Career Advice for My 20-Year-Old Self
By Emilie Wapnick, author of How to Be Everything
When I was 20, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I felt sure that I was supposed to be in the process of becoming something, but I couldn’t see a path in front of me. I didn’t know what my “passion” was. I knew that I liked to play the guitar, write stories and build websites. I liked math, and I was good at it. How any of that would translate into a plausible, practical career (let alone one that might allow for a spark of fun or joy it in), was beyond me. And I didn’t want to choose just one of my interests and let all the others go. That sounded like a horrifying commitment. What if I chose the wrong thing?
Like all young adults, I sometimes got “career advice” from the old adults in my life. They meant well, but most of the suggestions were either uninspiring (Get a good job and work your way up at a prominent company.) or so vague that they weren’t suggestions at all (Just follow your interests and things will work themselves out!). Neither of these camps were totally misguided. I have friends who adore their office jobs, and it’s true that opportunities sometimes arise when we listen to our hearts. But I had been making my way through school for basically my whole life, knowing exactly what was expected of me. Now, the path ahead seemed murky at best, and no cliché was going to save me. Where was the rule book? And when I did catch a glimpse of it, why did it read like a death sentence?
Here is the advice my 20-year-old self really needed:
1. The linear career path is extinct.
There was a time when you could study something, get a job in the same field, and be set for life. That is no longer true. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American changes jobs every 4.2 years. Many of us end up working in industries that are very different from what we studied in college, and very few of us go straight down a linear path. We zigzag about, apply our skills laterally, and experiment as we go.
It can feel scary that the path from student to working professional isn’t clear and obvious. But hey, you’re free! It leaves you room for creativity, which equals endless possibility.
Take the pressure off yourself, and consider your hypothetical friend Sophie as an example. You really don’t know where that French degree will land her. Maybe she’ll end up becoming a music journalist for a Belgian magazine. Maybe she will found an international tourism company, or fall in love with chocolate brioche and become a pastry chef. For that matter, she might randomly meet a maritime archaeologist at a party and find their stories so fascinating that she ends up exploring shipwrecks in the Mediterranean!
In other words, when it comes to choosing a subject to study, you can RELAX. Whatever choice you make could influence your eventual career, but it might have very little bearing on it. And you can always change course later — everyone else will be changing constantly, forever..
2. Inventing your own job is a thing.
As you move into your adulthood, some people will act like they have all the answers, but the truth is that the economy is changing so fast that nobody quite knows what’s going on. New technology is drastically altering the ways we work. With modern tools at our disposal, it is now possible to self-publish a best-seller, teach science to people on the other side of the globe, have a thriving online textile shop or bring an invention to market without investors. These tools have social drawbacks, too, but they are part of the paintbox you can use to create your career.
Think outside the box. There are loads of cool things you can do in the fields that interest you but you might not learn about such careers from guidance counselors or brochures. If you see a need, know that you can be the one to address it. If you know what you want to do, believe me when I say you can figure out how to evolve that passion into meaningful work. Don’t be afraid to forge your own path and invent your own career.
3. You don’t have to choose!
I know the anxiety-provoking notion that you have to choose a specialty or you will never become successful is weighing heavily on you right now. Good news! It just isn’t true. Over the next ten years, you will meet amazing people who are doing all kinds of things: a programmer/comedian/author, a filmmaker/teacher/carpenter… Some of these people take on multiple roles or shift between professional identities out of necessity. Many, many others make the choice intentionally, because the variety suits them.
Where I Ended Up
You might be wondering how I navigated my own career. Well, the truth is that I jumped around a bunch in my twenties, and somehow eventually ended up being a writer/speaker/community leader/career coach/musician/who-knows-what-else (and guess what? I can more than pay the bills). You could say that my career navigated me — found its way through the intricacies of my talents and interests and became itself. I’ve had to get comfortable with the idea that I will never really be able to pinpoint exactly what I do, and I’m okay with that. In fact, I love that my professional identity is always evolving and I get to explore so many different things! I find my work challenging and exciting.
So I guess my final message to my 20-year-old self would be this: learn to be comfortable with not knowing what you’re going to be. Granted, it’s hard to get cozy with uncertainty, but you can’t actually know the future anyway. Be you. You’ve got this.
Emilie Wapnick is the author of How to Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don’t Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up. She is the founder and creative director at Puttylike.com, where she helps multipotentialites (people with many passions and creative pursuits) integrate all of their interests to create dynamic, fulfilling, and fruitful careers and lives. Her TED talk has been viewed over 3.7 million times and translated into 36 languages.