Metafilter tell me how to fix my life
January 29, 2007 9:35 PM   Subscribe

January is Quarter Life Crisis Month on Ask Metafilter.

I'm 24, graduated from University in May, have been at my current job for a little over two months now.

I have far too many interests and aspirations for one lifetime. I find it impossible to focus on one thing because my mind is always elsewhere. Last week I had a mini-epiphany at work and started looking up information on psychology grad school. This week I'm leaning more towards tech journalism. A little while before that I found myself looking wistfully at a field biology undergrad. On Wednesday I imagined myself a Web Developer at a small, hip, internet consultancy in the Netherlands. Academia really appeals to me. A recurring daydream is to become a doctor, which never had any appeal when my parents suggested it as a career, but which seems oddly alluring now.

In high school my highest marks were in the humanities and computer courses, and they were the courses I enjoyed the most, but I had 90s in all my subjects. I was in the gifted stream. I chose to go into a prestigious, competitive program in Engineering. My marks in Uni were spectacularly bad - I ended up with a 2.4 GPA. Still, between 3rd and 4th year I managed to wrangle myself a year-long internship in technical editing at a very large and well-known tech company. I botched the internship - spent most of my time surfing the web and panicking about getting my work done, instead of actually doing it. In my final year, I finished my year-long undergrad thesis in about 2 weeks and earned a grade of 60%. It was not a banner year.

After I graduated I managed to land two job offers, both in consulting. I took the better one, which I got partially through some parental connections. I'm making very good money for my experience and skillset, in a booming industry. My official role is business analyst. I find the work mind-numbing and not very fulfilling right now, but I've only been here for two months and I imagine most peoples' first jobs are a lot crappier. I'm learning a shit-ton about consulting and the industry. But I also feel dead at work.

I don't know what to do with my life. I felt this way in high school too but not with the same sense of urgency. Part of the problem is that I'm not a very motivated person and I find it almost impossible to do anything before the last minute. However, I long for success. Everyone in my family is successful, and everyone seems to be an accountant, engineer, lawyer, or academic. I would like that. I think. Or maybe I want to be a world traveling web designer? Or a psychologist? I feel like I should be putting all my effort into being the best damn business analyst I can be but I'm continually sidetracked by these other avenues. Is it because I'm a very lazy and day-dreamy person or is it because this profession is wrong for me?

I should be doing things. I should be exploring other avenues in my evenings, doing some writing, learning some languages (both computer and people), engaging in professional development, going to shows, reading literature, and learning about different academic areas. But I spend most of my hours randomly surfing the web and reading periodicals. Then I get anxious and angry with myself around 11:30 and make grandiose plans for the next day. Rinse, repeat.

I would say my core skills are writing and computers. But I've never really written anything beyond assignments for class and a few poems here and there. The computer job I'm most qualified for is 'field technician' - I can write code but I'm incredibly rusty and haven't been involved in any major projects. Academia is alluring but I have no idea what I'd study and my marks are absolute shit. My parents (who I live with) want me to settle down and focus on my job. I seem very well positioned to be doing fantastically in a few years. But do I want this life?

I'm continually foiled by my lack of drive to do anything and my chronic indecisiveness. If left to my own devices I would read newspapers, and magazines, dick around with my PC, surf the web, and read the odd novel to while away the hours. But I have so many aspirations.

I'll try to distill my rambling and unfocused post down to a few questions:
1) Any tips for how to keep myself focused on a single task? How can I kill the constant daydreams that plague me?
2) How can I choose one thing to do and do it, with the knowledge that what I'm doing might be the 'wrong' thing?

I'm not sure what I'm hoping to accomplish with this post. Sigh.
posted by lemur to Grab Bag (20 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, it sounds like you've got the mind, you just don't have the mindset. Perhaps some outside consultation, beyond the hivemind, is in order. Like, perhaps a therapist, or a life coach. As a personal anecdote: I did amazingly well in middle and high school, then started fucking up in college. I met up with a psych who had me tested for ADD, and turns out, I'm severely ADD. I had many of the same feelings...restlessness, ability to waste hours reading zines and metafilter and such, desire to be everything (but not doing anything). I'm not saying you have ADD. I'm just saying you might find a root to your "problems" with some outside clarification and perspective. Good luck to you, because you sound like a damn smart person with a lot of cool ideas.
posted by nursegracer at 9:50 PM on January 29, 2007

Question 1, god knows, I have the same problem. I try to learn to enjoy it.

Question 2 - what pressures have been put upon you that make you think anything you do could possibly be the "wrong" thing? Fame? Fortune? Respect?

At the end of the day, I think the only thing that makes a chosen career "wrong" is if you don't enjoy it. And you probably won't know if you enjoy something or not until you try it. But a few tips. You don't seem to be enjoying your current "Business analyst" field. This isn't surprising. You seem a creative, interested person, interested in acquiring knowledge. Tasks that don't give you any benefit from your work, except your salary, probably aren't right for you. Sometimes these are the jobs that can make a lot of money. But it doesn't make them "right", for someone like you who seems to be on a bit of a quest for knowledge.

Web developer? It's a bit more creative, I guess, if you feel a sense of satisfaction at a "site well done". But it's not giving you much achievement for yourself, once again.

I think academia is probably not a bad direction to take; this is a field where acquiring knowledge and exploring things and taking your own path can be part of the job. It's also a field where your successes aren't necessarily measured in monetary terms; you can be creative, and contribute something lasting and public.

I've never been that indecisive about my career path, but I worked out at a very early stage (high school) that what I am good at, and what I want to spend the next 40 years doing are two completely different things. I'm good with computers. But the thought of dealing with them, for computing's sake, scared the hell out of me. So I went into biology, I'm now looking at a PhD in ecology, and I've found my tech skills are a great asset on top of that.
posted by Jimbob at 9:54 PM on January 29, 2007

What kind of consulting are you doing?
posted by Kwantsar at 9:58 PM on January 29, 2007

A lot of your story sounds familiar in my own life... I'm the same age... as for any tips... hrm... perhaps try to put things in perspective. Acknowledge the limitations of living in this world with so many skills and really, when it comes down to it, there's a huge difference between daydreaming about all the possibilities and doing them. Do what you do and do it well-- it will open up so many doors when people recognize you're giving your best effort. I began making computer cables a few years ago and coincidently landed a job as a research assistant on a fascinating project.

And there's always the risk of doing the wrong thing, but flip it around... there's always the risk of doing the RIGHT thing. Sometimes, I just tell myself that if I do what I feel is best at the time... well, that is the right thing.

But as far as where I am now... I'm just throwing myself to the fates, into a job and perhaps grad school in a year or two and trusting that my skills and experience. For all the time you spend on the PC-- try making a list of things of things you'd like to learn or skills to acquire.
posted by perpetualstroll at 10:08 PM on January 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

I don't recommend journalism. In your favor, grades don't matter. But there's a glut of people going into the field, and you have to be passionate about journalism, talented, and willing to work for peanuts for years if you want to succeed.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:13 PM on January 29, 2007

I should be doing things. I should be exploring other avenues in my evenings.... But I spend most of my hours randomly surfing the web and reading periodicals. Then I get anxious and angry with myself around 11:30 and make grandiose plans for the next day. Rinse, repeat.

I'd suggest learning some basic time management skills. I'd recommend Alan Lakein's How To Get Control of Your Time and Your Life.
posted by russilwvong at 11:24 PM on January 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Me too. Just read my previous posting history if you doubt me.

As nearly as I can tell, step #1 is to work out what you don't want from a career/life calling. Once you've eliminated all the outcomes that you find unacceptable, try to figure out what steps you can carry out that'll bring you closer to the outcomes you find acceptable. In my case, that's meant saving money, polishing my design skills/building a portfolio, and applying to grad school. Then you need to play the waiting game -- submit resumes like mad to everywhere, and then hope that you don't end up in a situation where you take a job because its available only to find out you missed something better coming down the pipe.

If you can find ways to turn your internet browsing into self-improvement, do so. Right now, for example, I'm soaking up everything I can about standards-based web development and applying it to my freelance project (thankfully I have the luxury of an easily-reachable deadline and no crazy financial pressure to take on more work right now) although some of the philosophical conundrums are quite irksome.
posted by Alterscape at 12:40 AM on January 30, 2007

Being in your shoes too, I find myself going back... what did I want 1 year ago? 3 years ago? 5 years ago? 10? For me, there's a lot of consistency in those answers. I've always wanted a "respectable" job that is helpful to the world, involves using my proven skills, leaves room for or involves travel, and has a system where I can either work my way up or grow.

What are your own answers like?

FWIW, my company is filled we people like us. Mid-20 somethings, all right out of college, all trying to figure out the next step. So know what we do? we work about 18 hours a week teaching / playing games in Chinese elementary schools and "read newspapers, magazines, dick around with [our laptops], surf the web, and read the odd novel" as well as travel around SE Asia and learn Chinese in our spare time. It's comfortable and you have plenty of time to think things out and prepare grad school apps.

Not saying that our kind of job is necessarily right for you, but I don't think you need to put this kind of pressure on yourself. Find an interim job that gives you time to think and doesn't expect you to build a career with them.
posted by trinarian at 1:04 AM on January 30, 2007

"I feel dead at work" and "I should be doing things" sound like stuff I could have written about my own life if my English was better. This should be obvious by now, but you're not alone in this situation.

Now, how to fix it - I wish I knew, but here's what has helped in my case:

· Find a new job and start doing something you actually enjoy for a living. I've been in the same boat and ended up discovering that my apathy outside work was closely linked to spending 8 hours a day in the office being a zombie. Your mileage may vary, but if you can afford living on a lower income you should be able to try finding something that you like and that doesn't sap your energy so much.

· Choose one or two of your grand designs and actually work towards them. Break them into their constituent steps and just get going. You want to do tech journalism? Start a blog, attend writing workshops, apply for internships, whatever. You want to be a Dutch Web Developer? Start learning Dutch, brush up your coding skills, prepare a portfolio, send applications. Your goals all sound pretty reasonable and achievable, but you need to actually try.

· Travel. Look for an excuse to go somewhere far away for a few months and find yourself. Trinarian's suggestion of becoming an English teacher in China may be a bit extreme for you, but you can find a job as an au pair or English tutor pretty much anywhere. You seem to be interested in doing Europe. It really isn't difficult. Book a plane ticket and go for it.

· Take on a couple non-computer related hobbies, and avoid spending your whole day in front of the computer. You have already realised you're doing a ton of Internet surfing out of sheer inertia; whenever you notice you're procrastinating in front of the computer, force yourself to do something else. And minimise random surfing as much as you can. Yes, that includes Metafilter.

· And, finally, accept that you'll have to choose which dreams to pursue and won't be able to fulfill every last one of them. It's OK. But do make sure that you're chasing one or two of the ones that really count. If that's not happening, do something about it.

Honestly, you'll be alright. You can afford to make mistakes, so go make some. There will be time to act like a responsible adult later. Have some fun.

And now I'm going to shut up before I spontaneusly transform into a cheap self-help book.
posted by doctorpiorno at 2:44 AM on January 30, 2007

Also, credit where credit is due: I really liked a lot Paul Graham's article on How to Do what you Love.
posted by doctorpiorno at 2:48 AM on January 30, 2007

It is OK to not choose your life career at 24. You will learn a lot at whatever jobs you do now, and you can change careers when you are 40 and maybe know a little better what you want.
posted by davar at 2:58 AM on January 30, 2007

Seconding Paul Graham. His essay What You'll Wish You'd Known is also a good read. In it he talks about the sailing concept of staying upwind when unsure of a future course - it maximises your options when you become more constrained later on - so for example studying Media Studies does not get you as far upwind as studying Maths.

So if you are not sure what will really work with you consider which of your potential options will give you the most opportunities later. It sounds like you are in a pretty good position if you can stick with your current job for a bit. Some of your suggestions are quite a long way "downwind" in that they risk landing you in an area where there is a lot of competition for jobs: Psychologists, Web Designers and Journalists all occupy this space (and I speak as somebody with a background in the first two).
posted by rongorongo at 6:19 AM on January 30, 2007

...also - consider taking a careers aptitude test. There are some available online. Here is a free (and pretty good) one if you can convince the machine you live in Scotland.
posted by rongorongo at 7:07 AM on January 30, 2007

Like everyone else: I could have written this (And I have! Check my post history!)

I'm not sure I've quite made enough of myself to tell you 'DO ABC', but lately I've been getting more hopeful by setting goals and going for them. Obvious? Maybe.

But I wanted to get more work published. So I picked a few topics that interested me (Namely, materialism in games like WoW and Second Life. Also, so food writing for kicks), sat down, did my homework and wrote a few articles. I'm shopping them around, not expecting to get paid, but hey. It's resume stuff and it's experience and, most importantly, it helps make me feel worth something.

You're still young (I just turned 23 today!), so make some mistakes and go a little wild. I'm up rooting completely and moving in with a girl I met, oh, 2 months ago. I'll need to find a new job, but it's a nice reboot from my unhappiness right now. You're not in a position where you really owe to anyone other than yourself, so keep that in mind.
posted by GilloD at 9:11 AM on January 30, 2007

I second beautifulstuff's recommendation of Refuse to Choose. It's perfect for you. I was reading it last night and your post could have been an excerpt from the book.
posted by xo at 9:26 AM on January 30, 2007

1) Any tips for how to keep myself focused on a single task? How can I kill the constant daydreams that plague me?
Buy a car. An expensive one. Or a house. Or get married. Doing one of these things is a commitment that will force you to focus on making a career move and sticking with it. When you have bills to pay, you sort things out real quick.

2) How can I choose one thing to do and do it, with the knowledge that what I'm doing might be the 'wrong' thing?
Wrong be damned; it doesn't matter which you choose, you will inevitably look back and wonder "what if?" Pursue one or more reasonably satisfactory alternatives and the first, best one that works out, run with it. If it turns out ot be the wrong choice, make an adjustment down the road. But just sitting there wondering is not getting you anywhere. Just do it.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: The preceding advice comes from a 40-something guy who probably would have chosen a different career if he had it all to do again, yet, is reasonably satisfied with the way things have turned out. Life is sloppy business and you can't plan everything out ahead of time, nor can you know now what you will know 5 or 10 years down the road. And even if you do plan things out, circumstances unforeseen and often beyond your control will force you to change your plans. So just go with the flow, baby.
posted by Doohickie at 9:30 AM on January 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

My sister is going through a similar "I wish I just knew what it was that I wanted to do" phase, although she's still in school. My advice to her (as an oh-so-wise 26-year-old, haha!) was that very, VERY few people know exactly what they want to do, especially at 19 (or 24, in your case), and most people who say they do are either wrong or liars. The only reliable way to find out what you want to do, in my experience, is to do a job, figure out what you like about it and what you don't, and then look for another job that has more of what you like and less of what you don't. Repeat until your job has tons of what you like and very little of what you don't. As long as you are constantly lengthening the "like" column, you will be triangulating on the right thing for you.

Is there ANYTHING you like about your current job? That's a good place to start. If not, at least you have a long list of stuff to avoid in the next one.
posted by slenderloris at 9:44 AM on January 30, 2007

dude, engsci?
At least your gpa is higher than mine. I chose to hurl myself across the country to vancouver and join a start-up. If you were an engsci you know what they say, the top of the class goes to academia and the bottom half goes on to join startups and get rich.
posted by captaincrouton at 10:03 AM on January 30, 2007

I should be exploring other avenues in my evenings, doing some writing, learning some languages (both computer and people), engaging in professional development, going to shows, reading literature, and learning about different academic areas.

You will eventually do all those things. But why not set a deadline, and for a certain length of time, focus on one thing only? Say, six months. For the next six months, in your free time, you're going to work on writing as much as possible. Or reading as many classic books as possible. Or whatever appeals to you the most. The important thing is, if in six months you find that you haven't gotten a lot out of it, you can do something else instead. You'll still be 24 or 25. That's young.

I feel like I should be putting all my effort into being the best damn business analyst I can be

Similarly, why not tell yourself that you're going to put all your energy during your working hours into doing just that--for, say, the next six months? See where that takes you. If nowhere, or not where you want to be, then rethink.

It just seems like you're trying to fathom and realize your entire potential all at once, and getting overwhelmed and scattered as a result. People often repeat the truism "life is short." I disagree. Barring calamity, life is pretty damn long. You have time. Do one or two things--whether or not they're "the right things"--to the best of your ability, for a while. Then report back in, say, August.
posted by staggernation at 12:10 PM on January 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

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