Reema, 27, graduated high school at the top of her class. She knew she wanted to go to university, and that she’d likely excel at whatever she did, but she didn’t quite know what that should be… Fast forward some years later and she finds herself once again in the position where she is looking at her next chapter. Only, even though she now has more of a grasp of what's out there, she's still just as confused as ever. "My problem is I have too much that I'm interested in, and I'm not sure which interest to actually pursue," she tells R29. And according to the cries of TikTokers, she's certainly not alone.
In a viral clip that’s garnered half a million likes, TikToker Sarah Dean (@s____n____d) stars spiralling about all the career directions she’s tempted to take while staring off into the distance, and how the vast possibilities of her far-spanning interests ultimately overwhelm her into inaction. The post has spurred thousands of commenters across Instagram and TikTok, all echoing the same feelings of paralysing indecision.
Whether they're just starting out in their careers or starting over after a slump, the sentiment is the same: why are we like this? Of course, some trolls would confuse the perplexity for whinging, but that's nothing new.
Millennial career slumps have become a bit of a meme amongst older generations, typically thrown around with phrases like ‘no one wants to work anymore’ or other pejorative jabs that paint a picture of rampant overindulgence in a time when there's never been more opportunity. And in a way, they’re right, there has never been more opportunity or possibility out there for someone to ‘make it’. But what they miss is that with so many prospective careers — even ones we don’t know about yet — comes the kind of pressure that could make anyone's head spin. The choice is not a burden, and we know we’re incredibly lucky to have the freedom to do whatever we want at our hands, but it doesn’t do any good to discount how overwhelming it all can be.
We don't just choose a job. We choose a lifestyle and a pathway, and we also have to reconcile with what these choices mean for other aspects of our lives, how they fit into our plans, how we’ll accumulate the resources to get to where we want to be, and plenty of other dizzying factors that force us to think about the future in a pretty terrifying way.
So when we’re looking at what’s best for us when there are so many options out there, of course it’s a lot to take in and of course we’re going to worry that all the time and labour won’t lead to a future we’re happy to call ours.
Like most indecision, this particular kind of paralysis really comes from a fear of making the wrong decision. For many of us, we look at our parents who have stayed at the same companies for decades or knew what they wanted to be when they were younger and never wavered from those goals. But in 2022, career progression has shifted dramatically. We don’t just fall into one of the handfuls of jobs available to us, and yet we’re still caught up in the conditioning that what we choose will be for life. Even when we know we don’t have to see it though, the idea of wasting time when there are 20-year-old entrepreneurs and 30-year-old billionaires in our feeds exacerbates the fear that we’re wasting precious time. The truth is, though, unless you’re looking to break some records, no career, degree, or side hustle has an age cap.
For Ana, 29, taking the pressure off of the decision helped her actually get somewhere productive. “I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do and it was making me anxious because each path seemed doable/good for me but it felt like there was surely a correct one,” she tells us. “But then I let go of it all once I had the epiphany that there is no ‘right” path and nothing is permanent — good or bad — and when you make a choice, you’re not locked into it forever.”
Personally, the realisation that what you do and what you love don't have to align perfectly took some of the weight off of my career. As many of us realised thanks to the pandemic, sometimes what you come home to is more important than how you spend your 9-5. And as long as you’re not miserable at work, the ‘good enough’ job, the one that enables you to actually have ample downtime to do whatever you want is more beneficial in the long run than any 'dream job'.
As far as actually making that decision, it's always worth taking the time to really think about it. Even if that means taking a mindless gig to get you by while you're figuring it out. And if too many open doors are overwhelming you and you don't know how to figure it out, a good place to start is by listing the careers that appeal to you and rating them by how much you'd genuinely enjoy them, how they could support you, how much career progression they could hold in store, and the lifestyle they’d allow you to have (e.g. free time for your social life, holidays, etc). From there, start closing doors! Take out the ones that score low on your needs and go from there.
There's no quick-fix solution to not knowing what to do with all of your simmering career potential, but remember that what you do for a living doesn’t have to be your entire reason for living. While ‘workism’ has ingrained in us the notion that what we do for work is a core pillar of our identity and, just like in the films and series we consume, will set up the narratives of our lives, realising it's not is rather liberating.
And remember, nothing is forever — even dream jobs — and changing your mind as you learn more is not only fine but pretty exciting, so don’t feel like you have to lock yourself into anything.