Step 1. Go to college.
Step 2. Learn stuff. (Mostly how to consume copious amounts of alcohol while still maintaining the coordination to flip a cup. But also how to critically dissect ideas and formulate opinions.)
Step 3: Land a job.
Voila?! The magical formula for turning into a self-sufficient, furniture-owning adult. But how, exactly, do you convert your knowledge of 17th century British monarchies into a fulfilling livelihood? College certainly equips you to thrive in a career pursuit (and feel smart when watching Jeopardy). However, it might not give you the exploratory outlets needed to actually be able to pick that career pursuit. So, whether you’ve already got a job lined up, or are so paralyzed by indecision that you’re considering just joining a commune, we’ve got some tips for finding your way.
1. Let go of the idea that you have to find a job tied to your major
Maybe you chose your major based on pressure from your parents and it never stirred you on a deep level. Maybe you thought it would make you money, but the idea of devoting your life to that exact subject is hard to swallow. Or maybe you just chose a subject that you loved, only to find no clear path to a specific career. Regardless of what’s giving you pause (and panic attacks), if you don’t feel driven to dedicate the rest of your life to your exact college major or don’t know how it’s even possible to do that, evaluate your reasons for choosing your major and whether you feel a real affection for it. If you thought staying awake for a 3-hour class was hard, try channeling your energies into something for 40 hours a week.
If your reflection leads you to the conclusion that you’re totally over what you studied, that’s OK—and normal. A recent survey found that 47 percent of grads don’t get a first job related to their major. Furthermore, most people change careers multiple times in their life as they, and the world around them, changes. Your major isn’t a mandate; it was an experience that instilled skills that can be applied to any arena. Now you get to find a job that uses those skills in new, exciting ways.
2. Define what you really want for yourself—not what other people want for you
Most rising seniors and recent grads spend endless hours tinkering with their resumes and sending it out to any company that’ll have them. This spray-and-pray tactic is understandable. After all, you can’t ignore bills (or the annoying fact that you do indeed have to eat every day). But you also shouldn’t ignore your passions and predilections, which correlate with some jobs better than others. If you thrive on being creative and working with loose parameters, but you settle for a job computing precise Excel sums, you’re setting yourself up for disillusionment. Likewise, if you love structure and rules, joining a loose, fast-paced startup may not be the best choice for you.
That’s not to say you should hold out for the dream job you’re not yet qualified for. Everyone starts somewhere, and your first few jobs will likely involve fetching triple-shot, upside-down, organic camel-milk lattes for someone higher up the food chain. But doing menial tasks in a field you’re excited by is different than doing it in a dead-end job you can’t stand. So strip away societal notions about what you “should” do and think about what you really like to do. What tugs at you so much, you’d do it for free? And where can you go with that passion? That’s how Jad Abumrad, who volunteered at radio stations for no pay, ended up becoming host and producer of the enormously popular Radiolab.
3. Don’t just think—move
It’s easy to become a prisoner to your brain, waffling over which path is the “right” one, only to waste years wondering and not doing. You can’t get anywhere without moving, so just take a step. And then another one. And pretty soon, like those life-affirming videos of puppies learning to walk, you’ll have made progress.
Don’t know where to start? It’s as easy as following someone on Twitter who’s made a living doing what you want to do, subscribing to a magazine focused on your desired field, or watching a TED Talk by somebody who does work that inspires you. If you find yourself intrigued, amplify your efforts by talking with someone who has your dream job, building a portfolio of work you can tout, or taking a class (which you can do in your jammies, thanks to the endless number of affordable and free online resources).
The nature of these activities doesn’t matter as much as your commitment to following through with them. So long as you’re exploring, experimenting, and testing your assumptions, you’ll get somewhere. Unfortunately, you won’t get somewhere by watching 7 straight hours of House of Cards and only moving your limbs in the event of bodily necessity. So just do something! When you release yourself from the chains of expectation and take strides to discover what compels you in the real world, you’ll be on your way to actionable next steps.
And hey, if you need more help tackling the whole “what am I doing?!” thing, we wrote a book to help you find work you love. It’s like Tums for your career discomfort, and you can check it out here.