Most kids have an answer when you ask them what they want to be when they grow up. My own early career ambitions can be summarised as follows:
- Ballerina (age 6-8)
- Artist (age 11-16)
- University lecturer (age 16-22)
With the only one of these career ambitions that was ever actually realistic falling by the wayside at age 22, I have been at a loss ever since. I did a course in basic car maintenance because I had plans to go on a road trip through America, which never materialised. I tried teaching English as a foreign language for a while, in the hope of ending up somewhere exotic, but for one reason or another I never made it beyond Pocklington in East Yorkshire. Basically, I allowed myself to drift.
A visit to a careers guidance counsellor a couple of years ago helped me to realise that I hadn’t made an active decision about my career for about 15 years. The last time I really wanted something and worked hard to achieve it was when I applied to do an English degree in the UK.
I suppose moving abroad on your own is kind of a big deal when you’re 19 – I remember the first few days in my student room, feeling lonely and homesick and wondering what the next four years would be like. Maybe because living abroad was already a big deal in itself, I didn’t spend my time constructively building networks and skills and experience I could use in my future career. I attended lectures. I wrote essays. I drank a few bottles of WKD. I expanded my English idiom and cultural reference framework and tried to fit in. I also learnt the valuable lesson that most smart kids have to accept at some point: that it is easy to be a big fish in a small pond, and that outside of that small pond there are many people who are smarter than you.
In any event, I ended up leaving with a Master’s in English Literature but not much of a clue of what I wanted to do next. I had done temping work before, and knew I had to pay the rent somehow, and that was the illustrious start of my career in housing. I realise now that at that point in my life, I genuinely didn’t think I was equipped to do much more than filing and typing. I didn’t even recognise it as a lack of confidence at the time – to me it was just a fact.
I could write pages and pages about all the factors that conspired to stop me from doing anything more exciting with my life than going to the office every day, taking the odd promotion if it happened to come along, living in a drab house on a quiet estate in York, going to the supermarket and watching TV. I exaggerate for dramatic effect, of course – but genuinely, I really don’t know how I so spectacularly managed to miss the point of what being in your twenties is all about. Yes, I do regret it, even though I know that regretting stuff is pointless and unconstructive.
All of the above is probably why it feels so good to have actually made a decision, even if the decision is just that enough is enough. I still don’t really know what I want to do – but being able to do what I should have done ten years ago, i.e. allowing myself some time to maybe find out, feels great. Having drifted without aim for so long, I now intend to start drifting purposefully. And because I am still catching up on all the other stuff I should have been doing in my twenties besides working out what I want to be when I grew up, I also intend to have plenty of fun.