Why You Don’t Need to Have it all Figured out yet
The big dirty secret is that no one really does
I’m twenty-eight years old and I have no idea what I want to do with my life, or, quite honestly, why I’ve continued down the same unfulfilling path for the last five years since graduating from university.
I’m not alone, either. As children we think that adults have got everything figured out, but as soon as we leave the safety of school or higher education it becomes clear that, save for a few lucky individuals who somehow have a calling in life, most of us are just fumbling around in the dark. I studied modern languages (German and Spanish) at university, having been forced to take a gap year and re-apply after a catastrophically failed attempt to get into Medicine. A-levels were a bit of a disaster for me.
I’ve always had an affinity for languages, having been born in the German-speaking region of Switzerland to an English mum and Spanish dad. Those early years were spent speaking Swiss-German and English, with some limited exposure to Spanish. Aged five, we moved to England.
This fondness and natural aptitude for language is what prompted me to apply to study it at university (second time around). But what on earth are you meant to do with a degree in languages, I thought. Possibly become a teacher or maybe a translator? Then at university I discovered that with my degree I could — within reason — go into almost any field I wanted: the Civil Service, marketing, publishing, law, finance etc. This realisation massively expanded my horizons, but made me feel overwhelmed at all of the possibilities. When final year came around, I employed a scattergun approach with regard to graduate scheme applications, filtering by salary and considering any and every industry. All I knew for certain was that I wanted to be in London and I wanted to earn a ‘decent’ amount of money.
This highly questionable approach landed me on a ‘business management’ graduate scheme at a mid-sized financial services company. It wasn’t in London, but close enough and at least the pay was at the higher end of what I was looking for. I was placed initially at an office in St Albans doing soul destroying work in a call centre for six months before being sent to the equally depressing headquarters in Essex. A grey and imposing 1960s monstrosity which was rumoured to have been a hospital in a past life. The work was only marginally less odious.
Four and a half years in and I left the company for a different financial services firm, this time based in London, which is where I currently work. I know I am incredibly lucky to have a steady job at a time of global pandemic and economic recession, but I’ve come to the realisation that this is neither the industry nor the profession that I want to be in over the long term. I don’t know exactly what I want to do with my life, but I can now at least rule out a couple of things, which is progress, of a sort.
As I approach my thirties, I am starting to reevaluate my life choices so far and reflect on what is making me unhappy, with the aim of making better decisions in the future. Work is certainly a big driver of stress and anxiety and I know that I need to take steps towards building a professional life that involves greater creativity, autonomy and freedom of expression. The process of finding out exactly what that vocation might be is, I think, one of trial and error.
Although I wasn’t in the same role the whole time, four and a half years was too long to spend at one company, especially since I knew in my gut early on that I didn’t want to end up there. Moreover, it’s just not a financially prudent strategy, since changing jobs every twelve to eighteen months can yield significantly higher salary increases. Of course there are times when it is important to suffer and put in the hard work in the pursuit of a goal, but the ability to have courage, trust our instincts and change tack when needed is just as crucial.
Twenty-, thirty- or even forty-somethings shouldn’t be expected to have their professional lives all figured out. Nor, I would argue, is that even a realistic proposition given today’s pace of societal and technological change. Gone are the days of a career for life. Those destined to be happy and fulfilled will be mentally equipped to fail fast, fail often and be adaptable; willing to alight on chance opportunities, but just as ready to leave them should their circumstances require it.