I graduated college three years ago, but I still haven’t settled into a career. It’s a story you’ve heard many times: post-graduate life isn’t what we expected. When I was in college, my future seemed obvious. I planned to work for nonprofits. I’d start local and eventually make it to an international organization like the United Nations.
I soon shifted my focus after realizing administration wasn’t for me and the ethical conflicts of international work were unsettling. So instead, I taught English, wrote, traveled, and worked odd jobs. For three years, this was something that, despite being an unconventional lifestyle, was easily explained.
That lifestyle satisfied what I needed then. Now, I want to establish myself in a career that requires my best qualities and aligns with my values. It’s a simple goal, but has been more difficult than I imagined. I’ve moved in with my parents and am working a series of seemingly unrelated minimum-wage jobs (many that I truly enjoy) while determining my next steps.
I’m in an in-between stage, where I know what I don’t want to do, but am still unclear about what I want to do. I know I want a community, but I’m not sure where. Even with writing, something I’ve done for a while, I feel caught in limbo. I have done some writing, but I’m not an expert. I’ve written some features, but I’m not yet a journalist.
I’m stuck between the idea and the product while I gather information and listen for the right ideas. “I’m looking for a job” is my usual answer to friends and family, but what I’m searching for is more complex. I’d like to create a lifestyle, form a community and feel fulfilled in my work. The difficult part is that I have no idea what that will look like.
Without understanding how I spend my time, from the outside it doesn’t look like I’m doing much to figure out where I’m headed in life. It just seems like I’m another lost twenty-something taking advantage of supportive parents.
When I don’t have tangible proof of progress (it’s not often we reply “I’ve really figured out how to listen to my emotional needs,” or “I have four chapters of a memoir half written” to justify what we’re doing), it makes me question: what am I doing? If I haven’t made any substantial accomplishment – I haven’t gotten any closer to figuring out what I’m doing – will I ever?
But that’s just the thing. I am getting closer and my efforts are producing something productive, it’s only that we rarely see it that way.
Because we can understand a neatly-packaged finished product, easily understanding its value. When we look at a flowing river, we see just that. We never stop to ponder the undercurrent, working ferociously to produce what we see on the surface.
According to Psychology Today, self-esteem is established through accomplishments. It’s not often, though, that I view the small efforts of the undercurrent as successes. Therefore, in an in-between stage, it’s easy to discount efforts and fall into a trap of self-doubt. I’m not yet able to show something concrete to prove the work I’ve been doing, and thus I haven’t received recognition from others. And, in some ways, without recognition, work isn’t validated.
It’s important to remember the result of labor doesn’t often appear until much later, but that shouldn’t discount the work. I’ve lost sight of that, and succumbed to the outward assumption that I’m just goofing around.
A salaried job, for example, is the end result of months of networking – but the intermittent conversations, research and self-knowledge aren’t as quantifiable. When I show friends a piece of my writing, they see an article, not the culmination of writing classes, communication and networking with publications, research, writing and editing. Those things – all the necessary steps to publishing a piece of writing – aren’t what make other people understand I’m a writer.
With a clear end in mind, such as a job or an article, the churning undercurrent of networking and research will eventually develop into something measurable. But without yet fully understanding where I’m going, it’s easy to dismiss the small steps as “not doing anything.”
While we’re working towards a goal but living with parents or working odd jobs, no one will recognize the meditation, observations and understanding that will eventually develop into achieving it.
I’ve learned I need to trust what I’m doing, and not depend on outward validation. It’s impossible for others to know the progress I’ve made, and that’s okay. I can’t expect them to. They won’t be able to see the lightbulb moment I gain from a stranger I drive for Uber, or the serendipitous encounters that being a mentor for foreign exchange students facilitates.
I recently interviewed a local musician in his forties, who just recently has been able to make a living from his music. From the outside, he was a bum, only playing the occasional show and teaching music. Under the surface, he was doing everything he could to achieve his dream. I’m sure there were many moment when he doubted himself. I’m sure there were times others chastised him for not getting a real job. But finally, it paid off.
As my religious mother frequently reminds me, “God’s time is not our time.” A few months, or even a few years, to reach where I can best benefit all is irrelevant. As long as I’m following the steps I’m called to make, and trusting that eventually those steps will result in a greater accomplishment, it’s impossible to be “doing nothing.” Until then, it’s important to recognize that what I’m doing is worthwhile and celebratory.
Allison is a freelance writer, ESL teacher, and tea and coconut water enthusiast. She writes about travel, bodies, love, human rights, and the awkward situations and entertaining conversations that happen in our daily lives.