What do I do with my life?
February 28, 2011 5:59 PM   Subscribe

Please help me figure out what to do with my life

I apologize in advance if this is too rambly or doesn't have a very specific question, but I'll just try to give you my situation and ask for any and all advice that you have to offer.

I had parents that were very supportive in the let you do whatever the fuck you want sort of way, and as a result I have quit almost everything I have ever done. I took piano lessons for almost seven years and never practiced, and now I don’t remember any of it and regret it. I played soccer for a few years, but felt like quitting one day and I haven’t played any sports since and regret it. I was artistic, and drawing/making things was what I did with most of my free time as a kid but for some reason I got tired of it and quit, and now I regret it. I think that the only reason I have gotten anywhere is that I’m personable and fairly good looking. From grade school teachers to my high school Headmaster to my Batallion Commander, all of my authority figures have stood by and watched me severely fuck everything up, only to forgive me and give me second and third chances because they all wanted to be the ones that helped me realize the “amazing potential” that I have.

After about a month at college, it should come as no surprise that I decided a mechanical engineering degree sounded pretty boring and left. Because I had no clue what to do after that, I made the mistake of walking into a recruiter’s office and thought that joining the Army on a whim while knowing nothing about it sounded like a pretty romantic thing to do. In my head I was Ernest Hemmingway going off to drive ambulances in Italy, but it turns out that joining the military during two major wars is something not to be done unless you know exactly what you are doing and are damn sure that it’s what you want.

While there are a few people that I get along with, I have almost nothing in common with anybody that I work with. Not only does being in the Army totally suck ass, but after taking some time to think about it I really hate the fact that I’m in the military and supporting what the military stands for. I might just be a helicopter mechanic, but those helicopters are used in direct support of people whose job is to kill people. I do my best to get along on my own, but it gets pretty old being surrounded by people that I want nothing to do with. I’m stationed in rural Kansas, so my options for building a social life are about as limited as they can be. There’s a college pretty close to post, but the people that I would be willing to hang out with are the ones that see my haircut and want nothing to do with me.

When it comes up that I have no intention of staying in the military, the next question is always what I’m going to do afterwards. I never have the slightest clue how to respond, because even though I’ve had plenty of time to come up with an answer I have absolutely no idea what to do with my life. There are things that I enjoy doing, like snowboarding and backpacking, but when it comes to really knowing what it is that I want to do, I can’t come up anything. Over the years of school, the classes that I have enjoyed most have been art classes. I went to a pretty small high school (120 people), so about half the school was involved with the musical and it really didn’t matter if you knew what you were doing or not. I got a lead part in two of them, and I really enjoyed that as well as being in chorus. I took a ceramics class, and that was one of my favorite classes that I’ve ever taken. Over the years, I’ve wished I was more artistic and tried to do some art stuff on my own, but It’s been so long since I gave up on it as a kid that I never have any clue where to start. The closest thing I can come up with for something that I would want to do with my life is be an artist, but the small amount of artsy stuff that I’ve done has been one-off just for fun and school related.

I’m just getting back from a year in Iraq where I’ve had a whole lot of time to think about everything, and I’ve decided that it’s time I made some resolute plans and stuck with them. So far I’ve decided to buy a keyboard and re-learn piano, find a pick-up soccer league and start playing, and learn how to cook. Apart from those fairly short term goals, I still have no idea what to do with myself.

I apologize again for all of the rambling, so heres the TL;DR –

1)After finishing the two years that I have left in the military, any recommendations for what I should do with my life, or how to figure it out?

2)In the meantime, how do I survive life in rural Kansas without going insane?

More relevant details: 22, M, originally from the Pacific Northwest
posted by LarrenD to Grab Bag (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly, it sounds like what you need to learn how to do is master something useful even though you find the effort and practice boring and difficult, and angels don't fly down from the sky to trumpet "this is what you should Do With Your Life." When you've mastered something useful, then you will have something to fall back on your whole life and have a sense of accomplishment, and you can pursue any of your other interests.
posted by Ashley801 at 6:12 PM on February 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

(As to your second question, if your haircut is causing people you want to befriend to pre-judge you, wear a hat when you go places where they'll be. But honestly, are you sure it isn't just in your mind that that they are judging you? I think people who would do so are closed-minded in their own ways, and not the sort of people one would actually want to be friends with.)
posted by Ashley801 at 6:16 PM on February 28, 2011

I agree w/ Ashely801's first post that you need to master something, but it sounds like you already have mastered at least one valuable skill most people don't have, working w/ helicopters. There's gotta be more artistic jobs out there related to helicopters--design, etc. Also, you'd probably be ahead of most aeronautics students if you were to begin taking classes (which you could probably do for free b/c of your military service.) My advice is that the more success you have, the happier you'll be w/ what you're doing (generally speaking), and you'll be more successful if you build on the knowledge and expertise you already have.
posted by slow, man at 6:32 PM on February 28, 2011

Well, once you get good at playing piano again, music is certainly something you could do with your life. Since you were in your school's chorus, I presume you can sing too. All this confusion and disillusionment you've been experiencing is great songwriting material, so maybe you could try your hand at being a pianist singer/songwriter.

Ultimately, it's up to you to decide exactly what path you'd like to take, but since you're looking for suggestions, that's mine.
posted by XerxesQados at 6:34 PM on February 28, 2011

Try to keep in mind also that your job doesn't equal who you are. It's great when people find a way to do something they love and get paid for it, but in my experience most of us aren't that lucky; if the ultimate career doesn't present itself, shoot for finding a job that is at least 'okay' for the moment and look for hobbies and friends to round out the missing pieces.
posted by Menthol at 6:39 PM on February 28, 2011 [5 favorites]

Seconding Menthol - for some people, a job is just a job to keep food on the table, clothes on your back and a roof over your head. If you can find something that pays enough to get the necessities of life covered, you're golden. You can spend your time off on artistic pursuits if you want.
posted by Anima Mundi at 6:43 PM on February 28, 2011

You're 22, I think you should follow your whims and fancies, go travel the world, and amass lots and lots of experience. When you're 30, you can look back on the many different lives you have led.

If you want to accomplish something in the meantime, you can always go to a state school while you're adventuring. You can do a semester or year abroad while in college, go road trip around the country during your summer break, go on safari during your spring break, etc...

You sound like someone who wants to get the most out of life, honestly, and I don't think a 9-5 or a clear cut plan for the future will so much to keep you interested.

You'll never regret any experience you have, only things you don't do.
posted by katypickle at 6:46 PM on February 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Also, I'm not sure if you have the desire, but what about riding the GI Bill back to college? Depending on the school it could be pretty close to free, it's a great place to meet lots of smart folks and make new friends, and you can just go after general education classes until a particular major sparks your interest. At the very least, it's a productive way to tread water and buy more time to figure things out, and you might even learn some stuff.
posted by Menthol at 6:48 PM on February 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

Move to Los Angeles or NYC.

Especially if you move to downtown Manhattan, you will find yourself challenged just to pay rent! You can get involved in artistic projects because they will literally be all over the place! Everyone's got something going on. You'll get inspired and get your own thing going on, too.

Plus both cities feature good universities, so you won't be out of options if you want to go the academic route.

Move to LA or NYC. The rest will take care of itself.

You can also go to SF, or Austin, or London, or Paris, or Copenhagen, or Amsterdam, or Prague... you dig? Just go somewhere that calls to you. Good Luck!
posted by jbenben at 6:57 PM on February 28, 2011

I would table all issues of what to do after you get out of the military until you are a lot closer to getting out. It seems like a lot of your problems are due to overthinking things, romanticizing the idea of something all out of proportion, and getting too far ahead of yourself. Deciding right now that in two years you will go back to school for a degree in accounting or basket weaving or whatever would just put you on the same path towards burnout when whatever you choose isn't as awesome as two years of anticipation made it seem.

I don't think you have to resume the stuff you did when you were 10, either. If you love music and are desperate to study it, and you really want to pick up where you left off with the piano, great! If you were an extremely talented soccer player and think there is a future for you as a coach or trainer or whatever, then by all means stay in shape by playing soccer.

But keep in mind that part of the reason people put their kids in after school activities is to expose them to different experiences and interests. For most people, the point is not to become a professional musician or athlete, and in fact I'd guess that for the majority those areas aren't even lifelong hobbies. I sang in choirs from ages 5-16 (and then did musical theatre for another three years after that), and yet now that I'm in my late 20's my singing is confined mostly to the shower. That's OK - it doesn't mean I'm a "quitter" or somehow less of a person than the childhood friend of mine who went on to become an opera singer.

Weirdly enough, I had an interest in the field I work in now (television production) from the time I was a very young child. But it wasn't encouraged by my parents. They instead enrolled me in the usual childhood activities like dance, music, sports, and art. When I was a teenager, I started the inevitable Quest For What I Was Meant To Do, assuming that I was supposed to be going outside myself and "discovering" some end goal. I hopped from subject to subject for a long time, but I never settled on anything. I found my career sort of by accident, and didn't remember until recently how much of my six year old brain was occupied by Big Bird, the Huxtable family, and old episodes of I Love Lucy. Duh, I was meant to make TV shows the whole time!

The upshot of all that? I think that, right now, you should concentrate on two things. 1. What do you like to do? Not what lessons did your parents make you do as a kid, or what you think you're supposed to like. What do you really enjoy for its own sake? Absolutely uncritically, no matter how weird. 2. What are you good at? Again, actually good at, not what people think you ought to be accomplished in. Not what you think might be a good way to make a lot of money.

Spend the next two years figuring that stuff out. Then, when it's closer to time for you to leave the military, take it from there. Make a game plan for how to get a job that uses at least one of those two criteria (preferably both). If you truly love music and know you're good at teaching people things, maybe you want to become a piano teacher. So figure out what degree you need to get in order to be qualified to do that. Or maybe you don't need a degree - maybe you need to start a business or build a clientele, or pass a licensing exam. Do whatever it is you need to do to get on that path - the one that uses at least what you're good at, and hopefully also what you like.

Keep in mind that you likely won't actually be able to do any of this stuff for another two years - so don't get ahead of yourself. Don't decide what your college major should be right this minute, or what company to try to get a job with. Stick to numbers 1 and 2 above. What do you like, and what are you good at?
posted by Sara C. at 7:08 PM on February 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Especially if you move to downtown Manhattan, you will find yourself challenged just to pay rent!

The only people under 40 who live in downtown Manhattan are investment bankers. If you came to New York (which I don't think is necessary or even entirely desirable unless you ultimately discover that what you want to do is something you can only get paid to do in New York), you should explicitly NOT do it with the idea of living in downtown Manhattan.
posted by Sara C. at 7:12 PM on February 28, 2011

You could start drawing/soccer/piano again if you want. It takes lots and lots of practice to get really good at those things, and it's possible to have fun even when you're not very good.

A mechanical engineer I know is extra-awesome because he was a mechanic before he got his degree.

I think you find out what you want to do by trying things and sometimes talking to people doing those things, not by just thinking about possibilities.

You sound really unhappy. I hope there's a few things you enjoy in your life now. A book recommendation: "Feeling Good", by David Burns, helped me.

About the military/killing-people thing...everyone who pays taxes and doesn't protest shares what blame there is. I mean, I don't blame you for anything. Nonmilitary people kill the wrong people sometimes too. Even though the larger political situation is complicated and absurd, AFAIK the US soldiers are almost always trying to do the right thing. And you're in Kansas, not deployed. I suspect you're latching onto this because you're lonely and miserable...try to enjoy the work, do fun things for fun when you can, and share what you enjoy.
posted by sninctown at 7:22 PM on February 28, 2011

Have you ever been screened for ADHD? The super impulsive, "I was bored/it seemed exciting" approach to major (but boring!) life decisions is something I've dealt with (and seen friends with ADHD struggle with as well).

I also took many years of piano lessons with zero improvement. My teacher actually "fired" me.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:26 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

The only people under 40 who live in downtown Manhattan are investment bankers.

This is a ridiculous statement that should be ignored.
posted by lalex at 7:34 PM on February 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

Move to Alaska, get a job as a helicopter mechanic, and go snowboarding and backpacking. See a doctor about possible ADHD (I don't know if that's something you can do now, or have to wait until you're done with the military). Once you're settled in your new job in Alaska, you can get involved in community theater and take art classes at a community college in your spare time. Sorted!
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:41 PM on February 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

Corpse has it, I think. Also:

I had parents that were very supportive in the let you do whatever the fuck you want sort of way, and as a result I have quit almost everything I have ever done.

This is just a story you're telling yourself - they likely have nothing to do with it. When I was 22 I could have written something similar to this - I had many interests but wasn't passionate about anything. Despite having some decent years of life, I didn't discover anything I was passionate about until I was 30(!).

Play with life until you find something you're passionate about. Then keep playing with life.
posted by MillMan at 8:39 PM on February 28, 2011 [5 favorites]

Millman said it well, as did others. Your own interests will come. Your social life will, too. One approach is to find a few group interests/hobbies/activities and go habitually. Eventually these folks become your good friends. (Then you move and get to do it all again.)

You've just gotten back from a year in Iraq, and you're doing some introspection. Now is a good time for it. I don't know about getting back from a tour from any personal experience, but it must be a very hard thing to come back from. It might be helpful to talk through your experiences with a military therapist if you haven't already - they're trained to help you process your experiences and assess your future.

Your short-term goals are an excellent place to start. Here's a trick: Don't survive rural Kansas - work to thrive in rural Kansas as much as possible. It is entirely within your abilities, and it will be a better two years.
posted by aniola at 10:13 PM on February 28, 2011

how do I survive life in rural Kansas without going insane?

Keep thinking about whatever it is that you're going to do the second you get out.

If I were you, I would make that thing going to a beach.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:46 PM on February 28, 2011

I like Sara C. answer. Your problem is that you search externally for something that should have come from within. Dreams and passion start from something innate, or at least, from experience so personal that its imprint endure for a very long time. Inspiration doesn't come from a goal, YOU bring inspiration to your goal.

I think what really happen is that you set the bar too low at whatever you are doing. Stop making excuses for failing; stop compare yourself with others who don't excel. Choose one thing and determined, for the next 3 months, to best yourself and everyone else at it. It could be something seem unimportant. Don't allow yourself to change goal during the next 3 months; and don't allow yourself to weasel out of it. Measure yourself objectively and ask other to judge you on it. Compete with others to judge for yourself how well you do. Even something simple, like running, when you do it competitively, is not simple at all.

Once you know how to kept yourself focus and honest for 3 month stretches, try one goal after another until you find the goal you enjoy and excel. Then that's your goal. No one know, a priori, what they should do with their life. You find out by given each goal your best shot, evaluate if it's worth pursuing further, then chase it until it run out of steam and/or you find something better. The key is don't fool yourself that you have achieve a low bar, or that there is a better thing out there. The grass is always greener elsewhere, you should worry about the lawn you are standing on.
posted by curiousZ at 11:50 PM on February 28, 2011

In my head I was Ernest Hemmingway going off to drive ambulances in Italy

So do something similar. Take those mechanic skills and mend ambulances for Medecins Sans Frontieres. Or something along those lines. If you feel like being in the Army is not helping the world, go help it. Perhaps the sense of adventure and purpose, the knowledge that the things you do every day are helping people who really need it, might give you that sense of focus that you're looking for. It's harder to give up on something when others are really, really counting on you to do it.


I had parents that were very supportive in the let you do whatever the fuck you want sort of way, and as a result I have quit almost everything I have ever done.

Seconding MillMan - It's time to leave this story behind. So what? You're an adult. You and everyone else in the world have a whole bunch of reasons for not having achieved all the things we think we could have done in the past - our parents, our teachers, our home town, fate. They might be very valid reasons. Stop dwelling on them - they're in the past. You're 22 now - you get to choose for yourself how you behave in the future.
posted by penguin pie at 12:32 AM on March 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Thank you all for taking the time to answer, they're all thoughtful and each one helped.

I agree that I'm over-thinking all of this. Most of the time I'm pretty cheerful and low stress, and can make it through a lot of things with a smile on my face by just enjoying what I'm doing. Sometimes, though, I lay down to go to bed and get to thinking about shit and thats when my mind goes crazy and I'm always up for the next 8 hours trying to figure my life out. Typing this question up cleared my mind to where I was able to go to sleep, and waking up to these great answers was refreshing.

From taking all of your advice, I think my new plan is to try new things, enjoy them for what they are, and not expect anything more than to try them. If I find that they're worth devoting time to, then that's what I'll do. When it comes time to get out of the military and decide what to do, I'll use the same approach.

I'm sure I'll lay down again sometime and start to think about all of this way too much, but before it gets to identity-crisis level I'll have all of this wonderful advice to keep me in check. So again, thank you all!
posted by LarrenD at 1:38 AM on March 1, 2011

Have you read The Artist's Way? It's all about finding your inner artist and getting in touch with your creative voice. One of the suggestions in the book is that you go on a weekly "artist's date" by yourself, which is just a way of saying you're supposed to try something new each week and see what results. You might find it a helpful book.
posted by Tin Man at 9:08 AM on March 1, 2011

There are things that I enjoy doing, like snowboarding and backpacking

What about getting a job at a ski resort or finding out how to lead Outward Bound trips? There are definitely jobs you can do with these interests, and if they end up being just a way to pay the bills during your 20s, that's not a bad thing.
posted by MsMolly at 9:53 AM on March 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

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