Post-High School Woes
February 2, 2010 2:16 PM   Subscribe

I can't help but feel that everyone I know has been doing better than me since high school. Are these feelings grounded in reality, or is it simply insecurity?

I'll try to keep this as short as possible, but it might still end up being long. I recently graduated college, and the other day I took a look at the accomplishments of some of my friends and former high school classmates, and I began to feel pretty worthless. My parents have always worked hard and emphasized education, and it rubbed off on me during my K-12 years. I was a "normal" kid who also did very well academically. I scored a 35 on my ACT and ended up going to a highly selective college - I say this not to brag, but to give you an idea of where I stood and what I considered important at the time. I thought that the whole college "race" was critically important, and in retrospect, I probably placed far too much emphasis on it. At graduation I felt completely optimistic, like anything was possible.

Then the problems seemed to start. Most people I knew had a very firm idea of what they wanted to do for a living; I had no clue. I entered college undecided and messed up badly - I ended up with my major not because I wanted it, but simply because I had the most credits in that area and it was easiest to finish on time. My grades were poor, not because I partied - I didn't - but because I simply stopped caring. I didn't go to class, I despised the emphasis on grades and careers rather than learning, and I had difficulty studying and doing assignments.

Around this time I got involved in a serious relationship that would last 3 years. I'm a big reader and a bit of an introvert who loves to study interesting things for hours at a time, but my girlfriend was not. She watched TV for hours a day, and I probably read less than I ever had in my life. I felt like I was stagnating, like my brain was literally wasting away.

Now, it seems like everyone's ahead of me. My classmate who did poorly in HS and was told that he would never succeed is now in charge of marines in Afghanistan. He has more responsibility and maturity than I will probably ever have. Another girl I know started her own business and pulled in over $100k last year. Several people who were average students in high school have done incredibly well and are now enrolled in medical school or law school. The 300-pound anime addict in high school is now a 165-pound fitness addict who recently took and passed the CPA exam. The high school sweethearts married and just bought an $800k house, and I thought to myself, "How the hell did they get all of that money in 4-5 years?"

What the hell happened to me? I've gone the other way. I gained 30 pounds in college, I work at an entry-level post-college job (and I still don't know what I really want to do) and I have no idea how all of these people just seem to be printing money. I love investing; it's a hobby of mine. But even I don't have the coin that some of these people seem to have; I still rent a low cost apartment and stash money in the bank faithfully. My writing and math skills have seemed to deteriorate since HS and I genuinely feel dumber than I did back then.

Everyone else seems so successful and perfect. Time has gone by so fast for me since I graduated and I wish I could slow it down. But it basically seems like everyone else has progressed remarkably while I've been frozen in time. I'm 23, and I feel worse off than I did at 18.

Does anyone have any thoughts about this whole thing?
posted by Despondent_Monkey to Human Relations (38 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
You just haven't found anything that really thrills you. AskMeFi will tell you to seek out therapy, to go to a career counselor, or to join some groups or do some volunteer work. All are good ideas.

On the flip side of the coin, think about all the potential you have and what you've theoretically *not* got to lose. You're not going to get PTSD from being in a combat zone. You're not at risk of losing your business. You're not still in medical/law school with large bills, but you still have the possibility of going back to school. The addicted guy is still addicted, just to things that seem more like positives, and your sweetheart friends still have a 40% chance of getting divorced and might be overdrawing their credit to buy a huge house.

You're 23. When I was there, I thought my job was probably a couple-year thing to save some cash, that I would leave town, and that I would do great things soon. Now I'm 28, I still like this job, I've just bought a house here, and I think (and hope) that I've finally realized that doing small things and trying what feels right is going to get me somewhere good.

Your 20s, and life as a whole, are what you make of them. You're still at the beginning. Find what thrills you, and do it.
posted by mikeh at 2:23 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

You're comparing your insides to everyone else's outsides. People who look like they have it all rarely do.

My husband struggles with this to an extent as well, so I am familiar with how you feel. Not being him, it is easy for me to see that his accomplishments - home ownership, a solid marriage, an MFA from an excellent school - are things that many other people would covet, but which he views as status quo, and therefore not worthy of much regard. I'd be willing to bet there are a lot of great things about your life that others around you are envying, as well. A steady job, for one, and a head for finance that is allowing you to save money at age 23 despite the fact that you don't even feel you're living up to your potential yet. And the introspection that allows you to think about these things during a time in which many of your peers are still whooping it up at the bars without a thought for the future.

You are very young and bright, and you will find your way.
posted by something something at 2:29 PM on February 2, 2010 [6 favorites]

I recently graduated college, and the other day I took a look at the accomplishments of some of my friends and former high school classmates, and I began to feel pretty worthless.


I would slap you in the face if I could.

Life is long. Fucking long. I drifted around in my early 20's, got my heart broken a couple times, made horrible decisions, etc. and I would not trade any of it (well maybe a few things).

I have classmates who are judges, business owners, innovators, etc etc and I would not trade my experiences with them.

Fuck them. Live your life. Then when you are 50, or even 40 you'll look back and have few regrets.
posted by Danf at 2:29 PM on February 2, 2010 [17 favorites]

Don't worry about what anyone else is doing, just pay attention to yourself. If you look back at choices you've made and don't like where they've got you, then change.

Everybody's life is on a cycle of trying things one way, noticing what didn't work out, and trying it a different way. Your cycle is maybe out of sync with your acquaintances, but if you've noticed things that you want to change and change it, you'll be headed towards wher eyou want to be. Heck, maybe you'll be the guy that they envy when you're all 30 instead of 23.
posted by aimedwander at 2:32 PM on February 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Some people follow a really linear life path: they go right into medical school after college, become doctors, are doctors forever.

Some people don't. I'm 44 and never settled on a career, yet over the years I've realized that my life is totally in line with my own values, and those of my partner. We're really happy and think our lives are practically perfect.

It's easier to use your own compass as a guide when you avoid comparing yourself to others; this has been one of the most useful life lessons I've learned. Especially since you can totally pick and choose who to compare yourself to. You're picking comparisons that make you feel bad, but I promise that if you wanted you could find a sample of people who seemed worse off to you--the guy who was pre-med on full scholarship and ended up dropping out and moving back in with his parents; the gal who's on her third attempt at rehab; the couple that started a restaurant and lost everything. *shrug* The world is full of stories; the only one you have to concern yourself with is yours.

It's also true that you can't really tell from the outside how people are doing. When I was growing up, it used to frustrated me that people in our neighborhood had more stuff than we did. My Dad told me, "They can't really afford all that. It's all on credit. We have less because your mom and I only buy what we can pay cash for." So, when you wonder how that couple can afford an $800,000 home, the cynical part of me says there's a pretty good chance they can't, actually. But whether they can or not, whether that house is going to truly make them happy or not, is entirely between them, their bank accounts, and their house. It has nothing to do with me and my life, or you and yours.
posted by not that girl at 2:37 PM on February 2, 2010 [14 favorites]

You say that everyone's "ahead" of you, but that implies that you are all moving toward the same goal. While it's true that many of your peers in high school may be doing things you wish you were doing, there are most likely others who would gladly trade places with you.

Yet these feelings are not so easily shrugged off - it can be difficult to reprogram your brain, especially if you are really caught up in perceiving yourself as someone who feels "worse off than I did at 18".

While not discounting the possibility that you might need medical help for depression, you can do a lot to improve your mood with diet and exercise. Losing some of the weight you gained in college might help you see an area of your life where you CAN improve, assuming you work at it.

In addition, writing and math skills are just that - skills - and the way to keep them up is to work at them. If it's relaxing for you, maybe writing a bit, or doing some math problems for fun would help you get back up to speed.

None of this will solve your question of "what should I do with myself?", but then again, I think that's something everyone struggles with at one point or another. I would suggest that you take the opportunity to volunteer for some charitable organizations in your area - they always need help, you'll meet some new people, and you'll be spending time and energy working toward something other than what you call an entry level post college job.

Again, it's possible that you might need to see a doctor. Depression can be really debilitating, and if you think that's a real possibility, you might want to talk to a professional.
posted by dubold at 2:38 PM on February 2, 2010

When I was your age, YOU are the kind of person I would have looked at and felt like a failure in comparison to, because you have graduated college and by age 23 I had dropped out of college not once, but TWICE, and I worked at Dunkin Donuts. So maybe you just need to find different people to compare yourself to. :-)

Seriously will not find what makes you happy by looking at other people and their have to live your own.
posted by cottonswab at 2:40 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

For what it's worth, I have a friend who talked to me around the time he finished college and went on to grad school, feeling bad that he fell out of touch with his high school friends. He thought he could have done what they did, stayed in touch, lived in the same area, and raised their kids together. All of the white picket fence dreamscape stuff.

For what it's worth, he just graduated with a PhD in computer science, has a great wife who is doing well in her career, and just called me again, feeling like he's behind in things, did things the wrong way, and doesn't know how to proceed.

In other words, no matter how great you're doing, you might end up questioning your position and how you got there.
posted by mikeh at 2:41 PM on February 2, 2010

I took a look at the accomplishments of some of my friends and former high school classmates
Some. Some. Sure, some are doing better. Imagine how Michael Dell's former classmates felt. Some will always out-achieve you. Sure, you can impose various metrics, analyze if they're really happy, all that, but you'll always be able to find someone who's doing better than you. What about all the average joes out there?
posted by MrMoonPie at 2:43 PM on February 2, 2010

Go to your school reunion in ten years. You will find drunks, druggies, many divorces, screwed up kids, jobs lost, theft from firms, adultery galore---
you are young. Want to be a marine in war zone? join up. I wouldn't.
posted by Postroad at 2:44 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Everyone else seems so successful and perfect.

First. You're probably picking out only what you think are the good parts and ignoring the rest, and you're probably ignoring a lot of people who haven't succeeded nearly as well. Largely speaking this is all in your head. There may be things about your life that people envy. Grass-is-greener syndrome.

Second. People's lives don't unfold in a linear rate and there is no sense in comparing yourself to your contemporaries. People that are successful now may lose it all in ten years and vice versa. Your angst now may be what compels you to jump into something new which leads to years of work which leads to pure happiness but not until you're forty. You can't know what the future holds for any of you.

Third and most important. The key to being happy with your life is to do things for yourself and not to increase your ranking with respect to others. There will always be someone who seems to have it better than you and this will consume you if you let it. This means you have to let go of the idea that you should rank well with respect to others, which means you have to let go of the idea that you "matter" in some large sense.

The malaise you feel is you realizing that rankings are empty. Rankings lead you to law school, med school, business, engineering, politics. After you work your ass off getting to that college, the next step is to work your ass off to get to the better grad school or intern placement or whatever. Something inside you objected and steered you away from that path. It's a good thing. Personally I know I would not be happy if I pursued status. The same seems to be true with you. It is better to come to terms with this early.

The worry you feel now is echoes from your upbringing that haven't given up yet. It's like a dog that has to chase a squirrel. You see big numbers there and little numbers in front of you and you need to chase. But you tried that already and it wasn't happening. Career alone didn't motivate you.

Read over your question again and there are two distinct things that bother you. 1. Not enough money. 2. Not intellectually satisfied. They weave in and out like they are the same problem, but they're not. One doesn't guarantee the other, nor do you need both.
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:47 PM on February 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

As everyone's pointing out, 23 is pretty young. Figure out which of those goals (owning your own business, buying a nice house, becoming super fit, traveling, getting an advanced degree, etc.) you want to accomplish by the time you're 28 and then make it happen. Some people just take a little longer than others to find where their real priorities are, but once you do that, the other stuff will fall into place.
posted by Fifi Firefox at 2:55 PM on February 2, 2010

If you spend all your time measuring yourself against others, you're always going to find people who have done better than you, who seem happier or more successful or just better than you. And then you'll just walk around feeling like crap about yourself, and that's not going to help anything.

Put away the measuring stick and focus on figuring out what you want. What interests you, what sorts of successes you want, what will make you happy, and pursue that. And think of the successes you had. You maintained a serious relationship with a woman for 3 years. There are plenty of guys I know who haven't accomplished that at your age.

Also, there's lots of people out there who are worse off than you. I recently heard about a girl who I went to high school with who has become a meth addict. The news saddened me a great deal. But boy, am I glad I don't have her kind of problems. Just try to keep things in perspective.
posted by cleverevans at 2:57 PM on February 2, 2010

Even if they are "doing better" than you, who the hell cares? If you're constantly comparing yourself to others, it's only going to lead to disappointment and unhappiness. There's always going to be people who are smarter, better looking, richer, healthier, whatever than you. As long as you're happy with your life, then nothing else matters.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 3:18 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Really true, all of the above. And one more thing: If you were the kind of kid who scored a 35 on the ACT, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that you had family members who expected a lot of you and told you that you were going to do great things. It's nice to have that kind of family, but sometimes kids can lose sight of what is really important to them, and end up trying to achieve in order to please their families, or live up to expectations, without even really knowing where this motivation is coming from. When you are trying to please others, it's easy to falter and lose your way.

Is it possible that you are comparing yourself to (a small handful of) other people because you haven't really decided what your own goals are?

You've got a great start already, and your restlessness suggests that you are ready to move into another job/degree. It's common to have a post-college letdown, where you are culture shocked by not getting to learn new stuff every week.

Oh, and if you're in your hometown, move away for a couple of years. Meet some people who don't know you as Mr. Academic Achievement, and let you be who you really are.
posted by Knowyournuts at 3:32 PM on February 2, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone who has posted so far - you've all given me wonderful advice, and I hope that I continue getting some answers because this has been genuinely useful for me.

"The malaise you feel is you realizing that rankings are empty. Rankings lead you to law school, med school, business, engineering, politics. After you work your ass off getting to that college, the next step is to work your ass off to get to the better grad school or intern placement or whatever."

PercussivePaul, you managed to describe perfectly what I feel and why I didn't continue on with school after my bachelor's degree. It just seemed like there was always one more hoop that I would have to jump through - in high school, it was "get good grades so you can get into a good college." So I did, and I thought that now I could slow down and focus on learning a bit more, maybe take some risks.

But that wasn't the case - now it was "get good grades so you can get into a good professional school" and I just couldn't follow that path anymore. It was a death march; a journey without end. I'm sure if I had, at the next level it would be "get good grades so you can get a good internship" and then after that "suck up to this guy so you can get a promotion."

When I finally reflected on all of this, that's when I stopped "doing well" so to speak. I just started asking myself, "But what is all of this FOR? So I get to that next step, what then?" I felt that the end result would be me waking up at 55 and asking if it was even worth it.

The ironic thing in all of this is that my parents never pushed me to do anything. They were wonderful, supportive and in my opinion, they raised my brothers and I well. We never got in trouble at school, the teachers all remarked on our politeness, and we made good friends and wise decisions when we were growing up.

But my mother and father are both extremely successful, to the extent that I will in all likelihood never equal them. I know that you're not supposed to compare yourself to others, but it's a TERRIBLE feeling to know that you're never going to be better off than your own parents, especially considering that they had fewer opportunities than I did. That's not the way people expect things to work.

I guess it's not money that's really the issue for me, it's the fact that the people I know will use the income I earn to judge me, as in "Kids who get 35s on the ACT should be millionaires, not average. Despondent_Monkey must have really fucked things up!"

I almost wish that I had been a nobody in high school, because then there would have been no pressure or expectations to succeed. It's almost like doing well in high school is a curse, because people simply expect you to continue doing well. It's like they take a couple of data points from your high school days and extrapolate out into the future from that limited sample - "Oh, he did so well back then - he's probably a CEO or an MD/PhD at Harvard Medical School by now."

They'd be all, "Oh, I haven't been doing much, just building a Guatemalan orphanage with my wife -- have you met my wife? She's a half-elven novelist who plays the viola. Anyway, what about you? What are you doing these days?"

Greg Nog, that was a wonderful (and very funny) anecdote that seems so close to what some of my classmates are doing. "Well, I'm now a physician that cured cancer and AIDs at the same time, and while I was eating breakfast one day my wife successfully got her fusion reactor up and running. Otherwise, I've been pretty normal. Just the usual."

And here I'll be, eating generic cereal to save money and watching Comedy Central re-runs at night.

I know these comparisons are destructive, but it's so hard not to do it. I'm trying to work on it though.
posted by Despondent_Monkey at 3:50 PM on February 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

1. Google quarter-life crisis.

2. Stop comparing yourself to people in high school. How are you getting this information? Facebook? People only post things on Facebook that they want you to know. They don't post about how their husbands cheated on them, or how they feel trapped by that $800k mortgage or how they wish that they had majored in history rather than accounting. How about how much they hate their boss? How about all the credit card debt that they're accumulating keeping up a certain lifestyle?
Consider 'hiding' those people on Facebook news feed.

3. Life isn't a linear race to successful career/job/family. Stop thinking of it in that way.

4. Focus on yourself. If you're not happy in your current job, what can you do to change it? Take nice courses at the local community college or online?

5. Congrats on saving money. You're unlike most 23 year olds in that regard.

6. Start exercising. You'll feel better and start to lose those 30 lbs.
posted by k8t at 3:50 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Most of your life, you'd have very clear expectations from others - your parents, the school system. Now that that's gone, and you have to start making your own choices. But this comes with quite a lot of anxiety: What do you really want? Are you really living the life you should be living? Are you enjoying yourself to the fullest, etc., compared to your old friends. You are forced to choose, but don't know what to choose or how to decide!

The interesting question is: why only your high school friends? Why not college peers, or work colleagues as well? Because for you, high school was a moment when the expectations and demands of the Other (in the form of parents, school system, etc.) were clear and something you could believe in and you want to get this back to relieve the anxiety of choice. Only now, everyone else seems to know what the expectations are--they do the right thing and enjoy the benefits--but for some mysterious reason, this information eludes you. What do they know that you don't? If you could find what mistake you made, maybe you could fix it, and restore the Other's demand of you. You fantasize that your friends really know, and examine their lives for clues. Maybe MetaFilter really knows?

You can only resolve this by accepting that there is no demand on you, except what you put on yourself, even the demand to choose.
posted by AlsoMike at 3:54 PM on February 2, 2010 [4 favorites]

eating generic cereal to save money and watching Comedy Central re-runs at night.

Hey that's what I do!

It can be tough to get outside of someone else's treadmill to try to sort of figure out what you want ot do on your own. Your 20s are really for sort of messing about and trying things on. Realistically you can do this for the rest of your life too but people expect this of people in their 20s so if this is what you're up to, you're still With the Program.

Let's look at the upside: you have money in the bank, you love to read, you're employed, you have a place to live. Excellent, if you're hellbent on comparisons you're already doing better than 95% of the people on the planet. However, that's cold comfort if you see people around you doing things that you think you might want. And I guess the question is, what do YOU want? You have to develop your own metrics, what would make you a success to YOU, to figure out how to move forward. There's nothing really wrong with deciding that yeah you'd like to have more money, if that's what you want, or you'd like to be in shape, etc. But you need to spend some time thinking about that, and some other time NOT thinking about it and just living your life.

Some people enjoy the "oh hi, I work 35 minutes a day and make 100K a year" competitive routine and other people don't. Find people who like to ... read books? Invest? Do other things you like to do? And find a peer group where you share common interests and/or goals. Chances are you're better off than some of them and worse off than some of them and you'll probably wind up feeling a lot more normal as a result.

In the meantime there is NOTHING WRONG WITH GENERIC CEREAL. I hope.
posted by jessamyn at 4:07 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

First of all, eponysterical.

Second of all, for someone who says he hated how college was focused on grades and careers, you sure seem hung up on careers yourself: your former classmates are doctors, lawyers, and CPAs. You also seem really eager to blame your failures on external factors: philosophical disagreements with the structure of academia, a lazy exgirlfriend, your successful parents.

But it sounds like all the people you admire got where they are through hard work, from the slimmed-down anime nerd to the CPA to your parents themselves. And let's face it: a live-in girlfriend who watches TV isn't, in any way, stopping you from reading. And it sounds like you know, rationally, that your parents' success is no impediment to your own, even if you want to pin your own "failures" (really, just lack of stunning success) on them.

The truth is, when you're a bright kid and are successful in high school, you can easily feel like getting into college is the end of the road--that the world is going to fall into your lap after that. But it doesn't, and I think your former-schoolmate-turned-marine is proof of that. In high school, you have your "career" mapped out for you. Once you get to college, though, the responsibility rests on your shoulders: you need to figure out what you want and do it. So, what AlsoMike says. We don't have the answers for you. I'm sure your high school peers don't, either. But I do think you need to stop making excuses for yourself: the life you're living is the result of the choices you make as much as it is the result of any birthright. Not making any choices is also a choice, but then you have to be prepared for the ramifications of that choice, too.

(Recognize, too, that the same is largely true for everyone else: it's not fair to the people around you to assume that they were just magically blessed. I'm sure that 23-year-old business owner worked damn hard to get where she is. And realize that, even for people who inherit money or opportunity, these are choices they're making with ramifications, too--those high school sweethearts might be in debt for their situation, or they might have had to borrow money from their parents, making them more dependent than you are. Again, choices--with ramifications.)

Also, remember that it's all relative. I think Greg Nog is wicked awesome--I mean, have you read his comics?! I could care less what his friends from high school are doing.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:37 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Glad that I managed to capture something but let me caution you. The egotistical side of me likes to imagine that I am ahead of the game and have figured something out. At times I also worry that maybe this is just an excuse for not working hard, and that maybe I am afraid of failure so I don't play. After all I'm still a grad student without much to show for my efforts yet, and I'm not always able to live up to my own ideals that I wrote down in this thread. Wait 20 years and we'll see if I was worth listening to.

I know exactly what you mean about pressure from having done well in school. You carry the weight of not just your expectations about yourself but everyone else's as well (or at least as you imagine them to be - much larger than in reality, likely). It makes success part of your identify. Everyone project "successful" onto you when you're young and you wrap it up into your own self-image, so that failure hits you ten times harder than it should because it shatters your whole concept of who you are.

The musician Kenny Werner talks about this in his book Effortless Mastery. He was a piano prodigy and never practiced and soared to the top and went to some prestigious music school. One day he heard someone play better than him and it just destroyed him and sent him into a deep depression. He realized that his self-image was centered around him being "the best" and when he realized this wasn't true, he had nothing left to hold onto so he just fell apart. He had to re-make himself as not "the best", but someone who was always improving through hard work. That's what made him succeed. Hope this is helpful.
posted by PercussivePaul at 4:47 PM on February 2, 2010 [4 favorites]

You'll be OK. I think you're asking the wrong question but there's a possibility that you know that you're asking the wrong question as if it's some kind of formal exercise. I might be way off. Generally, if you're not collecting a Nobel Prize or fatally overdosing in a public toilet then your life will be a fuzzy thing in which other inbetween things happen in an apparently random order. This is because things happen in an entirely random order. Be polite anyway. There's no need to find yourself because when you wake up each morning your body is always just beneath your head. Read Epicurus (in translation). Breathe. There are plenty of things that you know that they don't. There are pleasures and difficulties that you will experience that your HS contemporaries cannot imagine. The opposite might also be true. But F%^k them.
posted by tigrefacile at 5:34 PM on February 2, 2010

I guess it's not money that's really the issue for me, it's the fact that the people I know will use the income I earn to judge me, as in "Kids who get 35s on the ACT should be millionaires, not average. Despondent_Monkey must have really fucked things up!"<>

Just a note that I haven't seen mentioned yet: School smarts aren't necessarily the same kind of smarts that make you a millionaire. You've realized that these formal goalposts aren't for you.

Figure out what really means something to you. And go after it.

posted by canine epigram at 5:37 PM on February 2, 2010

Is it that

(a) you're not happy simply because you're not doing as well as everyone else appears to be


(b) you don't have the life you want and you are describing other people's lives simply as examples of what is possible, even at your young age. (so that people won't say "shut up. no one of your age achieves anything. quit whining").

If (a) I agree with those who say not to compare yourself.

If (b) then it's actually not a bad thing to look at other people's lives as you can use them as possible examples of what you do and don't want. e.g. this woman who pulls in $100k. Do you know what it took for her to get there? Do you think you would enjoy working in the way that she did and doing the kind of work that she did? Maybe you would. Maybe you wouldn't. If you're not sure, maybe you could try it, or learn a bit more about it.

It sounds like you're not "successful" because you're not motivated. If you found out what motivates you you would be probably do great at it. So the thing is to find out what motivates you and how difficult this is for you depends on a lot of things.

At the extreme end may be that you were raised constantly having your wishes and thoughts denied so you grew up not knowing how to recognize what you want. That's where therapy would come in.

On the less extreme end, maybe you just haven't had enough exposure to what the possibilities are. There may be jobs that you just don't know about, or know enough about, to know that you would love them. That's where getting out more, widening your interests, being more sociable, talking to more people of all ages about their work, etc. would be useful.

Somewhere in between are tools and professionals such as careers counselors, the Strong Interest Inventory, "What Color is Your Parachute" tests, exercises, books and other resources.

Don't hang around waiting for it to come right. Try things to make it so.
posted by y6t5r4e3w2q1 at 6:06 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

And who knows, maybe secretly you actually don't want the Standard Career. There are jobs that don't earn much money or prestige but are very satisfying. Maybe that's secretly what you want but it is hard to admit it to yourself. Or maybe you want to do something that isn't typically associated with your gender, class, education, etc., but if this did turn out to be what you wanted then you'd be happier than if you got into a career that looked good to other people but didn't interest you.
posted by y6t5r4e3w2q1 at 6:18 PM on February 2, 2010

Everyone else has said much of what I was going to add, but I thought I'd point out that they buying of an $800,000 house doesn't imply that they can afford it. They may be millionaires, but it's also fairly likely that they'll be paying for that house for the next few decades.
posted by twirlypen at 7:10 PM on February 2, 2010

"Kids who get 35s on the ACT should be millionaires, not average."

Kids who get 35s on the ACTs are more often absent-minded professors in frayed pants than millionaires. Academic smarts leads to the middle or upper-middle class if one follows those smarts into the professions; it doesn't give you the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that leads to millions.

I got married young and have a kid and only work part time. I own a little bitty house and two cats and a 10-year-old car. I sometimes find myself jealous of a friend who stayed single, travels a lot (no cats to feed!), works at an exciting job, rents a cool downtown loft ... only to discover that she is sometimes jealous of me because I got married young, have a baby and pets, am lucky enough to stay home with him most of the time, and own my own house and car (I can buy more than one bag of groceries at a time!). When I feel bad, my life seems small and shabby (my house needs new carpet!) and hers seems expansive and glamorous. But when she feels bad, my life seems cozy and centered while hers seems empty and fleeting. And my life IS cozy and centered, and a little bit small and shabby. Hers IS expansive and glamorous, and a little bit empty and fleeting.

Any choice we make cuts off other choices, and it's natural to sometimes feel pangs about that. It possible some of the friends you mention above spend time going, "Man, Despondent_Monkey is so cool, he's taken all this time to find himself ..." even if they're generally happy about going right into FamilyCo from college.

My standard advice for someone with your problem is not to get therapy, but to go volunteer somewhere. Your problems are the problems of privilege (which doesn't make them hurt less, I know, but still). Go help people who have problems of poverty, problems of illness, problems of LACK. Chances are it will not only make you feel less sorry for yourself, but it'll give you something to focus on to get out of your own head, and it will give you some skills and something cool and interesting to talk about when you talk with all these half-elven violaists.

I always thought Ally McBeal could have been a one-season show if she'd just started volunteering at a soup kitchen or something. She had no problems that couldn't be fixed by realizing they weren't actual problems. :P
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:13 PM on February 2, 2010 [11 favorites]

I could have written this - oh wait, I did. I know that it seems counterproductive, but when I got caught in the mental cycle of "everyone else is leaps ahead of me" I try to have a moment of sincere appreciation for my friend and her accomplishments. It helps to let go of the jealousy.
posted by pintapicasso at 7:20 PM on February 2, 2010

I have two things to say to this.

First: by focusing on the biggest successes from your high school, you're completely ignoring all of the other people who aren't doing as well as you. You don't know about them, because nobody advertises when they're doing poorly.

Second: you're obviously not happy about everything going on with yourself, and this is what you should focus on, rather than comparing yourself to other people. Take a good hard look at who you are, and who you want to be, and start working (one thing at a time, one day at a time) on being the person you want to be. When you get there (and you will, sooner or later, if you're diligent) you'll look around and realize you're doing pretty damn well.

Besides, just for consideration: how do you know the high school sweethearts don't fight at night, and how do you know they didn't get the house down payment from a relative? The Marines guy had to be in the Marines, for goodness' sake. The person who started her own business took the high risk/high reward approach and it happened to pay off, but there's a whole lot of luck involved there. The anime addict likely did what I'm suggesting for you, and in doing so discovered how much they love fitness and made a career out of it.

Finally, at the end of the day, you're 23 years old; I mean, hell, when I was 23, I was working as a temp and trying to figure out how I could afford to live by myself because I hated my roommates and I was a serial date 'em and dump 'em kind of guy. Now I've had a solid career I've loved for more than a decade, a wonderful wife and two kids, a great house I can afford even on one income despite the economy going to hell, hobbies and friends and general happiness on a daily basis, and things just keep getting better. At this stage in your life you're just getting started.
posted by davejay at 8:00 PM on February 2, 2010

Glad to see you are a reader. I've found that certain books have dispelled this kind of thinking for me. Check out Hermann Hesse: Beneath The Wheel, Steppenwolf, Siddhartha.
posted by meta87 at 10:01 PM on February 2, 2010

Speaking as someone who has prepared a lot of tax returns, the people who seem wealthy, successful and carefree are often carrying crippling amounts of debt.

I still rent a low cost apartment and stash money in the bank faithfully.

This is an impressive achievement to me, especially for a 23 year old; take pride in it.
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:06 PM on February 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

They're in law school right now? Go do some googling about what the job market is like for lawyers at the moment. It may give you a new perspective.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 10:15 PM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's entirely possible you're near the far left of the bell curve and everybody is doing better than you; somebody has to come out on or near the bottom. Let's say it's true. What do you propose to do about it? If you don't change your own life, you'll be thinking the same thing in your thirties.

Alternatively, go looking for people who are worse off than you. Sometimes downward comparisons can make you feel good about your own situation.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 12:37 AM on February 3, 2010

Don't entirely agree that "Your problems are the problems of privilege". Everyone who lives in a society where survival is no longer a challenge can run up against these problems. People who have first-hand experience of "problems of poverty, problems of illness, problems of LACK" can still run into OP's frame of mind.

Depending on where the lack of focus comes from, volunteering can simply exacerbate it. Helping other people is a great way for people with unsatisfactory lives to not think about their own problems but it doesn't necessarily make their own problems go away or cause their own life to expand in any useful way. It can, but it isn't automatically the case that

"helping others =/= happiness in self".
posted by y6t5r4e3w2q1 at 9:51 AM on February 3, 2010

I pick up a couple themes from your question and subsequent responses.

1. You're trying to define success and happiness by other people's standards. You see all these people grad schooling around, collecting fancy titles, paychecks, and exciting, blog-worthy lives and you think "These folks have Made It! They will be rich and happy forever."

This is not necessarily true. I guarantee that some of these people are legitimately happy, but then again, some people define success by the size of their television or the degree on their wall. Often, this means plugging away as a thankless corporate drone, going into debt for the next shiny thing, or working for a power-mad sociopath. Fancy titles and a fat bank account are not indicators of ultimate success and/or happiness.

2. You feel stuck in your role. This is related to the first point; if you're anything like me, you feel completely different than you did at 18, but your relationships with the people you knew then have not progressed much. I know that I feel uncomfortable hanging out with high school acquaintances because I'm still set in the role I was at 18 or 19, yet I do not care about the same things I cared about then.

I think the solution to this is to figure out what you like to do, do not apologize for it, and find other people who share your interests. just because your career isn't incredible or exclamation point-worthy doesn't mean your life outside work can't be great. Read a lot. Talk to people. Travel. Move somewhere new and exciting. Once you find your niche, it'll be a lot easier to feel comfortable in your own skin.

I don't recommend looking at the screw-ups in your high school class, but that's because I don't dig schadenfreude. Instead, look at the life of these supposed successes. Would you be happy as a marine drill sargeant? Are you the person to be a fitness-addict and a CPA? Do you think that your life would be fulfilling if you took out an impossibly huge mortgage to finance an $800k house?

Find your own happiness. Other people's goals are distractions.
posted by Turkey Glue at 12:35 PM on February 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

I know others have already said something similar, but:

I almost wish that I had been a nobody in high school, because then there would have been no pressure or expectations to succeed. It's almost like doing well in high school is a curse, because people simply expect you to continue doing well.

I went through school looking for all the world like someone who was terribly clever, and I always imagined that, being terribly clever, I would one day be terribly successful, with a terribly high-powered job that made me terribly rich. And then I went to a terribly prestigious university and couldn't help noticing that everyone else was cleverer than me. And what was really weird about this was the sense of relief I experienced when I realised this: a kind of "oh, thank goodness I'm not actually that clever after all, and now I don't have to be a high-flyer and can do whatever I like!". I was never attracted to wealth or success for their own sake at all, I just thought I owed it to myself because I thought I could achieve it. And then I realised that I didn't have to!

So I teach - it's badly paid, and few people really respect it (least of all my university peers), but I enjoy it, it makes me feel useful, and it gives me plenty of free time to see family and friends and do other things I enjoy. And I honestly wouldn't swap any of that for the prestige or the earnings of my university friends who are bankers and lawyers: and, very probably, they have as much trouble understanding how I can be happy with the life I chose as I have understanding how they can be happy with the one they chose. And that's okay!

I really think that if you could find something you enjoyed doing - however far removed it might be from what you think you want - you really wouldn't care what other people are doing with their lives, or, if they think about it at all, what they think of what you're doing with yours. To paraphrase H Jackson Browne, people take different roads seeking fulfilment and happiness, and just because you're not on their road, that doesn't mean you're lost.
posted by raspberry-ripple at 1:04 PM on February 3, 2010

You might find this article interesting: The Referendum.

"The Referendum is a phenomenon typical of (but not limited to) midlife, whereby people, increasingly aware of the finiteness of their time in the world, the limitations placed on them by their choices so far, and the narrowing options remaining to them, start judging their peers’ differing choices with reactions ranging from envy to contempt."
posted by MeowForMangoes at 9:12 PM on February 3, 2010

I'm 31 and still don't have a degree. I did about as well on the SAT as you did on the ACT.

Smarts don't make you rich, and smarts don't make you skilled or successful. Steadily applying those smarts to a limited number of things can and will make you awesome at those things.

Consider that developing the skills to play a sport at a professional level takes around twelve years of practice, no matter what age you start. Developing expert-level skills at any task takes around ten years, or ten thousand hours, whichever you spend first.

Don't worry about "what you want to do", just do what you like, and stick with it. It lets you do something that makes you happy, and because you're happy doing it, you can focus on it enough to become a true expert.

As a side note, buying an $800,000 is *easy*; paying for it is *hard*. As others have said, just because someone buys something doesn't necessarily mean they were at a financial place to do so.
posted by talldean at 6:03 AM on February 8, 2010

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