I'm a reasonably smart guy stuck in a bad job. How do I do more with myself?
January 2, 2007 8:58 AM   Subscribe

Here-We-Go-Again-Filter: What'd you do with your life? How'd you get there? Plenty more inside.

Ask Mefi!,

I realize we must do this once a week and, well, I seem to do it every 6 months, but: What are you supposed to do with your life? What did YOU do with your life and how'd you do it?

Here's some background: I graduated college last May with a BA in English and Philosophy. I freaked out right after graduation and asked MeFi what to do with my life. I got a ton of great suggestions (Travel, travel and, uh, travel) but with less than fifty dollars to my name at the time, my options were pretty scarce. So, I sold a lot of things, borrowed a lot of money from patient and loving people and I moved to Brooklyn with 2 friends. If I had to sum up the last 6/7 months of my life, I'd say: "Unhappy, but not sad".

I've had some really great times in the last few months. I've gotten to see all of my favorite bands, I've eaten loads of wonderful food, I've wandered through the great museums, yadda yadda, blah blah. I also suffered a really brutal heartbreak and the deepest depression of my life. I was lonely, too. I was doing all of these wonderful things but, for the most part, doing them alone. There's a real value to running solo and I didn't mind, but I'm a very social person.

My job, well. I file things, I take out the dumpster on Tuesday, I answer the phones, I stuff envelopes, you get the idea. It pays pretty well: I make my rent and my bills easy and I have more than enough to live on. There's almost zero accountability, so as far as jobs go, well. If I'm going to hate one, this is the one to hate.

Early on, I had tried to find a new job, but found myself turned down everywhere I looked. To compensate, I found a few volunteer gigs that were really wonderful, gave me some sense of purpose and, generally, I calmed down for a few months. Fast forward to now: I met a great new girl, circumstances arose and even though we've known each other for a preciously short amount of time (About a month, romantically.) she's living with me for the time being. Having her around and in my life has tremendously re-awoken my desire to make something of myself. I'm a smart guy, I'm reasonably talented and while my GPA doesn't reflect it, I adore being in school and learning.

But the question remains: What do I do next? It just feels terribly open-ended, to the point where I can't even imagine a course of action. The end result is a lot of anxiety, a personal shutdown and a desire to just miserably hibernate for another few months. I want to help people; That's what feels best. I've applied to a few Grad Schools for MLIS programs (Public Librarianship is extremely appealing), but I can't help but wonder if that's just a stop-gap measure. I have a half-completed application for the Peace Corps., but I'm afraid I might not be competitive enough.

In short: I'm dying in this 9-5, but a little spooked about everything else. I want to make the most of me, but I'm not sure how to go about it. I was hoping to catch some advice from people who had been in similar circumstances and maybe just some suggestions on where to go, what to do. I know that's vague and that I may have answered my own question, but I've always found it helpful to get a 2nd, 3rd and 900th opinon on the subject.
posted by GilloD to Work & Money (22 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: What are you supposed to do with your life?

Live it, to the best of your ability. Nobody can define "best of your ability" but you.

I've gotten to see all of my favorite bands, I've eaten loads of wonderful food, I've wandered through the great museums, yadda yadda, blah blah. I also suffered a really brutal heartbreak and the deepest depression of my life. I was lonely, too.

In other words, you were alive. That's a good start.

My job, well. I file things, I take out the dumpster on Tuesday, I answer the phones, I stuff envelopes, you get the idea. It pays pretty well: I make my rent and my bills easy and I have more than enough to live on. There's almost zero accountability,

While you're figuring out the Answer To The Great Question Of Who You Are, keep this job. It's not interesting, it's not challenging, but it pays well, so it gives you a good base from which to operate. You don't have to stress about your job while you're stressing about everything else.

I want to make the most of me, but I'm not sure how to go about it.

Sorry to break this to you, but neither is anybody else. That's the great thing about life - there's no one way to live it. Do what makes you happy, treat people like you'd like to be treated, and all else follows. There's no template to follow here.

Lastly, I would say this: the journey's a lot of fun, don't let it pass you by while you're frantically looking for a destination.

Good luck!
posted by pdb at 9:04 AM on January 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I guess I should note that while I absolutely see academia as a reasonable career track later on, there's a bit of "I don't want to waste my youth" in all of this. It feels foolish to jump right in so early on. "Head start" and all that, sure, but I'd rather take my chances while I'm still young.
posted by GilloD at 9:06 AM on January 2, 2007

I was in a similar situation when I was in my mid-20's. I had an adequate 9-5 job and a college degree. I was sick to my stomach that with the dread that this was all there was to life.

At my father's retirement party one summer he rattled off several times with something that amounted to saying "I wish I'd done this or that with my life"... And I literally said to myself that I'm not going to say that when I'm his age.

So I went home and tried to answer some not so simple questions - what do I want to do with my life? What makes me happy? What do I enjoy? At 26 years old all I knew was that I liked going to the beach and I thought planes were really cool.

Now - this may or may not be the course for you... but read on. I decided to chuck it all and join the Navy. My family thought I was nuts, my few friends thought I was nuts. I considered that I might be nuts. But it was the best decision I ever made.

Putting aside from that whole 'your a ruthless killer' argument that some people will undoubtedly rant about - I learned about myself. I started to believe in myself. I'm almost sheepish in saying that the Navy made me an adult. I'm not saying that you're not, I'm just conveying what worked in life for me. The point is finding your passion... i.e. this is not a recruiment post for the military.

The Navy ignited my love of aviation where they happily trained me as an air traffic controller and then an aviator - which when I finally left the Navy I was able to easily parlay into a career as an aviation consultant. If you had told me 11 years ago that I'd be where I am now - and that I'd serve in the Navy I would have laughed in your face, as I'm pretty close to as liberal as they come.

I was dying in my 9-5 job too - and in that regard the Navy saved my life.

So that's my summation - but that's not what I think you should do. I think you should just go with the flow, and follow your passions. Life isn't about the paycheck, it's about living - and doing what you WANT to do. For me, the military helped 'kickstart' my passions. You need to find something that's going to help kickstart yours.
posted by matty at 9:18 AM on January 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Life is open-ended but that doesn't have to be terrible, though it can certainly be scary. I have to tell you that as someone who teaches college students you've got a whole lot of company in not knowing what to do with yourself for the rest of your life. The more sensible ones make sure they don't just get into the first thing that comes along and stick there forever. They also make sure they can pay the bills.
I can add from personal experience that I was in the no idea what to do with myself group too and saddled with the lowest possible class of degree. I also ended up in a bit of a dead-end job but found somewhere that would allow me to pay for a Masters degree and used that to get somewhere I wanted to be when I finally figured out where that was. My advice

1: Keep working, a shit job is better than doing fuck all (though no job is not necessarily the same as fuck all, if you're doing something else worthwhile.)
2: Keep looking for something else to do, this is easy to quit on if you're not careful.
3: Looks for further educational opportunities, they'll be out there and if you're into the stuff its a lot easier to stay the course.

1*: Try to remember you're not the sum total of the job you're doing and/or the person you're with/not with. Work on your self worth and it might stop things going tits up if your current relationship doesn't pan out.
posted by biffa at 9:32 AM on January 2, 2007

Why'd you study English and Philosophy? When you chose those, what did you see yourself doing?
posted by k8t at 9:56 AM on January 2, 2007

Seek a paid internship in the field you see yourself in. Once you get it, quit your job and take it. Those are the easiest ways to get yourself known in the career you want, and when an full-time opening comes up, they'll remember you.

If your job is as bad as you say, you should be able to find one equally as fulfilling should your internship run out with no full-time position yet offered.
posted by GaelFC at 10:00 AM on January 2, 2007

Response by poster: K8t: I had no idea what I saw myself doing, just that I enjoyed those things. It's recently dawned on me that Academia might be the way to go because I enjoy learning, even when it's "impractical".

Gael: I had a problem finding a paying internship. Obviously, with a rent and bills and a 9-5, doing it for free is out of the question. I was briefly involved with a company I won't name who pretty much ran away with my work and stopped returning my phone calls/e-mails. That's a long story. But it's a great suggestion, just a bit of a rarity.
posted by GilloD at 10:12 AM on January 2, 2007

I could've written this post. Right down to the Peace Corps application and possibly pursuing an MLIS. My advice would be to not put undue pressure on yourself to find personal fulfillment RIGHT NOW. It takes time, it's something cultivated. Just keep asking yourself what you want to do. And then take the steps that you think will lead you there, but don't expect to be there soon. Taking active, tangible steps towards an attainable goal will give you a purpose; which is what you're looking for right now. You have a level head, just trust yourself to make the right decision. I honestly feel like the first four years out of college are about getting your undergrad in life. At 23, you're a Freshman.
posted by Dalton at 11:06 AM on January 2, 2007

I think the advice about not finding yourself later in life saying "I wish I had..." is really good. Absent the new girlfriend, I would strongly suggest filling out the rest of that Peace Corps application, and also fill out applications for similar service opportunities. Now that she is around, it's a bit trickier --- does she also have a desire to go out and see the world? Would the two of you consider a long distance relationship for a while? (The PC doesn't place unmarried couples together, but that doesn't mean you can't both apply --- you get plenty of time off, and you'd have a great excuse to visit somewhere neat. Or, you wouldn't be the first couple to get married in order to join the peace corps together; there are worse ways to start married life. Or, she stays in Brooklyn, you write lots of emails, and she comes and visits you in Mongolia every eight months. All of these can work, if you want it to. My point is just that you don't have a binary choice between Peace Corps (or Marine Corps) and girlfriend.)

I think that the advice you got six months ago (travel! travel! travel!) still applies. I think that seeing more of the world would really help you see what options you want to pursue --- even to see what options there are to pursue. You can do it alone, looking forward to coming back to your girlfriend, or with her --- working as a partnership, it wouldn't take all that long to save enough money to be able to spend six months hanging out in Goa or Honduras or wherever, living by the beach, maybe picking up some sort of work.

But if you think it is hard to balance the complications of work and family and finances and so on now, imagine in twenty years, maybe with a kid or three, a mortgage, some seniority at work... Take the chance now to try new things, experiment, rather than waiting for it all to become magically clear.
posted by Forktine at 11:27 AM on January 2, 2007

I quit my job, moved to Europe and became a musician full-time. Find what you love and pursue it, it's well worth the trouble.
posted by atomly at 11:34 AM on January 2, 2007

Response by poster: Forktine: She's actually got a PC app in and is just waiting for Nomination, she has an interview on Friday and excellent credentials. That said, as crazy as I am for her, I've learned not to let a girl hold you back. Besides, she's off to school in the Fall and then the PC the year after, so. I feel like we could go the distance, but I'm not counting on it and certainly not factoring her into future decisions. I'd love to, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. The only thing plans are good for, usually, is breaking them.

My base plan for the moment has been to save up and then go see the world over the summer, maybe into the fall. But even that feels a bit like running away from the bigger question. But now I'm being a bit contradictory, no? On one hand I'm saying: "Plans are for losers!" and on the other, "But I need to have some idea of what happens next".

That, I think, is the essential conflict of my life right now. Trying to be a responsible, independent person and yet not giving up my self to do it.

That fact that everytime I ask this question the answer comes back the same seems to tell me that I know what I need to do, just not the fine details of the thing: One day at a time, but with some idea of what next week looks like, mayhaps.
posted by GilloD at 11:46 AM on January 2, 2007

You should try googling 'quarter life crisis'. It's what you have. It's very common.

Good luck!

(My quarter life crisis sucked the big one. I wasn't used to the relative solitude of working life after the hyper-social university years, i was in a job and an apartment I hated, with a roommate that hated me. I got a different roommate and went back to school so I could get a different job. I stabbed in the dark and chose marketing - i had taken one marketing course as an elective during my undergrad and did well; it worked out well, The End. I would suggest you do something similar, in that you should do something proactive that changes your life, without worrying 'too much' about the permancy of the decision. Very little is permanent, so if the decision was good, Hallelujah!, and if the decision was mediocre, meh, you can do something else. Its the 'do something, anything' part that's important.)
posted by Kololo at 12:26 PM on January 2, 2007

Gah, sorry for the repeat. If one is going to get deleted, please delete the first one, it's missing the link.
posted by Kololo at 12:28 PM on January 2, 2007

I was fortunate to figure out what I really wanted to do for a living at a very young age. But I'll tell you one thing... because I had much-older siblings who made poor life choices, I spent much of my youth worrying about how to avoid doing regretful things that might irreparably ruin my life. I had a lot of amazing experiences, but when a romantic relationship got too intense or I had a chance to move to Europe & try big life changes like that, I often hesitated & pushed those opportunities away in panic. So ironically, throughout my late 30s my biggest regret has been that I spent too much of my 20s worried about having regrets and doing "the right thing" all the time. Truth is? There IS no right thing. So now I'm always struggling to make up for it and live positively in the moment, sad that I didn't always do that before when the stakes were lower. Life is awfully short.

While you're young, live your life to the fullest and learn from your mistakes, silly though they may be. Take risks. Appreciate every moment with your friends while they're by your side (once they start getting married & having kids, you'll miss them). Passionately believe in the your deepest dreams & work towards them, no matter how impossible or silly they may seem to other people. You might just make them reality. Now is the time. Go for it. You won't regret the things you tried to accomplish, you'll regret the things you didn't.

Go team go. Rah rah.
posted by miss lynnster at 12:41 PM on January 2, 2007

One technique that might help you find a direction is doing something that relaxes you (like have a glass of wine or go for a massage or something) anything that makes you feel comfortable and shuts the brain down a little bit. Then walk through an average day in a perfect world for you. Where are you? What is your routine like? What kind of people are in your life? You don't have to focus on the specifics unless they present themselves (I did this recently with a friend who imagined waking up in a bed with crisp sheets with an open bay window, who also wasn't sure what she'd be doing as a job but imagined setting her own schedule and working free lance--which was a surprise to her because she had never realized that was what she wanted).

If you turn off the "how do I get there" part and really focus on the things that would make you happy and bring you pleasure, you may discover a longing for a lifestyle that you're not in touch with. After that, you can brainstorm about the things you love to do and the people and things you like to have around you and fit them together. Most importantly, remember that you can have what you want if you can see it for yourself and remember to be grateful for what you have--those things really help bring joy into your life right now while you're working towards what you really want. There's nothing like joy and passion to get things moving in the right direction.
posted by Kimberly at 12:49 PM on January 2, 2007

There's no way to plan out your life. What happens is that an opportunity arises, and you take advantage of it. Another opportunity arises, and you take advantage of that. Fifty or a hundred opportunities later, you look back and see that you have in fact lived a life.

If you are not happy where you are, look at the opportunities available to you and pick the one that will make you happiest. If you don't know which one that is, choose the hardest one; it's likely to be the most fulfilling.
posted by kindall at 1:12 PM on January 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh, one other piece of advice (since my career is the one thing I did mostly right)... I was a waitress at night & legal secretary during the day while I was in art school. I was making $13 an hour for typing, but when I was offered a job as a production artist at a computer magazine for $6.50 an hour, I took it. It was a gigantic pay cut & people (including me) thought I was crazy. Thing is, that job gave me training and experience that was the foundation for my entire design career (16 years now). I became more and more hireable from that moment on & never looked back. I ate ramen for a while, but if I didn't take that first risk I might still be typing and waitressing.

Even if it's a little difficult, you have to jump onto the train at some point in order to get to a destination, don't just watch it speed past the station. Figuring out which train to take is the biggest trick...
posted by miss lynnster at 1:49 PM on January 2, 2007

volunteer, pretend you're a tourist in your hometown (or state/province), travel, go to club/association meetings or even join a few, subscribe to magazines (or read them in the library), go to the park and play with the kids (or take some board games and find out who wants to play), try some hobbies, join new listserves, make your own research project, take a community college course in another subject, try a new sport, write a book/journal/article ....etc.

OK, most of these are probably dorky unless they're right for you. But the point is that most people don't know what to do with their life, it's what you do in the meantime that counts. When you've done all of those things, then maybe you'll know what you like more and can redistribute your time/energy/money more effectively. Enjoy the ride!
posted by kch at 2:01 PM on January 2, 2007

Public Librarianship is extremely appealing

There's an idea. There are a lot of different kinds of libraries, too: high school libraries, prison libraries, university libraries, etc.

I'd be more wary about the possibility that "Academia might be the way to go." It might be, but it could be tough to get into a good grad program, there will be a lot of work once you get there, and an academic career wouldn't just be about learning but also teaching, writing, and (lots of) grading--sometimes grading stuff that students didn't work too hard on writing. So keep that in mind. Plus, there's a glut of English/philosophy PhD's now, such that many PhD's fail to find jobs despite years of searching (and years spent in coursework and writing a diss.) It's very competitive.

So I'd tend to warn you off that unless you're extremely gung-ho on the project. Perhaps you should spend some time reading more about things you can do with a library degree or other kinds of certifications that you've become interested in (there are a lot of them; for example I hadn't heard of getting a Master's Degree in Public Administration until today). As you browse possibilities, perhaps something(s) will begin to stand out more sharply in your imagination.

Best of luck!
posted by washburn at 2:33 PM on January 2, 2007

I'd like to second the caution against academia as a default career choice. It's not about learning so much as about producing knowledge, and you have to be absolutely and stubbornly committed to that if you're going to be an academic. It's not an easy career choice by any means; think long and hard before you choose that road and make sure you know what you're getting into (talk to grad students in your choice of field, know about the job market and prospects, and most importantly, know, yourself, what you want to achieve by being an academic.)
posted by agent99 at 2:51 PM on January 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Grad school's certainly different than the ol' 9 to 5. A rather solitary pursuit actually.... That being said, the people are sometimes terrific and often interesting. The best part about grad school is that -- if you're grades are good and the school is able -- you can actually earn money doing your degree (i.e. get funded). Masters degrees are less well funded than PhDs, of course. And don't forget external funding bodies. If you're looking for a less expensive grad school experience why not apply to a school in Canada? That could equal: travel + learning - 9 to 5 + a grad degree + some money + helping people as a TA or tutorial instructor (if you're into that / your school provides such things...). Also, MA degrees are often very short (1 year, maybe 2). In and out. A nice getaway from the everyday.
posted by rumbles at 5:04 PM on January 2, 2007

Start by dumping your television.

Don't join the Peace Corps... you don't want to jeopardize a good relationship. Same comment about going to Canada, etc.

I'm in favour of education -- in theory. All my schooling was in Canada, where it was cheap, uncrowded, and (by comparison with all the poor twitchy students here) relaxed (because, heck, you could take an extra year if you liked without getting hugely into debt). Getting an education in America is scary.

And really, no one else can teach you anything -- the piece of paper is very useful but you have to learn yourself.

You've really given us no idea what you *like*. What is it you dream of being? What do you really *want* to do?

What I told my friend many years ago who asked me the same question is to make a list of the things that you think you're really interested in and throw yourself into each one in turn for a month or three until one of them clicks. (It worked for him, he's still working in soil chemistry, helping the Third World -- certainly my best success story in advice!)

Then keep kicking on whatever it is -- if you find you need schooling, then you can do it in the surety that you are getting something out of your time -- and money.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 5:22 PM on January 2, 2007

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