As a child, I had an infinite supply of future jobs to dip into and pluck out at my will. My dreams lurched from best-selling author to University philosophy lecturer, to leading Hollywood film director and even a brief stint as a frontline paramedic (I blame this on watching too many back to back episodes of Casualty).
But now, at the ripe old age of twenty-five, I lie awake at night fretting about ‘missed opportunities’ and ‘career progression’ and ‘getting my foot in the door’. In Western society, one heavily emphasised metric of success is your occupational position and status. In other words, your job – how you generate an income, the skills you foster and how you spend most of your daylight hours from Monday through to Friday. I’ve also found that this focus on your vocation tends to bleed into forming part of your central identity – “what do you do?” tends to be one of the first questions people ask when making small talk, and work tales make up large parts of our daily conversations.
As someone who struggles to pinpoint one definitive dream job, this can often leave me feeling pretty deflated and hollow inside. Sylvia Plath says it better:
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
Although Plath’s symbolism here is best understood in the context of her protagonist’s deteriorating mental health, the image she paints is a pretty universal phenomenon. I’m sure I am not the only twenty-something year old, not-so-freshly graduated from University, experiencing an ongoing quarterlife existential crisis. The feeling of uncertainty and indecision that Plath describes is all encompassing and suffocating – the knowledge that by choosing one ‘fig’ (future life path) you are instantaneously destroying ten others before they have even had a chance to blossom into something worth desiring. This notion that you must choose one fig and persevere with it, to avoid it rotting before you can even reach it.
I know it’s not the cheeriest sentiment in the world, but I couldn’t help feeling my chest swell when I first stumbled upon this passage. Plath had put perfectly into words the feelings that I naively thought only I had experienced. I don’t really know what direction I want my life to go in and this lack of clarity is completely paralysing.
Don’t get me wrong – I have a great life and am unbelievably grateful for the position I find myself in right now. After University I took a plunge I didn’t even realise I needed to, and moved to Switzerland to work in academic publishing for a couple of years. Now I work in London, helping to edit content from leading healthcare journals. Neither profession is one that I would’ve predicted myself to end up in, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy my job. I am good at what I do and am learning new skills every day. But am I working towards a tangible end point and focusing all my efforts on progressing up a single ladder? Not exactly.
I don’t really know what direction I want my life to go in and this lack of clarity is completely paralysing.
The fact that I’m not chasing after my wildest dreams and have all of my efforts pinned on one linear career path scares me. It makes me feel unmotivated and lacking ambition. Throughout formal education we are constantly working towards a systemic goal and being tested along the way. The end point differs between individuals, but the structure remains the same. Now, I’m left without structure. I’m living out the middle of a story, with no ending.
It turns out, after forcing several friends to discuss this topic with me, I am definitely not alone in feeling a bit lost right now. In fact, knowing I’m not alone has completely skewed my perception – for the better.
How has my perspective changed?
I think firstly it’s important to draw a distinction between what you do and who you are. Psychologists use the term ‘enmeshment’ to describe a situation where the boundaries between people become blurred, resulting in individual identities getting meshed together and losing originality. I imagine that some people in high pressure, all-consuming jobs become enmeshed with their careers and this leads to a corrosion of their essential self. But right now, one of my fears is that my lack of purpose and uncertainty on my ‘dream job’ means that I’m lacking a part of my identity. But as we’ve just seen on the flip side, becoming too entrenched and involved in a career could also lead to a feeling of lost identity. Perhaps I’m just being too pessimistic and in fact I just need to flip my perspective around entirely.
Maybe the answer is simple. Your identity is not necessarily tied into what you do for a living.
I don’t want to deny other people’s truth – for some, their job is their life. They are fortunate enough to do something that they are truly passionate about and that shapes their existence in some way or another. Their job is an intrinsic part of who they are as a person, and they can’t imagine their lives without it. But it’s also okay to not feel this way. It’s fine to disentangle your skills that make you good at a job, without them becoming your one defining quality.
My friend told me the other day that when she meets new people and goes through the obligatory introductory questions, she doesn’t answer “what do you do?” with her job title. She instead says, “I write a film blog and practise magic tricks on the side”.
Hobbies and interests are just as valid in forming who you are as a person as your job is. You don’t have to justify your existence with the work you do to earn a living. The building blocks to many vibrant, exciting, intelligent individuals is often the hobbies they do once they’ve finished their 9 to 5. It’s becoming increasingly important to many companies now to hire not solely on the basis of professional competency, but also on ‘personality fit’. I’ve learned so much from colleagues, and not just about data input and proof reading, but from their incredible, rich, colourful lives and personal stories and emotional intelligence. Humans are multifaceted, well rounded creatures and we have so much to learn from each other that goes above and beyond the office.
Maybe I don’t have a dream job in mind (yet). Perhaps it’ll take time and experience and a bit more perseverance.
Or maybe I’ll never have a dream job.
But this lack of direction will not define me. I’m going to let it inspire me to seek different paths – to taste multiple figs – and not worry about settling for just one.