I’ve been thinking about this a lot after some conversations with others. Many people grow up with the mentality that there is a roadmap to life that one should follow for success: go to college, start a nine-to-five, get engaged, get married, have kids, buy a house, etc. It’s one that I pursued exactly while others in my family went different routes. Given the upbringing that we shared, it’s close enough to a controlled experiment — albeit, a very informal one.
I’ve been out of college for about eight years now and in that time, I got to witness my siblings flourish in their own careers. And it has taught me a lot. Mainly, that only you can define what success is and that whatever route you take, you have to do it for yourself.
Please keep in mind that this is a personal account to help share one experience. If you’d like to jump to the key takeaways from my story, click here.
Let me back up, I graduated from a four-year university and put all my energy into finding a full time job that would pay the bills and give me some upward mobility — beyond just my internships. One thing I didn’t consider was whether or not I would be good at that job or if it would lead me to a longer term career. Two years later, I had worked myself to the knuckle and burned myself out in the process. On to the next gig, I started to develop a love for another career route and pivoted my role that way. A year and a half later, I was let go from that job and decided that I wanted to start working remotely — luckily finding the best job I had had to date. And recently, with a heavy heart, I put in my notice from that job to take a break. I loved what I did and the people I worked with, but what I didn’t realize was that I was working so hard to prove myself that my long hours and lack of sleep were driving me right to the ER.
Even if I had done everything right, I hadn’t done it for me
And that in and of itself means that I failed. I was so worried about following the best path to success, that I never stopped to think about if the life I had set up was even going to work in the long run. I was willingly missing out on some of the small moments from my kids growing up, just so I could finish more projects and prove my worth. I was too tired to make trips to see family, and I only had small opportunities to enjoy the life my husband and I had built. I also was on edge most of the time which lead to us fighting.
But it was something I had been doing most of my working life so I didn’t realize it was out of the ordinary. For perspective, in college I held three jobs on top of a 15-hour class schedule. I made it through that, so I should be able to tackle anything, right? I just forgot that it contributed to things like kidney stones before I even graduated.
I look at my siblings and are so proud of them. One pursued college, but realized that their passion was elsewhere. Now they’re doing what one would consider a modern-day apprenticeship. I don’t think they realize just how well they’re honing their craft while trying to figure out what would work best for them. The other started working at a retail job while figuring out what they wanted to do for college. They rose up quickly through the ranks and were making more money than I did at 28 when they were 20. They both have made me realize that unless you go for something that requires a specific set of learning (medicine, law, technical work, etc.), college primarily teaches people how to learn when you don’t have the tools otherwise.
My takeaways, eight years later
I’ll never regret the choices I made as it led me to where I am today. But moving forward, here are the things I want to keep in mind:
- You have to make ends meet, but those that fair best try to do so with an end goal in mind. Most people don’t have the opportunity for the perfect job at first. If you do, great! Otherwise, each job is a stepping stone to the next one, so work towards something you want. And don’t feel the need to do pursue something just because you’ve been told that that’s the way to go.
- Success isn’t defined by others — it’s whether you’re meeting your own goals. My favorite story was from a few years ago when one of my siblings was working and an old teacher approached them. The teacher asked how college was and my sibling said that they was taking a break for a bit. The teacher quipped, “You’ll never succeed if you don’t get a college degree first.” They responded with, “That might be true, but with a salary of $x, I don’t really want to walk away from work just yet.” With how shocked I was at her salary, I shouldn’t be surprised that the teacher was at a loss for words too. My sibling was happy with the path they were on, which mattered more than what others thought.
- Things change and priorities change. That doesn’t mean you’ve failed, even if it requires you to start over into something new. Everything you’ve learned up until this point is something you could use later. Just know that it’s better to realize it now and make that change than to regret it 20 years later.
- Know that there are some things you just won’t get better at. And that’s okay. Part of the unhappiness in my career was that I was struggling with something that I was only marginally getting better at while everyone else my age was making leaps and bounds. And I felt unsuccessful because of it until years later when I realized it just wasn’t my strong suit. The old saying goes, “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree…”
- In the end, use whatever route you take as a learning opportunity. If you keep going down that path and it’s what you want, that’s awesome! You’re honing your craft and building a successful life. If you realize that it’s not for you, it’s not wasted time. Don’t beat yourself up over it like I initially did. Because in the end, you can use what you’ve learned to help set next steps for your life.