t one you want to stick with long-term. We’re all works in progress.

  41. I don’t know where this “I have to know what I’m going to be/doing for the rest of my life at 20” comes from. If someone told you that they told you wrong. Life takes so many unexpected turns and twists that 95% of it is just dealing with what happens. Do you think you’ll marry some day? Do you think that random occurrence will have a major impact on where you live, what you do? The answer of course is “absolutely”. Graduating from college and taking a job–where? LA, NYC, Seattle, Chicago, Dayton, Orlando? (Or not graduating from college and taking a job–where? Same concept.) Where you go will absolutely change your life in ways you can’t even begin to predict. How many people have had their lives completely uprooted by the pandemic in ways that they couldn’t begin to conceive of 18 months ago? So quit worrying–your life is going to happen.
    I’ve always felt that the most self-development and self-knowledge takes place when you’re mot challenged, pushed to your limits, when all the superficialities and surface gloss is stripped away, when all that’s left is who and what you are, when the only thing that can fill the minute with sixty seconds of distance run is you. That happens in different ways for different people–for me it was in the military–but if you can find some way to be forced beyond your limits you emerge from it with a much better understanding of who you are.

  42. Should have aded: from the outside my life looked like there was a path I chose. From inside it wasn’t until I was in my late 30s that it began to make sense to me.

  43. Athena, I am glad you are thinking this through. I have no direct advice (no one is qualified to do that), but I can tell you two things about my life/career and my conclusion. a – I spent 30 years as an ICU nurse and 10 years as a nursing supervisor. From that I learned that helping those who need you is the most rewarding activity you can imagine. b – I changed jobs/location every five years or so. From that I learned that I needed to challenge myself with different experiences, even within my chosen profession. Conclusion – prior to, and continuing into retirement, I have tutored adult literacy on a one-to-one basis. Whatever your skill set turns out to be, using it in service to your community is, in my opinion, the highest goal. Good luck!

  44. /1/ What you DO is not who you are
    /2/ Almost no decision you make today will box you in for the next 60 years. You can always toss it aside and reinvent yourself (well, Tattoos are pretty much forever, and a prison record too)
    /3/ If the ‘experts’ are right (and basically they’re idiots, have always been idiots and are usually widely wrong) you will do many different things during your life.

  45. As a 51 year old dad, I can only tell you what I tell my own kids (usual caveats about advice from strangers applies).

    Mostly, you are what you do. “Actions speak louder than words” is an aphorism for a reason. Don’t sweat labels (especially those that other people try to apply to you), just listen to your conscience and try to act in accordance with your principles. And remember that (like all of us) you are both fallible and also fully capable of learning from your mistakes. We’re all works in progress.

  46. I don’t have the nerve to give my own advice, but I know what others would say.

    In David Gerrold’s Chtorr War series there is a scene when a more accomplished man remarks to the hero, in effect, “We’re all children walking around in adult bodies wondering ‘how did I get here?'”

    I can’t find his post, but world famous blogger Derek Sivers noted that you can have several careers (not jobs) if you focus on one at a time. Sequentially, not concurrently.

    As for finding your passion, he said don’t sweat it, in a post that I managed to find for you, https://sive.rs/passion

  47. #1. There is no hurry. Your one and only life is a lot longer and bigger than you can imagine right now.
    #2. You can (and most likely will) have multiple careers. I am on my third or fourth depending on how you count, and they are very different from one another.
    #3. You are already doing the most important stuff – being a decent human being).

  48. It’s a tough age. College doesn’t really help you figure out what career is a good fit for you most of the time. That isn’t the point of college. Many think that it should be. Personally, I think it should be to “broaden your horizons” so to speak.

    As to figuring out what to do with yourself, I had trouble with that as well and it took me quite a while to decide to become a teacher. I was 35 before I finally gave in to it. Part of the issue for me was my own damned baises. My dad was a teacher and I saw how tired he got with the stupidity of many admins. After I finally found my career I realized how much energy and time I had wasted worrying about it all.

    My advice to you would be to try different things and see how they work out. Take the approach of I’m experimenting. Every time I find something that doesn’t work, it isn’t a failure so much as a dead-end I can cross off.

    As you said sorta said, you only have this life to live, so live it. Joyfully, not fearfully. Life is precious.

  49. At 18 we are still growing up. That’s not a time to work out who we are. Such pressure for a reveling mind.

    I went to university to be a mathematics teacher. Never happened, I think I would have been a good high school teacher but…

    Life happens and opportunities arise and new ideas come our way and the next thing you’re changing your mind in what brings you joy.

    I believe it should be a life long pursuit. Always learning and growing. Forming relationships and taking on new challenges and being fulfilled.

    Along that journey I hope you are kind, patient and understanding. To others and about and also yourself.

    I’m over 60 and it’s been amazing journey. The places I’ve been and the people I’ve met and food I’ve tasted. Not a moment wasted.

    Enjoy the ride.

  50. Add me to the responders here who are right there with you, making it up as we go along and still trying to figure out what we want to be when we grow up. And I am 64 years old.

    I think one of the worst things we do to young people is put them in the position of feeling like they have to choose a life path when they’re teens. Nobody has enough life experience and enough perspective at age 18 to make a choice like that! And it’s far worse for the brightest young people, the ones who graduate high school at 15 or 16 – bright they may be, but how on earth does anyone expect a brilliant 16-year-old to know exactly what they want to do for six or seven decades in the future??? It’s even worse now than it was 20 or 30 years ago, because there are far more career paths and possibilities to choose from than there ever have been in history.

    I started college at 18, stopped at age 20 because I had no idea what I wanted to do and wasn’t willing to waste more money on tuition, and finally went back to school in my 40s, getting my bachelor’s degree at 49 years old. I’m using that degree in my current job, but I’d far rather be pursuing a different avocation.

    My spouse went straight to college out of high school, never considered changing his major even though he realized within a year that it wasn’t what he wanted to do, graduated in four years, and has worked in at least five widely disparate career paths in the half-century since then.

    My sister is one of those brilliant overachievers who graduate high school at 15. She had her first bachelor’s degree, in cello performance, at age 19, and already knew that she didn’t want a career in music. She got a paralegal certification and worked in that field for a couple of years, then went back for her second bachelor’s in organic chemistry, then a PhD in O-chem. Then she worked as a chemist in private industry, then as a patent facilitator, then as a chemistry professor, and now in her 50s, she’s contemplating yet another career move.

    One of my kids graduated high school and basically tuned out for five years, tried to survive on a series of minimum-wage jobs, and then decided at age 23 to get herself into college. She graduated with a degree in a specific area of IT – and has never once used that degree since then. She’s got a business analyst job that she loves, but I will not be at all surprised to see her shift to a different path in the next decade.

    The other kid went straight to college for physics, changed majors to marketing, eventually graduated, tried several sales jobs, and then wound up also as a business analyst.

    The point to all that babble is that literally NOBODY in my family had any clue what we were going to become or who we would be in our teens and 20s. The joy is in the journey, in exploring as many possibilities as you can, experiencing as much as you can, learning about what gives you joy and what drives you nuts, and then using that knowledge to follow a pathway. Decide you don’t like that path? No problem, there are hundreds of others to choose from, and nearly everyone else is wandering just like you are to find the path that is right for them.

    Please don’t beat yourself up over the fact that you’re all of 21 and don’t quite know yet where you’ll be in a decade or two or three. You are in excellent company.

  51. This was a profoundly strong piece. Incredibly open and amazingly vulnerable.

    Thank you for sharing.

  52. When someone says that I always remember an otherwise forgetable movie ‘Matinee’
    “You think grown-ups have it all figured out? That’s just a hustle, kid. Grown-ups are making it up as they go along, just like you. You remember that, and you’ll do fine.”

  53. I can hardly think of anyone better suited to playing it by ear and being super adaptable and wandering around until an amazing thing serendipitously falls into place! People who are single-minded about their careers (e.g. me) are setting themselves up to be unrealistically inflexible. I say this as a thirtysomething who has been trying to do this one really specific thing for well over 15 years. The work is deeply fulfilling and I love it, but I still don’t have any long-term stability. My chances improve every year, but all the eggs are in one basket and I never acquired any kind of backup plan.

  54. Dear Athena,

    What Glyph said — in spades! Take it from this 71-year old whose professional (and personal) life has had its share of unimaginable twists and turns. The past decade has seen both sorts, so unimaginable that I’d have said “impossible.” Until they happened. I expect more big surprises down the pike.

    Following on what Sean said, there’s this. You may not care for the music but you’ll appreciate the sentiment:

    Carly Simone – “Grownup”
    https://music.youtube.com/watch?v=X29b2l8xS3A&list=RDAMVMX29b2l8xS3A

    Here’s a huge thing you have working for you — privilege. Like your Da, you get to play on the easiest level. Okay, you lose a big point for being a woman (unfortunately, still likely to be true for much of your life if not all of it) but you gain a big one for being a 1%-er. Or maybe a 2%-er. Either way, you’re never going to have to worry about how the bills will get paid… unless you choose that course for yourself. That’s what privilege means — choice!

    So long as you aren’t using that privilege to disadvantage someone else, there’s nothing wrong with it. (No, all exercising of privilege doesn’t work to someone else’s disadvantage – although it certainly, even usually can — unless you believe the world is a zero-sum game, and I pity the people who do.) In any case, it’s not like it’s something you can throw off without considerable effort, so make use of it! You only need to be paying attention that you’re using it as a Force for Good rather than Eviel, and heaven knows, you’ve got the smarts and the social conscience for doing that.

    Despite it being my lifelong passion and career (among several!) it’s hard to recommend photography as a job. Really, it’s hard to recommend any of the art forms as a job. I’ve survived considerable ups and downs, partly through skill, partly through my own privilege, and substantially through luck. My sweeties (including my living partner of 35 years) eventually became accustomed to the apparent truth that I will somehow always land on my feet. But it’s been close. I’ve asserted the patronage of Momus is central to my survival, he being — among other things — the god of fools and children.

    That said, if you decide you want to pursue photography feel entirely free to reach out to me and I’ll give you plenty of encouragement and what very little help I can. I am best at theory, both technical and aesthetic, and worst at marketing (the artist’s bete noir).

    pax, Ctein

    (Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training!)

  55. Joseph M Kurtenbach – Eugene, Oregon – Joseph M Kurtenbach has lived in many places and worked in many fields, including surveying and drafting, construction, truck driving, airport security, veterinary technology, zoo keeping, laboratory technology, and information technology. And with Associate of Applied Science degrees in Veterinary Technology and Computer Information Systems, he loves science and technology and learning new things. Also, in what seems like another lifetime, he earned fixed-wing and helicopter pilot licenses–the best he could do without a wyvern. He loved all of these experiences, but what he loves most of all is creating. He found the perfect outlet in fantasy fiction, and started writing in his early twenties. After many adventures, Joe developed chronic illness in his forties. It was not the midlife crisis he had hoped for, but nevertheless he sometimes uses this experience in his writing. Joe was born and raised in a small farm town in Nebraska. He currently resides in Eugene, Oregon.
    Joe Kurtenbach

    This is a wonderful piece.

  56. As many people here have already said, the whole “you need to pick a career and stick with it forever” thing is a bunch of baloney.

    I’m a Scanner, as referenced in Barbara Sher’s books. I learn one thing and then I get bored and want to learn something else. There aren’t many things I want to dive deeply into.

    For years, I thought there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t commit to one thing. But now I know I’m just wired differently.

    I’d suggest you read some/all of Barbara Sher’s books. When I read about being a Scanner, I felt such a sense of relief.

  57. Get yourself a spouse and have children. Then you won’t have time to worry about what you should be!

    Also, I assume that your family’s financial situation is such that putting food on the table and and keeping a roof over your head aren’t going to be issues for you. That gives you a lot of flexibility to futz around for a few years figuring out what you want to do. And remember that it’s fine to be ordinary. By definition, most people are going to be. There’s nothing wrong with just living an ordinary life, working an ordinary job, and having an ordinary family.

  58. I’m old (like your Dad’s age), so I have lots of advice in my head, but I’m going to keep it to myself and just say that this:

    “I want to be comprised of pins and stickers, old books and chai lattes, sweaters and cookies, rainbows and stars.”

    Is a nice turn of phrase. I liked that whole section, in fact, but this sentence was my favorite.

  59. Many thanks for yet another interesting and, especially, honest and heartfelt post.

    Having made it beyond the traditional threescore years and ten, I’ve been lucky enough to have had a mostly more than satisfying life, but one that often didn’t go in any of the directions that I’d envisioned (or even thought I’d wanted), so I certainly can’t presume to give you (or anyone) much in the way of advice.

    FWIW, after deciding in high school that I was going to be a marine biologist, I dropped out of what was, at the time, probably the premier university for that in the USA (and all of $64 per quarter unit in those bygone days), turned to aviation instead, and made that my career as well as one of my passions ever since. There were periods early on, however, when I had to turn to other nonaviation pursuits to support my flying habit; some were necessary drudgery, but others led to rewarding career branches of their own, some of which I happily followed, and some of which led back into the main trunk all by themselves. I have to add that when asked by nieces and nephews, and now even grandnieces and -nephews, “uncle Peter, can I be a pilot when I grow up,” I’m tempted to respond, “you can’t have it both ways,” although if you’re riding an airliner, you’d hope that the pilots have at least a modicum of grownupness.

    I don’t know who said “follow your bliss” or how long ago they said it, but if you can find a way to do that without harming anyone else (or, nowadays, harming this planet), and maybe even doing some good, you can’t go far wrong.

    And you never know…40 years ago, I met someone who was open, as was I, to a “quick vacation romance” on a trek in the Himalayas, found that their sleeping bag could zip together with mine…and, sometimes to our mutual surprise, here we still are.

    All the best for you in the future–and, based of what I’ve seen of you so far, I’m sure you’ll do more than fine.

  60. Hi Athena, awesome post!
    For an honest and funny depiction of a young woman in her twenties who hasn’t yet figured out her life path, and isn’t sure why she has to, I suggest “Such a Fun Age” by Kiley Reid. You also get the bonus of a sardonic look at race and class in the US. (Of the many things I turned out to be, a major one is Person Who Recommends Books.)

  61. Alex Samaras – Nomad / Wanderer / Dreamer / Gamer / Feminist / Former HS Biology Teacher / Photographer / Nerd (I am also 5.67 light nanoseconds tall)
    Alex Samaras

    For whatever it may be worth, I’m 42, I’ve done quite a number of things in my life and with my life, I’ve been around the world, I’ve lived and worked in different countries, I’ve had jobs I was passionate about, and I’ve had those passions burn out after a time. I still don’t know what I want to “be when I grow up” or really want to do with my life overall.

    Or maybe less of “want to do” and more of a “can do” kind of thing, since, you know, capitalism and the widespread belief in our society you have “work for a living” just to deserve to exist.

    Anyway, point being, it’s perfectly fine if you haven’t figured it out. It’s perfectly fine if you don’t figure it out. Keep exploring yourself, keep exploring the possibilities, and don’t sweat it if you keep changing things up rather than falling into the thing that becomes a life long career. And if you do find the thing that you feel like you want to do for the rest of your life, congrats. Enjoy it. And don’t sweat it or feel obligated to keep doing it if that feeling ever fades.

    Life is meant for living as much and as deeply as you possibly can. How you focus your life to make it fulfilling is up to you. That notion is simultaneously daunting and liberating. ;)

    But, again for whatever it may be worth, it sounds to me like you are very much off to a good start. :)

  62. You’ve accomplished the #1 thing-you’re a good person.
    No, I don’t know you-but you let your soul hang out in your writing, and it’s there in black and white. Besides, I know some bad people-it would never occur to them to want to be a good person!

    It was a smart move for your Dad to hire you on to Whatever, it’s been absolutely brilliant what you’ve done with the opportunity.

  63. I’m 70 years old. Fat sick old guy in Australia and I haven’t worked that out yet. Hope you do faster than I have. But I have never seen the process better phrased than you did here. Thank you.

    “I don’t really know who I am yet. Or what I’m doing with my life. But I hope that while I’m figuring it out, I manage to do some good things along the way.“

  64. Athena, song writers have the term “laundry list song.” I was touched by the list aspects of later in your post.

    It seems to me that many people forget their “list,” or couldn’t list such things off the top of their head. I imagine a lot of people, late at night at the kitchen table, writing in their journal, remembering such good things.

    For a time I used a (simplicity journal?) from a rack in a tourist store. It came with a loop for a pen and, more importantly, for every two page spread, under a quarter of the left upper page had some headings.

    It so easy for many days to go by and then you think, “nothing happened” or “nothing got done.” The headings were intended as snap shots of your life so you could look back and say, “something happened.” As best I recall (I forget) the headings were:
    something funny; something that touched your heart; challenge; lesson learned; idea; something good (about life or yourself)

    I might, maybe, add: a moment of beauty; a reason life is good; an accomplishment.

    Before I start a new moleskin journal I skim through the old one, looking at all the upper left corners.

  65. You’ve gotten a lot of advice on this post, and I don’t know that you’ll get this far down, but if you do, this comic from SMBC legitimately changed my life in grad school. It caused me to rethink the whole framing of things. Not what did I want to do with my life, but what did I want to do with this life.

    https://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/2012-09-02

    I share it regularly these days, in the hopes that it helps someone else too.

  66. Like many other commenters, I’m a fair bit older than you and still trying to answer those questions. Well, TBH, that’s not entirely true. I spent about 30 years trying to answer them. Now my approach is to just try stuff and see if anything sticks.

    Give it a try. It might work for you too/ Good luck!

  67. I did know at 12 what I wanted to be: I wanted to get an Electrical Engineering degree from the Helsinki University of Technology, majoring in phone technology. The subjects needed for that weren’t difficult for me (nor school in the general sense), so after seven years of making the choices so that I could get there, I was in that place studying.

    However, once there I found out that the phone exchanges weren’t the nice relay rooms anymore (the last ones in Finland were decommissioned the year I started there). I did have somewhat of a problem, but did study and finally realized that there was a space technology major, so I did that.

    I did manage to get a Masters in that, which was mostly what I had planned. After that, however, I wasn’t that clear on what to do next – my planning had been to get that Masters and I hadn’t thought that much what I should do after that. It took me somewhat long to get the Masters and I did continue in the same place, starting with a PhD, but that didn’t feel like what I wanted to do.

    Then I quit that, took a couple of months off, and found work in software development. Now, years later I’ve done mostly different IT things, but I’m back at being a developer again.

    I think it’s not always useful to have great plans, or at least update them every once in a while. At least I felt quite lost after getting that Masters, which I had been going for over fifteen years.

    The sad thing is that looking at the world now, I feel like the future feels more uncertain than it was 20-30 years ago, especially looking at the climate change and the actions we either need to take or the results of not taking those.

  68. I recognise a bit of young me in your words – the though struck me in my late teens: if I do something now it will set the direction for the rest of my life. And I didn’t know what I wanted to do. It was scary, but also very healthy, I tested and observed life and ultimately it started me on a spiritual quest. It wasn’t necessarily easy, but it was worth it. Here’s hoping the best for you!

  69. I’ll just chime in to support what a lot of people are saying that there really isn’t a sensible way of approaching this when you’re 20 and have no idea what kind of person you’ll be in 5, 10, or 20 years, let alone for the entire rest of your life. My wife wanted to be an interior designer, switched briefly to engineering, then became a computer science major. When she graduated she worked for a few years for IBM tech support, then worked in a needlework store for a few years longer, became a housewife/mom for a few years, went back to work in retail for a few years, became a medical transcriptionist, then back to housewife mom.

    I wanted to be an oceanographer like Jacques Cousteau, but discovered I can’t stand biology labwork, so became a programmer. I’ve mostly stuck with it, but did a few years as a paralegal when the .com bubble burst. While I love being back in programming I really enjoyed my time as a paralegal too. I think if there were more geeky co-workers in the legal field, I’d like to have stayed, but unfortunately most folks in the legal field are luddites (nice ones, but still technologically challenged and not at all into geek culture).

    Bottom line, even though my wife and I did actually have plans of what to do with our lives, those plans bore no relation to the lives we ended up living. So for what it’s worth, I don’t recommend that you worry to much about having a plan for your life as you should for having a plan for this year, maybe the next one too. Your priorities, wants, and goals almost certainly will change. Let them.

  70. As everybody above said – 49 and still no idea.

    I add my related estimate here:
    At least 80% of the people are faking their way through life at least 80% of time. They put a happyish confident smile on and muddle through with best guesses for all the daily random stuff that life throws at us pretending they know what the heck is going on.
    Another 10% of people will self-aware enough to admit they have no idea what’s going on and are just trying their best to get to the end of the day or to the weekend.
    Another 5% will not understand the question or even if there was a question.
    That leaves the 5% who say and BELIEVE they know what’s going on, and these are the really truly scary insane people you should keep away from at all costs.

  71. At 70, I’ve always had a strong sense of who I am, but it took me a long time to describe it to myself, and anyone else who was interested–mostly, they’re not.
    Early on, I mostly described my self as not this, not that, mostly roles that people around me wanted me to play. Nope. I wasn’t going to do that, and I didn’t.
    In my 20s I discovered the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator, which gave me an accurate and positive description of myself. And a writer named Jane Duncan used a phrase I liked, “I am a person like this, I … ” which has been very useful, in describing the the things I do that I enjoy, or that might help others understand my point of view.
    You are your own person, whether it’s clear who that is or not, so the main thing is to get clear on what works for you and doesn’t, and why, and that will make things even more clear.
    Best wishes.

  72. Beautifully written, Athena.

    Wherever this life takes you, I’m sure it’ll be somewhere fantastic.

    You have a more than excellent head on your shoulders already, and I expect you to do amazing things over the many, many decades before you.

  73. I looked over the first few comments and then just scrolled.

    Welcome to the world. There is no script, it’s all improv.

    “Who are you, really?” is the question at the root of religious belief. All the stuff about what happens after you’re dead is just distraction. Know the answer and you are enlightened.

  74. I’m 45 with a Doctorate in Opera and Musical Theatre Conducting, and I still ask those questions every day. Welcome to adulthood. You’ve finally arrived. :)

  75. You are all those things and more. I’m in my mid 40s now and have a handle on who I am (good, bad and inbetween) but not who I’m going to be. Like a lot of commenters above, there’s no stopping point for figuring out who you are. Just keep searching and adding to the complex person you are.

  76. As a few others have said, I always read your pieces though I rarely comment. This struck a chord, since I am 63 and trying to figure out what to do when I grow up.

    I worked some years ago for a career counseling organization, and it embedded in me the idea that for each job, you should think about (a) what’s my satisfaction? [anything from love the work/my coworkers/my short commute to it pays the bills for now] (b) what’s my contribution? [what am I doing for the organization, my community, or the world?] and (c) what am I learning to take to my next job?

    Have you read An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield? He’s the Canadian astronaut who, among other things, created a music video of himself playing/singing David Bowie’s Space Oddity from the International Space Station. It’s been a while since I read his memoir, but as I remember it, he encouraged setting goals so that you enjoyed the process and not just the end result. As a kid he wanted to be an astronaut, which is a highly competitive profession, but he chose things for his college education and early career that would advance him toward that goal, but that he’d still be happy with having done even if he never became an astronaut.

  77. Don’t worry about finding one thing to do for the next 60 years. Many of us have more than one career. I did one thing for over a decade, then something entirely different for almost two; and I’ll probably do something else for the next one or two. Try stuff out until you find something you enjoy doing. I know from experience how important it is enjoy what you do. It’s ok if it takes a while to find it.

  78. I haven’t read any of the comments yet, but even though you might not want to hear it, you are way too young to have to worry about those things. Most of our nieces and nephews in your age range (or a little older) are pretty much like you. They seem to be OK with just going with the flow (as my generation said, at times) and getting that you are unlikely to do what we mostly did – find one job and do it until it is time to retire. In some ways, it is a lot harder for you for that reason. My wife started teaching at 22 and worked at it (and then out of the classroom) for 34 years. But how many people do that anymore? As I said, our nieces and nephews seem to move around, not only between jobs but from place to place. Also, I got married what would be considered very young these days and was lucky enough that it has worked out for 50 years, but I wonder if that will be the case in the future. Maybe for some, but serial marriage seems more common – and accepted – these days.

    So yes, try not to worry too much. All our worrying when we were young pretty much dissipated and turned to dust. Just live your life each day (not that you have a choice!) and it will work out (I hope).

  79. When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always said”I want to be happy.”. Sadly, I haven’t made it there yet. I like to believe I’m not horrible, so maybe there’s hope for you too! Thanks for sharing these anxieties. Good luck. Probably your future is full of challenges most of us did not have to face.

  80. I’m constantly saying that I still don’t know what I’m going to be when I grow up, and I’d better hurry the eff up because I’ll be 60 at the end of the year! I have no idea how those digits got up that high!

    I’ve had a lot of jobs over the years, and I’m now on my second career path. I spent a good 25 years in IT and now work in a college library. I’ve been a photographer for over 4 decades, I’ve been in sales, I worked for a play-by-mail game company, I’ve done all sorts of stuff.

    But the important thing – in my ever so humble opinion – is to not let your job define you. In Europe, when asked what you do, they don’t know what you do to earn a pay check. That does not define you.

    I heard an excellent piece of advice recently and I unknowingly followed it. It’s okay to chase your dream job, but it’s more important to avoid jobs that you hate. So maybe spend some time defining jobs that are the polar opposite of what want, and what it is in those jobs that turns you off.

    Being kind is an excellent ambition, and it’s not difficult to be. Do it, and keep it up. It’s excellent for your karma and your mental health. And don’t hate, there’s more than enough in the world than to waste your time and energy adding to it. We are never the smartest people in the room, everybody knows something we don’t.

  81. Dame Eleanor Hull – Fifteenth Century – Blogging as Dame Eleanor since 2007. That's definitely medieval in blog years. My pseudonym pays tribute to a late-medieval Englishwoman known for her translations. I'm a middle-aged American professor of medieval English literature. You can reach me at dame DOT eleanor AT mail DOT com.
    Dame Eleanor Hull

    I LOVE the idea of being made of the things that make us happy, where we’ve traveled, and fun things we’ve done. I’m going to spend some time thinking about who that makes me. Thank you!

  82. I got some great advice on the whole existential question thing from one of my favourite TV shows ever – Babylon 5.

    There’s a scene where a character has gone on a literal walkabout to try and figure themselves out, and had a brush with death. Ultimately, when he’s asked what he is, he answers: “Alive. Everything else is negotiable.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0T0M-qlP8pA

  83. I had a teacher in college who told me, “College doesn’t teach you to think, whatever you may have heard. What college does is teach you–if you’re receptive–to ask the next question.”

    Sounds like you’re asking all the questions. I am decades older than you, and I’m still figuring out what I’m going to be. But being a good person is an awfully good start.

  84. I’m 34 and still don’t know what I want to do with my life! I don’t have a “plan”. There are things I’d like to do and things I definitely don’t want to do, but that’s about it. I’ve moved into jobs I’ve never thought about before because they came up, and failed to enter a field I trained for because so few jobs were available. Personal life decisions have also been affected by family illness and death.

    At 18 I thought everyone around me had a plan and was disappointed that I didn’t (aside from wanting kids by 29… I’m 34 now and it seems unlikely it will happen anytime soon!). By the time I hit my mid 20s I realised that very few people I knew had plans, and many of those that did hadn’t kept to them.

  85. Athena, I was born 40 years to the day before you were. Your post hit me hard in the gut. I wrote a very long, very personal response, which is in no way appropriate for a blog comment. If for some reason, you want to read it, feel free to contact me using the email address attached to this comment.

    Here are four things I have learned in the last 40 years:

    Who I am is determined by my choices and actions. It’s worth it to ask of every choice and action whether it makes me a person I want to be.
    If I write, I am a writer. If I cook, I am a cook. If I weave, I am a weaver. If I want to be a thing, I should do that thing.
    What I did for a living in my 20s and what I did for a living in my 40s were wholly unrelated, but both were good fun and paid the bills. What I do now is also entirely different. Most of my best occupational experiences were in fields that either did not exist or were totally out of my awareness when I was 40 years younger than I am today.
    Self-awareness is awesome, but letting it turn into overthinking is less awesome.

    I am living my life and discovering everyday who I am and who I have been and maybe who I want to be in the time left to me. I’m not sure there is any other way for me to do it. YMMV, of course.

  86. Someone in the comments (apologies, I don’t want to scroll all the way through again to find your name!) mentioned speaking to managers being the only thing that is frustrating when it comes to not having plans for a future career. I agree. At interviews and in 1 to 1s with my manager, I’ve been asked many times what my plans are. I give answers that are related to what I’m doing now or the jobs I’m applying for, but they feel almost like lying to me because the reality is while I’m content to do those things at the moment, I have no idea if I want to be doing them in 5 years, let alone 10. You can’t say that in a job interview though!!

  87. Nice essay! Especially the ending. I guess I’m lucky to have known since first grade that I wanted to be a scientist. But looking back on it, being an academic scientist was a poor choice.

    However, one piece of advice I give to all my mentees is to note that in the modern world it is increasingly the case that people just don’t stay in one career throughout their lives. Even my old college roommate from back in the 1970’s was trained as a civil engineer and now does financial management. So learn to wear as many hats as you can. You never know when something that might not have seemed useful at the time will turn out to take you in a new direction.

  88. As others have said, don’t stress. You have time. Speaking from the perspective of my 65 years, I find that I have the same basic interests as I did when I was a child. My aptitude test showed equal aptitude for both the sciences and the arts. (They suggested I become a taxidermist – aarrgh!) I had exactly equal verbal/math scores on the SAT. I started college as a psychology major and graduated with a degree in music. I worked in technology for over 40 years and did music as a hobby. You can do all the things you are interested in – just not to the same degree and not at the same time. Now that I’m retired, I’m studying languages and taking viola lessons from a student at Oberlin. What you choose now/soon is not written in stone.

  89. “so I’m still trying to decide what it is that I want to spend my one and only existence on. It’s kind of overwhelming.” & “I’m also trying to figure out who I am as a person”

    I’m 73, and have spent bits of my life on many different things. I have been many different (but not disjoint) people. It seems to me that you may need to disenthral yourself from a common fallacy of the young, that the world you were born into is the world that has always been; the world that always will be.
    You cannot see your path clearly because your path is still being created. When I was your age there were no databases. Now there are millions of people working as DBAs.

    <>

    Synaptic pruning: “At birth, an infant’s brain is packed with roughly 100 billion neurons—some 15% more than it will have as an adult. As we learn and grow, our experiences strengthen the circuits that prove most relevant while the others weaken and fade.”

    It just occurred that late adolescence my be a time of a similar pruning of aspirations. Things you were really into 5 years ago are now meh. And perhaps you now like broccoli.

    Trust your heart; you’ll do fine.

  90. Also meant to say that someone (I think maybe Carolyn Hax) once pointed out that while some lives are like novels, other lives are more like short story collections, and that’s okay.

    When I was in my early twenties, I assumed I would have a novel-like life, but 40 years later, I am pleased that it’s been an anthology of related but different stories.

  91. I felt so much the same at 22. I refused to get engaged until I “knew” what my career goals were — I thought I was meant to be moving forward With Purpose. Well, a year into THAT and I decided to keep good things close, let bad things go, and just ride the wave.

    Now 30 years or so later, I look back at my various jobs like they have been levels in a Katamari game. I’m just a giant sticky ball rolling around acquiring stuff like knowledge, a husband/kids, and all kinds of new skills (some useful, some less so). The more stuff sticks, the more new levels I’ve unlocked. Weird knowledge turns out to be useful, some levels last a looooong time, and new levels show up when I don’t expect them. But I’ve gotten better at steering over time.

    I guess I’m saying that my version of happiness grew out of building experience onto experience over time, not by quickly driving toward any fixed goal. Allowing for a meandering path also left space for the magic of the world to intrude on its own schedule.

  92. This is my fave piece you’ve written so far. It really paints the picture of a young woman in modern day America.

    Keep up the great writing and keep looking forward to finding the you that you are.

  93. Look for synergies between your many interests. You want to be a baker and a photographer? Great. Offer to help out in a bakery by photographing their best stuff for their Facebook page, in exchange for lessons. Offer to help them with the writing on that page. Many ‘business’ pages sound like they were written by great, well, ‘not writers’.

    PS I switched careers at 43, so remember you’re only stuck if you believe you are.

  94. The expectation that you will know what you want from life at near-20 is bogus. My (now ex-) wife spent most of her life wanting things (situations, not necessarily physical things), and much of why we are ex- is because she figured out over time that she didn’t in fact want those things. Life is reconnaissance by fire, where you don’t know what something is really like until you get involved in it, and like sculpting where you are figuring out what you don’t want over time. It’s also lots of being overtaken by events (that’s how I felt when my older daughter was born).

    All you can do is the best from what you know. Everyone else is flawed, too.

  95. I’m in my fifties, and I still haven’t figured out what I’m supposed to be doing.

    I served 22 years in the navy, then became a graphic designer; love the work, but hated clients. Spent a lot of time working in retail/services, because, bills. Taught myself to cook, and not I’m pretty proud of my alio e olio. Learned Argentine Tango, and have been dancing for 14 years, until Covid.

    I honestly don’t have any advice, except maybe, just try to be a decent human being.

  96. One of my standing jokes is that I want to do something “if I grow up.” I’m 53, so that whole grown up ship had sailed, but my home is a nod to a similar dynamic. If it’s any encouragement or consolation, who I am has changed over time, and each phase has served its purpose.

    I wish I could tell freshly graduated me that it’s ok to not know, that trying on new things is part of adult life every bit as much as adolescent life although it may look a little different, that I may find my niche but I may outgrow it and need/want to find a new one – and all of that is just fine.

    I can’t tell me that, but perhaps you can find something useful in it. It’s a process. Hang in there.

  97. I partially reinvented myself at 55

    Plenty of time to chart a course and change later

    ‘Second star to the right and straight on ’til morning’

  98. My jobs, in chronological order:

    Secretary

    Insurance underwriter, property / business insurance

    Insurance underwriter, accountants professional liability insurance

    dBase programmer

    Corporate real estate lease manager

    Technical writer, the career that stuck

    Until I became a tech writer, my jobs were strictly to support my jujitsu practice. I was very glad, when I became a tech writer, to stop worrying professionally about other people’s money.

    I’m still in martial arts, thought the last year has had no physical practice. I also have a side career writing about music (I was a music major in college).

    I made it all up as I went along.

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