A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece for TFD about the anxiety around my 30th birthday, driven by the fact that I was nowhere near where I wanted to be. The past five years for me have basically been a series of professional and financial disappointments, made so much worse because I grew up as the overachiever basically all of my life. From preschool through my Master’s program, I was the one who was definitely going to succeed, and even amongst my big family of high-achieving siblings, I stood out. So my life from the ages of about 24 to 29 was a really big hit to my ego and my self-perception. My International Relations dreams in DC fizzled slowly, and my one job quasi-semi-in the field I loved blew up after about a year in Seattle (along with my relationship).
Long story short, when I wrote that piece almost a month ago, I was a few weeks shy of my 30th birthday and feeling like a complete loser. I admit that part of it was self-pitying, but another big part of it was reckoning with my self-perception and admitting that I wasn’t the person I’d always assumed I’d turn out to be, but that this didn’t mean I was worthless. Writing that was a first attempt at identifying my worth to myself, and changing my expectations from “what I thought I would be as a senior in high school,” and “what I am today, like it or not.” The important thing is what I do today, with the circumstances I have to deal with, and not all of the things I didn’t accomplish yesterday be for some reason or another.
At the time of writing, my most likely plan was to move back in with my parents so I could job-hunt without worrying about rent, and also apply to PhD programs in the meantime. This was going to feel like a big disappointment to me (and my parents) for a lot of different reasons, but after falling down the ladder and hitting so many emotional rungs, all I wanted to do was be somewhere safe where I could breathe for a while, and the added bonus of applying to PhDs meant to me that if I didn’t land a job, I would at least have something else on the horizon to give my life meaning. I was still looking for outside factors to define me.
But I read a lot of the comments and did a lot more research into my options, and I decided that the smartest thing for me to do, given my academic background and professional experience, is to stay in the startup/financial services worlds. There are a lot of companies looking to “disrupt” — yes, I roll my eyes at that word, too, but it is what it is — different parts of the financial world, from insurance to budgeting, and I have enough experience in the field, both in terms of economics and the logistics of working in a very digital workplace, to have a much better chance of getting something stable than going back into IR. International Relations, and DC in general, is something I’m going to have to leapfrog into from a few other career moves, but I have to start somewhere.
And since my bilingual status in Spanish is a huge part of my career options, I want to make sure that’s a part of my search. Because of that, and because of the fact that I’ve always wanted to live at the beach and never felt like I “could” because I was keeping one toe in a completely dry career pool, I’m moving to the Los Angeles area in just over a month. I’m going to be getting a very affordable apartment there — and I admit up-front that my parents are helping me with some moving costs as a short-term loan, but that’s it — and I’ll be sharing the space with a roommate I actually met while job hunting. My first job when I work there is going to be serving part-time at a restaurant on the beach, and working in Spanish tutoring the rest of the time. It’s not as flexible as nannying (and I can’t job hunt during work hours), but it’s important that I start to put some of my skills to use and feel like I’m “getting something” out of all this education and training I have.
From there, I have about a dozen companies I’m targeting for interviews, and right now I’m in the process of tricking out my online portfolio and making a nice personal website for myself so that people see something a lot more appealing than a boring LinkedIn when they look me up. There are a few specific startups that really interest me, including ones where my job would be bilingual and I’d be doing awesome things like helping lower-income kids pay for college in a smarter way. For the first time, I feel excited about the idea of the job hunt, because I’ll be doing it from a beautiful place where I feel excited to be.
I honestly don’t know what the future holds for me, career-wise, but the fact that I’m moving to a beautiful place where I know I’m going to be happy just to be there is a huge step. It’s the first time I’ve allowed myself a little breathing room in terms of my career pursuits, and the fact that I’ve been focused on something else (the move) instead of the job hunt that has obsessed me for the past year and a half is huge. I can actually sleep at night, and I don’t feel like my entire being is defined by who has called me back for a position. For now, I’m just excited to move to the beach, go for long walks, tutor Spanish, and put my all into creating a great CV and online presence.
If you are in a similar position to me, feeling like you’re caught on this hamster wheel of professional disappointment and struggle, my biggest advice would be to do the same: find something else to occupy your mind, whether it’s a change of scenery or a new hobby or whatever else you want it to be. Just find something that takes you out of the spiral, and reminds you that you’re more than a job title or a salary. Find other things that define you, and give you meaning, so that you’re not so single-mindedly-focused on the one thing you can’t really control. I’m happy to be 30 now, starting a new chapter in something I’m excited about, rather than dreading the number because it feels like it means I’ve “officially failed.” I may not be the person everyone thought I’d be as an overachieving kid, but I now know that I did at least keep one big quality from that little girl — I’m not afraid of taking risks, and pursuing what makes me happy.
Caroline is an aspiring everything living in Seattle. She doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up.
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