I am someone who has always known what she wants and goes for it — like really goes for it. I worked full time all through undergrad and graduate school, was incredibly exhausted and worn down, but all the while still happy and motivated because I knew what I wanted and I was working towards obtaining that goal.
Fast forward to graduation, and I was offered my dream job by not one, but two companies. It is a highly specialized, niche field that is primarily desk and computer-based. The problem is, I have known I would never be happy working a desk job. I’ve known this for years and yet I pursued this field because I really thought that “it would all be okay” once I got the DREAM desk job. All those other desk jobs were just child’s play. My dream desk job would be worth it.
You can probably see where this is going and you are right, this particular desk job does not change how I feel about being stuck at a desk for 40+ hours a week. I’ve finally “learned my lesson” — I know I need to find a career that isn’t stuck in an office at a desk. But after almost a decade of being in college, I am exhausted. I don’t know what I like anymore. My passion (a passion that I trusted would lead me to a satisfying life-long career and a healthy bank account) has led to a dead end. I thought I was one of the lucky ones who knew what she wanted, who pursued AND successfully obtained her dream job.
I am almost 30 and I feel like I am starting over. I don’t know what my passion is anymore; I don’t even know if I WANT a passion. But I still have to support myself and I am desperate to not be miserable for the rest of my life. I know in my heart that a meaningful, satisfying, and purposeful career is out there for me. I just don’t know how to find it anymore — or more pressingly, how do I trust that what I might want to pursue next is “true” and “real” after being bamboozled by a multi-year passion that has led nowhere?
First of all: I am pushing 30 also, pretty hard, in fact. I for one am eager to explore the world with some more knowledge and caution (if not sobriety and prudence) than I had in my 20s. Lots of folks have told me it’s a pretty good decade, and despite myself, I am looking forward to it.
You write to me feeling genuine anguish, worried that you haven’t chosen right, that you’ve wasted years. You write to me feeling exhausted, troubled, and unsure.
One thing I can tell you straight off the bat is that you’re not alone.
America is a vulture-capitalist, money-hungry kind of a country. Everyone is eager to assess you by the income and prestige of your job — almost as eager as you are to judge yourself. It is way too easy to collapse the entirety of your worth into your career, especially as a professional woman. You feel you have much to prove, because, as a woman, as a human, you do. You used the word “dream” four times in your letter to me; all of them were followed by “job.”
In America our dreams are supposed to coincide with our jobs. Our jobs, and careers, are supposed to be the apotheosis of our lives, our legacies. What you are worth is what you can monetize.
But I believe — genuinely — that you are worth more than your paystub suggests, or what can be filled out on an evaluation form. It may seem unbearably saccharine, a dumb bromide, a joke, to say that you are in fact worth more than your career. And you can build and even live through dreams outside of it. But I believe you have far more to tell than your resumé can summarize.
What’s more: What you have described to me is not necessarily a complete tanking of a career. You’ve discovered something about yourself, a limitation, which is not necessarily the end of your journey to follow this particular passion, or one related, which your training can help you excel in. I have discovered, over my working life, that long stretches of unstructured time can be damaging and harmful to me, and that I need routine and coworkers — even remote ones — to be truly happy working. You have discovered the opposite: that being pinned to a desk makes you feel like a beetle on a card.
Most likely, you have a number of options when it comes to skilled labor in your field. There is remote work, or freelance work, which an increasing number of companies have found beneficial. (Some freelance work can be exploitative, and it’s best to consult with other people in your field about profitable, equitable gigs.) Perhaps pursuing unconventional paths to work in your field will allow your passion to reawaken.
Sometimes, though, passions resist monetization entirely. I hope that you are able to find work that utilizes your training but does not make you feel unbearably confined. But beyond that, I hope you are able to separate the word “dream” from the word “job” a little. To find that work can simply be what allows you to pay rent and eat, and that a little passionless churning is par for the course of a laboring life.
Outside, in the warming air of this early spring, there are other dreams. Seek love; the pursuit of beauty and pleasure, and service; seek what brings you joy, without needing to measure its value in dollars. Nurturing this ability can help you through this crisis, and future crises. Careers are malleable — jobs are passing things — but only today will earth pass on this precise trajectory, with you on it, late in your 20s, ripening towards your own mysterious bloom.