Once upon a time, I thought I had to know the answer. To any question. To everything about which I was asked. If I couldn’t answer a question definitively, I felt like it meant I was behind and that I had somehow failed to know what I should know. That it meant I was letting the askers down and that they would judge me negatively. I think a lot of people believe this, and in particular, I think many new graduates feel this pressure keenly.
Today, I know this is not the case. (And that sometimes, the askers even intend for you to feel this way!) I also know that this does not have to be how the story ends. You can rewrite the ending — maybe even more than once. Careers, interests and lives are not necessarily linear, and if I have learned anything in the decade+ since I began my career, it is that it is perfectly okay not to know the answer as long as you are willing to work toward finding it. Because therein lies the key — I don’t know the answer. But I will find out. These are some of the most powerful words in my professional — and personal — arsenal.
There are many instances in which I have encountered this concept over the years, and I can apply it to multiple facets of my career and life. For now, I’d like to look at this concept in terms of choosing a profession. What do I want to be when I grow up? Some people know from the get-go. Some people hem and haw. Some people have no clue. But at 18-19 years of age, we choose a major.
Because at 18-19 years of age we should know what to study to get the right job.
At 21-22 years of age, we graduate with our undergraduate degree — which may or may not be in the subject we originally chose because it may have already become evident that there were things we did not know about ourselves. Having graduated, we then go get a job in the profession for which we are trained.
Because at 21-22 years of age, we should know what kind of job will satisfy and vitalize us.
Then — having chosen a career, we are identified with and by it. When we meet new people, we do the social dance: Where are you from? Where did you go to school? What do you do?
Because our profession/career should now define us.
Hmm… Noticing a pattern here? There is a lot of should going around. And there does not have to be.
The first two years after I completed my bachelor’s degree, I had jobs. I didn’t view them as a career. They were professional roles for which I was qualified and which had benefits and a paycheck attached. I learned some things. I had one good manager who taught me a great deal. (Thank you, Jeff.) I was still figuring out what I wanted so it didn’t bother me much that I wasn’t settled into a specific career path. I was working and that worked for me. But this is not thriving.
Then I took my first job in what became a decade-long career. My Political Science degree got me an entry-level paralegal position at a very good law firm. I was patted on the back and congratulated for choosing this career path. It was stable. I learned the role, sought additional education, climbed the ranks and ultimately ended up as a Legal Analyst at a top-tier company. I succeeded, right? This is IT. I should be really happy.
And I was anything but. I still was not thriving! I was bored, stressed and while good at what I did, it brought me no personal satisfaction. None.at.all. What was wrong with me? I had succeeded in building for myself a stable career in a respectable profession. And I was not happy. Worse yet, I could not answer questions about what more it would take to make me happy. (More money? A better boss? Better work/life balance?) I did not know the answer and when asked, felt like I should know how to fix this.
So I explored. I thought about it. I didn’t make any rash moves — there was no dramatic quitting of my job and then eating ice cream in front of the TV while I faux soul-searched. But if I didn’t know the answer, I needed to find it out. And that meant I went looking. I read. I talked to friends and colleagues whose opinions I valued. I was honest with myself about what I valued, what I wanted and what I no longer wanted.
I began to see that those things which I identified as ‘success’ 10 years earlier no longer aligned with my values. I honored those things that had value to me and sorted out how to give them a more prominent role in my career. And yes, I sought out more education so I that I was qualified to do what made me happy.
The result: A career change at 33 years of age and no sense of guilt for having done it. Because it isn’t a mark of failure to recognize that you didn’t know something. I did not know at 22 years of age that I would love working in the art world. I had no exposure to this field and had no way of knowing that what I thought would make me happy was not the right fit. But when I began to know what I didn’t know, I went looking for the answer. Not knowing was not failing. Not finding out would have been failure. And through my education and experience I had come to see that clearly.
So what’s next now that I took the leap and landed (happily) in a new profession? I don’t know. But I will find out. And that means I am thriving.