The first thing I did when I returned to campus was check out some books of my own choosing to read for pleasure before school inundated me with work. “Congrats on your senior year,” the librarian smiled as he returned my ID. The book I chose? “The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter and How to Make the Most of Them Now,” a somewhat desperate attempt to glean some wisdom regarding postgrad.
When I was younger, school made it seem as if there would be an easy, if not straightforward path to adulthood: Go to college, get a job, go from there. In school, I remember career posters plastered on the walls and adults playfully asking, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Back then, you would answer in one sentence, or ideally, one word. One career. My answers varied from ballerina to marine biologist to lawyer. You can’t be everything, they’d say. It’s this sort of system that only allows us to select one or two (or three, if you’re crazy) majors, the one that demands 20-year plans from us. For me, however, it has always felt unnatural and artificial to create a structured, linear path towards one aim — my experience has revealed that life is anything but predictable.
As I near graduation, I feel as if I know even less about what I want to do long-term than I did when I first started here. However, I’m learning to accept this as something positive; my confusion exists because of the luxury of choice. There are so many passions I want to pursue, so many dreams and prospects that sustain me. The horizon is much wider than when I first glimpsed it.
I think that many of my peers are drawn to consulting because of how overwhelming choice can be. We may have an idea of what we want to do in 20 years but not next year. We’re scared of risk, scared of making a real choice about our career. So, instead, we opt for something “prestigious” or something with good pay, something general enough that hides the fact that we don’t have the slightest clue about what to do next. It fits into our plans to be great leaders in whatever we do. We tell ourselves that we will acquire skills and connections, which may be true, but certainly aren’t unique to consulting. In reality, we just like the linearity of a two-year job that might funnel us into politics, business or graduate school.
This desire for rigid plans and linear career paths doesn’t just affect us right out of college, it follows us for a lifetime. When Columbia Business School professor Sheena Iyengar experimented with choice, offering people 24 jams to choose from, they had a hard time choosing one. When she reduced that number to six, people were significantly more likely to buy one. And this was just jam, mind you.
As I decide what I want to do with my post-grad life, most of my anxiety stems from the question “How will this fit into my long-term goals?” There are so many things to do, but which one is perfect for me, and which one will launch me into future success? But the truth is that no “perfect” opportunity exists. There are plenty of good opportunities and a handful of great ones, but no be-all end-all. At the end of the day, I will gain skills no matter what I choose to do. Whether I’m a consultant or an artist or a policy researcher will not single-handedly ruin or dictate my dreams 20 years from now, and we need to stop acting like it will. Pick something that interests you, and don’t obsess over its implications for your career.
Each one of us is made of multitudes. We’re not suited to only one job, one career or one type of work. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have big dreams or a tentative 5–10-year plan. Instead, I encourage you to dream big and have goals, as many as you desire. Be thoughtful about your skills and interests while rejecting the idea that a linear plan is the sole factor in what makes us successful, what brings order into the chaos of our lives.
Not only is a nonlinear career path a way to alleviate this stress, but such a path can also make us more successful. Yes, there is some value to experience and specialized knowledge that can only be accrued with years in a specific field. However, just like we claim to be on our Yale applications, there is value to being well-rounded. I want my policy-makers to have worked in the communities about which they legislate. I want my doctor to have delved into the humanities and considered more than just her science textbooks. Most importantly, however, nonlinearity in our careers teaches us to be adaptable. We handle failure better. So sure, you didn’t get that internship you thought would be a pipeline to your dream job? You’ll find a better-suited, nontraditional way to get there. It makes you unique. It makes you interesting. It makes you even more qualified.
I want to be a writer, a lawyer, a teacher, an activist and maybe even a ballerina, and I would hate for those things to be mutually exclusive. Life is too long for me not to pursue all the things I love.
Hala El Solh is a senior in Berkeley College. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .