Some call it a lack of orientation. I call it an invitation to the playground.
I am 30 years old, and I will finish my Ph.D in organizational psychology this summer. You can imagine that people frequently ask me about my career plans. Depending on the situation, I tell them different things. But the truth is: I have absolutely no clue!
A quick Google search (“I am 30 years old and still do not know what to do”) tells me that I am not alone. Most of the answers to posts I read were understanding (for example, “Do yourself a favour and stop looking at what other ppl are doing. I was in a similar situation.”) and often included helpful advice (Quora Blog Posts, 2022). However, it also became clear that it gets more challenging not to worry about your supposed disorientation when you enter your 30s. Comments you got when you were younger, like “Ah, don’t worry, you still have so much time to figure that out!” may have changed into perplexed or –even worse– worried looks when you tell people that you still haven’t set a goal for your career.
No one writes on their LinkedIn profile that they are unsure if what they’re doing is what they truly want.
Reliability and success
What makes other people expect you to set career goals and be consistent in the choice of your career steps? And what is it that makes you absorb this expressed discomfort and turn it into a problem of your own? Maybe it is that association we have when we think about people who don’t know what they want. They don’t exactly stand for reliability and success. In contrast, not knowing what you want to achieve in your career (at a certain age) is often associated with a lack of commitment and determination. But is that association correct and an accurate reflection of reality? Probably not. In our professional environments, we often get confronted with the images people create of themselves, with their best possible career stories. No one writes on their LinkedIn profile that they are unsure if what they’re doing is what they truly want. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to find these stories. But you have to look for them in places where people feel safe to talk about their insecurities, like personal talks with your colleagues, posts in online forums, or even YouTube videos.
In fact, almost everyone in my professional network at my age and in a similar position (close to finishing a Ph.D.) has doubts regarding the career path they want to pursue. And I consider none of them (nor myself) a failure. On the contrary, most of them are well-accomplished researchers with a lot of determination and passion for their projects. I have worked through multiple nights figuring out how to solve complex data analysis issues or how to improve an article for publication. These moments energized me; they made me flow with my work and forget everything around me. At least my personal experience shows that there is no compelling link between career undecidedness and a lack of determination or the effort people put into their work tasks.
My personal experience shows that there is no compelling link between career undecidedness and a lack of determination or effort
These observations lead to two conclusions. First, not knowing where one’s occupational journey is heading even after entering the labor market seems to be widespread. Second, this feeling of being lost does not necessarily have anything to do with one’s commitment or success. Accordingly, we may ask ourselves why this uncertainty is such a big problem for so many people around us (and, most importantly, ourselves)? Maybe the answer is as simple as “because we think it is one.” Of course, some circumstances make a lack of professionalization or orientation a dreadful experience. For example, if it prevents earning a living or taking care of people for whom we are responsible. But imagine a world in which the insecurity you feel regarding your future career is considered a sign of wisdom and deep self-reflection, rather than a flaw. One of the earliest studies on career undecidedness revealed that individuals with traits characterized as artistic-creative or socially oriented often have difficulties deciding on a specific career path (Holland and Nichols, 1964). The researchers point out that, for some people, indecision is an indication of personal development and intellectual curiosity (Gordon and Steele, 2015; Holland and Nichols, 1964). If undecidedness can also come with creativity and curiosity, and does not necessarily prevent people from accomplishing great things, perhaps we should stop worrying and accept ourselves as the undecided individuals we are.
Career indecision is one of the most intensely studied phenomena in vocational psychology (Miller and Rottinghaus, 2014). Accordingly, over the past decades, researchers have identified many predictors of career undecidedness. Despite early attempts not to overestimate the negative aspects of career undecidedness, most of these antecedents bear negative connotations, such as anxiety, immaturity, identity confusion, helplessness, lack of autonomy, or poor self-efficacy (Gordon and Steele, 2015). Maybe it is time to shift the general perception of career undecidedness. We can change the meaning of career undecidedness by emphasizing its potentially beneficial side effects, such as high curiosity, creativity, and an intense search for intellectual fulfillment (Gordon and Steele, 2015). Some pressure may be taken off undecided individuals by emphasizing career development not as a quest to achieve the best suiting jobs but into a playground of self-development, making the journey the destination. What drives us does not have to be a clear picture of our successful selves in a couple of years but the inherent curiosity to discover who we are, what we can do, and where our choices may lead us.
In the end, the best career advice is to listen to yourself.
Good career advice
In the end, the best career advice is to listen to yourself. Nobody will ever know what is good for you. You have skills, talents, and preferences, and you may enter the playground and discover what those are. But you have all the time in the world to complete this task! If you have no clue what you want to do in your career, then this is probably just alright. You will not get rid of that feeling, unless you accept it as a part of your journey. Accepting your insecurity does not have to make you passive. Instead, it may motivate you to be curious and seek to find out who you are and what you want to do.
The disorientation and undecidedness I experienced during large parts of my time as a PhD student really got me down sometimes. But I dare to say that almost all people have these phases in their lives. These experiences may feel intimidating and dreadful. But if we listen carefully and get the proper perspective, they may also teach us a lot about our strengths and allow us to take a big step towards self-acceptance. As it turns out, I will start a postdoc position this summer – and although I have no idea whether that is what I truly want, I look forward to it.
Image credit: “Longleat Hedge Maze” by Cyberslayer is marked with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Gordon, V. N., & Steele, G. E. (2015). The undecided college student: An academic and career advising challenge. Charles C Thomas Publisher.
Holland, J. L., & Nichols, R. C. (1964). Prediction of academic and extra-curricular achievement in college. Journal of Educational Psychology, 55(1), 55–65. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0047977
Miller, A. D., & Rottinghaus, P. J. (2014). Career indecision, meaning in life, and anxiety. Journal of Career Assessment, 22(2), 233–247. https://doi.org/10.1177/1069072713493763
Quora Blog Post: “I am 30 years old and I still don’t know what I want to do in life or career? Is my behavior normal?” (2022, May 5). https://www.quora.com/I-am-30-years-old-and-I-still-dont-know-what-I-want-to-do-in-life-or-career-Is-my-behavior-normal