*This article was also printed in Whole Health Magazine

Join the club. It’s pretty rare that people follow the “Astronaut stage” with the “I know exactly what I’m going to do with rest of my life phase.”  Now, I of course see a bit of a biased sample, because people are sort of in the process of figuring out what they want to do. Or, they’ve realized their PhD in (insert Arts subject here) may not be as practical as they had originally thought. Either way, if you’re in that frustrating, uncertain, anxiety-provoking place where you don’t know what you want to “be,” are unhappy in your current job/program, or are skilled but can’t find work, this post is for you. 

First, though (yes, there’s always a “though,”), I want to acknowledge that it can be rather annoying getting career and/or employment advice from people who claim to have their “dream job”–or any job at all, really. I’m a pretty calm person, and I think I had my most antisocial urges in response to securely employed people telling me to “keep [my] chin up” or “do what makes [me] happy” and crap like that (FYI, I couldn’t find a full-time counselling job for almost a year after getting my Masters). So, I acknowledge that nothing I say is going to extinguish the feelings of frustration, anxiety, urgency, and meaninglessness that come along with being unemployed, employed in job you don’t like, or uncertain about if you should go back to school and what you should take if you do. Still, hopefully you can get something from some of these tidbits.

DO:

  • Start Somewhere–don’t wait “until”: While you’re trying to decide what you want to do for a living, or waiting for the dream job to come up, it can be very tempting to wait. To wait until you’re certain, or until the job is there. Think of it as a bidirectional process in that whatever your’e doing builds relationships, experience, and $$. I worked at a yoga studio for almost a year because I couldn’t find work related to my degree. I made $12/hr and spent a good part of my day cleaning and arranging the studio. But you know what? It was an incredible experience. I’ve never learned so much from a group of women.
  • Focus on living alongside the process, not getting to the destination/title/endpoint: There will always be another course to take, certificate to gain, title to add to your name. Place your focus on where you’re at in the present, rather than how far away you are from the said end point. Also, take into account all the learning you’re doing through experience that had nothing to do with the content of the education or job (or lack thereof) in which you’re currently occupied. For example, if you’re in school, focus on the time management and critical thinking skills you might be gaining. If you’re working a job that’s unrelated to what you want to be doing, focus on the patience and tolerance you’re likely developing (cough customer service cough). If you’re unemployed, consider the skills you’re developing in managing anxiety and underconfidence, and creating structure in an unstructured setting. You get the idea. Create meaning in your experience, and all of a sudden it might not be all about getting to the next step.
  • Take a Reality Check: This might be a tough one to hear, but our generation has been fed a bit of that “you can do anything you want to do” statement. Well, there is a lot of truth to this, but the piece that often gets misconstrued is “You can do anything you want to do and make 6 figures for doing it.” It might be a bit of give and take, folks. Sometimes doing what we love doesn’t pay for a condo downtown, but doing what does comes at the cost of your soul (you lawyers hear me…). Figure out where you’re willing to give a little to find a balance of security and satisfaction.
  • Do the personality and career tests, but don’t give them more weight than your gut: I get a lot of clients who are very unhappy with what they’re learning, or with their current direction, but “the career tests told [them] they should be a (insert personally unfulfilling career title here).” People. A computer does not know what will make you happy in 10 years. And, bless your CAPP 11 teacher’s soul, neither does s/he. Career exploration is a dynamic process. Nevertheless, here is a link to some free career testing. Check it out.
  • Consider your values underneath it all: You know those stories about people who make millions, but feel totally conflicted because it’s at the cost of some endagered species or something? Think about your values. What’s important to you? Some people don’t mind the uninspiring salary associated with a nonprofit, because the cause is enough inspiration to keep them feeling fulfilled.
  • Think of it as being a possibilty that you can be a “_____ and” rather than a “________.”: Particularly in this economy, it might be more realistic to work a couple of positions part-time, or do what you love but also do what you have to in order to pay the gazillion dollars of rent Vancouver sucks out of you each month. You can be a firefighter and a trainer, a marketer and a server, a carpenter and a student.
  •  Remember you are not sentenced to this career for your life. Take the pressure off that you can only make “one decision” and it has to be the right one. You’re not going to know whether or not you like what you’re doing until you’re actually experiencing it. Sure, you can increase the odds that you’ll like what you’re doing by researching and shadowing and introspecting and all the rest, but the reality is that no matter how much we try to predict and control our futures, we can’t guarantee them. Make a decision, get started, and evaluate as you go. Additionally, there’s this old-school idea that we choose a path and must follow it until the day we die. Sure, I’m a therapist right now, but who knows if that’s what I’ll be in 10 years if I’m still around? That brings me to my next bullet point…
  • Give yourself permission to change your mind: But first, make sure that you genuinely dislike the job/career choice as opposed to being unhappy for other reasons. If you tend to be someone who’s gone from career to career (similar to going city to city), “searching” for what “feels right,” the “right” job may not be the answer. Chat with a counsellor instead.
  • Develop an answer to the “So what do you do?” question, and own it: I was at my Grandfather’s funeral during my “can’t find a job after 7 years of education” phase. I had been working at a yoga studio while starting up a private practice and doing some random part-time contract work and volunteering on the side to keep up my clinical skills. It was a big funeral, with a lot of people I’d either never met or hadn’t seen in 20 years. Of course, the first thing everyone asks is “What do you do?” My response to the first 35 people was this long, drawn out justification as to why I was “only” working at a yoga studio. But I started to become aware of my need to explain my situation, and aware that this came from my own judgment that a minimum-wage job wasn’t “good enough,” and aware that I really cared what all these strangers thought. My instinct to person #36 was to say, “If one more person asks me that question, there’s gonna be more than one death we’re acknowledging here.” But thanks to the non-reactivity that I ironically honed in the yoga room (occupation: rationalized), I was able to smile and say proudly, “I work at a yoga studio.” And that became my response with the rest of inquirers that evening, and every instance following. “Oh, so you’re a yoga teacher?” they would say. “Nope. I work at the front desk. Oh, and I clean the studio and the mats!” This became an excellent practice in not giving a crap what others think.

DON’T

  • Let pride get in the way: Mr. Noodles for every meal might sound like a good idea at first, but it gets unappetizing pretty quickly. So does scurvy. Don’t sacrifice your basic needs because you don’t want to take a job at a coffee shop to pay your bills. I have so much respect for people who are humble and confident enough to roll up their sleeves and do jobs some consider to be “beneath them.” Employers appreciate this, too. What does it say about someone who has doggedly trudged through college/university, yet is still willing to get their hands dirty? #hardworking
  • Let “Shoulds” get in the way (e.g. parents, society): You have no idea how many clients I speak to who want to go into the trades, or the arts, or not go to school at all, but they feel like such jobs aren’t acceptable, or they have to work Monday to Friday to raise a family, or they’ll be undesirable if they don’t make a certain income a year. There is no “judge” out there evaluating who is better than whom based on their choice of career (and society’s skewed understanding of what makes a career valuable). Do what you enjoy/are interested by, and feel sad for those by whom you feel judged because they’re likely held back from happiness by their own “shoulds.”
  • Underestimate the importance of the people you’ll be working with: Think about the favourite jobs you’ve had, and what’s made them so. Was it actually the task you were being paid to do that made it enjoyable? Maybe. But in many cases it’s the people that make it what it is. Your coworkers or frequent customers or a supportive manager, etc. A job can meet more than just our financial needs; it can meet our social needs, too. Take that into consideration (but maybe don’t tell the interviewer you’re applying to “hang out.”).
  • Look at the salary…too hard: “You mean I can make 6 figures, and all I have to do is move to a remote town Northwest Territories with zero social supports and limited internet access and only 3 weeks a year that are plus 0 degrees C, and work a high-stress job?!!! Sweet!!!” Consider the “cost” of hating your job. How much would you pay to like what you’re doing with your time? Feel more positively about life? Have more to talk about in your relationship other than how much work sucks? Be happy? Cost:Benefit is not all about numbers.
  • Beat yourself up for making the “wrong decision.” How were you supposed to know you wouldn’t like computer programming, or law, or lion taming? We make our decisions based on the information we have available to us at the time. Congratulate yourself for having become aware of it now, exhibiting freedom and responsibility to get out of a shitty situation, and make a change.
  • Do something just because you invested time and money in a program to do it. If you invested 4 years in a relationship that ended, should you be expected to make it work simply because of the time and money spent on that person? Part of finding out what we do want is experiencing what we don’t want, and our minds change.
  • Let your critical voice tell you you’re too old: The average age of students where I work is 27. That being said, I have clients all the time who are in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. And actually, of my colleagues went back to school to become a counsellor at 50, and he tells me it was the best decision he ever made. That voice may come from good intention, but quite frankly, it’s wrong. It’s not “too late.” You’re not “too old.” As Earl Nightingale said, “Don’t let the fear of the time it will take to accomplish something stand in the way of your doing it. The time will pass anyway.”

Finally, as always, be compassionate to yourself as you go through this challenge–valuable as the exploration/change/experience is, it’s effing tough. Remember you’re not alone. Remember the idea that you’ve “failed” (if that idea is present) is not couched in truth. Remember that, like your relationship status, your health, and your belongings, your career/program/unemployment shares the qualities of transience and impermanence; so, focus on savouring the good that you are able to experience in the present moment, while simultaneously giving yourself compassion for the bad and props for being in the process of change.

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