When you’ve grown up as an accomplishment junkie, always striving for one lofty goal (and reward) after the next, and suddenly those goals are no longer structured and predictable, it’s actually depressing. I never envisioned myself past college; graduating from college the last preset goal in the sequence. You’re in the same “Now what??” place that most 23-year-olds reach when the adrenaline of achievement wears off, and you find yourself in the numb groove of a day job.
Congratulations. You’re untethered. The tricky part is that your definition of success is still wired to validation by others. You can hang your sheepskin on the wall and blast your resume to prospective employers, but what does “success” mean to you? Learning something daily, making someone else feel good, and taking good care of yourself are all very valuable, but not very soothing to a driven psyche that wants to achieve on a scale that other people care about too.
At 42, I don’t have brilliant insight into how to handle this struggle. I was an overachiever, and continue to do well and strive as you do in one of my “jobs,” as a senior officer in the military reserves. I have two other part-time gigs: mom to elementary school kids and landlord/real estate investor. I’m not really using my engineering PhD much, and I have plenty of other accomplishments behind me. I don’t look back at them much, but I do value the friends I have made along the way.
I am fortunate to have achieved ENOUGH that I now have control over my time, for the most part.
Controlling your time, and learning to throttle back and enjoy it, is priceless!
My stress levels are down and my fun levels are up. Don’t get me wrong — at times, I still feel like I should jump back on the train, especially as friends progress in their careers — but I have set my life up in a way that I get enough satisfaction from my various forms of work.
I invested early and while I am never going to be a billionaire, my family is comfortable and essentially financially independent. “Enough” money varies from person to person, but over the years I have learned that more stuff often means more stress, and frankly I don’t want to drive a $80k car that requires expensive maintenance (though I would not refuse a Tesla, should someone give it to me!) I’d like to have a soundproofed music studio in my house and more sun in the kitchen, but otherwise, my house is just fine. We can afford to travel. If I can offer any advice, it’s to work smart and invest well and build yourself a financial base so that you, too, can free yourself from worries about money, whether you reach that goal at 30 or 50. Milennials tend not to care about accumulating stuff, which is probably healthy. In any case, don’t confuse being rich with being successful. Plenty of rich people are miserable — just look at the crew on Wall Street.
Tough love time. If you want to be a Zuckerberg or a Gates or any other grand entrepreneur, you have to go your own way and stop working for other people. All of those people started their own companies to launch their Big Idea. Some of them had no idea what they were doing and made lots of mistakes and ate lots of ramen along the way, but their passion and their Big Idea kept them going. If you don’t have a Big Idea, don’t sweat it, but do keep your imagination open. You can train yourself to see possibilities all around; solutions to the most trivial everyday problems can be big winners in business. It’s very hard to start a hugely successful venture without a Big Idea, but plenty of people launch more humble companies that do just fine.
Jobs are great for learning the basics of business, human relations, and how to work with a team to get things done, and most people benefit most from working in an industry for a while before starting their own venture. When you are ready and convinced that your idea will fly, plenty of people are standing by to help — the SBA has plenty of organizations like SCORE who offer advice, and your best resources are people who have already been there/done that.
Anyway, you’ve recognized that there’s no need to rush. Have a good think about what success looks like for you, realizing that your definition will evolve, and stop and smell the roses. Keep a notebook of ideas — big and small — and keep reading and learning. Spend time with friends and family. Most of all, take it easy on yourself; your greatest source of stress is your own standards. Don’t set your sights lower, but give yourself a break for not being on the cover of Time yet, and once you relax the time-pressured demands you put on yourself, you’ll be able to see more clearly.
Julia Child didn’t start cooking until she was 37!