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When I grow up

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This summer, I interned at a homelessness organization located in the Bay Area. I worked in the administrative offices in the education department, which create and coordinate both child and adult programming for the various shelter sites. The curricula focus on financial literacy, employment search, technology skills and personal improvements for adults, as well as tutoring and enrichment opportunities for children.

Unfortunately, my internship experience was not devoted to generating curricula or problem-solving to improve outcomes for adults or children. Rather, I spent my productive time sending scheduling emails, placing low-stakes phone calls and organizing resource information. I also spent a significant portion of my working hours reading or skimming the internet, waiting for my supervisor to assign me tasks. I left the organization nine weeks later with a better understanding of homelessness but little else to show for my personal involvement.

As many people know through experience or anecdote, interning at a nonprofit is a slow affair; non-profits are generally understaffed and struggle to take on new labor regardless of the intern’s enthusiasm or experience. However, despite knowing this as I entered the nonprofit world, I was still shocked by the lethargy and banal bureaucracy of day-to-day work. Fresh out of an 18-unit quarter at Stanford, my pace of life came to a screeching halt. Arriving at work each day, I imagined the eight hours ahead of me as an abyss of Facebook and bathroom breaks.

Working at this nonprofit and experiencing the lowest points of the nine-to-five grind shocked me into deep reflection about the kind of career I hoped for after college. Clearly, this would not sustain me intellectually or emotionally in the long-term, but what fields would be better suited to my disposition and interests? Public policy? Government and politics? Academia? Private practice in psychology?

Over the course of the summer, I entertained these and many more career prospects, pivoting my life plan every 48 hours as I scrambled to envision a career that would both help the world and suit me in the day-to-day. I read hundreds of articles on career advice and what it’s like to work in dozens of fields. I came up with blissful plans and then crushed them in doubt. Most of all, I agonized about where I wanted life to take me and how to prepare for it.

Back on campus the saga continues, jumping from one 10-year-plan to the next. My mind is like an iPod that only plays the first 10 seconds of each song — in other words, it’s an absolute cacophony in there, enough to drive me mildly insane.

Of course, the problem is not that I lack a definitive life plan. Most of us do, and that’s probably for the best; it takes many adult years to chart the territory of the working world, and there’s plenty of time to hem the sails and readjust as we navigate the workforce during our twenties. The problem, rather, is that I feel so compelled to lock in a life plan for myself already that I feel like I’ll fall behind if I’m not working towards something concrete and specific. I see all the premeds and born-to-be-coders around me and can’t help thinking that I’m already a mile behind and losing ground.

I’m beginning to realize now, two months into my career-path agonizing, that I simply don’t know yet, and no amount of ruminating is going to flip on the light switch and illuminate the rest of my professional life. Unlike the children who decided they would be doctors in the fourth grade, I’ve always been unsure and explorative, and that’s okay. Plenty of the world’s most successful and influential people had no defined direction in their college years or for many years after. Some of us just need more time to explore all the options, to experiment, to try and fail and try again until we find the work that fulfills us.

So, if you’re also feeling behind in the rat’s race towards your profession, I implore you to accept your uncertainty and embrace it. Believe that your professional life will turn out all right — and you’re here at Stanford, so it will — and appreciate your undergraduate years as a time to see all that the working world has to offer. Appreciate the opportunity to learn about yourself in the process. I know it’s not easy to sit with uncertainty; I go to great lengths to avoid it. But it’s the uncertainties that give us the narrative of our lives. After all, what fun would life be if you already knew exactly what was going to happen?

 

Contact Avery Rogers at averyr ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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