Q: As an early 20-something, how do I know who I am and what my strengths are in the midst of wandering aimlessly through life? I have graduated from college with a degree that I can’t use until I graduate from grad school. Due to the competitive nature of the field, I couldn’t get into grad school. Now I spend my time looking for (entry-level) work, exercising, and reading in my hometown, where I have no long-term friends.
At first I basked in the freedom from school and work, but now I find myself living at home, unemployed, and lonely for peers. Any advice? How do you “know who you are” if you haven’t had the experience of creating an identity yet?
A: You are not alone. 20-somethings have always struggled with the desire to leave their unique mark on the world (now!), but having no clue what that mark is going to be. You don’t have to “know who you are” today – that’s what your 20s are all about. But you can take a proactive role in figuring out who you are. Instead of wandering aimlessly…wander purposefully!
Some thoughts on how from the perspective of 40-somethings who have been exactly where you are:
1. Get a job. Don’t wait for the perfect job or your “passion.” Work at a temp agency, intern or even work for free. It’s a great way to get some experience under your belt, learn about different careers and explore your strengths.
“Work for temp agencies. You can try different things and hopefully find something you enjoy. One day after I was temping for a while I walked into a job and within thirty minutes of being there I was like, ‘This is where I’m supposed to be.’ I talked to a bunch of people there, worked hard and ended up with a full-time job. I never would’ve even been considered if I had interviewed through the normal process because I had no experience, but they got to see that I did a good job.” – 40-something, Los Angeles
2. If you can’t get a job. Travel. So many 40-somethings wished they traveled and exposed themselves to different cultures and experiences.
o “Go travel the world, do something, find yourself and then jump into the real world. There are ways to do it without money. Just get out a backpack and take your $100 bucks”. – 40-something, Chicago
o “Travel. Figure out a way to make it work. Go stay on people’s couches. You think you have to get a job. But you don’t. You have less responsibility now than ever…and you can live cheaply. I’d say travel, travel, travel. See how other people live and you will learn how you want to live.” – 40-something, Cleveland
o “I think it is so important in your twenties to travel and learn about culture and life. Step outside your box because it makes you more appreciative of what life is. I think when you’re more appreciative, you will have more confidence. You have more awareness and in essence, you’ll go after what you want in life.” – 40-something, NY, NY
3. If you can’t travel, volunteer. If you are able to get outside yourself and see other people’s issues then hopefully it will give you insight to see yourself.
o “Do something for people other than yourself, some community service. It will help you in many ways. You never know when you’re going to meet somebody who can offer you insight that’s really helpful.” – 40-something, Cleveland, OH
o “I believe in community service. People in their 20s don’t realize how fulfilling it is to help others. It helps them but it helps you much more.” – 40-something, New York, NY
4. Visualize. Just going through an exercise to visualize what you want and who you want to be can help you determine the path to get there.
o “If you are living at home or in a small apartment and you don’t have the job of your dreams and you’re really not even sure what that is, it’s easy to get discouraged. If you could just visualize…what would the best job possible for me be? What would the best possible career be? What would the best possible relationship be? I’ve read a lot of interviews with successful people what you find is that they all had a visual of what they wanted. Take the time to literally create a visual of what you want. Then you can stay attuned to the possibility. – 40-something, New York, NY
o You have to figure out what’s important to you. If money is important, you have to figure out how you’re going to make it. What you need, and what you have to do to make what you want. If being fulfilled and changing the world is important to you, how are you going do that? Do you go to the peace core? Do you go to medical school? – 40-something, San Francisco, CA
5. Join, participate. Try. Part of getting to know your strengths is trying new things. There are opportunities all around you to find an interest. And of course it’s a great way to meet your peers.
o “Look outside of the box to find what interests you. Sometimes if you just try things it helps. Nobody regrets trying something. Don’t just be afraid to try. Not trying is a decision to do nothing.” – 40-something, Chicago, IL
o “Find a book club. Take an art class. Go to a wine-tasting at a wine store. Explore community boards and local meet–ups (www.meetup.com) to find people who share your interests. Tons of charities and art museums have junior memberships and committees to allow younger people to take advantage of the arts on a budget. Many towns also have social clubs revolving around sports. – 40-something, New York, NY
o Find a support group where you talk about stuff that is not just social. Politics, issues. Most cities have some sort of women’s club. I started one in San Francisco.” – 40-something, San Francisco, CA
6. Take some time for yourself. Do something for your mind or body whether it be spiritual, mind-body (yoga) or therapeutic it will help you focus on what you want.
o “Spend time on mindfulness practices. When things get rough and you’re not sure about something, if you can keep your mind off negative thoughts and onto staying present, it can help you stay focused on what you want and what you can do rather than what other people think or what you don’t think you can do.” – 40-something, New York, NY
o “In your 20’s it’s okay to get help. Read books. Keep a journal. See a therapist.” – 40-something, Cleveland, OH
You don’t have to do all of these but see what fits for you. Try a few. The more you expose yourself to things in your young adulthood the more you will understand your strengths and the less likely you are to float through your twenties trying to figure it out.