Career Advice for My 20-Year-Old Self

Career Advice for My 20-Year-Old Self

Written by Emilie

Topics: Work

Note from Emilie: This post was published back in May on Thrive Global, but I’m reposting it here today because I want to share it with the Puttylike community. I originally wrote it for graduating students, as a bit of advice on starting their career journeys. But multipotentialites know that the challenges and triumphs of “graduating”—moving on, starting again, losing yourself, finding yourself and chasing your vision for your life—aren’t tied to any certain age or stage. They go on and on. They are the material we build our lives out of. Wherever you find yourself today, I hope there’s something here that speaks to you.

***

When I was 20, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I felt sure that I was supposed to be in the process of becoming something, but I couldn’t see a path in front of me.

I didn’t know what my “passion” was. I knew that I liked to play the guitar, write stories and build websites. I liked math, and I was good at it. How any of that would translate into a plausible, practical career (let alone one that might allow for a spark of fun or joy it in), was beyond me. And I didn’t want to choose just one of my interests and let all the others go. That sounded like a horrifying commitment. What if I chose the wrong thing?

Like all young adults, I sometimes got “career advice” from the old adults in my life. They meant well, but most of the suggestions were either uninspiring (Get a good job and work your way up at a prominent company.) or so vague that they weren’t suggestions at all (Just follow your interests and things will work themselves out!). Neither of these camps were totally misguided.

I have friends who adore their office jobs, and it’s true that opportunities sometimes arise when we listen to our hearts. But I had been making my way through school for basically my whole life, knowing exactly what was expected of me. Now, the path ahead seemed murky at best, and no cliché was going to save me. Where was the rule book? And when I did catch a glimpse of it, why did it read like a death sentence?

Here is the advice my 20-year-old self really needed:

1. The Linear Career Path is Extinct

There was a time when you could study something, get a job in the same field, and be set for life. That is no longer true. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American changes jobs every 4.2 years. Many of us end up working in industries that are very different from what we studied in college, and very few of us go straight down a linear path. We zigzag about, apply our skills laterally, and experiment as we go.

It can feel scary that the path from student to working professional isn’t clear and obvious. But hey, you’re free! It leaves you room for creativity, which equals endless possibility.

Take the pressure off yourself, and consider your hypothetical friend Sophie as an example. You really don’t know where that French degree will land her. Maybe she’ll end up becoming a music journalist for a Belgian magazine. Maybe she will found an international tourism company, or fall in love with chocolate brioche and become a pastry chef. For that matter, she might randomly meet a maritime archaeologist at a party and find their stories so fascinating that she ends up exploring shipwrecks in the Mediterranean!

In other words, when it comes to choosing a subject to study, you can RELAX. Whatever choice you make could influence your eventual career, but it might have very little bearing on it. And you can always change course later—everyone else will be changing constantly, forever…

2. Inventing Your Own Job is a Thing

As you move into your adulthood, some people will act like they have all the answers, but the truth is that the economy is changing so fast that nobody quite knows what’s going on. New technology is drastically altering the ways we work. With modern tools at our disposal, it is now possible to self-publish a best-seller, teach science to people on the other side of the globe, have a thriving online textile shop or bring an invention to market without investors. These tools have social drawbacks, too, but they are part of the paintbox you can use to create your career.

Think outside the box. There are loads of cool things you can do in the fields that interest you but you might not learn about such careers from guidance counselors or brochures. If you see a need, know that you can be the one to address it. If you know what you want to do, believe me when I say you can figure out how to evolve that passion into meaningful work. Don’t be afraid to forge your own path and invent your own career.

3. You Don’t Have to Choose!

I know the anxiety-provoking notion that you have to choose a specialty or you will never become successful is weighing heavily on you right now. Good news! It just isn’t true. Over the next ten years, you will meet amazing people who are doing all kinds of things: a programmer/comedian/author, a filmmaker/teacher/carpenter… Some of these people take on multiple roles or shift between professional identities out of necessity. Many, many others make the choice intentionally, because the variety suits them.

Where I Ended Up

You might be wondering how I navigated my own career. Well, the truth is that I jumped around a bunch in my twenties, and somehow eventually ended up being a writer/speaker/community leader/career coach/musician/who-knows-what-else (and guess what? I can more than pay the bills). You could say that my career navigated me—found its way through the intricacies of my talents and interests and became itself. I’ve had to get comfortable with the idea that I will never really be able to pinpoint exactly what I do, and I’m okay with that. In fact, I love that my professional identity is always evolving and I get to explore so many different things! I find my work challenging and exciting.

So I guess my final message to my 20-year-old self would be this: learn to be comfortable with not knowing what you’re going to be. Granted, it’s hard to get cozy with uncertainty, but you can’t actually know the future anyway. Be you. You’ve got this.

First published on Thrive Global on May 21, 2017.

Emilie Wapnick is the Founder and Creative Director at Puttylike, where she helps multipotentialites build lives and careers around ALL their interests. Unable to settle on one path herself, Emilie studied music, art, film production and law, graduating from the Law Faculty at McGill University. She is the author of How to Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don’t Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up. Learn more about Emilie here.

27 Comments

  1. Kristina says:

    (Long time lurker here)
    I’m thankful for posts like this because here is my story:
    When I was 22 I graduated with a bachelor degree. I applied to 120+ job applications and got none. They either way wanted to hire me without paying me (I mean what does a human need besides air and love right?!) or paying far too less in an overly expensive city and my parents aren’t richie rich. I wanted to work to sustain myself and not be dependent on my parents who paid for me 22 years of my life.
    It took over 1 year and 5 months. One of the worst times of my life so far. It depressed me greatly and still leaves anxiety.
    Now I’m 28 and on my second degree because I have no f**** idea what this sick economy wants! I get declined hundreds of time and I don’t know why. And over the course of time I blamed myself of course because it can’t be them, right?
    I study something what I really like and that relates to my former degree. I do it with 2 student loans and besides the anxiety that comes with debt I’m actually fine. I like what I do except sometimes I don’t want to study anymore or write papers in a row.
    Emilie, people like you and this community gives me so much hope and relieve not to hate myself because I can’t conform to a system let alone choose only one thing!
    Thank you from the bottom of my heart!

    • Emilie says:

      Hi Kristina,

      Thanks for your comment. You’re definitely not alone in feeling this way. I sometimes think that the reason I started my own business was so that I wouldn’t have to apply to any more jobs. :) Best of luck with your studies and I hope that the world wises up sometime soon!

    • Greg says:

      @Kristina,

      I feel your pain. I graduated right in 2008 when everything bottomed out. Spent 8 months applying to hundreds of jobs to no avail. So depressing, and my older parents had no conception of what us younger folks were grappling with. Eventually went and taught English in South America for 4 years. So, never know what the future may bring- stay flexible and create something different for yourself. Emilie’s right that the current economy has zero certainty or stability at this point, so those “career for life” jobs just don’t exist anymore.

      A good friend of mine with a degree decided that “he was tired of always trying to be qualified for somebody else” and started a small furniture/house moving company. Not the most glamorous job in the world, but now he takes every other week off and goes to Cuba! Maybe look into being your own boss?

      • Kristina says:

        You know what Greg?
        What your friend does sounds actually amazing to me! And I feel sorry for everyone who has to go through the endless job-hunting phase.
        I’m really thankful for your answer!
        Maybe I will just go self-employed in the end.
        I also had the thought of buying a small place for a Café or be part of a small Café to help them further.
        Then again I also thought about quitting Uni and just be a barrista at Starbucks for two years or so.
        The current economy is really difficult to navigate in and my parents have absolutely no inderstanding amd contineusly tell me to “finally get a job”. Easier said then done because I even applied to jobs I was over qualified for and didn’t get any of them.
        Today I saw an article that said: ” study what you want. Seriously!” and they are right. I know so many who studied a certain degree and ended up not working in those fields at all.

        • Greg says:

          Hi Kristina,

          Actually my friend complains a lot! It’s stressful being a small business owner, a lot of responsibility on his head. Maybe he’s just a complainer anyway, LOL.

          I used to teach English to an investment economist, and she explained that economics is generational: our parents rode a huge wave of expansion, while we are right now at the bottom of “The Second Great Global Contraction” The Great Depression of the 1930’s being the 1st.

          Don’t blame it all on yourself. But, I think we do all have the power to make some changes. It may take a long time, and it may take a lot of persistence, but to find something you like, or are self-employed at, is certainly possible. Emilie has certainly made it happen. Start a travel blog, start a Etsy shop, E-Publish a novel- whatever. Just get STARTED on something! You have absolutely nothing to lose other than being stuck in your current situation…

  2. Maryske says:

    You know, posts like this just make me wish I was 20 again… Emboldening me to stand up to my parents and career counselors at school etc who are always ready with the question, “What can you do with that study?” Bleh… Although if you ask me now, I’m not sure in what direction I would have gone with my studies. Much as I enjoy geography and education, I think I would have preferred to go more in the artistic direction. Screenwriting, or choir conducting, or something like that. Or something in the line of linguistics and languages. (“But what can you do with that?” Bleh…) It’s not as if I’ve actually used my master’s degree in geography after I graduated, and I’ve been out of work quite a bit even with two so practical and down-to-earth studies. So what’s the bloody difference?

    So to summarize it: this is an excellent post for anyone in that stage of life. Take it to heart, and choose what YOU want, and don’t let anyone tell you that you’ll never find a job in that!

    Meanwhile, the school year is finished here, and with it my teaching job. So I was at the unemployment office today, filling out all my details in the computer form. Unfortunately, much of it is to be chosen from dropdown menus, and often there’s a maximum number of entries I can make. The absolute most frustrating part came when I was to list my skills. Which was to include languages and countries where you were willing to move to for a job (is that a skill??). And the maximum of entries was… 18 (!!!!). Excuse me??? For a eurotrotter like myself, 18 isn’t even enough to fill in all the countries I’d be willing to move to, let alone five fluent languages – and then I didn’t even start to fill out any other skills!
    Additionally, the only teaching job I’m interested in (teaching newly arrived refugee kids) wasn’t even listed as a possibility. Conclusion: the Swedish unemployment office is not equipped for multipods. At least the lady I talked to already said herself that the system was rather outdated…

    • Emilie says:

      Oy. Yeah, that sounds about right for a governmental organization. It isn’t any better over here. I hate having to choose from a profession list when I do anything tax or banking related. So few options and so little imagination.

  3. Isadora says:

    thank you. I’m 24, still in college and I feel insecure about where all my interests will take me, because I don’t want to let go of all my passions! Your story really really helped me, and I feel more at peace now. I was getting crazy, wondering everyday about what I was going to do when I graduate. Thank you so much! I’m glad to know that there’s more people like us out there! <3

    • Emilie says:

      Hi Isadora,

      Glad I could help! You definitely don’t need to let go of all your passions. It’s totally possible to integrate your many interests into your life and do a lot of different things. It often involves figuring out your own path though, rather than going along with the crowd. Best of luck and try to view it all as a great fun experiment, if that’s at all possible. :)

  4. Verónica says:

    I’m 24 and I’ve been totally confused on what’s next in my life cause I just want to do EVERYTHING!! Thank you for your advice it soothes my mind.

  5. Carol says:

    I’m 45 and still don’t know what I want to be. I’ve even given myself permission to study again and deal with whatever debt that incurs, but I don’t know what I want to study?! Honestly – you give me hope, but I’m a little lost at the moment, and the thought of drifting through the next 20 years with no goal, (moving or not!) scares me a lot. I’ve spent 10 years in childcare which has afforded me a job that lets me spend time with my children. I cannot sustain this any longer as I’m horribly bored and frustrated. As Steve Martin said to the picture in ‘The man with two brains’ just give me a sign.
    Btw
    My name is Carol Weston and I’m a multipotentialite, what am I interested in – everything!!!

    • Ingrid Blyth says:

      Hi Carol – I am about 10 years older and I still want to do many things! For me, making a list of what I am good helped. Try it, get friends, co-workers you trust and family to help – you might have unrecognised (by you) skills. Many skills are transferable to seemingly unrelated jobs. Sometimes you can get through the job that pays the bills if you know there is something fun to do at the end of the day. How about taking some shorter course – aka, dabble a bit and see if there is something that you want to take further? When you surf the net or see a magazine what are the things that make you go ‘oooh’ and read on? Maybe they are a clue to some things you could dabble in. Maybe take a job that is out of your comfort zone but helps pay the bills that way your brain is firing up because you are learning on all fronts? Whatever you do make a move because sitting around ‘horribly bored and frustrated’ leads to analysis paralysis – i.e. too much time trying to analyse and plan leads to staying put versus taking a leap of faith. You have something to fall back on if you ever need to. Last thing – find some fun.

  6. Marie says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. I wish I could have read this when I was in highschool, having major anxiety about having to go to college per my parents request, because I had NO clue what I wanted to do and felt pressured to pick something.

  7. Nicki says:

    Thank you for this post. I am in my 40s and have just graduated for third time. I now have university qualifications in science and design. I had thought that this latest study would be it, that I would find my perfect career. It isn’t. I am still as uncertain as before but with even more skills! And I felt so guilty that I had spent more time and money on education. But then I discovered puttylike and looked at my life through a multipod lens. And everything fell into place. My career shouldn’t be about finding one thing to do. Because we’re not wired that way. So now I accept that it doesn’t matter if I morph chameleon-like into different roles. As long as I am working hard with my best effort and making a positive difference to society and the people around me. My advice to my 20-year old self and other recent graduates would be to focus on enjoying what you are doing at the time, even if it’s not quite where you want to be, and don’t worry too much. When you start to look back at your career you may be surprised to see themes in there over the long term that you didn’t realise were there, even if your career does shift around a lot.

  8. Ingrid says:

    Amen. I realised around 40 that I was good at a few things – some connected and some not, and that one of my greatest gifts was a curious mind. I get a mindset that I will learn what I need to learn to get the job done whether it is a policy/law, new software, a technique, a methodology etc – it doesn’t matter I can do a lot of things. Because of this I have forgotten more things that I can recall I have done. Should they come up again on another job it will just be a refresher. Despite this, there are employers and recruiters who don’t know what to make of me and constantly try and shove me in a nice neat box. Smaller than a coffin but similar effect! Watching your soul die in the dark is not fun. My favourite saying, coined by me (to my knowledge) is
    ‘You can’t get paid enough to be miserable in your job’

    • Katy says:

      True. Often, if you stay in a miserable job for the money, your health will deteriorate, sometimes to the point of serious illness, surgery and even death! Money can buy good healthcare, but not your actual health. If I am not learning enough in a job or feel I have learned enough, the urge to leave grows stronger and my bodymind also gives me messages in the form of declining health.

  9. Katy says:

    I’m not sure how much advice I’d want to give. If I told my 20 year-old self that a science degree isn’t that much more useful than an arts degree for jobs, I might have given up. Specific ‘trade’ degrees like Engineering or Computer Programming are more useful, but in boom and bust cycles, you can’t get jobs in those either. However, by following my interests and opportunities for growth, I have a really eclectic skill set (like many multipotentialites) and they are more transferable than people think, especially with a multipotentialite brain.

    One piece of advice I would have given myself is to not undervalue how smart and capable I am and not to worry if people think I should not stand tall or if they try to knock down my ambitions.

  10. Mohammad says:

    Hi Emilie.
    I’m so glad that one of my friends named your website in his posts:)
    Thank you for all of your posts.
    I’m from Iran and here’s a bad condition for engineering:(
    I droped out of the best university and 10 days later have the exam for med school!
    I was so afraid that my interests are gone
    But now I think maybe I can do a lot of things at the same time (computer, chess, ping-pong, poem and maybe a lot more)
    Thank you for giving me energy and showing me that there are people who do multiple things.
    Your pal and fellow multipotentialite
    Mohammad La’li

  11. Kristy says:

    Why am I just finding you? All of this, all of the information you’ve put out here, how have I missed this for so many years? I first became familiar with the term “Renaissance Soul” some years back. Even after realizing I wasn’t the only one and that I wasn’t as weird as I had previously thought, I still fought it. I’m still fighting it but today I quit. Honestly, I’ve been using the whole multipotentialite thing as crutch, as an excuse for why I’ve never had any real success because surely I can’t hop from one interest to another and have any good come from it. I know that’s crap and a cop out. Thank you for reaffirming it.

    One piece of advice I’d give my 20 year old self is “Just go for it. You’re not as weird as you think, stop making excuses, don’t feel like you’re less just because you don’t fit inside the box”

  12. Ivory says:

    I watched your ted talk and it was nice to finally be able to put a name to my multifaceted mentality. I’m 24 & going back to school this fall to study psychology. My parents are in the medical field and looked down upon the idea but irdc. I love all things psychology and I’m struggling at deciding what I want to specialize in because I literally want to DO IT ALL. Becoming therapist, industrial/organizational psychologist, minoring in marketing/advertising so that I can incorporate that with the way consumers are triggered to make a purchase ALL intrigue me equally. I also am a writer and would love to get into journalism. Also I’ve been looking into doing voice-over acting as I am quite talented at reading a script and fluctuating my tone. As you can see I’m pretty much every where & I wish I can do it all. Somethings gotta give!

  13. Phoebe says:

    I want to be everything too!! I WILL BE EVERYTHING! Except anything medical, I don’t like blood

  14. Katharine says:

    LOVE this. Love you! Finding puttylike was one of the most affirming and inspirational experiences I’ve ever had. I stopped thinking I was a quitter who could never commit to mastering anything, and I embraced the fact that I’ve simply mastered the art of hobby acquisition! The hobbies and interests themselves aren’t what I love, it’s the process of discovering and learning them that has my heart. Thank you thank you thank you.

    Unfortunately, I still haven’t figured out what to do with that information! I’m 22, newly married (1 month!), newly graduated with a degree in both accounting and finance (2 months!), and new to the full-time workforce (1 month!).I’ve had this job throughout most of my college years, they just moved me to full-time once I graduated. I love the people here (super small office) and I don’t dislike the work, but I hate being here nonetheless.

    My dream is to work from home. I think it always has been. I’m pretty sure I was made for it. I’m most productive, most focused, and most inspired when I’m at home, and I NEVER get cabin fever. I work best in my own environment. It’s only recently that I started to get an idea of the kinds of jobs I can do from home on a flexible schedule I control. I feel that the best way for me to get as close to my dream job (until I can figure out how to satisfy my entrepreneurial spirit with the right business idea) is to start doing a bit of everything I love! I’ve considered virtual bookkeeping, virtual assistant, professional organizer, Etsy shops, blogging, and honestly about 12 other possibilities. Things I’ve always always wanted to do. Some things that I can start now if I can figure out time management with a full-time schedule, but others I really can’t do because of my job (such as bookkeeping, which would be shady since I work for an accounting firm that offers bookkeeping services).

    The problem is that I assured my bosses (nothing legally binding, just relationally significant) that if they created a full time position for me, I wouldn’t just leave after two months of them investing their time into me. I thought it’d be no problem to commit to a year or two, I’d been working here for 2 and a half years already with no issues anyway, but now it’s KILLING me. And I’m only a month in! I’m really trying to focus on the preparedness stage I’m in (bookkeeping experience is valuable) but I’m miserable. As in bringing back my depression on my worst days. Coming into work, despite my love for the family I have here, is honestly one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.

    How does one deal with the dissatisfaction of a restless multipotentialite soul that has a duty to the people around them? Or a duty to pay the bills when their spouse makes less than them? Or the disappointment of family and amazing mentors who expect you to be more ambitious (think CPA license) in a degree field that you’re gifted in but don’t love? I’ve never felt more stuck in my life.

  15. Lyndsey says:

    Hey! Thank you for this Emilie. I’m 34 and still found this helpful! I remember our careers advice at school having such inspiring suggestions as ‘carpet fitter’ and ‘bus conductor’ – all very well, but not exactly playing to people’s interests or actual skills! When I said I was interested in geography and music, the advisor just looked blank and said I should ‘try to be more realistic’: hopefully things have moved on from there!

    So I ignored that, and did an undergrad degree in Environmental Science; I worked for 7 years in the wildlife conservation sector (I volunteered for 1 day at a very small organisation and they offered me a job, which allowed me to make contacts and get a job in an organisation I’d already applied to with no luck! In my experience, job hunting is as much about networking as it is about filing in application forms. And my advice is to take a chance on volunteering even if right now you can only see how you’d be able to do it for a few hours a week, or just a month or a couple of weeks, cos you never know what might come of it!).

    Then, when something about that stopped seeming to be enough, I quit to go and study music. Directly following from that I’ve just spent 18 months working in a museum on their historic farm, learning to be a shepherd, grow corn and thatch buildings! Now I’m back to trying to work out where this might be taking me and what’s a logical next step…

    I’ve been encouraged to follow my heart and trust it will lead me where I want to be; so far it hasn’t got it wrong! Oh and in my ‘spare time’ I paint and go out on trips with my friends in my narrowboat home.

  16. Ziem says:

    Hey Emilie,

    I’m from Malaysia and I just want to thank you so much for this post! I’m 26 and so glad to have found this site as well as the ted video of you giving a talk. I was so lost in not knowing what to do with my life and being depressed these past few years. I’ve been jumping in and out of different courses in uni since I finished high school and its so crazy thinking back. Most of my family members and friends don’t really understand why I have so many interests and that I kept on pursuing one after another without really completing perfectly in some. I got so depressed because of what they think of me is not normal. But now thanks to the movement that you’ve created, I feel so relieved that I’m not the only one who suffered this thing and embrace this newly discovered personality called multipotentialite. I came to a conclusion that no matter what happens in life, we just have to trust our gut that everything will work out fine and one day we will be able to connect the dots looking back. Currently, I’m pursuing an online course on web development and planning to embark on a journey of entrepreneurial soon. Anyway, wishing you all the best in your future endeavours and I will keep on checking this site regularly for new posts! Keep on changing the world for the better! Cheers! :)

    P/s: Here’s one of my favourite quotes:

    “The ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” -Steve Jobs

  17. Maii says:

    Hi Emilie,

    Thank you all of this sharing.
    I’m 28 who have no job. Yes, all of my feeling now is as your sharing, i have no idea what is my passion. I spend time a lot on the books or articles : novel, history, management, and poems. I graduated from Electronics Engineer on Bachelor’s degree,and Petroluem and Environmental Technology on my master’s degree.

    What I have passed?

    I used to be
    -traditional Thai dancers and traditional music player when I was in high school.
    – Be a part of student council of department on my Bachalor’s Degree and a committee of one organisation on my Master’s degree.
    – Be secretary , coordinator, technician, assistant, property sales, ae, association manager, and now i have none.

    I dare to try all of the tasks that everyone and every situations give me but finally I have no idea what should I do for my life and family.

    2 days ago, I totally loosed my confident and be panic in myself. I got an interview and she said ‘by your age, you should already know who you are and what you would like to do or to be for your life. I’m so sorry that I cannt employ you if you just would like to learn everythings but you have know idea what you are best on.’

    Yes, it’s true. I agree with that. A lot of books and experience that i have read and done are nothing so far. I have back home and spend my time to thinking about this and I found that I have nothing best on. It’s very big trouble for me. My slef economic is going down while my resposibility is stable. My family has a lot of expectation on me but I have none to them.

    On your sharing, I wish that i might able to go back on my 20 again and have a choice to choose. But i believe that I will do that same. I love learning, reading, speaking, coordating, books, stories, histories, sci, poems, music, amd supporting. But I dont know how can I apply to the real world to make money to be good enough person.

    I feel like i have failed on my challenging to survive in this world. However, after I read your sharing I might try to do free speakers at universities to share my failures then it might be a path of my career that i’m looking for. I dont know. I have confused. Hope you can help.

    Ps. Sorry to be long massage.

    Thank you for all,

    Maii

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