What would you do in my situation (regarding career and life decisions)?
September 8, 2016 10:01 PM   Subscribe

It seems for years I have been unhappy because I have a lot of drive to do something with my life, but for the love of God I just can't settle into a direction. I am currently in university taking a pre-masters to go into urban planning but I just feel like I don't really know what I'm doing or if I will like it. I am curious if others have been in a similiar situation before and if so how did they find their way? Also if you could read my extended explanation and tell me what you would do in my situation or offer any advice I would love to hear it.

So for the past probably 7 years I have struggled with anxiety and depression. I'm 24 now. My first year of uni was one spent on meds which turned out horribly for me. I managed to get a b.a in film but wasn’t passionate about it. It took me a year after coming off meds to even feel like a functioning human being. After I got my B.A in film I worked in the industry for a bit but didn't enjoy it and found myself wanting to do something more researchy, something that could make a difference as well.
I wanted to go back for environmental studies so I started taking some classes, but I felt this anxiety in school. Around this time I started getting hallucinations in the night while I was sleeping, just really bad night terrory type dreams which had to do with my stress. Anyways I took half a year off school to try and figure things out further. I read books on the subject, went to a career counsellor and got some clarification on myself and some career ideas. But the problem is I have so many ideas.

I've felt a gravitation towards law because I love the intellectual stimulation, I like the recognition you get, I do like picking apart arguments and logic, and I like helping people. I tried the LSAT online the other day and did decently considering I didn't study (about 65% off questions right). However, I wouldn't be able to apply til next year and then it's another year til I get in and then three more years. All this for something that could end up sucking my soul out and I could hate.

Then there's some sort of environmental studies job I could get. I love animals, so I think working as someone who helps endangered species could be really neat.Or to work for some sort of organization that helps businesses be more sustainable. Or some type of field job. But again it's another degree and possibly a masters.

I chose urban planning because I was thinking about sustainability and issues like that so much, and how we live in N.A and how everything is set up, and I just believe we could do so much better with more creativity. I often think about future utopias and how other societies do things differently. I sometimes feel this drive to study economics and sociology and biology and history and tie it all together in this epic study of how to live in a new world. It's very ambitious and abstract and I don't even know how I'd go about it. Also in regards to city planning, my career counsellor thought it was a great career and seemed to think it fit everything I was looking for in a career. But I am worried that the actual job will not give me the creativity to really explore my ideas. And again I just don't know if I will like it. I am enrolled in some premasters classes and I don't feel confident about why I'm there like it seems so many others are.
Then there was journalism which I had wanted to do , but my career counsellor said absolutely not. Said there is no jobs at all. I was considering taking a creative communications college course.
I have a lot of interests. I love philosophy, learning Spanish, found sociology interesting, liked biology as well, and always have loved history and art history. I love animals and being outside. And reading. I am a skilled musician, have a high IQ, very fast learner, highly creative, and like to read. Also athletic. The majority of my jobs in life so far have been customer service jobs which I don't particularly enjoy but it has been difficult to do anything else without a degree (though I could try harder to look for something). I currently teach piano as well which is a good source of income and I enjoy aspects of it but it's not my calling. I'm an INTP if that means anything as well (I've heard our type has a very hard time making decisions as we analyze things to shit.. go figure haha).
I just feel so stuck and uncertain. Like so many people around me have this idea or path at least right now of what they want to achieve and I just feel overwhelmed by ideas and possibilities but no concrete goal to fall back on. I feel like a shell of a person who can't connect with people the way I want to because of this lack of direction and identity. I am debating whether I should just cut out of school completely but I don't know how I'd excel without another degree and I feel like I have more to offer than being in a minimum wage job I don't love.

If you've gotten this far, thank you so much and I appreciate any insight.
posted by oracleia to Work & Money (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I should clarify also that I think almost the majority of my anxiety has to do with the school issue.. there is pressure to decide something soon because I want to get school over with if that's what I need for my career.
posted by oracleia at 10:03 PM on September 8, 2016

Unless you have an incredible amount of family money, do not pay for this urban planning MA or law school or any other graduate degree.
These things are super expensive and with few exceptions do not increase your hireability or income earning potential.

Get a regular job and work. If it becomes apparent that you can get a Masters degree paid for by your employer, go for it.

But the answer to your uncertainty about what to do is not in going back to school.
posted by k8t at 10:27 PM on September 8, 2016 [11 favorites]

Came here to say exactly what k8t said. You figure out what you want to do by getting a job that pays the bills and where you don't mind going in each day (good coworkers and a good boss help with this). You do that for a while and then you move to something that uses the skills you gained but is maybe a little more enjoyable. You can make a difference in the world in your non-job time. Don't get it all tangled up with what you need to do go support yourself and keep food on the table. The jobs I've been happiest at had the absolute least to do with my passions. Any time I tried to mix the two it led to miserable jobs where I put up with untenable work situations because I cared about the mission of the job too much, and that led to burnout. You've got a degree already. There's no reason you have to get a minimum wage retail job. Get an office job in something that doesn't sound like it will be actively depressing and do it for a couple of years and then decide what next.
posted by MsMolly at 11:22 PM on September 8, 2016 [5 favorites]

You have enough time for 3 or 5 careers ahead of you. Don't trap yourself in analysis. Go to work and get started. The first job won't be ideal, AND it wouldn't be ideal no matter how many degrees you earned.

Enjoying studying something is not the same as enjoying doing it day-in and day-out. You need to go and work and try things. If you can't get a great job, make one up as a volunteer. Keep doing (NOT studying) new things until you find a path.

School - and I know this sounds crazy coming from someone with a doctorate - can be a huge obstacle to moving your life forward. Invest your time and money in school AFTER you find the path.

Go to work. Get started on career one.
posted by 26.2 at 11:38 PM on September 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Many--not all, but many--people you see who appear to have plans for themselves actually do not. Lots of people, who seem no more or less happy than the median to me, are basically like you except that they have followed their vague ideas and inklings into some convenient job and followed that path of least resistance into other convenient jobs. (I am one of those people.)

That looks, from the outside, like planning. And it looks, if you spell it out this way, like some kind of waste. But as lived experience it feels about like anything else. Personally I found it very difficult to try to find myself when I was constantly trying to dictate the terms of the search; it's been much easier for me to figure out who I am on the inside when I don't spend so much time feigning a level of control over the outside that I personally do not have.
posted by Polycarp at 11:39 PM on September 8, 2016 [15 favorites]

I feel like a shell of a person who can't connect with people the way I want to because of this lack of direction and identity.

Ah, buddy, that's partly youth, partly your big curious brain. You can get over it.
We are not our careers.
Careers do not offer us anything we can't find in other places via other things. Careers are just 'tracks' to get those things. Maybe you are not the kind of person who is suited to following a 'track' (I wasn't). Maybe you like to take your own direction?

Have you travelled? Can you take some time out for a working holiday somewhere?

Do you meditate?
posted by Thella at 11:50 PM on September 8, 2016 [7 favorites]

Knowing what you're doing is not a rite of passage into functional adulthood. Some of the most functional humans I know fully admit they are just winging it. I think the ability to maneuver within the situations life presents to you and coming up with creative solutions is a much bigger asset to a well-lived life than having a solid, well-defined plan. Those tend to either derail or leave you deeply unfulfilled in middle age.

Having a purpose is an unfolding process, not a question that requires an answer.
posted by ananci at 11:58 PM on September 8, 2016 [7 favorites]

Nthing that we are not our careers, and that so many people who look like they have a plan, don't. Or are pretending to.

I was someone who thought I needed a track but couldn't decide – musician? teacher? translator? I thought teacher would be the best choice; I could keep playing music and translating on the side! A whole bunch of coincidences added up to make that impossible. I needed money, so I dove into translating as a freelancer. That worked well enough, I did some paid writing and photography as well, but after ten years I wanted a change. Coincidence stepped in again: my favorite client offered me a permanent job. Ten years later with them, I've been a technical writer, functional software tester, test manager, and now business analyst/PMO (Project Management Officer); I'll soon be managing a PMO team.

Here's the thing: if you had told me twenty years ago that someday I would be working as a business consultant, I'd have reeled off a list of reasons I thought that was a terrible idea. But it turns out, it's probably the best thing that could have happened. My job is complex, multilingual, and I get to mentor, manage, and train people. Twenty years ago, my languages, literature, and music education taught me all the faults and foibles of "business". And they're true! It's just that there's a whole other aspect to it as well. I was told everything about its shadow; now I know the sunny side as well. Plus, once you're inside and have responsibility, you get to add your own views to the mix. It's heartening to see that things do change for the better from time to time. If they don't, well, you can try to negotiate, or change jobs.

Meanwhile, I've seen people who had strong plans derail, as others here have mentioned. Big derails often enough. It can happen to anyone. It's good to have improvisation skills when it does.

For you right now, I would say find a job that's Good Enough. Just go in head-first; it sounds like you have everything you need to swim. Stick with it as long as is feasible – even if it's boring at first, so long as you can see it has growth eventually. It's like music in that sense. A whole lot of repetition and then one day, beauty. There is worse than a boring job with future perspectives. You'll notice the boring parts often end up being enriching once you have more experience. You'll start making connections, learning what you enjoy, can deal with, and just can't even. You'll be surprised; I certainly have been in my own working life. Your network and experience will eventually build to the point where you'll have options and better knowledge of what you want to choose, and for which reasons. For instance, I'm 40 now and it's only just this year that I finally feel like I can envisage my long-term future. A lot goes into that; more than we can imagine when we're young.

I really wish now that my liberal arts degree had taught us lit & music majors that business was not just soulless capitalist vampirism with which we would constantly struggle for our livelihoods, for instance. On the flip side, business is also realizing they need liberal arts skills. I'd have really liked to know that you can indeed use creativity, expression, and deep analytical skills in big companies without being a sellout. I mention it just in case you too have been in the arts and letters scene for long enough that you feel alienated from what are tagged as more mainstream careers. There is fulfillment there, and you can bring your soul to it without being crushed or brainwashed, contrary to what is so often said.

I do agree with your counselor that journalism is a risky prospect. Hopefully someday things will turn around, but for now and the near future, it's pretty dark.
posted by fraula at 1:54 AM on September 9, 2016 [6 favorites]

Unless you have an incredible amount of family money, do not pay for this urban planning MA or law school or any other graduate degree.
These things are super expensive and with few exceptions do not increase your hireability or income earning potential.

Professional masters degrees are all about the math -- the degree will cost you an amount, but you expect to be able to earn more than you do now, and that increase either justifies or doesn't justify the cost of the degree. Law school is failing that test for many people, because graduates tend to have high debt and often low salaries.

So don't go forward with the degree unless it passes that test, where the cost is justified by the opportunities. It's not just about what fields are hot (though that matters), it also depends on what school you go to, what financial aid you can get, and factors like that.

Honestly you sound like you aren't quite ready to make this kind of decision and you'd do better to travel, move to a new city, or just stay where you are and focus on finding things that interest and challenge you. The masters can come later.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:24 AM on September 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Like you I was never able to sit down and logic my way through what my career should be. Jobs related to my passions were often the worst experiences for me. However by just taking a job and working and then taking another job etc I fell into a line of work that I've enjoyed. Good luck!
posted by bunderful at 5:30 AM on September 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think you're getting this the wrong way round. You seem to be approaching this the following way:

1) think through everything, and I mean everything, that could possibly ever need thinking through - what do I want to do, what are my strengths, what do I want to achieve in life, what kind of job would make me happy day-to-day, how well could every possible career path on the planet match these;
2) come up with The Answer, in the form of a perfect job;
3) start perfect job, live happy life.

So right now you're stuck - you haven't yet found a possible job that seems to match up with everything you might ever want and solves every problem you could possibly imagine, so you feel like you haven't thought it through well enough. You think the people around you who seem to have a better sense of purpose must be further ahead of you and starting on Step 3, and you haven't even got past Step 1 yet and you're twenty-four and you still don't know what you want to do with your life and aaaaaaargh, etc.

But in fact, those people - most people - are going through a whole different process, one that looks more like this:

1) do some thinking about what kind of job you might like to try and could practically get;
2) come up with The Answer, in the form of a job that sounds good enough;
3) do job for a while;
4a) decide you like it; stay with career, work way up ladder, maybe by pursuing different branches within that career, maybe by moving around a bit;
4b) decide you don't like it; take your new increased knowledge of yourself and the job world, and GOTO 1;
4c) decide you like it, do it for a few years, then decide it's time for a change, and GOTO 1.
5) While doing job(s), continue living your life and building up yourself, your sense of direction, and your activities in your non-work life, because no job ever is going to be everything for you.

You don't need to have all the answers before you start. You can't have all the answers before you start - even if you research it absolutely to death, your knowledge is still limited. You find enough answers to get you started, and then you pick up the rest on the way.
posted by Catseye at 5:31 AM on September 9, 2016 [8 favorites]

I often think about future utopias and how other societies do things differently. I sometimes feel this drive to study economics and sociology and biology and history and tie it all together in this epic study of how to live in a new world. It's very ambitious and abstract and I don't even know how I'd go about it. Also in regards to city planning, my career counsellor thought it was a great career and seemed to think it fit everything I was looking for in a career. But I am worried that the actual job will not give me the creativity to really explore my ideas.

I'm friends with a bunch of urban planners and they tend not to get to do this kind of thinking at work. People tend to go into the field with big ideas, and then realize that their job is to evaluate and design or approve projects one by one. It can be tedious. And unless you end up being benevolent dictator of urban design for a major city or region, designing a utopian society won't be in the job description.

Honestly, given that I have a similar brain to yours (I took Linguistics because it let me study everything from bio to psych to politics), I think these grand utopian urges are connected to your anxiety and depression. They are for me at least. I have a deep solving urge, as if there's a formula about the world that will make it all snap into place and then my brain will be able to rest. But the world is messier than that — more interesting than that! — and our frantic brains can learn to settle without that formula. I've benefitted greatly from therapy (years), meds that worked for me (twice), and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong). And now I'm getting more into meditation.

As for work, I've landed up writing for non-profits. Journalism is awfully tricky right now but communications skills can let you switch topics every time you switch jobs and jump head first into a new realm of knowledge. It helps me scratch that itch while making money instead of more student loans.

Unfortunately there is no perfect answer. Fortunately that means that there are MANY right paths you can choose. They'll all have their ups and downs, but you're going to be fine. Keep an eye on the debt, remember that you can learn a ton at work (more than school, I have found), and trust yourself. Let yourself try something. If you learn that you'd rather do something else, try that and don't be mean to yourself for having had the guts to try the first thing.
posted by sadmadglad at 5:33 AM on September 9, 2016 [9 favorites]

Hi! I have a graduate degree and I think more school is not necessarily a bad choice with one caveat- it is fully funded. If you apply for a master's program and are not offered full funding, I would decline every time.
posted by arnicae at 5:42 AM on September 9, 2016

Having a lot of ambition and wanting to do important things is great!

Let me let you in on something I wish I had know when I was younger: one thing you have to do is figure out where there are open problems to solve and where professional opportunities exist for you to pursue.

We all have lots of ideas, but we are constrained by our abilities/temperament and the state of the economy. You mention things like, "working as someone who helps endangered species" or working "for some sort of organization that helps businesses be more sustainable." Do you know what those companies are called? Who does them? Are jobs in that field growing or shrinking? How much do they pay? How do people get into that line of work? These are all questions you have to answer for whatever path you choose.
posted by deanc at 7:20 AM on September 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

I sometimes feel this drive to study economics and sociology and biology and history and tie it all together in this epic study of how to live in a new world. It's very ambitious and abstract and I don't even know how I'd go about it.

I had the same sort of impulse - wanted to grasp "fundamentals", to establish a coherent and more-or-less comprehensive ground from which to act. You can establish a knowledge base outside of formal study. It's true that a guided programme of study would be ideal, and it's very possible to veer off into idiosyncratic territory without that kind of guidance, and in the absence of a community of fellow learners, but you can also audit courses here and there, or pursue continuing education (if you have time), attend public lectures, follow syllabi you can find online for more direction in your reading, and engage in conversations (online and elsewhere) with people who know what they're talking about. If you're self-directed, I recommend doing that, instead of spending money and precious time on having your education rubber-stamped. (Unless you have academic ambitions.)

I think you should do a lot of informational interviews with people doing the work in which you're interested. Talk to some mid-career people, as well as more recent graduates. (There are questions here on all these fields, to start you off in your research.) Volunteer or job shadow if you can. That's the only way to get even an impression of what things are like (and you won't get the real deal, just a take on it, from a distance, but it's better than nothing).

But I am worried that the actual job will not give me the creativity to really explore my ideas.

It probably won't. (Not related to urban planning, but I've met a few architects who started off inspired by Gaudi or FL Wright who ended up designing shopping malls, commercial buildings, or cookie-cutter residential spaces, because that's where the money is.)

The people who have the resources to make grand visions happen are a) wealthy people and b) bold, innovative, sociable (usually charming) people who aren't necessarily wealthy themselves, but can persuade wealthy people to support their ideas - or technical specialists who are partnered with someone like that. (A not-bad idea might be to study how the kinds of innovations you admire have come to be.) If you're more of a "specialist" type, follow your skills and strengths (and the market) and find supporters.

You need to get some life experience, agree there. I don't think just any job is necessarily going to give you information that will help clarify things (e.g. retail, food service), other than on a personal level. Do that if you have to; also pursue jobs, volunteer opportunities, internships, and personal experiences (e.g. travel) that are likely to give you useful information and some kind of capital.

When you're closer to figuring things out, a professional masters will give you a leg up. (And you will have to pay/take loans out for any kind of professional [vs academic] training.) If the risk/benefit calculations make sense, I think it's worth doing, when you've got more clarity around your purpose.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:24 AM on September 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

If it makes you feel any better, I'm 34 and just.now feeling like I have a "path." It involved a lot of strife, anxiety, self-doubt, and wondering if I'd ever find my way through most of my 20's. It involved a lot of jobs, a lot of wandering, a lot of therapy, a lot of fits and starts...then getting married, having a kid and NOW finally wanting to pursue/finish my Masters. I don't know how people go from point A to point B in regards to.. well anything, but just keep trying things on until it starts to fit. I mean this about a career, but also just your life. I do sort of wish I'd finished my Masters a few years ago, like by the time I was 30, but I also had other experiences instead, and those all informed me.

Hang out with people that make you feel good, learn about things that turn you on, keep paying your bills. It'll start to click one day, I promise :-)
posted by Rocket26 at 9:11 AM on September 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

Thank you so much everyone for the responses! I really appreciate all your thoughts and read through every word. It seems like pretty much everyone thinks that going back to school is not the best plan. I think it would be great for me to work and get more experience, also just life experience in general but I suppose one fear that is holding me back is that I'll never be able to get any job that is vaguely interesting to me without some kind of degree. It seems like so many jobs these days, even entry level have some sort of specific degree requirement that they're looking for. But I suppose I can still try to go for jobs that I think sound interesting and see if they'll accept me. It's also given me another idea that I might pursue, and that is to take a year off and spend half travelling, half working on my own business of selling some food products my family makes that my dad used to sell, and selling some of my art. These are ideas I'll have to think over.
I think I just feel pressure because it seems like my life is flying by and I feel like a degree is the first step into a good career and I feel like I need to pick something to study. Another thing that I've been thinking about lately is psychology because that's always really interested me (can't believe I forgot to mention that). I think it would be rewarding to be a psychologist, but that'd be another 5 or 6 years of school which is a huge commitment. I'd like to think that maybe one day I can go back and do that if I have the stamina. But you guys have given me other ideas and really good perspectives, so thank you.
posted by oracleia at 10:53 PM on October 10, 2016

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