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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

How to Deal: Being a Grown-up—Without a Grown-up Plan

Being “a grown-up” is a pretty vague concept, even once you’re technically “grown up.” When I was younger, I thought growing up happened around age 25. (I’m not sure if this was because my parents married at 25, or if that age just sounded like a good adult age to my 10-year old self.)

But as I anticipate my 26th birthday this month, I certainly don’t feel like I’ve grown up. My career has taken its fair share of twists and turns in the three years since I’ve graduated, and in some ways I feel like I’m still only starting to figure out what I want to do.

This is not completely unexpected: As a child, I was a bit scatterbrained when pondering my dream profession. One day, I was coercing my little brother to play “school” so that I could act the role of teacher (unfortunately for him, this involved a lot of math equations, threats of detention, and piles of fake homework. Good thing I am not a teacher). The next, I was playing dentist to my dolls (with neither real mouths nor teeth).

I didn’t have that one specific career path that propelled me through college or grad school, and yes, this uncertainty made entering the real world more than a little scary. But, it also filled it with possibility. And I’ve learned that it’s OK not to know what you want to be when you grow up—even if you’ve reached a grown-up age. So if you’re still pondering the question, here’s my advice for making the best of it.

1. Appreciate Uncertainty

In some ways, indecision about the future allows you to have a much more open mind about various career choices than those who’ve always known exactly what they want to do. If you limit yourself too much—especially if you do it artificially—you could miss the opportunity to join an exciting new startup, develop a great business idea, or try something unexpected that you might really love.

2. Recognize that the Landscape is Always Changing

While it may have once made sense to fantasize about being a doctor, lawyer, or professional ballet dancer, many of the jobs open to you now are ones you didn’t know about as a child—and in fact, may not have even existed. The Internet transformed the professional landscape in totally unforeseen ways, and there’s likely a similar renaissance just around the corner. The job that fits you could be one you’d never even imagined possible at age 10, 25, or even 40.

3. Do Something

The fear of not finding a “perfect” career fit has prevented many people from doing anything at all. But that’s not the right answer. If you’re sticking it out for that amazing first job, keep in mind that it’s rare that the first, second, or even third job you accept will be the one you stick with (or even like) for the rest of your career. Even if a job has its flaws, it could provide valuable experience, help you figure out what you definitely don’t want to do, or point you in the right general direction. Don’t write it off because it’s not yet perfect—it’s not supposed to be.

4. Redefine “Grown Up”

The concept of being a “grown-up” implies that there’s a finish line to a personal and professional life that is, in reality, in constant flux. While you can hope that you’ll one day find a career (or even just a hobby) that you’re passionate about, this discovery will likely be the result of much trial and error, and you’ll probably find yourself striving for new pursuits and goals throughout much of your life.

Truthfully, that grown-up person your childhood self once dreamed of might not exist, and she may never exist. Because being grown-up doesn’t mean having one specific job—it means being satisfied with the journey you’ve chosen and appreciating the many different roads you’ve forged and followed.

Do you feel like a grown-up? Weigh in below!

Photo courtesy of Mike Baird.