Do you ever pine for the Middle Ages? Oh, those lovely medieval times when life was so limited. How great it must have been to have someone shove a rake in your hand and tell you to go dig potatoes all day long.
Life must have been great when you didn’t have the stress of figuring out a career. No, you just were told: “You’re a blacksmith. You’re a beer wench. You’re a princess.”
There’s no confusion. You just get on with your potato hoeing, and life is good.
Uh, wait. What if you don’t like being a potato hoe? Tough potatoes, kid. Who do you think you are? A minstrel? No. You’re options are limited, so suck it up.
OK, so that’s not what you want.
What you want is to stop feeling confused about your career path. You want certainty that you are doing what you were meant to do and that you will be successful.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and confused, thinking that you should have this all figured out by now, come with me.
I will tell you why you are confused, why this confusion is a good thing, and what to do about it now to feel fulfilled and excited by your life.
The Source of Your Confusion
Every summer for the last 8 years, I have taken groups of teens backpacking and camping in the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina. We go deep into the woods for up to 22 days at a time, carrying our food and gathering our water from creeks.
We hike an average of 4 miles a day, and the students learn how to navigate. I don’t guide them; they have to learn how to read the land, read a map, and use a compass so they don’t get lost.
The Appalachian Mountains is one of the hardest places in the world to navigate. There was a time when these mountains were taller than the Himalayas, but erosion over time has worn them into beautiful, rolling, feminine mounds. There are very few peaks to climb to use for triangulation, and in the summer, the lush foliage can make it nearly impossible to see for more than a tenth of a mile.
As a consequence, one rolling mountain knob looks like another. It takes practice to learn to read the subtle distinctions of the land.
Additionally, the maps we use are from 20 years ago, at best. In twenty years, any man-made structure can change. Roads and trails can be re-routed. So you can’t trust the map.
Finally, the compasses that we use go out with hundreds of students and get abused. Sometimes the compass might work well, other times no. It can’t be fully trusted, either.
Imagine a dozen 14–16-year-olds, most of whom have never done anything like this before (probably never even used a map before), hiking through the woods with limited abilities to understand the world around them, inaccurate maps and potentially faulty compasses.
Again, I don’t guide them. They work together to figure it out after I teach them the foundational skills.
If they make a mistake, I let them get lost. They have to learn pretty quickly or else they may end up hiking an extra 10 miles because of the mistake.
This is bad news for me, because I have to hike it all with them, knowing we’re going the wrong way the entire time.
Why do I let them get lost? Isn’t that mean?
No. In fact, it would be mean not to.
One crucial navigating skill is learning how to recognize that you are lost, figuring out where you are, and deciding what to do next. If I rescue them or they think I will rescue them, they stop thinking critically.
By letting them get lost, I am teaching them significantly more than showing them the way.
So what does this have to do with you?
You are doing the same thing right now.
Why You Are Confused About Your Career
You are trying to read the subtle distinctions between careers with very limited understanding.
Should I go to law school? What is the difference between a business and entertainment lawyer and a defense attorney?
I want to work with kids. Should I be a teacher, a social worker, a pediatric doctor, or a camp counselor?
Is it better for me to get an MBA or just start my own business?
I have the training, but what’s my niche?
When you don’t know what it’s actually like to be in each job on a daily basis, everything blurs. To a novice, every mountain looks like the next, so how are you supposed to choose?
Plus, you too have an unreliable map that was made 20 years ago. Many people are training for career possibilities that will be obsolete in 10 years. If you trained to be a librarian, you may find yourself a bit screwed right now.
Technology is rerouting the trails and roads we’ve used for centuries. How are you supposed to confidently invest in the education and training for a career that may not exist in a decade?
And remember that faulty compass?
Did you know that adolescence actually extends to the age of 25 for the average person? What biologically signals the end of adolescence is when your brain fully links up into it’s optimal functioning. Before that, your brain isn’t wholly equipped to make strategic risk-management and predictive decisions by applying past knowledge to current problems.
That means your brain is not a reliably functioning compass until then.
Now, when do most of us decide about our careers? When we are in college around 19 or 20.
We put enormous pressure socially and financially on a 20 year old to have highly attuned internal guidance to make a decision that will determine the destination that we call destiny.
Yet we don’t even legally allow them to decide whether they can have a glass of wine with dinner.
Does this make sense? No!
It’s no wonder that I talk to parents of 20-somethings every day who are deeply concerned that their bright, talented child seems direction-less. “Where did we do wrong?” they ask.
You are not alone if you feel lost in the woods with limited abilities to read the land, holding an unreliable old map, using a faulty compass.
Why It’s OK to Be Confused About Your Career
Are you looking around the terrain of your life wondering, “How did I get here? Is this where I want to be or is this just where I ended up?”
The sheer panic drops down on you when you feel lost and confused.
Ah, man. I made a huge mistake. I’ve wasted all this time. How could I be so stupid!
Guess what I tell my students when they realize they are lost?
Congratulations! You rock! This is awesome! What great opportunity you have now!
Why is getting lost a good thing?
Congratulations, you’ve gained experience you didn’t have before. You didn’t intend to explore this path and discover this waterfall, but you did. You wouldn’t have seen it otherwise. You didn’t waste time. You gained know-how and perspective.
You rock because you figured out that you are lost. Many people never will. Or if they recognize that they are lost, they just ignore it, heading in the wrong direction forever.
You rock because you are aware NOW. That is a skill. Not everyone will use that skill effectively.
You rock because you are thinking. You rock because you are brave enough to see the truth.
That feeling of confusion is not telling you that you did something wrong. It’s telling you that you are on the verge of doing something right. (Oh, that’s good. Want to Tweet it?)
This is awesome because now you get to practice how to figure out where you are and where you want to go next. Not everyone will get this opportunity—not because it’s not available to them, but because they avoid it.
Learning how to figure out where you are and deciding where you want to go feels scary when you don’t do it often. You can feel paralyzed that you will make the wrong decision.
To feel successful in life, you have to learn to be an expert at this. Any parent, spouse, student, learner, business owner, leader, pilot, president, commander, artist—to be successful, they must learn how to recognize when they are off track and decide the new course.
Recognizing that you are lost is actually very exciting! Now you get to create a whole new possibility. What a great opportunity!
What To Do Now
Obviously, you care about your life and your career, or you wouldn’t be confused. Confusion can only happen if you care. When you don’t care about something, you’re just, “Whatever.”
“Whatever” is not confused.
But you are confused. Therefore, you rock.
Celebrate yourself and get pumped. Your life is ripe with possibility. You can create anything you want.
Now, consult an expert. Great navigators love to share what they know. They are proud of what they’ve learned, and they know that navigating is hard.
Look around you. Do you see anyone who has the life or the career you want? If not, there’s this thing called the Internet. Keep looking until you find someone.
Ask them how they got there. Ask them what they learned along the way. What was a key lesson for them? What tripped them up? What was difficult? What was easy? What do they love about their mission and work? What are the challenges they face?
Also, if you enjoy talking with them and can help them address any of their challenges, offer to help. Use any talent or skill that you have (especially the ones you learned while you were lost) to serve them, and they may find that they are compelled to help you, too.
If you don’t like talking to that person, keep looking until you find someone with a career that inspires you who you enjoy talking to.
Also, get a coach. This person can be someone you pay or not. It could be the same person as the one who inspires you. Whoever it is, they need to have a great understanding of the terrain you are in and have a sincere desire to serve your best interest without judgment.
Their personal identity should not be involved at all, which is why parents are not the best choice here. Even lovely parents are not good coaches in this sense. They have bias because they feel intimately connected to your past selves. You need someone who can focus on the present and the future.
When you get off-track, they shouldn’t fix it for you. You need someone who can stand by you in the midst of your frustration and have faith that the figuring-it-out pain is crucial to your learning process. They will help, but they shouldn’t rescue.
In the meantime, if you have a job or you are going to school, show up and be outstanding. Give your full enthusiasm and talent to each task and interaction. You know that this current situation is not forever. Any experience or skill you gain will just make you that much stronger and more prepared when you do decide where you’re going next.
The Future’s So Bright—You Know The Rest
Alright, my friend, I’m excited for you. It’s time to step up and lead yourself into the future. In the end, no matter what path you take, you are still creating your life. Have fun with it!
Nothing has more of an impact on your life than you. When you decide to do something, you are unstoppable. There is no dream that is beyond you. You have the creativity and the will to push and push and PUSH until you breakthrough.
You’ve woken up and seen the truth. Don’t go back to sleep now. Don’t let yourself settle for less than you deserve. Don’t confuse “confusion” for “error.”
You are in exactly the right place at the right time to experience everything you’ve been seeking.
Focus on what you’ve learned. Focus on what you can give. Focus on how you can best serve. Focus on your joy.
Have faith that anything you focus on, you will hit.
You can learn to read the terrain. You can learn to work with an unreliable map. You can learn to overcome an untrustworthy compass.
After all, I’m not still lost in the woods, am I? No. Every group of teenagers I’ve ever worked with has learned to navigate successfully under these conditions.
And they ain’t got nothing on you.
Featured photo credit: o0o0xmods0o0o via morguefile.com
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