Turning 30. Handling it poorly.
April 30, 2010 6:36 AM   Subscribe

I'm not talented at anything useful. I'm not passionate about anything specific. And I'm getting older. What now?

I'll be 30 this year. Although I have an apartment, I'm unemployed and I have debt. Apart from the arts, I have no practical skills. Although I have loved ones, I don't have many. I'm financially unstable, professionally useless, and socially awkward.

However, I am imaginative. This and fortunate timing are probably the only reasons I'm not homeless right now. To create and then move on is a lifestyle for many, but I'm either lacking the life or the style.

Friends and family advise me to do what I love to do, but I see people who are focused on their passions (teaching, writing, carpentry, making money, etc) and I don't share that quality. The only thing I love is existence itself. Trying to narrow it down, I just shrug. I'm not talented enough at a single thing to earn a living from it. It takes years to become truly skilled at anything, and I've already lost so much time. And when trying to decide what skill I should focus on improving, I don't know how to choose because I don't care about anything more than I care about anything else.

I may not like any of these things the way Picasso loved painting, but I like them enough to list them: writing, photography, cinema, sketching, music, humor, concepts, and crafts.

Every day that passes, I see more sand tumbling down. The taller the sand mound, the more I panic. I'm a failure at being an adult. When I was a little girl, I wouldn't have guessed I'd still be confused about these issues at 29.

Have you gone through this and found an answer that worked for you? Or do you know anyone who went through something similar but figured things out in the end? I'd love to hear how you sorted things out.

(I know metafilter frequently suggests therapy, so this is a note to mention that I have already tried it and this is where I am now. I can't afford more therapy.)

I also set up an email account at anonymishmash@gmail.com for anyone who would like to respond privately. Thanks ahead of time for your responses. :)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (32 answers total) 176 users marked this as a favorite
you may not have gotten into anything enough yet to even know you're interested in it

passions seem to happen by mistake, or happenstance

i am 29, an antique dealer and am absolutely obsessed with it. It's my life! But it was a gradual sort of thing that happened because a few other things happened.

Go out more, experience more, give things more of a chance, don't worry so much about not having a passion - just go do some things and life might suddenly carry you away.

And at 29 you have plenty of time. Tons of people blossom at all stages in their lives.

And stop seeking "an answer." It's more a million answers that meld into one set of feelings that you then pursue. but you've got to get out and start doing things.
posted by Salvatorparadise at 6:45 AM on April 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

This was a pretty good comment about how to find your passion in life. It only got like 400 favorites, but it might be worth a read.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:46 AM on April 30, 2010 [5 favorites]

You know, I think some people have passions and some people don't, and that's okay. Culturally, there's been a shift (during better economic times) to encourage people to have careers that are basically an extension of their identity and to turn their hobbies into their well-paying careers.

You might not have a "passion" and that's actually okay. I thought international development was my "passion." I used to go around saying how "passionate" I was, and then I realized I was just trying to get people to think I was an interesting person with a personality. I literally spent tens of thousands of dollars on a master's degree in a field I had had internships in only and a vision of being important. I wasn't being myself because I, like most people, have really vague hobbies and get interested in all kinds of new and different things. I love watching movies. Does that mean I should get a job watching movies all day? No. I could not stand that.

And every career has its ups and downs. You're not a failure at being an adult. You're just confused and the influences surrounding you are really a select set that uses a select rhetoric and mindset.

It's okay to have a job and to build skills that will afford you some financial stability.
posted by anniecat at 7:01 AM on April 30, 2010 [10 favorites]

You are not your job.
posted by milarepa at 7:04 AM on April 30, 2010 [7 favorites]

I'm 30 and, apart from a few minor details, mostly in your spot. I spent nearly all of the last decade flipping the fuck out about finding my passion, or my calling, or even something I was interested enough to tolerate doing for a few years. Didn't help that most of my friends were in graduate school and loving it, or that my older brother was getting his doctorate in the subject he'd been obsessed with since the age of three.

I've since come to the conclusion that "finding your passion" is a misleading notion. It's the career version of all those Hollywood myths about romance and soulmates and such. Some of us just don't have That One Thing that we are going to love to do for the rest of our lives. Some of us have it, but aren't any good at it; some of us are talented at things that we don't actually enjoy; some of us have both the interest and talent, but there's just no market for them. (Otherwise, I'd be working on a Ph. D. in playing Pokémon.)

It's absolutely okay to have a blah job, and to not be a genius in any one area. It's the way most of us are. How many of the people who deliver the mail or answer the tech support hotline are passionate about their jobs? Probably not many, but don't they deserve to be happy and feel good about themselves too? Is personal fulfillment really only reserved for the very brightest?

You can spin your wheels forever trying to figure out that one mythic passion, and it will only waste time and make you doubt yourself. Instead of waiting for that one big thing, go out and chase whatever little things grab your interest, no matter how impractical. If you can't get paid for them, find free time to pursue them. If you're busy finding meaning and challenge everywhere, you'll worry less about finding meaning in your career.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:07 AM on April 30, 2010 [49 favorites]

You are not your Wikipedia entry - a life, well lived, with love and modest service to others, is more than enough.

I am thirty this year and dramatically changed my life once I realised that fact. Years of crushing depression and anxiety have lifted.
posted by By The Grace of God at 7:09 AM on April 30, 2010 [54 favorites]

I just read the post that Jaltcoh links to and agree with it.

In conjunction with that, realize that getting to that 'doing what you love' thing your friends and family talk about may not be a very direct or obvious route and you may not think that you love anything.

It took me a poor-fitting job and a completely-by-chance job opportunity to realize that there isn't a specific area of engineering or anything else I am passionate about. I just like solving problems. I get a rush from it. And being in a position where I can do that and make money ends up being perfect. But, I didn't realize it until I had my current job for well over a year and didn't really know that the type of position I am in existed before I was offered it.

So, a lot of it is doing your best to put yourself in a position where you can generate, recognize and take advantage serendipity. I feel I owe a lot of my current achievements in life to getting better at doing that. It may sound oxymoronic, but note that people can generate their own good luck, so it isn't entirely without basis.

And on preview, Metroid Baby's last paragraph is along the same line.
posted by chiefthe at 7:11 AM on April 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Will you ever starve? I doubt it. Live in a cardboard box? Very unlikely. By the very fact that you are a speaker of English, literate, and with access to a computer, you are probably one of the most fortunate people on the planet. Good health? White? American? Most of the world can only dream of being so fortunate and comfortable as to suffer such existential ennui as yours. Damn girl, you got it made.

Perhaps I sound harsh, but I swear I'm not trolling. If you're really open to receiving constructive criticism, you won't mind. Or you'll be confident enough in who you are as to brush off my opinions.

Therapy is not what you need, because that will only focus your existence more upon yourself, and it sounds like your life is disappointing precisely because of that unbalance. It needs to be about something other than yourself.

What you can do is make the world a better place--and while animals, the environment, campaigns for political changes and other causes are indeed noble, you will have the most immediate, positive, and noticeable impact by working directly with people. Volunteer at an old age home. A soup kitchen. An orphanage. A children's hospital. A refugee camp. You will see how the unluckiest people in the world can still squeeze joy out of absolute shit, and it will make you weep at the fortune you have been blessed with. And when you can give them some additional happiness, whether it be in the form of labor, money, time, an uncritical ear or any other service you can provide them, you yourself will be happy. Deeply happy. When you stop needing to find purpose in your life, that means you have found it.
posted by holterbarbour at 7:17 AM on April 30, 2010 [14 favorites]

A couple of brief things that I can speak to from my experience in answer to your question (your question specifically being "Have you gone through this and found an answer that worked for you?"):

1. 29 is extremely hard. 30, however, is surprisingly great. After the birthday, you do feel like an adult, you do feel taken more seriously, and it seems to me you do feel slightly more relaxed. I might chalk up some of your anxiety to 29-ness. (Being unemployed is also very hard! I did it at your age and then again when I was older. It's normal to feel freaked out without a busy thing to devote yourself to, and it's normal to be freaked out without security.)

2. Turning 30, well, this was a good time for me to return to some central questions such as: what is life for? So, the main questions: what is life for? What are we doing here? In large part, my answer was that I believe that we are animals (smart, thinky animals!) and that animals have some pretty basic ideas about what's great. We like to look at pretty things, and to touch other animals, and to have sex and/or reproduce, and to live as long as possible. Those are pretty built-in. And so I thought about the gift of consciousness. Isn't the point of consciousness to appreciate things? To enjoy being awake?

And so I've spent most of my 30s, after recovering from the rather shattering experience of being 29, enjoying myself. Indulging in pleasure. Making things here and there, or also just not making anything at all. Right now, you're casting a lot of these feelings in a negative perspective. You're not a failure; you haven't "lost time," as you put it. You've gained experience and perspective. What you're feeling is the downside of the fact that, clearly, you have a drive to succeed and a will to do something. This is also an essential part of being conscious and an animal. What you're saying here, it seems to me, is that you really want to rock out at something. So I guess my question to you is: Can you take this inward, reversed shame that you have of "not having accomplished anything" and feeling shiftless and turn all that around, and recognize it as a drive to be good at things, and to enjoy things, and to excel, no matter which of the many things you love you chose to focus on at one time?
posted by RJ Reynolds at 7:17 AM on April 30, 2010 [16 favorites]

Real good comments above about finding your passion. Like others my passions arose gradually and by happenstance, but the main point I wanted to address was your worry about time ticking away.

Don't panic about time, you have plenty. For example here are some things that take years to accomplish that I've accomplished *after* I've turned 40
- Black Belt in Kumdo (took 4 years)
- Learned to program and developed a major project in ruby (3 years learning, 1 year developing)
- Learned traditional Korean drumming well enough for public performances (2.5 years learning, 0.5 years performing).

My 40's are turning out to be way more fun that my 20's and 30's, maybe it will be the same for you.
posted by forforf at 7:24 AM on April 30, 2010 [10 favorites]

You're not a failure at being an adult. You're just unemployed, and unemployment cuts away at the sense of self like very few other situations. I was unemployed for 22 months in my early twenties and I remember how useless I felt, and by the end as though I wasn't even capable of putting in a good day's work. Then I got a job and found I was.

And as for finding your passion and finding a job that you're passionate about.... I think that's unrealistic for most people. Yes, there are Picassos who relax when they paint and say it's everything else that feels like work, but for every Picasso there must be thousands of truck drivers and sanitation workers and dental hygienists who aren't passionate about their work, but who wake up in the morning and go off to work contentedly enough, knowing that they are very competent at what they do and are doing something useful and like the people they work with, so that's enough to be going on with. And then too there are other people who turn their passions into a paying career and regret it because their passion becomes a job, with all the frustrations and stress that having a job entails, and then their erstwhile passion isn't something they enjoy anymore. The reality is that most people aren't as single minded as Picasso was.

In this world, if you don't mind going to work every day and it pays enough for you to support yourself and your dependents, you're doing pretty well. I'd aim for that. If you end up doing better than that, you're golden.
posted by orange swan at 7:38 AM on April 30, 2010 [7 favorites]

You know Passions aren't always the path to happiness and success. Sometimes, they are Unfulfilled Passions. For example; all my life I've wanted to be an artist. If I could get the pictures in my head, expressed in some way that even vaguely resembled what I was trying to represent, I'd be thrilled.

But I have discovered, that while I have Passion...I probably don't have any Talent. Don't get me wrong, that doesn't stop me from trying. My house looks like an art store exploded. I have every art supply known to man, I swear it. I've taken classes, I've done workshops, I've read books. I've tried drawing and painting and modeling and cake decorating and am currently taking a metal sculpture class. I visit museums, I pore over books of artists I love, trying to understand how they did it...what is the trigger for getting stuff out of the brain, and onto a medium...and have the creation look like what you have in mind? I just don't get how that works. Because I cannot seem to make it happen.

My point is this: Passions don't always equal Happy. Passions don't always equal Success.

And 30 isn't that old. Heck, I'm more than a decade older than you, and I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up. Not everyone has to follow the same corporate type trail into success. You need to define those things that you need to be happy: Living standard, amenities, transport, food, hobbies, etc. Then list the things you enjoy doing. Then find/create a job(s) that let you do those things and afford the lifestyle you've defined.

For example; you love writing and crafts. So...submit ideas to craft magazines that pay for articles and pictures. There are a metric ton of crafter magazines, many of which are put out by supplier companies, so they actually pay for articles. Your local community is bound to have a couple of local magazines; one up-market, one "underground" or club scene. Apply for a gig or freelance gigs writing reviews, taking pictures at concerts, etc. If you wanted a more corporate (and lucrative) path, you could look towards ad agencies and pr companies.

With the set of interests you have, there are all kinds of possibilities for groovy jobs.

Stop waiting for inspiration, and go create some. Go, do, be!
posted by dejah420 at 7:58 AM on April 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

There's a common narrative that we like to tell about "creative" types -- that they've been doing ___ since they were young children, have never seriously cared about anything other than ____ and have been honing their ____ skills through adolescence and young adulthood, allowing them to BURST onto the scene in their twenties as a professional _____, the culmination of a lifetime of build-up.

But you know, that narrative is not actually very helpful. Plenty of people work that way, sure, but you know? Plenty of people don't. Plenty of people aren't so relentlessly single-minded about their interests and goals, and have to make the decision to focus in on something consciously, instead of it being a "calling" that they never question.

It's easy to get into a place where you look around you and see people who've been on the same track for decades, and wonder how you could possibly ever catch up. But with the arts, in particular, the sheer amount of time you've dedicated to something does not bear a direct relationship to how skilled you are or how compelling your work turns out to be.

There are two aspects to creative work: skill and content.

Skills are just the raw tools of a craft, and are generally something ANYONE can learn if they care enough to stick with it for a little while. We can't all be master illustrators, but we can learn how to draw a human figure well enough if we work at it. From what you've said, part of your problem is that you haven't chosen a skill to concentrate on. I have no way of knowing how good of a photographer or musician or draftsman you are, but assuming you're basically competent at any of them, the step you have to take now is to PICK one and then take the steps necessary to advance your skill level. This process doesn't actually have to take that long. I have friends who've gone from beginning cartoonist to professional comics artist in less than five years. But those friends worked VERY hard during that time to get to the skill level they needed in order to get the jobs they wanted to have. They decided they wanted to work as artists and they relentlessly pursued that goal. It isn't a matter of when they started -- it's a matter of how badly they wanted it and how hard they were willing to work.

So you have to ask yourself: is there anything you're sufficiently interested in to commit -- and I mean ACTUALLY commit, not just halfheartedly pick at -- to taking the steps necessary to improve?

With regards to "content": do you have something you want to SAY with your work? Do you have stories to tell? Experiences of yours you want to share? Emotions you want to explore? Interesting places or people you want to showcase? Thinking about what content most interest you will help you decide on which medium (which set of skills) will best serve the work you want to do.

Of course, all of this leads me to another big question, arguably the most important: Are you SURE you want to be a creative professional? Are you SURE that there's nothing else you could possibly do with your life?

I used to laugh when my animation professors in college told us, "If you can do ANYTHING ELSE and have ANY OTHER marketable skills, do that instead." But as I'm rounding the last bend toward 30 myself, I've come to realize how right they were.

There's a lot of romanticizing that goes on regarding being a creative professional. It sounds so glamorous, right? Writing in coffee shops, scribbling on napkins, furiously taking notes on the subway when you're struck with "inspiration." But in actuality, it's not romantic at all. It's a lot of really, really hard work. It's writing about content you don't care about, it's having to redraw the same illustration ten times for a fickle client, it's being up until 4AM and seriously considering sleeping at the office because you HAVE to ship this package to Korea on time, it's being on the phone with your ISP in the middle of the night because you need to send this update to the client and your internet isn't working, it's staring at a computer screen for hours as you agonize over how to make this scene work, it's being forced to slash half your script because of arbitrary pagecount restrictions...

It's working very long hours for very little money, often on projects you have zero personal investment in. And the ONLY REASON anyone does that job, in my experience? Is because they love their particular brand of creative work -- writing, drawing, music, whatever -- SO MUCH that it's worth suffering through the bad pay and shitty freelance gigs just to be able to use their creative skills to make a living. Or because they QUITE LITERALLY cannot do anything else and have to make the best of the skillset available to them.

So I ask you: is there a single skill of yours that you're interested enough in to 1) focus on it and work at it long enough to improve, 2) spend months (years) building up your contacts and reputation in order to pursue professional gigs, and 3) exercise that skill 5-7 days a week, probably with no benefits and irregular paychecks, even when you don't feel like it and have no inspiration and would much rather be doing pretty much anything else?

If you can honestly answer "yes" to all three of those questions, AWESOME! You have the makings of a creative professional, and that drive will carry you through the process of honing your skills and finding work.

If not: you're a hobbyist. And you know, MOST PEOPLE ARE. And that's FINE. But you should stop feeling guilty about "wasted opportunities" and start finding yourself a day job that will help you keep your apartment and fund your efforts to pursue the arts for your own pleasure.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 8:06 AM on April 30, 2010 [25 favorites]

A lot of people search their whole lives for their "passion" in the professional sense, and the sad fact is that such a concept doesn't exist. Do you think there's a reason you only get frustrating, meaningless platitudes every time you seek out specific steps to "finding your passion"?

People who say they are passionate about their job are lying, plain and simple. They may be lying to others or they may be lying to themselves. Seeking such a situation out is a fool's errand, and it is unfortunate that so many people beat themselves up over not finding it.

So let's work on disassembling that construct in your mind. Ask yourself this: If people love doing a type of work, why do they pay people to do it? This is a key concept in dissembling the asinine advice to "find the type of work you would do for free". That's horse-poo. Here's what people are really passionate about: Money, low stress, and free time. Find someone who claims to be "passionate" about their job and ask them if they would still do it if the pay was quartered and their output expectations and work hours doubled. The answer will always be no.

See, we've been through two generations of people who have been raised with the idea that their work needs to fill some higher purpose or be deeply spiritually fulfilling. People who are lucky enough to be content in their work invent reasons after the fact in order to meet this strange expectation. No, an engineer doesn't like sitting at a desk working out equations and doing CAD work for hours on hours. He/she just likes feeling competent, making money, and having the free time to get some enjoyment out of the day. That's the key you're looking for.

Here is what will make you happy in a job, and what you're searching for whether you know it or not:
1. Work at which you feel competent. You need to feel that you can meet and exceed every single expectation every single day.
2. Work that pays enough to support you and any desires you have. This includes a family, a house, or whatever else you want in your life.
3. Enough free time to enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Skill, money, time. Of course, this is also a frustrating platitude without practical advice, so here are my suggested steps: First, find a career that has low working hours and pays plenty of money. Don't fall into the trap of trying to find a job you would love to do; just look for money and good hours. This can be a general career choice rather than a specific job opening. Jobs like these tend to have a high barrier of entry, so you're going to have to build skills. Don't worry about your age; you can start an eight-year program and still have thirty working years left. It may not take that long, however - Money Magazine's top ten best jobs in America (mostly) take at most five years of training from start to finish, assuming you have no previous college credit to build on.
posted by Willie0248 at 8:17 AM on April 30, 2010 [23 favorites]

I was you at 30. Heck, I'm 15 years older and I still don't earn a living from my "passion." But what I did do - starting at 30, and it took probably 12 years after that - was find a way to make a living that left me enough time and money to pursue the things that I am "passionate" about in my spare time - in my case, music, photography, and history, with a bit of hiking in the desert every now and again.

I was financially unstable, professionally useless, and socially awkward for a very, very long time. (I'll admit it, I still am all three of these things to varying degrees on occasion.) But starting in my 30th year, I began learning to worry about it less, and to focus on what really matters more.

I know full well that I am unlikely to ever earn a living from the things I love most in life. And that's okay - but it sure took me a long time to realize that it's okay. In other words, what a lot of people have already said. Good luck to you!
posted by chez shoes at 8:31 AM on April 30, 2010

Let me tell you about two guys. One of them is me, and one of them is my younger brother. I'm 31; he's 29.

I had one thing I wanted to do starting in high school, and I couldn't really imagine doing anything else. I worked like crazy despite not really being in right place to acquire the skills I needed, and by my late 20s I'd built what passes for a career in my industry. I got my BA, worked abroad, then got my MA. I've spent 8 years in school, narrowly avoiding debt all the while.

On paper, I have the career I've always said I dreamed of. Last year I made $12,000. I'm lucky I love riding my bike, because I can't afford a car. I'm lucky I like my roommates, because I couldn't afford to live alone. I'm lucky I don't have a family, because I couldn't possibly support them.

My younger brother dithered around, dropped out of college after a year, and did phone tech support. He spun that into a career in IT and now makes four or five times what I do, has a stable job, and enough time and money to pursue his hobby, which is hot rodding cars and motorcycles.

I often wish I had made different choices over the past decade. I could still be doing the things I love in my spare time, but I wouldn't have to be so dirt-poor. If your passion is existence itself, I suggest not worrying too much about whether or not you've wasted your life. If you enjoy all those things, why not find a trade that will keep you housed and fed, and use the rest of your time to pursue one or all of them? Giving yourself time and resources to discover what you love will let you cultivate that passion at your own pace, and if it turns into a career or lifestyle, hey, great.

If not, you're still DOING them, and that is what is important.

Finally, I would suggest that Ze Frank's Show episode about Brain Crack is tangentially related to your problem.
posted by pts at 8:34 AM on April 30, 2010 [6 favorites]

If your passion becomes your job, you may not stay passionate about your job or even your passion.

I used to work in outdoor recreation, with lots of raft guides and kayak instructors. Lots of people were doing this because they could work on the river and follow their passion. And lots of those people found that, when they got off the river from teaching kayaking at the end of the day, they no longer had any interest in kayaking. Many of them found other sports and hobbies to invest in.

Also, it's totally fine to be angst-y at age 29/30, but please do get some perspective. Lots of the folks following their passions will change careers in another two years; some are already burnt out. And some aren't as happy as they pretend to be.
posted by bluedaisy at 8:42 AM on April 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

The only thing I love is existence itself.

Maybe your purpose in life is to pass that on. Maybe you could work with people who don't even have this? Maybe you will have children, or care for someone who needs it, or who doesn't think existence is at all worthwhile.

I have 234234 passions. Not all of these will make me famous, or even pay my rent. I don't mind. I have a job I enjoy that pays enough for me to do other things I enjoy, and I feel a lack of pressure in that my personal goals are not tied to a career path - I feel no urge to be running the company by 40, but I do want to learn to knit, go to Tokyo, and read that book that I bought a while ago and haven't got round to.
posted by mippy at 8:52 AM on April 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

you will have the most immediate, positive, and noticeable impact by working directly with people.

This isn't necessarily true either. A lot of people in the helping professions eventually dislike dealing with the the population they end up dealing with and helping. Then they have to deal with the loss of self-esteem that comes with realizing that they don't have endless patience and now have a less open heart. This sort of thing can end really badly in some cases.

Having worked at a nonprofit (and still in a nonprofit), I don't think using "service to others" to fill the void left by disappointing yourself or feeling like you haven't found your place in the world is ultimately a good idea. It's a distraction from what problems you have, and using those in need as a crutch is unfair. You have to have mental stability and fortitude for it, not get it from people who need you. The end result is that you're doing some good, but using people in worse circumstances to realize how good you have it isn't really the right way to approach this sort of problem.
posted by anniecat at 9:01 AM on April 30, 2010 [16 favorites]

I've been you. In fact, I pretty much *am* you, with one difference, which I'll mention in a bit.

I, like you, don't seem to have found my Passion. I haven't found that thing that people find that drives them, that makes them totally happy, that spurs them to creativity. I am in some sense still looking for this, and I feel my life will be the better for having found it.

BUT--the important point--I realized that I need to essentially stop trying so hard. You're looking for employment. This hit me when *I* was looking for The Perfect Job as well. Here's the thing: you don't have to find the perfect job, just a better one. If you free yourself from having to have perfection (and it's hard to define, anyhow) and go for improvement (which is generally easier to figure out), it gets a lot easier. You can always move on when something better comes up. So, find something that looks like it'd put you in a better situation. Try it. Repeat as necessary.

In some respects you have to treat this search for passion like the search for a mate. It generally works better when you're not trying so hard. You probably won't find it immediately, but it won't be any worse than if you were fixated on it and in the meantime you're a lot less stressed.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 9:16 AM on April 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I wrote something a lot longer.. but it sounded terribly wordy. Here is my short answer:

You're not alone. Many people hit the end of their twenties not having accomplished what they wanted.. and feel like their 30'th birthday is some kind of death knell signally failure.

As someone who's 36 (about to turn 37)... I can tell you those feelings of failure are total and utter bullshit. The worst thing you can do to sabotage your future is waste even 1 second more of mental energy on that negative-feedback-loop.

Even though my 30's have pretty much been the hardest decade yet (almost died multiple times, lost my job, homeless, etc) ... It's also been the most rewarding, challenging, empowering and amazing time of my life. I've overcome many things I didn't think I could, I've grown and become comfortable with myself in ways I never expected..and am hundreds of times more happier (even though I still live in a modest 1bedroom apartment and am still single).

My advice to you: .... Stop worrying about what you don't have and pour your mental energy into positive thoughts about what you're going to accomplish. When little (or big) setbacks happen,... don't spend even 1 moment reacting negatively, instead double your efforts and commit yourself to even moreso to finding resourceful or creative ways to obtain your goals. As others have said - if you are arguably healthy, intelligent and have access to the internet (which is seems you do)..there is no limit on what you can accomplish. Every problem or difficulty you might run into - someone else probably already conquered and blogged about it somewhere on Google.

Now is not the time to be timid or self-doubting. :)
posted by jmnugent at 9:26 AM on April 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

I would like to second what Narrative Priorities said, and extend it to most fields of post-graduate study.

Try giving a job two years. I'm in my mid-thirties (eek! already?) and I've worked in all different areas. I find that after two years, no matter what the area, I get into a groove and you could say I feel passionate about it.

As others have said, there is a big downside to having only One True Passion and also to building a career on it. You put all your eggs in one basket. You may be, or become, a one-dimensional person. You are not at any less risk of being underpaid or underemployed.
posted by halonine at 10:49 AM on April 30, 2010

I am 31 and feel similar to you.

I think it's OK not to have a passion about a particular thing. Most people I know don't have a career or hobby that they are passionate about. I have felt enormous pressure from people telling me I am talented and that I shouldn't be wasting my "talents." When it comes down to it though, I don't feel like I am wasting my talents. I simply don't have the drive to use my talents to become successful and that's OK with me.

Having a career seems so overblown. Society makes it seem like everyone should have a fantastic career. Lots of people don't have the stamina, drive, or a desire for a fantastic career. I think that's OK too.

You are passionate about existing and being alive. I see nothing wrong with that. If you removed society's pressure regarding having a passion, how would you feel? I've struggled with this myself. I don't have a great career. I am not passionate about anything. When I get down, I try to remind myself that I have a good life when it comes down to it. I don't want to force myself to be passionate about something I only feel "meh" about or feel guilty that I am smart, but can't seem to find a more lucrative/fulfilling job.

Try to take a step back and ask yourself whether you're trying to conform to society's ideal when it's not your ideal.
posted by parakeetdog at 12:25 PM on April 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm 29 (well, almost). I love what I do. I've wanted to do it since I was a kidlet. I'm even doing ok with it, for now.

That "for now" is pretty important, though. You see, what I love isn't so easy to do on the side, and the job market isn't so great. I watch lots of people more capable than me change cities every few years, stress endlessly about the lack of jobs-- I watch them leave the field or take a job they're not happy with, or I don't watch them, because they disappear.

And I'm pretty dang worried I'll be one of them. I can only do so much. So even though I am one of those driven people with a One True Passion, I could pretty easily be 30 and not in a position to do it anymore. And then what?

So I say, be happy that you find joy in just existing, naturally. Those of us who try to find fulfillment through career might need to take lessons from you!
posted by nat at 9:03 PM on April 30, 2010

I've always been a 'can't pick one thing' person and my resistance to committing the whole of my career to one thing was a source of angst for me too.

Something I started realising in the last few years (the lead-up to my 30th birthday a month ago) is that you can't plan what you're going to be passionate about for the rest of your life, and thinking about your options with the mindset of "need x years to do the training, which means x years to get experience and gain a position of responsibility...and by then i'll be SO OLD!". Rather, when you're considering a path, yes, you can look at the possible places it might lead you, but only briefly. You should do things now that you have a natural curiosity about now. And you know what? After doing something for a month/year/whatever, living your life and interacting with different people, new ideas will come to you and new avenues will open up. These are things you didn't know about and couldn't plan for and would have missed out on if you'd let yourself be paralysed and not taken the first step. I know this because I have done this a LOT in my life. So you're not alone.

The way I have found to deal with this: You just have to be willing to take a first step and not mind that it might not be perfect, it might be a dead end, but then you turn to the next thing and see what you can do with that.

I may be projecting a bit (a lot) but I think that it might help you to think about your situation not as a lack of options but a freedom from constraints. You have so many options. If you're talking about work specifically, I recommend that you pick something you think may be okay, reasonably interesting to learn about or whatever, and do that for a little while but pay attention to what you do and don't enjoy about the work. Is it that you're solving problems? Continually learning new things? Dealing with interesting/a wide range of people? This will also teach you about things you don't like. Then you can look for your next job with those factors in mind. If you build skills around these work attributes, you will be very attractive to your future employers.
posted by Lucie at 12:07 AM on May 1, 2010 [5 favorites]

I fucking love this post!
posted by Rocket26 at 5:14 AM on May 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

Grumblebee nailed it. I just want to reassure you. It's okay that your life is not a complete success, with every box checked off, at the age of 30. You have some people you love and some hobbies you enjoy. I think general imaginativeness, plus the hobbies you listed, could lead you somewhere good. Maybe not toward gainful employment but toward some worthwhile creativity.

Two things to think about:

1. Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly. At first you might suck. That's okay. Enjoy yourself. Learn. Keep going.

2. Anything worth doing is worth doing well. To get to the point where you will feel accomplished, you need to gain some mastery. That takes time, sometimes frustrating time. Learn. Keep going.

P. S. There are many hours in the day. If you are not spending them productively, think long and hard about how you are spending them, and think about eliminating habits that are getting in the way of more fulfilling pursuits (i.e. too much time online).
posted by mai at 11:59 AM on May 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

One thought: I think your 'passion' is what you make it. Pick something you enjoy, and focus on it. After a while, you either get bored or you go deeper. Go deep enough, and you've got a genuine real-life passion. Switch to something else, and you don't.

I'm not really sure one is better than the other. Loving life and dabbling in lots of things can be a good way to live too.

The Kurt Vonnegut quote: "I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different." seems apropos.

Second thought: In my late teens & early twenties, I decided to focus on one thing, and make that my 'passion'. I did, successfully, and dropped out of the competing interests and activities. For many years I pursued that passion, without regard to niceties like making a living. At the end of my twenties, predictably, I freaked out. Then, suddenly, by accident, I found a way to make a living from it, in a watered-down, commercially compromised way. I thought this was the best thing ever.

After a couple years I discovered that (a) I wasn't actually good at making a living from my passion; (b) making a living from it made it difficult for me to enjoy doing it for art.

I now have a career doing something I like and am good at, but don't have really strong opinions about. And my passion, my art, is what I do when I get home. This seems to be a pretty good compromise, and in general I'm very happy, though there are of course odd days when I'm filled with anguish about it. I think this is just what life is about: we have to endlessly negotiate between the things that we love and the things that work. The negotiation and struggle is where the action is, and what our lives are actually about. Oscillation.

I don't know what this all means for you, except, it's complicated, and it's good to find ways to enjoy the process, because the end result is always uncertain.

(Disclaimer: I may regret this approach when I turn 40 and handle it poorly.)
posted by Erroneous at 8:10 AM on May 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

I am about your age and I can identify with some of the things that seem to be troubling you. Here is my assessment of things-

Most of the problems stem from-

1. An assumption of how things are and should be. Not everyone has grand dreams in life. Not everyone has a burning (or not) passion in life. But guess what?

It's okay because things are just the way they are supposed to be and there are no rules to follow here.

Like the seeds in a watermelon. Each one is perfect in it's place. That's where they are meant to be!

2. If attachment is the root of all suffering, comparing yourself with others is a close second.

Can you read your post and see how you are looking at others (great people indeed) and at yourself (meh)? It is not easy to develop an objective, balanced perspective and it requires constant reminders and work.

Jot down 20 stories throughout your life where you underestimated yourself and proved yourself wrong. Maybe you'll have to think a lot harder but when you write it down, you'll realise you haven't been giving yourself enough credit.
posted by xm at 2:54 PM on May 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

Check out Barbara Sher's Refuse to Choose. It's a good defense of eclecticism. I know a lot of people who turned their passion into their livelihood and lost their passion in the process. From a musician friend:

Over time, the mechanics and business of making music pretty much drain the fun and aesthetic pleasure out of it, unforturnately. At this point I'm kind of like a painting contractor who isn't really interested any more in how his paint was manufactured or the subtle intricacies of manipulating a roller. Don't pity me. What I do with the other 16 hours of my day is pretty fulfilling.
posted by mecran01 at 7:13 AM on May 7, 2010

First, to be up front about it, I'm living my passion (more or less), so maybe I'm not the best person to ask. Living your passion is nice.

That said, you know what else is nice? Being able to live well in the way you see yourself. And those things can be accomplished without much of a "passion," and it has a reward all its own.

Rather, sometimes your goals (I'm not going to use "passion" here; enough with that) aren't about having a certain career, they're about living out a certain way or fulfilling a personal vision of where you see yourself and using things like jobs to enable that kind of lifestyle you want.

Maybe you see yourself living in a resort town in North Carolina. Maybe you see yourself in a rowhouse in a small city where you go out with friends all the time. Maybe you see yourself living on your own in a rural area with peace and quiet and taking long drives for your weekly food shopping. The point is that sometimes what you do to pay the bills isn't about your "passion" but enabling your ability to live the life you see yourself living, so you start figuring out, "what's the best way to enable the lifestyle I want?" And maybe you'll hit on something you're really good at, and that job will serve, in part, as a goal in and of itself. But it might help to start to ask how you see yourself living your life and work backwards from there in order to figure out what you want to do.
posted by deanc at 2:15 PM on June 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

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