‘I Can’t Decide on a Career and I Feel Like Garbage!’

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Photo: DEA / C.DANI / I.JESKE/De Agostini/Getty Images

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Dear Polly,

For most of my 20s, I dreamed about doing my Ph.D. I worked a couple of well-paying, practical office jobs that I hated, and I was miserable. I paid off my loans. I saved. Every few months, I would have an existential crisis where I would try to think of the career paths that might lead me to happiness, and every time I was convinced that doing a Ph.D. was the only way to go. I wanted someone to tell me what to do, or give me permission to do what seemed crazy but felt right. On my 28th birthday, my wish came true: I saw a psychic who told me that I was a teacher, and I burst out laughing with relief. Finally, someone who saw me! She told me that I would be accepted into two schools to do my Ph.D. I applied to two schools and got into both.

Fast-forward to September: School started, and I knew it was totally wrong for me. Academia felt like bullshit. I had no faith in what I was doing. I saw no future for myself in it. For all the right reasons, I decided to drop out after two and a half months. Yes, it felt a bit hasty, but I was very sure of my decision and everyone in my life was extremely supportive of it.

The feeling of elation and relief lasted for about a day and now I’m facing the rest of my life and I just feel exhausted and confused. I do think it was important for me to try grad school for myself and realize that I hated it. But Polly, I feel like a steaming pile of human garbage, and when I look into the future, it just feels bleak. I can’t stop comparing myself to other people my age. It feels like everyone has their shit figured out, or at least enough that they are doing jobs that don’t make them want to kill themselves and are making enough money that they can afford to pay rent, save a bit, take vacations, and do nice things for the people they love. I know comparing yourself to others is a recipe for disaster, but it’s impossible for me not to, considering I have an identical twin sister (who I love and am very close to) who has never been unemployed, never made a wrong career move, and makes more money than I can ever imagine earning. I’ve gone back to work part-time at a service-industry job, but I’m only getting two shifts a week, and I’m terrified of what the next few months will look like. I feel like an infant. I had no backup plan. I had grad school on a pedestal for so long that I don’t know how to imagine anything else.

My whole life I’ve been seeking validation and approval from others. Even though the idea of going to grad school felt hugely liberating, I wouldn’t have done it if the psychic lady hadn’t given me permission. I don’t know how to get rid of this belief that other people can see me better than I see myself. My whole life I’ve just wanted people to tell me who I am and what I should do. I just want to be at the part where I don’t have to worry anymore. I want the career that feels life-affirming. I want to be financially comfortable. I want to have disposable income again so I can take piano lessons or a writing class. I want to love myself and be healed from my stupid, traumatic upbringing. I want to settle down. Going through the mess of figuring it all out just feels exhausting and unfair. I thought I would have had it all sorted out by now. I don’t know how much more uncertainty my self-esteem can endure.

Recently someone close to me asked me what I liked doing when I was a kid. The things that really mattered to me then still really matter to me now: books, music, and art. I think I’m obsessed with beauty, and I think there’s something there. But how do I turn that into … well, anything? My résumé is a fucking mess. I have no experience being paid to do the things I care about. I don’t even make time for them as hobbies anymore, not even with all the free time I have since dropping out of school. Lately, I’ve been considering going back to school to become a therapist, but the thought of spending more money on school makes me feel queasy. And the question of which jobs to work while I save up to be able to do that just makes me feel like crawling into bed and sleeping for six months. I feel bad for still not having my shit together. I feel bad for my sweet boyfriend, who has to put up with me, and for my family and friends, who have listened to me whine incessantly for YEARS about how every job sucks, and then had to listen to me gush for a year about how grad school was going to save me, only to have to watch me go through the crisis of realizing that that was also bullshit. What do I do now that everything feels like bullshit? What if all of this means that I’m bullshit?

Anxious and Lost

Dear Anxious and Lost,

While I was reading your letter, my 8-year-old daughter came upstairs to tell me she was playing the game MASH, where you figure out your future by chance. She just discovered that she’s going to marry Demi Lovato, have 16 kids, live an apartment, and drive a bucket car (“It’s a kind of car that’s really bad”). “I could’ve married Lin-Manuel Miranda, or Justin Trudeau!” she said.

Everyone wants to know what their future will look like. It’s one of the most unbearable aspects of being young: wondering what’s right for you, wondering if everything will work out or not. Worrying about this stuff doesn’t make you bullshit. It makes you human.

I know it sounds like I made up this story about my kid, but the truth is that these weird coincidences happen all the time. We read into them, take them as a sign, fill them with meaning. Why wouldn’t we? A psychic tells you to go to grad school, and it’s just the push you need. And when it doesn’t work out, you feel like a crazy, weak person who let a psychic determine her future.

“My whole life I’ve been seeking validation and approval from others,” you say. But that’s not remotely unusual. You’re young, and the same sensitive traits that give you a passion for music, art, and books also make you sensitive to what other people think of you. You express yourself in a very thorough and detailed way. You believe in connection and want to be understood completely. It also makes perfect sense that academia would feel completely wrong to you; it’s not emotional enough. You don’t want to drily analyze art. You want to crawl inside of it.

One of the really difficult aspects of being an emotional person who wants other people to understand her (and who can TELL when people are getting a little worn out by her) is that, in times of indecision, it’s very difficult not to feel like a fucking weather vane twisting around and around in circles. It’s embarrassing to change your mind and second-guess yourself after you felt so sure about what you were doing. The same admirable enthusiasm and optimism that made you run around proclaiming grad school The Answer to Everything makes you ashamed of yourself now.

Here’s something important I want you to remember about being who you are, a sensitive, emotional, expressive, creative person: You’re going to show your ass a lot. You’re going to feel shame at who you are, often. You can’t hide. People are going to know you and recognize what you’re going through, for better or for worse. Likewise, you’re not someone who’s just going to pick a widely accepted career and stick to it from the moment you graduate from college until the moment you retire. Good for your sister for being able to do that. My sister is the same way. That’s not you.

You don’t show up to a job and say, “I guess this is okay.” You love a job or you fucking hate it. And yeah, you hate most jobs. That doesn’t make you a freak. Plenty of people can relate to that. You say you want enough money to be financially comfortable and take piano lessons. But even the way you explain that you care about material comfort signals how little you FEEL for money. You want to care about money, because then you could pursue it and things would feel simpler. Maybe the writing classes and piano lessons would justify the soul-sucking work.

But you don’t feel it, do you? Money seems like a bad reason for doing anything. Even though you’re envious of your sister’s money, you still can’t get into it as a motivation that might drive you forward.

We’ve just uncovered a few things about you that probably aren’t going to change. We did this by refusing to accept the thesis that YOU ARE BULLSHIT. We did this by setting aside what everyone else in the world wants and thinks is important. We focused on who YOU are and what YOU want and what YOU think is important instead. We focused on what feels right to you. When you say “I just want enough money for x,” you’re still thinking instead of feeling. You’re aping what other people might see as “reasonable.”

Again, this isn’t remotely unique to you. Every sensitive, young human being trying to choose their path ends up doing this. Don’t start seeing this as a shameful trait. Don’t walk around thinking, OH, GOD, WHY AM I SUCH A MESS? That shame will get you nowhere, and it means nothing. It’s an echo of your childhood mixed with the obvious fact that you aren’t like most of the people around you. You don’t have the same tolerance for what they seem to think is perfectly tolerable.

Here’s a giant mistake that young artists make when they’re surrounded mostly by nonartists: They tell themselves that there are two paths — one that leads to a lucrative corporate job, and another that leads to a compromised, embarrassing life of failure that includes pointless service jobs and bad hobby art. This is a very mainstream view. It’s the same view that perpetuates this myth that everyone who does something they love that doesn’t lead to fame or money or a solid, dependable career is a “wannabe.” If you do one thing right now, I want you to throw out this core belief. This is how the straight world shames us for rejecting what they embrace. We are repeatedly told that our passions transform us into mutants who can’t function — mutants who will wind up poor and pathetic and lonely.

It’s bullshit. You need to do more research on how artists of different stripes manage to sustain themselves. Because people like you and me, people who hate a lot of jobs and hate ourselves for it, need to learn to trust our instincts and believe in what we love the most. I know you feel like a fucking charlatan for saying, “I love beauty,” or “Music makes me feel alive,” or “I love gazing at art books,” or whatever. When I was your age, I had two giant plastic bins filled with journals of my writing, and I still couldn’t trust that writing was a passion of mine. I didn’t want to be impractical. I wanted to be smart. I was a hard worker. I wanted to do the right things and not mess up my whole future. I didn’t want to be an embarrassment. I didn’t even think of writing as one of my passions, even though I did it all the time. And I didn’t dare even muse about becoming a writer out loud. In my mind, nothing was more pathetic than someone who embraced dreams that would obviously never come true.

At the age of 23, I even had a writing teacher who said, “QUIT YOUR DAY JOB, YOU’RE A WRITER, THIS IS YOUR CAREER,” and I just shrugged it off, like, “What can this crazy lady even mean?” I wanted a real career, not some path to poverty and misery and eternal wannabe status. I went right back to applying for graphic-design jobs because they paid well. That seemed practical to me. I couldn’t own my emotional, creative, dreamer side. It was too embarrassing.

Think again about my daughter, playing MASH. That game is just a strange, daydreamy act of looking for signs about what comes next. Kids want to know how their lives will turn out. How can you fault yourself for doing the same thing? The worst thing you can do right now is retreat into some very pragmatic, self-hating state in which you arbitrarily choose something that will sound solid to the people around you. And the best thing you can do? Follow your dreamy self when it takes a flying leap off another crazy cliff. No, I’m not kidding. Because anything that takes you closer to who you really are and what you really love the most is a step in the right direction.

In order to do that, first you have to forgive yourself for the anxiety you feel right now. That anxiety starts at age 8! How can you turn it into a reason you’re bad? It’s natural! We all want to know that we will be happy, that we are lovable, that we are making the right choices, that we haven’t doomed ourselves to lives of misery, driving around in bucket cars with Demi Lovato.

(Sorry, Demi Lovato.)

You had a good plan and it failed. It’s embarrassing. Everyone knows you’ve failed. Everyone knows you’ll fail again. EMBRACE THE FUCK OUT OF THAT. Tolerate their disapproval. Get used to it. You are someone who doesn’t do what other people do. Own that. You have your own compass already. You just have to stop looking at other people’s faces and look at your compass instead.

Seeking out a creative career means experimenting and taking a lot of leaps into the abyss. This is how artists and writers and actors and also gallery owners and small-business owners and therapists and art teachers and sculptors and musicians do it. Our careers are not clearly mapped out. Instead, we have to pick something and TRY IT, knowing that it will probably fail. And if we don’t like what we’ve tried, or if we fail, or if we feel overwhelmed or ambivalent about our choice? We have to start over.

We have to feel our way toward what we want, because we want to FEEL connected to our work. We can’t always look to people with more conventional careers for answers. We have to look inside of ourselves. But most of all? WE HAVE TO TRY AND FAIL. We have to start over, a lot.

That’s what I told my daughter when she was lamenting spending eternity with Demi Lovato: Start over. But she wanted permission. Wasn’t that cheating? No. There is no cost, no shame to it. This is how you find a career you truly love.

Don’t be afraid. Because even though you’re lost and anxious, this is a moment of enormous opportunity. This is the moment when you look deep inside yourself and you resolve to TRUST what you see. This is the moment when you look at your family and friends with clear eyes and you accept that you are a little different from them, and that doesn’t make you bad. This is the moment when you resolve not to be ashamed of that difference. That difference holds the key to your future. The very things about you that make you feel shame are the same things that will lead you forward. The exact traits that you are now defining as “garbage” give you precisely what you need to thrive and be happy and live the fullest, most satisfying life possible.

Your dissatisfaction is a gift. Because you’re not going to settle for less than what feels right and makes you happy. You aren’t going to accept a half-assed career or a wilty marriage or meh friendships. You aren’t built that way. Sure, you’ll feel like the crazy one for a while, but it will get easier. Stop thinking yourself in circles and feel your way forward instead.

I can’t personally guarantee that you’ll end up marrying Daveed Diggs and having eight kids and living in a mansion and driving a Tesla, like my 8-year-old is going to, thanks to the fact that she started over. All I can guarantee is this: You are about to learn how to embrace the sheer grace that lies at the center of uncertainty. You are about to learn how to stop telling negative stories about yourself just so you’ll seem more practical to other people, and how to start owning your wild, wretched, brilliant self without apology. At the exact moment when you finally welcome in the turmoil and fear and insecurity you’re feeling without fighting it, that’s when your truest desires will blossom before your eyes. So relax and enjoy it. You are exactly where you need to be.

Polly

Order the Ask Polly book, How To Be A Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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‘I Can’t Decide on a Career and I Feel Like Garbage!’