Of course you don't know what you want to do with your life.
It would be weird if you did. If you're feeling anxiety about this, it's only because you have believed a particularly dumb and mean lie grown-ups tell us: that there is a template for a human life, and that by your early 20s you should know "what you want to do." If you don't know by 30, that means you don't care or aren't trying hard enough.
Well, I'm here to say that it's not your fault. And I can prove it.
You probably went to school with obnoxious people who, from their early college years on, had zeroed in on a great career. They knew they wanted to be a doctor/engineer/whatever at 19, and by 29 they were that thing. Hooray for them. I look forward to seeing their vacation pics on Facebook and to getting cut off in traffic by their BMW 5 Series. Here's the part everyone leaves out:
They were lying. They didn't know. The teenage aspiring lawyer knows as much about what that job entails as the average alligator knows about robbing a casino. They are aspiring to the job based on a fantasy cobbled together from hearsay and Hollywood. Maybe, by coincidence, that job will fit them like a glove, but they never "knew" they wanted to do it.
Trust me, you can do a job for years before you "know" what it's like -- the day-to-day mental and emotional toll, the long-term prospects, the ugly parts they don't put in the brochure. And even then, being an attorney in a firm in New York is radically different from being one in Hogchunk, Arkansas, and in both cases the job will look radically different in 2037.
If you truly don't know what you want to be, that is not your fault. In truth, the only difference between you and those born winners is that you are aware of not knowing. Some of them will simply feel it as a gnawing angst in middle age that they'll tamp down with cocaine and illicit sex.
Kids never get context. From birth, you're struggling to figure out how things are, let alone how they got to be that way (actually, the average adult never figures this out either). Well, let me give you the context that makes "What do you want to be when you grow up?" such an asinine question.
Until very recently in human history, there existed exactly one job: survive. Hungry? Get food. Tired? Sleep. In danger? Run or fight. The future did not exist -- the concerns of the present occupied all of our brain power. If I'm making this sound beautiful and natural, keep in mind that only 25 percent of humans made it past age 40, and that most deaths were due to brutal violence or horrific accidents -- step in a hole and break your ankle, you lay there in the snow until a wolf comes along and starts gnawing at your genitals.
Realizing that this sucked, humans started to form bigger and bigger tribes, which allowed us to look out for each other. Soon, the number of "jobs" a person could potentially do started to grow. A village needed a person who only weaved baskets, or administered medicine, or stood screaming in the field to keep the crows away. Still, there probably was not a whole lot of choice in the matter beyond "Damn, you suck at this. Go help Ogg pile firewood."
Then we formed cities and nations, at which point there were hundreds of possible careers, but even then, you were usually born into one. That's why so many of our last names are the names of a family job (Farmer, Smith, Mix-A-Lot). Life still sucked in a lot of ways, but it was the rare person who was even asked the question "What do you want to do?" You smith the metal, get married, have kids, die. That was common all the way up to the 1950s and '60s -- you worked on the family farm or helped dad in the machine shop. If not, you still didn't venture far -- if you grew up in a coal mining town, you probably mined coal.
Only recently did we start telling kids "You can be whatever you want to be." Today, anyone can go to college and/or move away to follow their dreams. That's great, but it's also occurring in a society so complex that you can go search a list of 12,000 careers right now, and that's by no means comprehensive. (Where's "Twitch streamer?") Now multiply that by all of the variations within that career (like our city vs country lawyer example above), then add in all of the jobs that don't exist yet but will shortly (there was no internet when I was a teen, and you might someday be surprised to find you're a great nanobot exterminator). Now you have a list of hundreds of thousands of choices, with no ability to find out in advance which one is right for you.
This is also not your fault.
So you, young person, stand before a row of hundreds of thousands of doors. It stretches for miles, vanishing over the horizon in both directions. You know that behind some of them is gold, behind others a wolf that will launch itself at your genitals. Instead of a lock, there is connected to each door a large barrel that must be filled with your own blood and sweat ... and that's just to see what's behind the door.
Hell, even that is a bit of an understatement. Finding out you picked the wrong career may cost you a lifetime of debt, endless ruined relationships, and every bit of your physical prime. Restarting and selecting a different door requires ten barrels of blood, maybe more than you have in your veins. You may find yourself unable to take on the additional education debt or unable to move to where the new job is. You may be constrained by family obligations (it's cool to room with three friends in a storage locker when you're 22 and trying to launch a business, not so much when you're 40 with three kids).
Nobody tells you this in advance. Oh, we make sure to tell kids they can be whatever they want (which is great!), but always omit the fact that there is virtually no system whatsoever for narrowing down the choice. What we have instead is college, where you'll pay the price of a mansion for an education that begins by requiring that you already know what you freaking want to do. In other words ...
Imagine a giant machine called society, one that is sputtering and smoking because it is missing many gears. Now imagine a cliff looming overhead, and down from it tumbles millions of loose gears being carelessly dumped out of a box. They kind of bounce around the machine until some of them land in gaps and start turning in conjunction with the rest. Many others roll off and land in the dirt, doomed to rust in the rain. That's how the system works right now. It is at times cruel and/or unfathomably stupid.
It's not your fault. You didn't design the system. Nobody did. Everyone is making this up as they go. This, incidentally, is what everyone in the Western world is so mad about these days. It always comes out as anger about "the economy" or "outsourcing" or "immigration," but all that's truly happened is a gross failure to connect people to jobs. Over here we have a river of the anxious unemployed, and over here we've got a dry desert of industries begging for workers. If that last part of the metaphor confuses you, it's because you've been told the ridiculous lie that there are "no jobs out there." Ask any manager or HR person, and they'll rant about how they can't find good people. Hell, they won't even wait for you to ask -- simply get within earshot, and you'll hear them talking about how the kids today lack skills and work ethic, all that bullshit.
If only they knew that the perfect engineer they're looking for is currently working in a Dunkin' Donuts in Indiana, and was never trained to be an engineer. She went to college to be a veterinarian because she loves animals, realized her mistake with her hands wrist-deep in sheep guts, then had to drop out and take a job to help pay the bills when Mom's disability checks got cut off. She quickly found that society will offer virtually no help whatsoever in getting her into the job where she can do the most good for herself or society. Even if her motivation is to get off food stamps and become a more productive citizen, the response is all snide mockery and talk of bootstraps. "You say you can't afford college, but I see that you have A PHONE!!!"
In fact, she will find that society actively stops her at every turn. Maybe she pulls off a miracle and gets into a school for engineering, only to find out that field is 87 percent male, and the men tend to treat the women like shit. Oh yeah, that's the other thing: Some of the gears on our proverbial machine don't want more gears around. Never mind that the whole thing works better with more gears -- people with jobs make life better for everyone -- on an individual level, they don't want the competition.
This is why you get that weird paradox whereby those bitter unemployed people, the stereotypical Trump voters the news keeps interviewing, seem to be making a series of incompatible demands:
"We have too many lazy foreigners coming here and sucking up our welfare!"
So you want them to get work?
"And steal our jobs? NO!"
So you want them to stay in their home countries and build up their own economies?
"With China and Japan already eating our lunch? The last thing we need is another economic powerhouse flooding the world with exports!"
So you want them to stay home and remain in poverty?
"No, you fool! That's what makes them come here in the first place!"
They don't know what they want, because they aren't mad at the right thing. They need work, and there's plenty of work that needs done; there just is no pipeline connecting the two. It's not their fault. Our system uses human talent about as efficiently as a dog eats peanut butter.
I wish I could give you someone to blame -- Wall Street, the politicians. Those people are bad at managing the problem -- they seem to think it's cheaper to give up on humans than teach them -- but they didn't create it. This system feels like a shitstorm to you because you weren't built to live in it.
Our culture changes much, much faster than humans can evolve to keep up. For example, your brain was not built to handle the information overload of the internet. How could it be? You'd need hundreds of generations sexually selecting only those who are ... good at the internet, I guess. Your brain also didn't evolve to keep up appearances for 4,000 Instagram followers or to plan your damned life 40 years in advance. For most of human history, even reaching old age was a fantasy. And you sure as hell didn't evolve to completely learn a new skill set every five years.
That's not your fault.
If you look around you, you'll see the world is full of people trying to follow their natural instincts and banging their heads against society's rules, like a panicked housefly trying to escape through a closed window. It's silly to ask why the world is full of violent criminals. For most of history, violence wasn't a crime; it was how you won the best mates and perpetuated your genetic line. It's ridiculous to ask why there are so many lazy people when it appears that hunter-gatherers may have only worked 15 hours a week. It's cruel to mock someone for not having a large circle of friends when there's a good chance they were descended from nomads who for the most part spoke only to their families.
You're not weird. You're the pinnacle of evolution, a marvel of nature, part of a species so mind-bogglingly adaptable that we'd already be living on the moon if the place hadn't turned out to be so boring. It's the world that got weird.
The best things and the worst things are often the same. For example, freedom.
You know how everybody used to fantasize about flying cars? It used to be a catchphrase ("It's 1995, where are the flying cars, damn it?"). Well, imagine you climbed into a car for your morning commute and the thing suddenly took to the air. For a moment there would be a sense of wonder. You can go anywhere! All of those congested roads can suck it! Then you hit the accelerator and the car launches itself forward at 600 miles an hour. Before you even stop screaming, you've crashed into a mountain, where your broken body will remain until a wolf comes along and eats your genitals.
Flying is great, traffic and potholes suck, but you need a whole new set of tools to navigate this situation. That's freedom in a nutshell. Freedom is the best thing in the Universe, but it takes a massive amount of mental energy to deal with it. More than what evolution has given you. You were born in the aftermath of a world in which the path of a human life could only branch a few different ways, into a world in which you can, depending on how you play your cards, either freeze to death on park bench or make six figures unboxing toys on YouTube.
So if you ask me what skills you need to survive this marvelous, idiotic, out-of-control flying car of a society, I won't talk about learning to code or mastering the art of robot repair (though those can't hurt). I would instead say that you need to learn the art of quitting. Knowing when and how to walk away, to restart, to deal with the anxiety of uncertainty. That's what this is really all about: learning to ignore the sunk costs of time and effort and push ever forward, sensing when you're stagnating, realizing that most humans prefer the comfort of misery over the terrifying risk of change.
Along the way, you have to remember that there is no such thing as wasted time, as long as you're trying. That bad job still taught you skills you'll absolutely need down the line (time management, patience, interpersonal relations, organization, and, most importantly, the knowledge of what elements to avoid in your next job).
I mentioned before that when I graduated high school, websites didn't exist. I got a degree in broadcast journalism, failed in that field after less than two years, took a series of minimum-wage office jobs, attempted to go back to college, washed out, put myself deep in debt to earn several PC repair certifications, failed to get a job doing that, all the while spending 30-40 hours of my spare time writing comedy on the internet for no pay. In the few years before Cracked hired me as an editor, I had gotten turned down for jobs working in a Social Security office and a UPS warehouse, and considered myself lucky to have worked my way up to being the lowest-level supervisor in an insurance company's data entry center. I had $15,000 in credit card debt, and was trying to figure out how to borrow the money necessary to get a certification in MS Access.
And you know what? In this ridiculous job, I've wound up using every bit of that shit. The ability to research and fact-check (journalism school), write on a deadline (my brief time as a local TV producer), create and manage spreadsheets (from doing billing in a law office), give clear quality control feedback (my years doing QA in an insurance office), and to adapt to an industry that abruptly changes every six months (an entire decade of costly, frustrating, discouraging career reboots).
As far as I can tell, that's all you can do -- keep trying, keep learning from your mistakes, keep listening to other people in order to learn from theirs. But through it all, realize that this uncertainty is normal, a product of a haphazard, unfair system no one would have ever designed on purpose. The anxiety is a side effect you have to manage -- it's not going away. And, most importantly of all, realize that you're not lost in the woods waiting for your life to start. This is your life, and some of the shit you hate now is the same shit you'll miss later.
But don't let this nonsense system -- or the people lucky enough to feel at home in it -- make you hate yourself. Here's a little girl mistaking a hot water heater for a robot:
David Wong is the Executive Editor at Cracked. His new book, WHAT THE HELL DID I JUST READ, is available for preorder now at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound, iBooks and Kobo. For more must-read life advice from David Wong, check out Why Anxiety Is The Plague Of The Modern World and 6 Secret Beliefs That Are Making Us All Unhappy.
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