Dear Dr. Andrea,
I am 32, in a very happily committed relationship, with a great group of friends and several interests that keep me busy. My life on the surface seems like it’s going generally pretty well, even with the difficulties of this past year. I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, as ridiculous as that sounds for someone in their 30s.
I fell into a job after college that I didn’t love, just as a placeholder to pay rent and start adulting. Here I am 10 years later in that same job, a little bit advanced but not enough to be exciting or make me feel like this is what I want for my life. Twenty-two-year-old me would have been dismayed to know that I hadn’t left by now.
I know I should be trying to explore all kinds of other options, but I don’t even know what I would want to do. The problem is, my partner and I are thinking about starting a family in the next couple of years, and I know I would want to have an active role, if not as a fully at-home parent, at least as the one who had a flexible-enough schedule that I didn’t have to put my job first. My current job could offer that, along with decent benefits. Part of me thinks about just hanging in there for that reason alone. I do know I am lucky to be securely employed in something I don’t hate, but if I do that, then I worry that I’ll blink and another 10 or even 20 years will have passed by and I will have real regrets. Any advice?
— Career coasting
The way I see it, you’re adding a layer of criticism to yourself that is quite unjustified — and unhelpful. It’s not “ridiculous” at all to feel unfulfilled by a job and want something more meaningful, whether you’re 20, 32 or 65. And you’d likely be surprised at how many people I talk to in your very same situation. I’d argue that we do kids and adults a disservice when we view “What do you want to be when you grow up?” as a fill-in-the-blank short answer, rather than an essay question with room for a bunch of footnotes.
So give yourself some credit: You’ve built a life that has a lot of wonderful things in it, and you chose a job that offered tangible positives and allowed you to build an independent life. Of course, that said, it’s good to be wondering whether there’s something out there that’s a better fit.
I recommend not looking at finding the “perfect job” or the “right” career as a box to check. Not only will no job or career ever feel perfect or right at all times, but career searching is not a one-and-done process. And with the majority of Americans changing not just jobs but careers multiple times over the many decades of their work life, it no longer makes sense to think of yourself as locked in to anything — at any point. Even people happy in their jobs may be well-served by thinking about other possibilities. Decent benefits and flexible hours are nothing to discount when you are thinking of starting a family (this isn’t Norway), but that is not mutually exclusive with exploration into something else.
For that exploration, I highly recommend some sessions with a skilled career counselor. Think of this as an opportunity to consider your options and learn more about yourself. Such a coach will give you assessments that illuminate how your skills, interests, experience and personality combine to point to certain jobs and away from others. And it’s not like you’d be forced to make any decisions about your current situation. Maybe you’ll put whatever you learn aside until your kids are in elementary school — or even later. Maybe you’ll jump on an idea and get motivated to apply to a new job next month. Maybe you’ll decide to take a few classes to explore new options before you have a baby keeping you awake. It’s all — I promise — 100 percent okay.
So, dispense with what you should have done until this point. You’re exactly where you should be. Now, you just need to do yourself the favor of learning more about what you want in the future.