I’ve been doing some thinking lately (a dangerous start to any blog post, I know), mainly inspired by productivity videos I have seen on Amanda aka shesomickey‘s channel and Leena’s recent ‘How to Slam Your Competition (kind of)’ video. Both of these women are amazing YouTubers and inspire me to think a little more about myself and my own life, sometimes in a flippant way and sometimes in a “deeper way”.
(Yep, you’re in for one of those blog posts, so strap yourself in and get ready for some self-involved and (mostly) selfish musing that is particular to my own experience and in no way informed enough to speak to anyone else’s experiences or priorities. Disclaimer over…)
Both Amanda and Leena have recently discussed life goals and career goals, seeing that next step you want to make in your life, and the skills or experience you need to acquire in order to reach it. Last year for VEDA (Vlog Every Day in April) Amanda specifically made a video about 100 Life Goals, a tool to get you thinking about yourself and your priorities and do a little self-audit of where you are and where you would like to be “at the end of the day”. It is exactly what it says on the tin – you take out a pen and paper (or a blank Word document if you so prefer) and list out 100 goals. These can range from “visit Japan” to “write a book” to “work for a non-profit” to “learn ASL”. They can be a mix of travel, personal, or career-focused goals, in fact I think the best lists probably are a mix of those things. The key thing to having goals, though, is making them achievable, phrasing them so that they are a clear Thing to aim for, whether that is to visit a certain place or to live in a certain city or learn a certain skill. Although skeptical I could come up with 100 distinct goals, I was nevertheless encouraged by Amanda’s video to get out my own pen and paper and draw up my list…
… then we hit the sticking point. And it’s a big one. I do not know what I want to do with my life. Big surprise, yet another 20-something is lamenting that she doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life. No, but really, I’ve got no clue. I couldn’t even tell you where I’d like to be in one year, five years, ten years from now, aside from a really vague mumbling along the lines of ‘well I’d like to be working in a job where I’m reasonably comfortable and can see value and creativity in what I do and that benefits people in some small way and also let’s me pay the bills and fund my book buying problem’. That’s it. That’s incredibly vague. And the issue about only being able to make out incredibly vague shapes on the horizon is that it is next to impossible to compile these 100 Goals or Bucket List projects. Because I could put ridiculous things on the list that, in all likelihood, are never going to happen. I could write on that list that I would like to learn how to speak German but I would be doing so not really knowing why I was putting it on the list, what would be the purpose?
I’m a girl who is used to having goals defined by a purpose. I aimed for A grades in English and Mathematics at GCSE because that is what my school told me I needed to do. Then I worked hard at my A Level subjects that I could be sure of getting those three As I needed to move onto the next stage of schooling because Lancaster University told me I needed those grades to be allowed to study there. I read some books on the side of my education because I knew I wanted to study English at university and I figured it would probably be a good idea to have a vague clue about literary trends before I got to said university. At Lancaster I felt a need to prove I deserved to be in a classroom and take up space alongside some really genuinely brilliant and intelligent peers (lecturers, tutors, and fellow students alike), so I worked as hard as I could to read all the things and learn the things and discuss the things. Then I hit graduation… and I didn’t really know what I wanted next, because nobody was telling me what was next. I had a vague inclination away from graduate schemes (the prevalence of which, at university careers services, by the way, is the reason people like me end up floundering, jobless and clueless after graduation) and maybe an inclination towards staying in academia for as long as they would have me. That turned out to be another year, another year’s reprieve to immerse myself in early modern literature and not really stick my head up over the top to glance around at the scary world out there. And then that ended too…
Last summer, post-graduation from my MA course, was not a fun place for me emotionally – anyone who spoke to me during that time will attest to the fact I mostly moped and whined. After having a structure and purpose defined for you by society and by your schooling, suddenly finding yourself back at home, in your childhood bedroom, with only really some memories and a ridiculously expensive piece of paper to your name to show for it, is a startling position to be in. And it’s obviously, obviously, not just something I experienced – hundreds, thousands, of young people feel this every year. Some of them skip out on the feeling because they were a little more organised and assertive than myself – because they stuck their head up for a peek into the Real World long before they were sitting their final exam and they had enough sense to think ahead to what they wanted to do next and plan how to get there. Me? Nope, I stuck my head in the Norton Shakespeare anthology instead, and only worried about life after university when all my stuff had been moved back into my parents’ house and I started to feel like a bit of a disappointment because I wasn’t actively hunting for that great graduate-level job at a big fancy company (which, by the way, I would not enjoy, even if I did miraculously make it past gruelling interview days).
On reflection, and speaking from a much better place, emotionally, I completely place the blame for this on two people – society and myself. I was fed the line for years that I needed to do This Thing because doing This Thing meant I was then allowed to do That Thing next year. As humans we quite like seeing this cause and effect trajectory in action – if you get that top grade you will get to move out and go to university and have a whale of a time in a new city with new people and maybe do some studying too. As humans we need the sense of purpose to shape our experience of living, otherwise we reach for existentialism and begin to wonder what is the purpose of even living in the first place. As humans we mostly don’t want to deal with the fact that most of life is meaningless if you let it be, that we are mere specks to the life of the Universe at large, that we exist in the blink of an eye to the Universe (I like this thought, though, it has strangely lessened my own anxiety about life.)
You may have noticed something from a lot of my examples about trajectories and cause-and-effects – they focus entirely around academic and education. Why? Because that is all I know. That is all I was allowed to know. That is all I valued and prioritised for a good chunk of my life, in fact I’d say for the vast majority of my life thus far, that has been my top priority. That is why I blame myself. Because I wasn’t allowed, or rather I didn’t allow myself, to even consider prioritising anything else because I was in the middle of a trajectory of doing This Thing to get to do That Thing in the future. But, here’s the thing, what do you do when you stop being told what That Thing in the future is? When you realise that you no longer have That Thing you’re working towards and you have to find That Thing for yourself? Because now you’ve got control (for the most part) and hopefully your life up to this point has equipped you with some useful transferable skills which you can now apply to figure out what That Thing is. Whether that’s a personal life goal, a set of priorities you have, or a career-focused goal.
Reader, I haven’t even learnt how to drive a car yet, don’t give me control of anything. And I’m mostly terrible at self-reflection and self-auditing, which is possibly 100% why Amanda’s lovely 100 Goals video actually sent me into this emotional tailspin. But I’ve come to realise amidst all this self-absorbed thinking, that I know myself a hell of a lot better than I did at, say, 14 years old. Sure, I don’t know what I want out of life; I think there’s value in admitting that, proudly and loudly and openly. I have no clue what I’m doing. (Psst! Neither do the vast majority of people, that much I do know.) I don’t know what I want or how to get to what I want or why I want what I want. But I am starting to learn what I don’t want. And that might be a much slower process than just knowing what you want out your personal life and career,but it’s still a worthwhile experience. You might recall me disparaging the prevalence of graduate schemes within university careers advice services earlier on in this blog post because it might be nice if careers advisers clued up on alternatives? I’ve come to realise that I don’t prioritise the kind of jobs or the kind of work atmospheres that I think these schemes probably foster, they’re just not my bag, and that’s not at all a comment on anyone who does prioritise them. You do you, we’re all our own people, you’re all individuals. (Do you know how hard it is not to now just quote that bit from Monty Python’s Life of Brian – do you?!)
I realised extremely recently that I don’t really see myself working my way up within university administration, although I’ve been doing quite well (apparently) in my current role within such an organisation. So regardless of whether there was any kind of wiggle room for promotion or not, I have a gut feeling that it’s just not quite what I want to be doing although there are elements of it which I probably do prioritise. Most importantly, though, it has taught me some invaluable skills aside from the obvious administrative practices and procedures. I’ve learn about workplace politics, about how to diplomatically tell someone they’re not going to get the outcome they want, about how (sometimes) it’s not your fault that you don’t know the answer to an obscure question and you need to value yourself enough to not feel terrible about not knowing something for the rest of the week. I’ve learnt something about what I am like as a worker, and as a person, and those experiences, on top of the technical skills gained, are where the value is added. I didn’t intend this, I didn’t work towards a Thing, gaining specific skills intentionally so I could move onto the next Thing. I just found myself floundering, and then slowly not floundering, as I became more comfortable. I was swimming, not drowning, if you like, even if treading water might be the more accurate metaphor here. Regardless of the imagery of choice, it really is about the work experience as much as the work itself. The goal (vague or specific) is largely irrelevant in the end.
So, hey, I’ve realised that I don’t know where I’m going, I don’t really know what I want, I don’t have 100 Goals to list down and (hopefully) start completing during my rare fits of productivity. I just haven’t experienced enough of life, on my own terms, to know what I actually do or do not want out of it – I think I’m slowly starting to learn what I don’t want, what things just won’t work for me, and what things I’d rather not have to do if I can help it. But as for a personal and career trajectory, a cause-and-effect, like the good old educational system has taught me is important? Nope, I got nothing more than a vague inclination of maybe moving towards something I might be good at (or that I might be crap at, who knows), but I got nothing more. And you know what? Maybe that’s ok, maybe it should be more acceptable to admit, loudly proudly and openly, that we’re mostly just floundering around until we find the things in life (jobs, hobbies, people) that ruin or enrich our experience of living. I know I am, and that’s ok.