Walking Your Path

Iris Jong

In the aftermath of my first four post-undergrad years, I am surprised to realize that I have, more or less, successfully met the career goals I set in college and in the years since.

I proved myself worthy of a coveted management consulting job. I then survived three years of management consulting, and my resume is adorned with some very sexy phrases, like Strategy & Innovation and Strategic Projects and C-Suite Executives and $200M in sales. I held true to my principles and abandoned the corporate world for a nonprofit job, and have been working for the last 1.5 years at a fantastic, effective, efficient organization, on a team that regularly makes me laugh until tears spring from my eyes. I negotiated a part-time schedule and get to spend huge swathes of time doing illustration, comics, writing, and coding. I am living the “nonprofit strategy + creative side projects” vision I concocted years ago.

So, yes, congratulations to me. But tales like that are deceptive, just as LinkedIn profiles and Twitter follower counts and speaker bios are deceptive. I am lucky to have accomplished what I set out to do, but written out like that, it seems far neater than the last four years—actually, make it six, because that’s when I started fretting seriously about post-grad jobs—really felt. I can make my path sound like a nice, straight line, four points mapped onto a quadrant, but that’s the work of hindsight.

The thing is, finding out that you got the job takes seconds. Living through the job, on the other hand? Years. It’s inhabiting the job that comprises the bulk of your life. Which means summaries like the above, which center on the getting of the job, are necessarily incomplete.  

I made it into consulting, but I mostly did not enjoy being there! In middle school, I pored over issues of Businessweek and fancied that business executives spent hours lounging in expensive chairs, fingers steepled, untangling thorny issues and plucking brilliant ideas from the ether by thinking really, really hard. A few months into consulting, I realized that business was less about executing intellectual feats and more about emailing lots and lots of people and meeting with all of them to inform them of the people they needed to email. Dramatic oversimplification, but still. The point is that my experience being in consulting was drastically different from what most students wistfully imagine it to be.

And, listen, I love my job now, but in a few months, I don’t think it’ll be enough. I’m going to have to move on eventually. The real, true, cosmically unfair thing is that I don’t know what comes next. I have ideas (too many ideas), but not one of them has come forward and declared itself The One.

So! Like you, I am still striving and uncertain. It’s just that I’ve had an extra four, five, six, whatever years to amble forward on my path. But it’s not like I can see where the rest of it goes. I’m not sure I ever will, nor do I really want to. Because that means I’ll have settled. That means nothing in my life will markedly change ever again. Ambiguity remains my nemesis, but stagnation is way worse.

I hope this is reassuring rather than wildly upsetting. I hope you abandon any illusions that you will at any point finally feel like you’re done, like you’re satisfied, like you’ve finally made it. There is no it to be made.

Finding your way forward is a total paradox, I know. True: your first job out of college won’t cement your fate. Also true: it could very well determine the first several years of your career. ALSO true: you have the power to shape your career at any point in your life, no matter how many years you have behind or ahead of you.

True: some combination of majors, minors, courses, internships, extracurriculars, research projects, etc. etc. is going to earn you a coveted job. Also true: you can whip yourself into a frenzied, frothing mess, trying to divine an ideal combo of accomplishments, and still end up not getting the job, or getting the job and hating it, all while hating your four heart-crushing, soul-compacting years of undergrad.  

And so: have dreams and work hard, but make sure your dreams are true to you. Do more things for the joy of it, because that’s how you figure out the best contribution you can make to the world. Take more classes for the intellectual pleasure, not for the winnable grade. Worry some, but not so much that it breaks you.

You’ll figure it out. In a few years, you’ll have your own glossy little bio. It’ll be great. But then you’ll still have over forty years’ worth of your path to figure out. So have faith that you’ll be able to, not just now but always.