The pressure to know exactly what you are going to do with your life begins about 30 seconds after you are born (actually in some cases, your father may have started asking you this question when you were just a bump). In fact Great Aunt Mabel will probably still be asking you “what are you going to do when you grow up?” on your 40th birthday.
All this is doubtless well-intentioned, but not necessarily helpful. The truth is, you just don’t know, and you probably shouldn’t. Looking back in 30 or 40 years, it will (hopefully) all make sense, even if there are some major diversions and interruptions along the way; but in the 21st Century, not many people are going to enter a job aged 21 and still be there (albeit at a much higher level) at 61.
So here are three keys to navigating the journey, which will both reduce unnecessary pressure now AND keep you off the rocks in the future.
1. Focus on Identity, not Role.
In other words, work out who you are before you start trying to fit yourself up for a future. If you think that doesn’t matter, you ought to talk to some of the people who come to me in their thirties and forties, saying they feel like they have been trying to live someone else’s life.
And while identity is complex, it is not just a product of your environment. You may be the urban child of a megalopolis, but if every fibre of your being dreams of working in the great outdoors, better give yourself a chance to try how that fits now. Don’t be like the endless stream of people who tell me they are going to move to New Zealand when they retire; what they have forgotten is that their appetite for racing up mountains and shooting rapids may have diminished a little by the age of 65. This applies to anything; if you know you were put on the planet to write (or build a business, or design railway locomotives or whatever), better start now.
More likely, you haven’t quite worked out who you are yet. Well then - pay attention. What makes you come alive? When do you find yourself thinking “woohoo, I love this stuff”? Start to notice how you work best - with people or on your own, switching focus quickly, or concentrating deeply. Your hoozyu will give you lots of starting points to think about this stuff, but only you can know for sure how it all fits together for you. If someone tries telling you, “well, that’s all very well, but no one ever made a living as a dancer / rooftop farmer / pet photographer / astronomer / micro-financier…”, you perhaps ought to do your own research on that. People tried telling Orville and Wilbur Wright that no one could build a heavier-than-air flying machine - even after they had flown theirs.
2. Think Sustainability, not Scores.
Hard as it may be to believe, your exam results are important today, and tomorrow are like yesterday’s chip wrappers; motivation is forever.
What I mean by that is that your exam grades have their part to play in completing your education; once you are done, forget them. They are possibly the very WORST guide to how to direct your life. They tell you how well you can recall and apply passive knowledge in a classroom (i.e. examination room) setting. They do not tell you what you can do in the world. Most people I meet who have spent twenty years being miserable in the wrong job start their explanation of how this happened, something like this: “well, my Maths / Science / English grades were good, so…”
Don’t misunderstand me. I am glad that anyone designing that airliner I am flying on has mastered the relevant engineering discipline; and in some professions, ongoing exams will be a part of your life. But doing well in an exam doesn’t mean you have to follow that result for the rest of your life. If it lines up with your identity and, especially, your motivations, fantastic: that is a bonus. Because no-one will be asking for your fifth form Algebra results in 5 years time - but motivation lasts.
3. Expect a Non-Linear Voyage.
You have to start somewhere, but start with the end (or at least, an end) in mind. If you have ever watched yachts racing, you will know that they have to follow the wind, and not just race for the next marker. But - they always have that marker in mind. Especially when you start out, you may have to take what is going.
Say you dream of being a corporate sales person (or airline cabin crew, perhaps) but the only job you can find is washing dishes in a coffee bar. Keep your end in mind: the moment one of the service staff goes off sick, offer to cover for them. Strut your stuff; prove you can engage with people and satisfy their needs and wants. Just don’t forget to keep ahead on the dishes as well: opportunities come to those who show they can be trusted with more stuff - not those who go AWOL from their job to do something they feel like doing. Seize every opportunity to get some customer facing time, and build your track record. You are zigging and zagging as the wind blows, but still focussed on the next marker - getting started in the job you really want.