How can I come to terms with mistakes I made in my 20s?
February 25, 2014 5:37 AM   Subscribe

I am in my late 20s, and I have increasingly found myself preoccupied with regret about how I have squandered my 20s.

I have always thought of myself as unromantic, and I don't believe in "soulmates", "the One", or any of that. Yet I have recently realized that while I do not hold that ideology in terms of relationships, I have followed it to the letter in terms of vocation (this article explains it well; I'm sort of in the opposite position of this MeFite). After reflecting on it fairly extensively, I think that making this big mistake has been the fundamental fatal flaw of my past decade. I spent my 20s on a wild goose chase of multiple graduate degrees in the humanities, convinced that if I dedicated myself fervently and single-mindedly enough to the subject I loved, an academic career and happiness would eventually follow. Unfortunately, over the course of the last couple of years (and especially in the past couple of months), I have realized that that "in love" feeling doesn't pay the bills, and that while I love the subject I'm researching, I don't love it enough to sacrifice the possibility a stable job that pays enough to support a family and has enough work/life balance in order to do so.

I am now realizing that the measure of a good job isn't something that totally self-actualizes you and makes you feel deeply ecstatic about your work all the time; rather, a good job is something that you quite enjoy doing that pays the bills and supports the kind of lifestyle you want (having a family, etc.). I now realize that rather than pursuing that "in love" feeling, I should have made a much more clear-headed decision about vocation based not only on enjoyment and mental connection but also on practical things - stability, pay, quality of life, compatible with having a family, etc. I guess this was obvious to everyone else in undergrad, but somehow I remained oblivious then and I'm only just becoming keenly aware of it now. I deeply wish I could start again at my BA graduation and pursue some more sensible option rather than wasting the last 6-odd years on pie-in-the-sky graduate degrees in the humanities. If I had started my post-bac and med school at that point, I'd be in my residency by now, looking forward to being gainfully employed at something I liked. As it is, in a year's time when I'm finished my PhD (hopefully!) I'm effectively going to have to start again, having lost the better part of a decade of my life. Even worse, I so fully had all of my eggs in the academia basket that I neglected investing as fully as I wish I had in romantic relationships, friendships, enjoying free time, etc. I wish I had spent my 20s starting on a career path that was both enjoyable and sensible, and I also wish I had focused on dating and getting married, really cultivating the friendships that I have and enjoying them, spending time with family, and just giving more of myself to myself. Looking back, I think I made a lot of quite bad choices, and invested myself far too heavily in things that I now don't consider to be worthwhile. I feel like I chose to be a monk for the better part of a decade for a religion that I now don't believe in. Obviously, what I need to do at this point is to get over it and move on - spilled milk, water under the bridge, and all of that. But I'd love any mental hacks or ways of framing this that would help me do this. I realize that all of this sounds rather whiney, navel-gazing, and first-world-problems-ey - sorry! It's just been something that my mind keeps insistently returning to lately, and I wish I had a better way of dealing with it.
posted by ClaireBear to Work & Money (35 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
You know, based on your intro I was expecting wild tales of drug abuse and fast cars and broken friendships and so forth.

But "I spent a decade pursuing a PhD in a subject I love" doesn't, actually, y'know, sound like squandered time. It sounds like a pretty good decade actually. Mostly it sounds like you're just panicking a bit at the prospect of having to graduate and move on to the next thing.

You can always settle for a stable job if you need to; there's plenty of time for that. You don't have to repudiate everything you've been doing in order to move on to another thing. Having stored all your eggs in one basket it's not necessary to now move them all into a different basket. It's a nice basket. Maybe even a useful one.
posted by ook at 5:51 AM on February 25, 2014 [30 favorites]

I don't believe it's all a waste. I think all the technical and research skills that you've gained is extremely transferable out of academia. You'd be very heartened to know how much you can actually leverage whatever that are your qualifications now into the 'real world'.

Don't lose heart, this is all extremely solvable. It may help to start looking at fields that you have been expressing any interest in, and look at positions available and see if you can match any of the qualifications stated. That is a useful exercise at least for you to look at your CV strategically.

and there's no time but now to start cultivating your network, both personally and professionally. The best time to start is always the present. You can do it!
posted by cendawanita at 5:58 AM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

My surprisingly effective mantra for snapping myself out of despair over my (multiple, much worse than yours) mistakes in life is: "That hurts because it was a painful experience". If I burned myself on the stove, I wouldn't spend the rest of the day brooding about how that happened, or what other better things I could have done in the kitchen; I'd apply some first aid and get on with the day. That's how I am trying to be with things like the second chance with the woman I truly loved, that I squandered in 1998: accept that it is painful and try to do something cool in 2014.
posted by thelonius at 6:01 AM on February 25, 2014 [13 favorites]

I wanted to add, explore your university's incubator or graduate career services and programs, or any in your region/area that you can tap into. They at the very least will offer employability skills training and workshops. There's a lot of motivation now to create 'employable' graduates. All you need now is just that foot in the door. Just work on getting that crack open.
posted by cendawanita at 6:01 AM on February 25, 2014

How's your sense of humor?

Look, a lot of us drift in our 20s (and 30s, and...) but in exchange the experience also gives us some great stories and genuine learning experiences. I look back at my 20s and laugh and laugh. I wear my crows' feet like a badge of honor.

Knowing you only get one shot at this whole life thing feels like a lot of pressure at first. But when you think about it, you only get to do this once & you might as well do it your own way.
posted by mochapickle at 6:02 AM on February 25, 2014 [13 favorites]

Two suggestions: first, develop a ritual for forgiving yourself for past choices. I advise something that recognizes all that you devoted to something you love, appreciation that it will always be a part of your life, and acknowledgment that you're moving on to something new.

Then, get excited about making future decisions. I know it can be overwhelming and disheartening to think about what you're going to do next, but try to reframe it as an adventure with nearly unlimited options. Looking forward is, for me, the best way to avoid ruminating.
posted by metasarah at 6:03 AM on February 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

Oh my gosh!

Your 20's occured during the WORST job market in recent memory. It's not like your cohort was out becoming the Wolves of Wall Street while you studied Anthropology or something. All you missed out on was a low wage job and living in someone's basement, eating ramen and Kraft dinner.

As for living like a Monk, okay, no biggie. You've changed your mind.

By continuing to live a life of regrets, you're squandering your thrities.

Here's the thing, we can't turn back the clock, and even if we did, who knows, everything that happened in the past has brought us to this awesome point today!

I look back on the stupid shit I did with men who weren't worthy of me, the stupid shit I spent my money on and the stupid jobs I worked at know what, my life right now, in this moment is AWESOME! All of the dumb stuff I did in my youth taught me the things I needed to know to get me to a place of peace, happiness and fulfillment.

You are looking back at your 20s with the eyes of a thirty year-old. I would HOPE that our older selves would know more than we did 10 years ago.

So say to yourself, "My 20s were a time of relflection and study. I want something different for my 30s. Therefore, I'm going to build on what I've learned and I'm going to go out and get a job, meet people and talk to people I'm sexually attracted to."

Then do those things.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:04 AM on February 25, 2014 [25 favorites]

I also wish I had focused on dating and getting married, really cultivating the friendships that I have and enjoying them, spending time with family, and just giving more of myself to myself.

This is the only thing in your long stream of things you'd do differently that I think is worthy of "if I could go back in time..." thoughts. It sounds like you have been wholly focused on CAREER and not the here and now and the human/social aspect of your life. A huge number of people do that. And guess what! It is one of the easier things to solve! Seriously, think of it in the other direction. What if you had spent your 20s only focused on the social aspect of your life, and then realized in your late 20s/early 30s that you really should have spent more time thinking about your career and your future and building other skills. I would argue that it would be harder to reclaim that lost time and build those missing skills/opportunities than it is to reclaim the time you spent not focused on relationships. You can more easily choose to spend more time with people than you can suddenly decide to have a career path and an education. Know what I mean? So you're better off than you could be. If you were going to be unbalanced in your focus you chose the easiest to fix (in my opinion).

Obviously you know you can't undo the choices you made, you can't unring the bell of the last decade, but you can resolve to change it moving forward. Don't see your 20s as "wasted time" because seriously it isn't. You have a lot to show for that time. It may not be the things that you expected when you started down that road, but they are still perfectly valuable and important things.

What you do now is knowingly shift the focus of your life. Own that your 20s were focused on career and education and future thinking. Own that now you're going to start living in the present and having a bigger focus on people and relationships and quality of life stuff. A lot of people made very similar choices to the ones that you made, only they didn't figure out that they weren't getting the life out of those choices that they wanted until much later.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 6:04 AM on February 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

Oh hey late-twenties Frowner! I tell you what, this time don't have a breakdown at 29, lose a year to depression and then have a slow, miserable climb back to functionality!

No, seriously:

1. If you are having truly intrusive and painful thoughts about regret that are interfering with your daily life, go to a therapist - more than anything else, I wish I had done this in my late twenties (instead of doing it in my late thirties, hooray!)

2. Remember that careers are a crapshoot for almost everyone - even people who have "done everything right" can find themselves out of work, out of their field, broke, deeply miserable, etc. And people who have "done everything wrong" can also stumble into jobs or fields they love. It's far, far less of a referendum on choices you made than you think. You could have pursued a "sensible" degree and the market could have collapsed - I know people that happened to.

3. When you have intrusive and regretful thoughts, remind yourself that you can't change the past. No amount of beating yourself up will change one little thing. You have to focus on the future. There's no point in beating yourself up - all it does is wear you down and keep you from taking action now. I have found that after doing this about a million times, it actually works.

4. Your late twenties is not that late. I started over later than that, and did it in a half-assed way that leaves me retraining (into an unlikely field - hello accountancy!) where I won't be ready to apply for jobs until I'm ~43.

5. You will always look back and wish you'd started earlier, no matter how early you started. (I mean, unless you were like a child chess prodigy or something.)

6. Take some time to think when you're done with your PhD. Don't rush into another degree program. It's hard to say "get a job" in this economy, but if you can get a regular, ordinary, pays-the-bills job and then pay attention to what you like about that job - even if it's just a very boring job - it can lead you to something else. For instance, I actually like numbers - who knew?

7. Don't idealize "everyone else in undergrad". Some of those people probably knew what they wanted to do, have great lives through their own efforts, etc. Some of them have shitty jobs that they hate, some of them have terrible marriages, some of them cheat, some of them are greedy and evil....Some of them got into an ideal life because they came from wealth and tremendous privilege, not because they are magic unicorn princesses. (I know a couple of people like that - sweet careers with prestige and interest - and I used to blame myself for not being like them until I realized that they both came from hugely wealthy families with connections and had gone to fancy private schools as teens plus had the self-confidence that comes from always having been rich and privileged.)

8. It's okay to have done what you did. You will realize over time that you did gain from your twenties. You don't see it now, but as you meet other people who spent their twenties with their shoulders to the capitalist wheel being sensible, you'll realize that you have things they don't, just like they have things you don't.

9. Lots of people meet partners later - most people in my social circle, actually.

10. Don't imagine an "ideal twenties" for yourself. You would not have had that - it's a fantasy. Don't compare your situation now with Mary Sue You where you did everything graciously and correctly. Your twenties would have had setbacks, pain and wasted time no matter what you did, because that's what happens in life.

11. I also find it good to remember how much all this stuff is contoured by politics and privilege. I know people who are certainly smart enough to do graduate degrees and hold good jobs, whose class background and family circumstances have tipped them into hardscrabble lives where they can barely make rent, are insecurely employed, etc. No matter what those people did with their twenties, it was all hard, it was all shitty jobs and no insurance and maybe if you worked really, really hard, a little bit of economic security and an okay place to live. When I get all "but if I had gone into [Serious Profession] in my twenties, I would now have more financial options, respect, etc, but I fucked it all up", it really brings me down to earth to remember just how all this stuff is overdetermined by family and politics, and how it's unattractive for me to whine about not having a fancy job when huge percentages of Americans never even had a shot at a fancy job.
posted by Frowner at 6:05 AM on February 25, 2014 [49 favorites]

One other thing.

I deeply wish I could start again at my BA graduation and pursue some more sensible option rather than wasting the last 6-odd years on pie-in-the-sky graduate degrees in the humanities.

I swear to god that it is NOT wasted time, even if you feel like you're never going to "use" your humanities degree(s). I have a degree in psych and english, which aren't exactly "HERE IS A CAREER!" type degrees. So then I went to college and did a 2 year course on computer programming and that is what I work as now. I may not be using my psych and english degree directly, but simply HAVING that degree has opened doors for me. Also, there are aspects of my degrees that I do use day to day and have allowed me to be better at my job.

Your degrees aren't wasted time. I promise. Most people it seems have careers that don't directly related to their degrees. Don't ask me why, it just seems to be how it goes. I have a psych degree and work as a computer programmer. My husband has a geography degree and works as a systems analyst. My sister has a spanish degree and works as a director of high up NGO focused on community and social development.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 6:13 AM on February 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

Are you familiar with the concept of a Saturn return? Having your life turn inside out in your late twenties is totally normal, and it often leads good places - this is part of how you get to that "my 30s are awesome" "screw the haters" mindset people talk about. I think it's more developmental than astrological, but searching using the astro term is a good source of examples of how this phase of life plays out for people.

FWIW, I have a humanities BA, and am currently switching tracks to the sciences in my early 30s. Writing well and thinking critically is such an asset wherever you go.
posted by momus_window at 6:30 AM on February 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

Are you working on a thesis at the moment? Seriously - I am working on my master's thesis, with nothing else to do except start a little job searching on the side. It seems to be condusive to mooning about whining to myself about how I wish I would have done things differently. I'm also almost 30 (yikes!) and feeling ready to settle down and be an "adult" or at least commit myself to living in one place for a while and having a steady job, possibilities which I haven't previously considered too much.

It helps to

1) Try to focus on creating a structure of activities and goals for myself to work on in the present and

2) Repeatedly remind myself of how much perspective I have gained and how much I have gotten out of the flailing about I've done in my 20s.

3) Realize that part of my current tendency towards rumination is due to the fact that I am in one of those in-between periods where I am not quite sure what to do or what will happen next. When I more settled and have found the next great thing (or the next semi-great thing that might lead to the next great thing - or really just any sort of endeavor that makes me feel like I am doing something useful again, er, not that writing a thesis isn't useful . . .), the idea that my past decisions have somehow ruined my chances for future happiness will seem silly.
posted by thesnowyslaps at 6:40 AM on February 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

The experiences of your twenties have given you valuable insight in terms of where you want to put your time and focus in your life, as well as what type of career you want. That sounds like quite the opposite of a waste. Sometimes we have to know what we do not want, and we learn what we don't want through experiencing things and evaluating them. Experience helps to help light the path that leads us to knowing what it is we do want.

Becoming smarter is never a waste. I may be biased as I am also in the last year of my PhD program, but I also am in a similar situation (except I am well into my early thirties). I've been working towards a PhD for my entire life, since I was a young girl. I vowed to get a PhD when I was just five years old and it's been my singular goal for years. I have sacrificed for this goal. A lot, particularly in my relationships and bonds with other people. And when I reach it in a year from now I have absolutely no idea what to do next and it terrifies me. It is terrifying to not know what is next.

Someone once told me that getting a PhD somehow exposes all your weaknesses and makes your worst fears come true. Sounds hyperbolic but it's kind of true. The academic life forces critical examination and I think sometimes we turn that on ourselves much much more than necessary or is desirable.

I suggest that you think about showing yourself kindness and love and forgiveness. I think mindfulness or some kind of low-intensity, once every few weeks or so CB therapy might be great for you; it has been for me. Yoga has also been awesome at helping me relax and stay happy in the moment.

Good luck... we are almost at the end of the marathon that is obtaining a doctorate!
posted by sockermom at 6:44 AM on February 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

You and I are seriously walking the same path right now. This really hit me a couple of months ago and since then I've been cycling through seething envy of my college and high school classmates who chose "smarter" paths like med school and disappointment at my 23-year-old self for not knowing what I wanted. Ironically I think a lot of this has to do with finally being confident in my own abilities -- now instead of looking at someone my age who has her life completely together and thinking she must be some different species from me, I look at her and think, "I could have done that. Why didn't I do that?" And then I think that even if I do change paths and go into something more secure, I'll always be older than my cohort, poorer than my cohort, running to catch up, etc. Which is a crappy way to feel! And to make it worse it's all hypothetical! So to deal with the here and now I am doing three things that take advantage of my current university-subsidized position:

1. Therapy every week.
2. Exercise like crazy at the university gym to get a regular, concrete dose of hard work --> payoff.
3. Be the best doomed humanities graduate student I can be -- teach my ass off, build my brand (barf) on Twitter, use my awesome dissertation to network with faculty in adjacent-but-more-practical fields.

I guess it all boils down to making conscious choices every day to make myself stronger. I am starting to be able to look back and say "I fully stand by every decision I made in the course of the past X days." And then (I hope) it snowballs from there.
posted by oinopaponton at 6:50 AM on February 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

I guess this was obvious to everyone else in undergrad, but somehow I remained oblivious then and I'm only just becoming keenly aware of it now.

Not everyone is aware of this in undergrad.

Here are some mental approaches that may be of help:

1. It is a truth universally acknowledged that youth is wasted on the young. Getting a PhD is honestly not that bad. Develop a sense of humor about it.

2. Your 20s are the perfect time to follow a "passion" project that may not necessarily pay off in terms of a fulfilling career. You can always go work in a cubicle later. Someone who gets a sensible job right out of school may feel "trapped" and unable to pursue their dreams. As you get older, with family obligations, it becomes more and more difficult to get a PhD. If you have 2 kids and a mortgage, it may seem ridiculous to spend 5 years with a poverty level salary so that you can become an expert in some obscure topic. But in your 20s, the opportunity cost is low and there is some upside, you may end up with the job of your dreams. It didn't turn out that way, but hey, now you know, and you're still very very young! (Trust me on this.) If you hadn't done it, you probably would have toiled away at some sensible job feeling mediocre and unfulfilled, wondering what would have happened if you had had the courage to follow your dreams. Now when you get your sensible job you'll have a clearer mind.

3. There is a school of thought that says that people who want to be successful should try to become doctors and lawyers and bankers. It's annoyingly dead-on advice, because those are indeed reasonably safe ways of earning prestige and money, and other approaches are much more likely to fail and/or provide less lucrative outcomes. You can't do anything to change that. Still, while pursuing one's dreams can seem foolishly romantic in retrospect, you learn a lot by doing so. And if you look around, there are a lot of PhDs and people working at tech startups and people working at design firms and people trying to make it on Broadway... you are hardly alone. Have some compassion for yourself, dust yourself off if you run into any problems, and keep moving.
posted by leopard at 6:53 AM on February 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

Part of living is regret. Honestly, I'm heading toward my later 30s and feel the same way about them, despite having done some objectively quite worthwhile things with my time. There's always the seduction of the path not taken.
posted by killdevil at 6:56 AM on February 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm also in my late 20's, and felt a lot of regret a couple years ago about the same thing. In fact, my best friend and I spent hours and hours of our lives bitching about our idiotic decision to major in history in undergrad. You mention that you wish you had done the med school path- I'm not sure if you are actually planning on doing that now, or if you just wish you had chosen it (mine is computer science. God, I just bitched and bitched for months about how I wish I had done computer science. My friend bitched that she wished she had done nursing.)

Unlike you, instead of pursuing multiple higher degrees, we did jobs that weren't really going anywhere and that we didn't like at all in order to (just barely) pay the bills.

So I totally get where you're coming from. That said, the bitching and regret and depression didn't help anything. I know "stop regretting it" is the type of suggestion that isn't exactly helpful, since that's an emotion and thought process, and it's really difficult to control your thoughts. But seriously, the feeling of regret and despair and wishing you had a TARDIS isn't going to help you at all.

That said, you are going to graduate with a PhD in a year! You don't specify what your field is, but I'm certain that you have picked up transferable skills that will enable you to excel in a job that makes good money and that you enjoy. At the very least, you have to have pretty strong research skills to make it through a PhD. There are so many different types of jobs out there, and I think the point of education is to make us think that there's a very limited number of things you can do with your life. You can take your research skills and apply it to so many different types of jobs that you may like, even if it's not directly related to the academic path that you've been on thus far.

If you are genuinely planing on going to medical school, it's not too late for you to do that either (my mom went back to school in her 40's), but don't think that you've been wasting the past six years. You've gained a lot of knowledge in [your field] and picked up a lot of useful skills and life experience. Use those skills and make the type of life you wished you had in your 20's, only you'll be doing it with the wisdom that you've picked up in the past 10 years.
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper at 7:17 AM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh dear. If you have a degree in the humanities, surely you've been made familiar with the fallacy of sunk costs. Time is a sunk cost. You spent it, it's done. But you know what isn't a sunk cost, yet? Ruminating over the time you've already spent. When you find yourself indulging in these intrusive thoughts, try a mantra like, "Thinking about the past is an activity for reflection, not regret." In other words, it's not a waste of our time to think about our past in a way that helps us understand ourselves and the world around us, and use our experience to apply it to new things. But it is definitely a waste of time to circle the drain of time without regard for forward movement.

You did some things in your 20's. They made you who you are today. But you do that every single day. It's additive. You can't excise any of it and look at it separate from your entire timeline. You haven't lost anything, you've actually gained a whole lot. You just haven't been able to integrate it into the larger picture of your life. That comes with time, and experience.

*This pep talk brought to you by my therapist, in her voice, who helped me through my own existential crisis at 29.
posted by juniperesque at 7:25 AM on February 25, 2014 [7 favorites]

Did you have fun while in school? You loved your subject of choice, yes? Did you make some friends in the process? Then you did well, and it sounds like you've learned something from your experience, both for professional work, and about what you personally value.

I know a fellow who is currently going through med school, and it hasn't been loads of fun. In addition, some of it has made him question his devotion to becoming a doctor (it took him a few extra years to get to where he is now, compared to some of his class-mates), and he's had to focus most of his energies on school, putting aside some relationships. If you went to med school, you might be just as burnt out on your last decade, wondering why you didn't do something that was really fun throughout the whole process.

For a counterpoint, in my second year of my undergrad Landscape Architecture program, the class make-up shifted dramatically from all kids right out of high school, to half of those folks and half returning students, including a former language professor and mother of two who wanted to change her career drastically after 10-15 years, and she was amazing. She dove into everything she did.

As for relationships, yes, it's great to build them all the time, but you're in your late 20s, not your late 70s. Both in relationships and in personal life, you're always learning about who you are. Don't worry, you're not supposed to reach enlightenment by your 30s.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:08 AM on February 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

On the other side of the coin, if you'd gone to medical school and were about to enter your residency, you could just as well be on the other side, saying, "I am about to be stuck for life to a career I hate with insurmountable student loans. If only I'd followed my heart and pursued that Ph.D. in ______!" Did you read that somewhat recent post by the woman who had just graduated with law school with about 200k debt, decided she hated law and was bemoaning the fact that she had to do that for the rest of her career? It's sort of a matter of perspective. A Ph.D. generally translates to a salaried job somewhere or another (not necessarily a tenure tracked academic thing) if that's really what you're after at this point.
posted by mermily at 8:15 AM on February 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

As someone who is 31 and just finishing a PhD I can identify with a lot of what you wrote. I was definitely feeling this way about a year ago (very similar timing to you, complete with the anti-do-what-you-love realization -- you might enjoy this talk, if you haven't seen it already) when I was realizing academia was not going to make me happy, yet I was so wrapped up in that world that it felt like my only option was to throw away the last 6 years, which was a very depressing thought.

I look back on this point as a major crisis that I had to go through. This is also when I started therapy, which has totally transformed my life. I had to face a lot of hard truths about myself, including a lot of fear and anxiety about the 'real world', and I had to find a way to stop obsessively worrying about my entire life spilling out in front of me and manage to be okay with some uncertainty. This wasn't easy, so I recommend you seek support for yourself as you may have some similar work to do.

Part of the process for me, while in therapy, was examining why a future in academia didn't feel alive to me, and figuring out what did. Like you I enjoyed my work but felt crushed by the demands of the lifestyle. But I realized that there were good careers out there for me that I could do, which would stretch my brain and challenge me. As part of this process, I approached a bunch of people to ask them about their jobs (including academics) and I could hear the response inside as to whether this was what I saw for myself or not. I picked up a side project to develop a needed skill and made that my goal. Again this is a highly personal process, but you can use the next year to think about your future and career paths you might enjoy, try to pick up some experience to make you marketable, try to find networks and people. Use the time to your advantage.

Finally I did struggle with regret and a feeling that I made the wrong choice and that I sacrificed a lot for no reason. I can tell you first of all that I don't feel that way anymore, largely because I have found a career path that stretches my research muscles, but also as a matter of framing and mindset. I had reasons for making the decision that I did to enter grad school, instead of going out to find work. I was struggling with anxiety and fear and in part these were why I was not fully true to myself at the time, but despite that, I did make the best decision I could make, and I choose to honour my past self and thank him for trying his best and working hard all those years. I am proud of the achievements over these last years. No need to feel ashamed over these choices; we did the best we could at the time.

More importantly, while it's perhaps true that there is an alternative path where things might be better for me, it was impossible for me to know that at the time. Part of the journey is learning to know yourself and what you value out of life. This is what the PhD teaches you, and it takes 6 years to learn, usually via a crisis near the end. The period of introspection and questioning you are going through now is challenging but incredibly important towards defining who you are. In time, it could come to represent the moment when everything began to change and you began to live in harmony with yourself and define your own vision for what success and happiness means, rather than living by what was programmed into you. You are beginning to connect with a voice inside saying "hey, I know there are all these reasons why this is supposedly the right path and such, but this is not what I actually want" -- you have heard that voice, and you are listening to it. It is so, so, so hard to make space for that voice and to actually listen to it, and if you find yourself tempted to compare yourself to your peers, try thinking about where they might be in their own journeys, how in tune with their own inner desires they might be, whether they might have regrets or questions about the path they're on as well. Not everyone is given the space for this inner voice to emerge and not everyone hears it. It is okay to mourn the path that you didn't take, but look ahead, and recognize the not small achievement you've made in taking an active step towards defining your life on your own terms. There is a long road ahead of you, and if you can walk it with yourself while being present and alive, then it is a good road.
posted by PercussivePaul at 8:16 AM on February 25, 2014 [6 favorites]

"The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today."

If it helps, I wish I had come to the same realization in my late 20s that you are having now (my life turned out great, so don't shed any tears for me).

Your humanities PhD career was always going to be a gamble. You are in a good position simply because you are using a backup plan.

Everyone, even successful people who never went "off track", would have made different decisions in their early 20s.
posted by bright colored sock puppet at 8:19 AM on February 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

Did/Are you getting your PhD at a prestigious school? It's not uncommon for even a PhD in the humanities (from a prestigious institution) to swing an internship and then job at a reputable consulting/mgmt consulting firm. You would have to network and really spin a new set of skills (business, networking, 'hustling,' etc). But I frequently see 'PhD in Classics from Yale' on the short bios of consultants at top non-quant firms.

PS: Still possible from a non prestigious PhD, you just might have to start at a mid-market firm and/or a little lower on the totem pole. Still a great goal. What I would do if I were you for sure.
posted by jjmoney at 8:50 AM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Under the "having a sense of humor" heading: people (especially outside academia) are fascinated by people with PhDs! Now no matter what else you do, the people around you will be going, "Did you know that ClaireBear has a PhD in Byzantine mosaics?" (Insert discipline of your choice.) Automatic aura of mystery forevermore.
posted by missrachael at 8:57 AM on February 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am now realizing that the measure of a good job isn't something that totally self-actualizes you and makes you feel deeply ecstatic about your work all the time; rather, a good job is something that you quite enjoy doing that pays the bills and supports the kind of lifestyle you want (having a family, etc.).

Congratulate yourself in figuring this out a good decade before most people seem to. Seriously. Pour yourself some bubbly!

You didn't "waste" that time, and it isn't "lost" - you did stuff. You accomplished things. You tackled a long, complicated project with a lot of variables and moving parts, a project that many people never attempt and that many other people begin but don't complete, and you're nearly done. That ain't nothing and don't act like it is. For one thing, you will piss off a lot of people who never tried but wanted to, or who tried but dropped out, and you don't want to do that, do you?

It's okay to wish you'd taken a different path. It's okay to look back and think, I should've maybe done X instead of Y. It's okay to regret. But don't denigrate the actual work you have done and the paths you've explored. In a different universe, alt-you is wondering if they should have gone to grad school and regretting that they didn't.
posted by rtha at 9:24 AM on February 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

It sounds to me like you got something incredibly valuable out of your 20s. A lot of people don't figure that out until they are 40, or until they are divorced and estranged from their adult children, or 60 and alone. If they aren't chasing fulfillment in the academic humanities, its something else, often money, or influence, or prestige, or vanity...

I usually advise people not to go right into grad school, and am very encouraging when they start thinking of leaving with a masters, but in your case, my advice is, given that you are this far in, you really push to get your PhD.

At the same time though, you can start exploring your options for post PhD life. I've been talking to a woman who received her PhD in english a year ago and helping her consider her career options. A year before finishing her dissertation she decided academia wasn't for her, and ended up moving to a different state and taking job while still writing her dissertation.

Most of her fellow grad students told her she was making a huge mistake, that she'd never finish. They were wrong, she finished. In fact, it may have made it easier to finish, because she wasn't burdened with the fear it wouldn't be good enough to launch the next phase of her academic career. Moreover, she got to ease in to "the real world." And now, she has something on her resume that makes her stand out from the crowd in her new chosen field. It isn't necessarily recognized as a qualification (though I think it is), but it is a non-trivial bit of novelty that piques (some) employer's curiosity.
posted by Good Brain at 9:34 AM on February 25, 2014

Regret says more about where I currently am then where I came from.

Objectively speaking, I "wasted" my teens, my 20s and the early part of my 30s (see my post history for details on a substance abuse problem). I couldn't do High School, so I got a GED, I never finished college, and I started and lost a career job... but I don't regret any of it.

At 33, I was working at Panera Bread supplementing my income by delivering pizzas while living in a boarding house.

There are plenty of things that happened in my past that I don't want to go through ever again, but those experiences are now a fundamental part of who I am and where I am, which is happier than I've ever been. After much pain and suffering, I realized on the days that I'm happy where and who I am, I regret very little. On the days where I am thinking about the current poor state of my life (which is 9 out of 10 times delusional anyway), is when I experience regret.

So, to my experience, to rid myself of regret I must act. Change my current circumstances and mindset, improve my current mental/physical health, practice some acceptance, and keep my eyes set in today, and what I can do right now to make a positive change, and regret simply evaporates.

Life is hard, living is easy.
posted by Debaser626 at 9:57 AM on February 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

Well, I'm 29 and I also feel liek i squandered my 20s trying to build a life around one of these office jobs you seem to desire and i got a job, bought a house, and still my life feels a bit squandered because frankly, I don't have exactly what I want yet as far as family and relationships. I think it's some thing imposed by TV or something that by 30 you are ADULT and should be settled in your adult life surrounded by all your adult acquisitions or something. and the truth is it's just not the case. Life is a continuoum until you die so there is (we hope) still plenty of time to wind around in different directions. I like to think of the Billy Joel line "Slow down you crazy child, so ambitious for a juvenile.."
posted by WeekendJen at 10:59 AM on February 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

Okay, I'm 32, and all I can think now is how much better my 30s have been than my 20s. I look back on many aspects of how I spent my 20s and cringe, career-wise and relationship-wise. Some of it was unbelievably awful in ways that I should've been smart enough to handle better or avoid altogether, and I wonder what I could've been thinking - how didn't I know at the time that I was making bad choices and living a life that was much worse than it needed to be? Why didn't I get out sooner? I've dwelled on this a lot, which doesn't accomplish much aside from making me feel bad about myself.

Over the last couple years, though, my life has gotten so much better and continues to get better and change in ways I hadn't even thought were possible, really. I think of it as a slow recovery, as there are a few big things I've had to unwrap my head from in order to figure out what I really want outside of everything I'd gotten used to, and what's really feasible that I might be able to achieve coming from where I am now.

It's easy to look back and wish you'd made different choices, but we can only work with the information we have and deal with the present, and do what we can to live lives that don't fill us with regret, even if we're not happy with previous choices we've made. Realize though that this could mean just about anything. Try to stop comparing yourself to others and focus more on figuring out how you, a unique individual human living just as valid a life as any other, want to spend your time, and how to go about getting yourself to a place where you can do that.

There are cliches that apply here: youth is wasted on the young, hindsight is 20/20, etc. You're not alone.
posted by wondermouse at 11:36 AM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Everything good in your life from now on will be a direct, inevitable consequence of the things you have done up till now.

Your past is the engine that drives you into the future; joy and regret are what it uses for fuel.
posted by Sebmojo at 12:58 PM on February 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

Maslow is maybe a little hokey, but I do think he's right about this one thing: you only want what you don't have, and you will always not have/want something.

I think you're just discounting your education because your need for education is (being) fulfilled. As someone with no PhD in sight, I'm sitting here seething with jealousy. You want a family and cushy job because you don't have those things yet -- but once you have them, you'll want some other thing. Just accept that you're insatiable, because you're human.*

There's no use beating yourself up for reaching your longtime goal (the PhD) and casting around for a new one. There's also no use in beating yourself up for not somehow already having reached your new/next goal yet, because that's ridiculous. Of course you haven't reached it yet, that's the whole point of a goal.

I get feeling scared and regretful and being really hard on yourself -- completely utterly been (am) there. But it's just a mind game you're playing with yourself to make sure you keep working hard and keep moving forward. Try not to take it too seriously.

Also, in case it helps -- remember that *you're not a screw up*! If you're a screw up, god help us all, because then something like 99.1% of us should probably be considered screw ups right along with you.

*Recommended viewing in that vein: Re-read "Richard III" or re-watch the first season of Gossip Girl or research Napoleon a little, depending on your taste. For something a little more timely, maybe House of Cards?
posted by rue72 at 1:49 PM on February 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

For moving on, here's a TED talk on how our twenties decade is fitting into our lives these days; helpful with moving on into adulthood:
posted by mmiddle at 2:12 PM on February 25, 2014

If it helps, I spent my twenties with a practical degree and the best career trajectory I could wish for outside of college. I'm on track to retire at 55. But my biggest regret? I didn't spend more of my twenties travelling and taking those big, goofy moves you can do at that age.

Everyone has some kind of regret about their twenties. Everyone. Don't sweat it. And just make the most of your thirties. (that's what I'm doing! Going to Alaska and Europe this year!)
posted by ninjakins at 4:28 PM on February 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Your years of study have shaped you for the better in numerous ways you can not even see right now, let alone begin to appreciate. And, right now, you are surrounded by people who have or will have PhDs. When you finally break away from your graduate study, and if you choose to be something other than an academic, you won't believe the awe that people will have towards you because you have a PhD. Because they will see it for what it is: something incredibly difficult, rare, and unique. And eventually, you're going to see it that way yourself.

You don't have to worry about how you will "use" your PhD, or what all these years of study will "amount to" in the end. The purpose and the accounting for has already been taken care of. You are already changed for the better, more developed intellectually, emotionally, professionally and no doubt politically, socially and ethically -- because of what you've already done.

I am quite sure that someday very very soon, if you want to, you can make up for "lost time" and get those things you think other people already have that you are missing out on: a pretty decent job, a marriage, a certain frame of daily reference, a certain normal trajectory to follow along with everyone else. But after you get all that, you're going to look around and take stock. And I guarantee that when you do, that PhD of yours and all it represents is going to be one of your most secretly prized possessions, one of your greatest sources of pride, identity, and strength. One of your greatest tools. Because of that PhD in the humanities, you are always going to be something a bit different, and see all those "normal" things you may gather around you in a very unique way that is helpful to you, to all those you love, and to all those you work with.

You haven't lost anything. You've worked damn hard and picked up a precious knapsack full of amazing tricks and tools along the way. The rest of your path is going to be a blast because of it.

Congratulations to you!
posted by beanie at 8:38 PM on February 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you so much, all. I have read through these answers several times, and have found them incredibly helpful in trying to reframe things for myself. All the various perspectives were great, and I would mark every one as "best answer", really! Thank you so much.
posted by ClaireBear at 4:26 AM on February 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

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