It’s Okay Not to Have Your Career Figured Out Right Away


The best part of adulthood is the small talk, hands down. Meeting new people, sharing that perfectly firm and definitely-never-clammy-on-either-end handshake, exchanging pleasantries on all the most exhilarating of topics. Never gets old!!

Within the wide realm of questions brought up most frequently in these generally uncomfortable little back-and-forths, the favorite seems to be the following: “What do you do?” Ingrained in this one tiny question are, of course, a million other inquiries: “Do you like your job?” “How much money do you make?” “Where do you rank on the wholly subjective career hierarchy I have in my head?” and (no pressure or anything!!) “Is what you do your passion?”

Ah yes, that last one, the biggest kicker of them all—is what you do your passion? I, millennial that I am, cannot say whether previous generations felt this so strongly, the pressure to do what you love. But it seems that, given the across the board delay of other milestones that once signaled success among twenty and thirtysomethings—home ownership, marriage, having children—the generation in which I’m firmly planted has saddled itself with new definitions of success: the places you’ve traveled, your selfie-taking proficiency, and your career success, to name a few.

Maybe I’m projecting. Maybe I’m flinging my own ingrained insecurities and self-doubt onto you. If it feels like I am, you are more than entitled to yell, in my general direction, “Woah, Jackie! Settle down! Have you considered that not everyone feels the way you do??” And in that case, thank you for calling me out! No, really, thank you. If you are one of those people who has always known what you wanted to do, since you were a youth; who mapped out a path and followed it and are genuinely happy with where you’re at in your career. Well. Hot damn. I am genuinely happy for you. Keep on killing it, okay?

The words I’m writing today, however, are for the other folks. These are for the people who had one million different interests in high school, who had a bunch more in college, who were never quite able to distill all of those singular activities into their *one true path*. They’re for the people who did find out what they wanted to do, but feel like they found it too late, and without a linear career trajectory plus 18 perfectly aligned internships under their belt, they feel like they can’t quite catch up. They’re for the people who sometimes feel like they’re merely drifting along through their careers, directionless, discontented or stuck.

Maybe that’s you. Maybe you feel behind. Maybe you’re in your twenties or your thirties or your forties or your fifties and maybe you feel lost. Maybe you dread being at a party and meeting new people and being asked that one seemingly innocuous question: “What do you do?” Allow me to say, firstly, THAT IS OKAY. I am saying it in all-caps because I mean it!! It is okay to feel behind. It is okay to feel lost. It is okay to dread small talk at parties. It is all okay.

Allow me to say, secondly, that I am right there with you, friend. At the ripe old age of 28, I am still figuring it out as I go. I am still a work in progress. I am still learning what interests me and, as I do, I am learning not to be so damn afraid to pursue those interests.

My personal career trajectory has been windy and disjointed, a road weaved together out of both passion and obligation. I entered college as an interior design major, and pursued that path for the impressive length of an entire few days, before switching my major to architecture. I loved a lot about the program, but toward the end of my four years, I decided that pursuing architecture as a career wasn’t for me. My heart wasn’t in it, and I think another part of me didn’t believe I was good enough at it (a fun, reoccurring theme in my life!).

I left college with a degree, yes, but also with hardly an ounce of direction. I didn’t have a job lined up. I didn’t have a clear career path to dive into. Yet, with the naiveté and occasionally blinding optimism that seems synonymous with being in your early twenties, I went after the opportunities that felt right to me then. I applied for countless jobs; sent countless cold emails to people I admired; pursued a graphic design internship with a website I loved. I took an internship at a nonprofit, a field I’d always considered entering, if only for a long-held, deeply ingrained desire to help people. At the end of the summer, I was offered a full-time job with that same nonprofit and, simultaneously, after 3 months of persistence, I landed the graphic design internship, too.

That was my life for a good, long while: I worked full-time during the day and spent many late nights and weekends working on the ol’ side hustle. The graphic design internship turned into a graphic designer role, which then turned into an editorial role. I loved what I did, in many ways, but a lot of my time was also spent exhausted—both physically and mentally—and, after two and a half years, I decided to let that side hustle go. A few years later, I still work at the same nonprofit, and while it’s an amazing organization, there is an ever-growing part of me that knows I have other interests to pursue.

Most of my twenties have been spent in a deep, dark cave of ennui—never knowing, assuredly, which path to take. I’m learning, ever so slowly, not to fight so hard against the unknown. I’m learning it’s okay not to have everything figured out. I’m learning that we’re all making it up as we go.

I promise that if you feel lost, I believe in you to find your way. You don’t have to figure it out right now. You don’t have to figure it out tomorrow. You don’t even have to figure it out next week. Unless you’re a person of the clairvoyant variety, you can’t know ahead of time which of your decisions will be fruitful, or which precise course of action will propel you toward your ideal career. All you can do is take one step at a time; all you can do is keep moving in a direction that feels right.

Maybe open up a word doc or a fresh, crisp notebook, and write down one thing (tiny or otherwise) you’re doing each day to move your career in a different direction. Maybe make a commitment to connect with one person each week who works in a field that piques your interest, whether it be face-to-face or via e-mail or through social media. Maybe take that course you’ve been meaning to take. Maybe apply for that job you’d so hastily convinced yourself you weren’t qualified for. Whatever it is you do, just don’t stop trying. Don’t get lost on the well-worn path of believing you’re not good enough. Don’t give up on yourself, okay?

I recognize that I am not an expert in, I don’t know, ANY area of life?? But I know what being lost feels like. I know what being behind feels like. I know other people feel this way sometimes, too. And I know it can be nice to have a reminder that you’re not wading through the occasionally murky waters of life alone.

So if we ever see each other at a party (I just go to SO MANY PARTIES, you know??), please come say hello. I promise I’ll ask you what your hobbies are, what you like to do for fun, and if you have any pets. I promise I’ll do my best to find that one conversation topic that lights you up. I promise I won’t start by asking what you do.

Images via: 1 / 2


Jackie Saffert is a human person who lives in Minneapolis. In her spare time, you can find her running along the river road, loitering in the vicinity of the nearest puppy at a local brewery, or recharging her soul (?!) in her tiny sanctuary of an apartment. She likes to write; she thinks you are very kind for reading the words above.

  • OMG this is exactly what I needed to hear today. I’m a fellow architecture grad who dabbles in graphic design and I recently moved back to Minneapolis after grad school in NYC. I have a good but dissatisfying job now and I’m working hard on moving my career in a new direction and it is SO HARD. Putting yourself out there is so hard. I appreciate hearing another perspective on this.
    Thanks 🙂

    • Marie! Hello to a fellow architecture grad in Mpls! I’m so glad my perspective resonated, at least a little. Totally hear you, it can be V HARD, but just keep on moving in that new direction, even if forward progress is slow sometimes. I BELIEVE IN YOU.

  • I’m 33 and still have no clue! I think its also okay to not have EVERYTHING figured out at the same time. I have some of the “milestones” (hate considering them these, but alas…), like marriage and a child, and a decent career on paper. However, we’re still gun shy about home ownership, are concerned about volatility in our job markets, and are indecisive about where to live. Plus, my “decent career” is not my passion and I’m still searching for that way to figure out the better path forward. Life is just an evolving puzzle!!!

    • So appreciate your perspective on this. It’s a lesson I’ve slowly been learning throughout my twenties—that every single piece of the puzzle is never going to fit “perfectly” at any given time, and to try to accept that, rather than dwell on those perceived imperfections. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!!

  • This is so true! I totally recognized myself in this text and I am also still at my 29th year trying to figure out what I want to be “when I grow up”. While figuring this out I have completed 2 degrees and worked in Sales, Marketing, IT, Banking, you name it, I’ve probably done it.
    Some people see my scattered and quite international CV as a drawback. But younger recruiters recognize that I might actually have a lot more to give than that next person who has only ever worked in one company or one industry. Unfortunately I’ve only met about 2 such recruiters 😀
    But we will get there, I’m certain of it!

    Teresa xx
    outlandishblog.com

    • Thank you for your comment and encouragement!! So nice to know that someone else can relate. And BLESS those 2 recruiters for having an open mind.

  • You sound like the kind of person I’d like to meet with for coffee or cocktails – I bet we would have some really fun conversations that have nothing to do with the mundane at all. Coincidentally, I live in St Paul which is only a stone’s throw from Minneapolis so y’know….

    Just tossing that out there.

    • Michaela! Hello to a fellow Twin…Citian? (I do not know if citian is a word but we are going to go with it.) I am always open for coffee / drinks!

  • I love all of this! I went to college when I graduated high school, dropped out, got certified in dental assisting, got an associates degree, made a living blogging for 10 years, and am now finally going back and finishing the last few classes I need for my bachelors this year. There is no strict timeline and that is okay!

    Paige
    http://thehappyflammily.com

  • Absolutley loved this article! Your words hit home with “maybe you feel behind”; I feeling I strive to overcome with friends coming up on 1 year work anniversaries. I took a risk at a London grad school / internship canidadcy season of my life after college which didn’t exactly pan out leaving me to search months later for a job. Thank you for sharing it’s taking it one step at a time and not letting yourself think you’re not qualified to get there.

    • I’m so glad those words resonated with you! I can assure you, you are not the only one who’s felt behind. You are not the only one who took a risk that didn’t exactly pan out (and hell, good on you for taking a risk in the first place!!). I think a lot of folks feel that way, and I think many of them just never talk about it. Keep on taking those steps forward; you’ve got this.

  • Thank you so much for this! It really resonated. I’m looking for a career change but feel so behind at 35 compared to my other friends who have the home ownership/professional titles/marriage/kids all figured out. It’s refreshing to hear that so many other people are going through the same thing!

    • Tori! Thank YOU so much for reading. I totally hear you. It’s so damn easy to compare our own lives to those of our friends; I do it, too! Way too often! I’ll try not to compare myself to others quite as much going forward, if you’ll do the same? Deal?

  • I’m turning 29 in Oct. and I’m only now pursuing a bachelors degree (Hi, campus tours with high school students, its terrifying). I was a hairstylist for 7 years and then for the last 5 years worked in the restaurant industry. I’ve been in the limbo of “WHAT DO I DO WITH MY LIFE?!”. For years I only considered jobs that were “functional”. I never allowed myself to consider studying the arts until my husband shared this quote with me :
    “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

    ― Howard Thurman

    Its nice to hear I’m not alone in this. Best of luck in your learning, life, and career journeys!

    • Emily is it weird that I started tearing up when I read that quote?? Because I did. I know I’ve heard it before, at some point, but in this context it means a lot. Anyway thank you for sharing, and for reminding me that I’m not alone. And GOOD ON YOU for taking that next step, terrifying campus tours with high school students and all. Best of luck to you, too!!

  • Thank you from all us “other folks”! We may not find that one career passion, but we can keep pursuing the things that light us up, and enjoy the journey.

  • This is SPOT on. Thank you for saying the things that we are ALL thinking, but that no one talks about with each other because we are too insecure to be the one to admit we actually DON’T love our jobs. Just what I needed to hear today.

    • I’m SO glad it resonated. Definitely agree that not enough people are talking about this kind of stuff. Thank you for adding to the dialogue on the topic!!

  • Such a fab post! Thank you for sharing! I’m trained as a singer and now work in an admin job which I find so so boring! I long to do what I love but have told myself again and again I’m not good enough! I feel so lost!! This has made my day! Honestly! Thank you so much!

    Lots of love,
    Molly
    http://themollymap.com

    • Molly! Thank you for commenting! I am sorry that you feel so lost but also I GET IT. Please, please keep reminding yourself every damn day that you are good enough to pursue the life you want. BECAUSE YOU ARE. I am still working on taking that advice for myself—it can be a hard thing to believe, but it’s true.

  • Such a great post that feels so close to home. I’m in a career that I fell into with a degree in marketing. Recently I decided to pursue interior design and people think I’m nuts that I want to “start over” with school and a new career path. People ask if I’m absolutely certain this is what I want. And to be honest, no I have no friggin clue and it’s been so hard to have those discussions with others and even myself. But the similarities to your post (even down to your name!) are that I just need to take it one step at a time. I’m enrolled in my first course for design this fall and am okay with figuring it out as I go along!

    Best,
    Jackie

    • Jackie I have read your comment multiple times because it just makes me feel better? Less alone? You know? Also I keep laughing at your “no I have no friggin clue” response. It never ceases to amaze me how many people seem to expect absolutely certainty from all the life choices I make. Like “No ma’am, I am not 100% positive this is right, I am simply doing my best!!” Good on you for pursuing a new path, and for figuring things out as you go along. Hope your first course this fall goes well!

  • Well.. Let’s put this away.I am 43 years old and still don’t know what do I want to do in my life. I have a Marketing degree but I don’t really fell the connection in my heart. It’s just a job and pay the bills. I will find my destiny some day, just like you will too.Thanks for the encouraging words.

  • this really resonated with me – thank you! my career path looks great on paper, but each day is filled increasingly with dread and doubt. i’m only 32 but i feel too old and invested to start over. i know i’m the only one putting those limits on myself. thanks for reminding me that it’s ok to not have it all figured out (and that i’m not alone!).

  • I’m super late to the party in the comments section but man oh man, can I relate to this article. Thank you Jackie and all of you who have posted comments. I’ve read each one and felt less alone. I’m 33 and I wake up with ultimate dread and panic every morning. Like time is flying by and I’m not doing enough to figure things out. I was a lost high school student and a lost college student and seemingly surrounded by friends who knew what to pursue and when to do it and how to do it just right. It’s maddening. I wish more people talked about this exact thing.

    Also, if anyone is in Chicago, I’d love to connect and commiserate. 🙂

  • I am in my second to last year of college and still don’t know what I want to do after. I love what I am studying and who I am becoming through my studies, but where do I go after school? I don’t know. I have no idea what to do and it is frightening.