The Mid-20s Career Path Crisis
And how I learned to find my feet
I never settled on what I wanted to be when I grew up.
I was one of those people who could find an interest in anything and so, with so much choice, went with a mish-mash of subjects at school that, ultimately, led me nowhere.
Really, I never considered the importance of it all until my early 20s, which is kind of embarrassing to admit. I’ve always been naive but before this, I was in a big blissful bubble of denial. I fully expected to be able to take my passions and hobbies and make them blossom into a neat little money earner when I wanted them to. I can’t pin-point when the bubble burst but thank God it did eventually. Suddenly, I couldn’t digress about the matter anymore, hopping on a plane when things got dull and hoping I would find exciting prospects somewhere else. Change needed to start here, with me, now.
My first love was writing. As soon as I could hold a pencil and use it, I was creating stories, drawing fictional characters and leaving scraps of paper with ‘once upon a time…’ all over the place. At Christmas, no one was allowed to consider dinner until every member had read my most recent work of fiction (for which I mostly blame Beatrix Potter, my first literary love).
Not long after, my father, a keen amateur photographer, bought me my first real camera and let me run around Toronto with it. I took photos of everything and soon found that I loved taking the pictures and hated being in them (there’s not one childhood photo without a grimace or bulldog-chewing-wasp impression). On our next trip to New York I got a fabulous photo of the Statue of Liberty from between someone’s thighs — the queue had moved on and I had been left behind. While crawling my way back to my parents I hit the shutter release and there you have it, taking perspective to a new level. The dream of becoming a photographer stayed with me until I was 18 but I realised I hadn’t put myself out there enough, and with the invention of Instagram, everyone was now a famous photographer. Competition is high and regular income a blessing. I struck it off the list.
At the age of 6, already due a retirement from novel-writing and photography, I begged to further my love for music and learn the piano and clarinet. This was definitely for the long-haul. This quest took me towards singing lessons, playing in bands, teaching myself the drums and bass guitar and eventually going onto A Level at 17 which tore me apart and by the time I finished my Grade 8 in piano I was defeated. I loved music but I wasn’t cut out for a long-term career in it.
I was at college and a bit apprehensive about my life. Why did everyone else know what they wanted to pursue? How were they so confident in their choices? I was far too scared to think of any other possibilities at this time — I’ve never known myself to be quick with numbers, good with animals or studious enough to make it as a doctor. At 18, I was ill-informed and clueless. I knew what I loved but deep down I knew they were unrealistic in keeping me financially sound. I needed to know I could rely on myself and be self-sufficient in the future. At the same time I didn’t want to be bored to tears in unfulfilling jobs with bosses who belittled me. I was angry at my lack of preparation for life and angry at myself for not getting to know myself better, sooner. Cue: the 20s meltdown.
Who am I? What am I good at?
Two questions that came around time and again. I took every online personality test there was in the hope that some algorithm would be able to suss me out better than I could. I’ll never forget the year 9 career test I once had to take. My job perspectives included every type of driver under the sun: train, bus, long-distance lorry, ice cream van…the list was long. I sought advice from professionals who pointed me toward more online career tests, but I didn’t believe the results were authentic. Mechanical Engineer? Maths and science are not my strengths. Vet? I’d cry if a worm died. These just don’t sound like me.
I was going round in circles with dead end jobs. I had all the soft skills — but I knew I wanted to go much further and they weren’t going to take me further. I either had to go back to college (yikes, at my ripe old age?!) or find my way onto a training scheme.
So the first thing to conquer was what route to take; a situation I’d been in a million times before but knew I had to tackle, head on. I talked to people I knew and asked them about the industries they worked in. Most, I knew nothing about. The vastness of the working world is hardly touched upon in school it’s embarrassing. Why are we not exposed to more possibilities?
The more I learnt about various industries and all the potential career paths, the more my mind lit up with ideas. Once again, I was presented with endless options and the agony over which path to take was eating away at me mentally. I was beginning to understand that I would have to reach outside the box into the unknown and just go with it. Although I’d made a little bit of progress, my mood plummeted and I hit rock bottom. I had the worst depression I’d had in years. For a few months I let it ruin my motivation and willingness to grow. I spent days off feeling sorry for myself and evenings crying so hard I fell asleep from exhaustion. My fiance had had enough. A few months after being forced to the doctor’s, I was on antidepressants and my mind cleared a bit. It was time to snap out of the funk and just get on with it.
I knew there would be challenges along the way, but I wasn’t prepared for them to start right at the beginning. I sucked up my pride and went back to college to inquire about relative courses, knowing that I wanted to gain and improve my technical abilities. I was very, very keen on pursuing an aerospace technician role. The responsibility that went with it was also a big selling point; definitely an exciting prospect where no two days are the same. College turned me down.
“ We don’t really think this is for you. Perhaps some work experience would be best. ”
“ You’ll be with mostly teenage boys but we think you’re better than that. ”
What?! How do you know it’s not for me, and that I would be better than that? I have to start somewhere — who cares if I don’t fit the stereotype? I couldn’t believe it, but I’m sure that’s just down to me picking the worst of the bunch. I spoke to the head of engineering who was happy to see I was female, but that was about it. A promise of contacting me about work placements never happened and I never heard from them again.
I was even laughed at by one person, when I discussed my desire to do a career 180.
“ You? You’re a creative! Oh my god I can’t even see you on a building site. ”
Others looked at me with concern — can you handle it? Whose influence was this? You change your mind every week!
I felt deflated. Why was it difficult to forge a career path at this age? I’d chosen not to go to university because I firmly believed I wouldn’t get much from it unless I were studying a STEM subject. But where I am from, you are encouraged to go to uni because it’s there — you could be doing a bachelor’s in physics or in Vicky Pollard’s fart. It didn’t matter. I now know it was one of the wisest decisions I’d made for myself.
It was the negative comments from before that made me want to prove a point to myself (and maybe others, too). Suddenly, I didn’t want to be predictable. I can learn anything new if I really want to, no matter how much of a challenge it is. And I want to shake up social norms — who cares if I’m one female on a site of 20 males? I don’t want to be stopped from doing anything!
After spending a few years out, travelling around and making excuses about gaining life experience, I decided that asking firms for unpaid work experience would open my eyes to different work environments. By this point, I was keen to get right out of my comfort zone and dive head-first into something I thought I had a shot at. I sent letters out to engineering firms within a reasonable distance. I stressed my interests, my reasons for why this was right for me, and that I was willing to work for free.
Not one replied.
My heart sank. I was now 24 and feeling too old to turn my life around (although this is absurd and no one should ever think like this!). I turned to apprenticeships. What better than to learn and get paid at the same time? I plugged away at applications. I wrote a bespoke cover letter for each and every one. I researched employers beforehand and made sure to address the letters to the right person. I bought a practice maths book to make sure I aced the numerical tests that were going to come my way.
Rejection. Rejection. Another rejection. One particular rejection came straight after a personality test. Are you kidding me??? I called a well-known apprenticeship provider and asked them to be straight with me:
“ You are too old. ”
There is NO such thing as too old when it comes to a career change, not to mention it’s kind of against the law to be discriminated against.
“ Employers favour the younger kids. Less money, y’know? ”
I felt so down and defeated, getting more bored with my dead-end job each day, wondering why I had to know what I wanted when I was 17 and no later. At this point it felt like everything was tailored to the high school or college leaver. If you didn’t have it sorted, you were fucked.
But the point of the story is really this:
A year and a half later, the perseverance paid off. After making connections through work, I applied to some firms who suddenly started getting back to me. I was getting calls to attend interviews and assessment days. I jumped on the first opportunity to attend one of these assessments and I aced it. I couldn’t believe it.
As of October, I’m going to be a Civil Engineering Student. 8 years ago, I would have laughed at this fact. I thought I knew myself well but it’s amazing how you change over time. Back then, I would never have believed I was smart enough, or even technical enough to pursue a role in engineering. But the proof is in the pudding — I believed in me and that was a fundamental starting point for the whole process.
I will always love photography and writing, so I intend to carry on sharing my thoughts, dreams, stories and experiences. And I want you to know that whatever it is you seek you should try, try and try again.
What has been one of your biggest life challenges?