You’re young, bright and ambitious. And you actually have a job of some sort. But in the back of your mind, a certain question might be nagging at you: Do you have a career?
If you’re in your mid-20s or early 30s today, there’s a good chance you’re wrestling with this issue or know a few peers feeling a bit rudderless in terms of employment direction. In fact, a growing number of researchers are finding that millennials in the 25-to-35 age range (commonly referred to as the quarter-life stage) are experiencing more stress and uncertainty regarding their careers than prior generations.
If you’ve found yourself at this unique stage of life, here are some tips that might help you gain clarity and move forward successfully.
Avoid Comparisons and Embrace Trade-offs
If you’re a young professional today, it’s easy to feel drawn toward a certain short list of career options that sound prestigious, glamorous and high-paying — even if these jobs would be a horribly misaligned fit with your strengths and interests. Certain career paths, in other words, tend to get a lot of hype. And yet, I can assure you we’re not all cut out to be software engineers, investment bankers or attorneys. In fact, the vast majority of people out there, including myself, end up finding their way to satisfying careers in fields that don’t involve mastering complex engineering concepts or launching the next hot technology startup.
What’s more, while social media may make it seem that your peers are farther along than you and doing all of these exciting, upwardly mobile professional things, this rarely reveals the full truth. In fact, if there’s one thing I know from chatting with over 10,000 people about their career choices, it’s that every career comes with built-in trade-offs.
If your friend seems to be a happy-go-lucky tech sales professional, for example, what you may not realize is that they’re traveling 90 percent of the time, living out of a suitcase and unable to lead a regular social life. Or if you have an old high school buddy who has launched their own startup company, sure, they may be receiving a lot of media acclaim, but what you don’t see is the pressure they might be under to please their board or scrape together the funding needed to take their idea to the next level.
So, while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with certain hot or desirable career paths, don’t automatically assume that all the people in these careers are deliriously happy or that the decisions they’ve made would be right for you. Again, every occupation comes with inherent trade-offs and the path that was right for your friends — or your parents — may be the absolute wrong one for you.
Think hard about what you care about and the type of life you want to live. Perhaps you’re already on the right path and simply afraid to take the next step. Or you’re putting undue pressure on yourself based on unfair comparisons with those around you. At the end of the day, the career decisions you make are unique to you, and as one of my long-time allies always says, “Don’t let anybody else talk you out of what you already know about yourself.”
Take Pride in Being Practical
Yet another complication you may be wrestling with as you try to plan your career is the high cost of living today — especially in a major metro area like Seattle — and the fact that you might have to hustle and work multiple part-time jobs just to get by.
As one of my 20-something clients puts it: “I feel as though I move from one existential crisis to the next. My friends and I face a ton of anxiety surrounding living and home expenses. Do we live in an apartment? Rent a home? Save for a down payment? These questions are all swirling around for us at this time, in our mid-to-late 20s.”
If you’ve found yourself in this situation, I’ve got two pieces of advice for you. First, give yourself a hearty pat on the back — figuratively or literally — for getting off your butt and doing what you’ve got to do to get by. Even if you’re not working anywhere near your professional capacity, yet, at least you’ve gotten yourself in the game — and future employers will likely be impressed that you didn’t just sit around feeling sorry for yourself.
Second, if you’re struggling just to get by, don’t be afraid to accept help if it will reduce your anxiety level and buy you time to figure out your long-term goals. If your parents offer to let you live with them rent-free, for example, or a relative offers some financial assistance toward further schooling, don’t let pride get in your way.
As I mentioned above, it can be hard to focus on your long-term planning when you’re constantly worried about basic necessities. So learn the lesson it took some of us far too long to figure out: Accepting help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
Experiment, Experiment, Experiment
Last but not least, in terms of the fundamental exercise of picking the right career direction for yourself, sadly, there’s no app for that. While we’d all love to find an assessment or website or magic bullet that can instantly point us in the right occupational direction, I’m sorry to report that I’ve never found such a thing. At least in the 25 years I’ve been hunting for it.
And yet, as a younger professional, don’t forget that you enjoy several significant advantages over older workers when it comes to exploring your career options.
First, keep in mind that if you’re in your late 20s or thereabouts, you have far more time to experiment and take risks than somebody a decade or two farther along the road. So don’t be afraid to dip your toe into different opportunities, try things, and bail out on them (politely) if they aren’t your cup of tea.
Trust me when I say that a large number of the most successful professionals I’ve come across — possibly even the majority of them — found their path through trial and error, not via brilliant planning or foresight.
Additionally, in today’s wired world, there are a wealth of new entrepreneurial and gig economy possibilities you can consider that didn’t exist for previous generations. Could you sell your arts and crafts on Etsy? Market your creative writing skills through LinkedIn? Form an online hobby community and start selling branded swag? Again, even if these outlets are temporary ones, they allow you to try things and sharpen your skills as a precursor to a more permanent decision.
As for further schooling? That can be a great option, too. With the immense range of new learning avenues available — from certificate programs to online training classes to boot camps— there’s ample opportunity to dive into new subjects and see if they speak to you, careerwise. So even if you’ve already completed a formal degree, don’t let your learning stop there. Consider enrolling in short-term training to see what topics might spark some useful career ideas and inspiration.
Long story short, if you’re hovering around the quarter-life stage of your life and feeling a bit of anxiety about your career future, don’t panic. You’ve still got powerful advantages working in your favor. Keep your feet moving forward, avoid unhealthy comparisons to others, and expose yourself to new learning experiences until the right window of opportunity suddenly swings open!