I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life when I graduated. Actually, that’s a lie. I had thousands of ideas of what I wanted to do, I just had no direction.
Three years ago I was living in DC, spending the last semester of my senior year giving bicycle and segway tours around the city. Like many of my peers, I had no idea what I wanted to do after graduation, so I did my best to stay busy and not think about the inevitable.
On one particular sunny May afternoon I was in the middle of leading a three-hour bike tour when I decided to give the guests (and myself) a break and let everyone roam free around the Jefferson Memorial for about fifteen minutes.
The second I was left alone, a sheer sense of panic crept over me that left me frozen. I was two weeks away from graduating and I had no idea what I was going to do.
This was no sudden epiphany for me. I’d been asking myself the inevitable “what do I want to do with my life?” question since September. But the panic had never taken over me the way it did at that moment. “Gradmageddon” was inching closer and closer every day, and there was no way to run away from it.
I don’t know if it was the sun, the act of gliding by the soothing Potomac River on my bike, or Thomas Jefferson’s noble and wise gaze looking towards me and my future, but I got struck by a sudden moment of clarity. I wanted to pursue a creative path.
To anyone else this might have been like any other passing thought, but to me this hit me like a truck traveling at a million miles per hour. This was my “gradpiphany.”
At the moment, I didn’t know what kind of creative path I wanted to take, and to be honest, it didn’t matter. It’s hard to explain, but something just felt right.
As soon as I closed up the tour, I took my bike and went back to the National Mall, where I found a tree to lay under while I called a very good friend. Word vomit and emotions ensued. I cried, I laughed, I rambled. I was hysterical, excited, terrified, and confused, yet invigoratingly clear and uncomfortably serene.
During that conversation, I decided to move to New York City. Looking back now it’s all a blur. There was no plan, not even a job, just a very intense feeling in my gut that this was what I needed to do.
I’d always enjoyed drawing and doodling but really had no concrete creative skills and I knew that. I needed to learn and practice. I also needed to get a better idea of what a “creative job” meant. And, above all, I needed to make money.
I told myself that a job as an assistant in a creative environment would be the perfect place for me to start. It would allow me to get a better idea of what opportunities are available and what skills I would need to develop to land the coveted “creative” title.
I moved to New York City in July and landed a job as an Administrative Assistant to the creative department of an advertising agency by August. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was doing something right.
Although it was a great place to be, I knew this job wouldn’t be enough. I decided the best thing for me to do was to dive straight into every “creative” event I could find. I went to everything and met everyone: graphic designers, illustrators, UX designers, architects, industrial designers, writers, photographers, fine artists, chefs, developers, startup wiz kids, etc. I didn’t think, I just focused all my energies on meeting as many people people and hearing as many stories and experiences as I could.
Through these conversations, one thing really caught me by surprise: some people have incredibly interesting stories.
I naturally gravitated towards the individuals who started off in totally different backgrounds and made the most out of their experiences to get to where they are now. These people didn’t spend their undergraduate years taking courses that were relevant to what they’re doing now. When they graduated, they weren’t any more composed or prepared than I was. If anything, I got a couple of congratulations for knowing that my direction was to find a direction. Some people had a series of three or four jobs before they found their true calling. Others went through three or four careers before “gradpiphany” got to them.
I must have heard over a hundred life stories during that time and one thing rang true for everyone: if they were to do it all again, they wouldn’t change a single thing.
Every person kept telling me about how each past job and experience allowed them to learn a skill that benefited them in the long run, helping to build them up to where they are now. A lot of people also mentioned how coming from different backgrounds enabled them to stand out and gain a competitive advantage over others who had been working in the same field for their entire career.
The consensus: it’s perfectly okay, if not encouraged, to make this whole “life” thing up as you go. Allow your experiences, not your thoughts or perceptions, to build your path for you.
It’s been three years since I graduated and I’m the first to say that I’m still in the process of defining a clear direction for myself and defining my own “dream job.” But I’m having a blast with the process. I’m meeting new people and exposing myself to all kinds of stories and life paths, allowing me to learn more about myself every day. I’m happy with where I am and excited with what the future will bring, especially because I have no idea where it’s going to take me.
That being said, I’m also the first to admit that the process can also make you feel hysterical, like the universe is about to implode into itself and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. So to that, I offer some key nuggets of advice that I’ve used as my “strings to sanity” in moments of mayhem:
*Make every experience count. What can you learn from this job that can give you a competitive edge in another job or industry? Make every skill a transferable skill. As someone much smarter than me once said, “Keep a running note of what works and what doesn’t work for you, what you like and what you don’t like, what you’re good at and what you aren’t, the work styles that suit you and what doesn’t, where you passions lie and what leaves you cold.”
*Stay open to opportunities. Dare to say yes to new things – you’ll be surprised by what you learn about yourself.
*Never stop exploring your interests. These will lead you down the clearest path to uncovering your true passions, to figuring out what makes you happy. Plus, they have the power to take you further than any major, internship, or job ever will.
*Get involved with communities. Meet people and hear their stories, this is how you learn things that you won’t learn from any class or TED talk.
*Be kind. Because good things happen to nice people and everyone likes people who are kind. It’s science.
*Fake it ’til you make it. You’ll feel like you’ve made it every single day, even if it’s all in your head.
*Relax. It’s the hardest part, I know. But what’s the point of making the journey worthwhile if you don’t let yourself enjoy it? Sleep in late, eat more chocolate, go out on a Tuesday. Youth shouldn’t be wasted on the young just because we don’t have our entire lives figured out at twenty-four.