A high school student is constantly asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  Maybe you’re the one who always knew what you wanted to be, or maybe you’re the type that said you’d figure it out once you went to college.  But four years later, you’ve graduated college and earned a degree, but what exactly have you figured out?  Did you figure out you picked a major because it sounded cool or it paid well, but now you hate the career? Are you even working in the field of your college major?  30% of college graduates in the workforce are not even using their degree.  Approximately 35% are doing a job they hate, but continue in the career because that is what they studied in college.

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From “Idealism to Reality” 

Part of the development from middle adolescence to late adolescence is learning to temper idealism with reality.  In other words, when you were a teenager in school, you probably had an idealized view of the world, yourself, and your career.  However, once people reach their mid-twenties there is a transition from idealism to reality and twenty somethings realize the world is not as they thought and they have changed as well.  It is with this knowledge that you must begin to view yourself and others through a different lens, a different perspective, and construct a more realistic plan for your future.

Oh No, I Chose the Wrong Career Path

It is a common realization for 20-somethings to have graduated college and after working a few years, to feel like they are on the wrong path! Maybe you, too, feel that the direction you’re currently headed is not where you want to end up? The problem sometimes is picking the wrong career path, but it may also be a strong desire for a career where you feel fulfilled with purpose and direction. Or one that better utilizes your unique strengths and talents. But how exactly do you start to redirect yourself and move toward that goal?

Begin by trying to specifically pinpoint your ambitions.  While generalizations such as “I want to be creative” or “I want to own my business” might allow an easy answer, they do nothing to narrow down a specific job or career you want to pursue.  With no specific goal or path in mind, it’s difficult to find achievement.

Furthermore, in today’s society there’s an incredible amount of pressure placed on not only getting a job, but getting a job that you love. In older generations, one simply found a career that paid and stuck with it.  These days, the belief that you can do whatever you want to is instilled at a very early age.  This emphasis on achieving your dreams and being whatever you want to be encourages the idea that your career helps to define you as a person.  Of course, figuring out how to do what you want to do and get paid to do it are often much easier said than done.  Choosing a career involves steps beyond interest.

4 tips to help you navigate your career in your 20’s:

1. Cut yourself some slack and relax a little!

Yes, some people know from an early age what they want to do, but most don’t. Despite what Facebook may say, very few people know what they want to do by the time they graduate college (and if they get a job straight out of college, they’ll most likely end up switching careers within a few years).  If you really think about it, how could they realistically know for certain what they want? During college, your experience with the “real world” is usually limited to staying up until 5am writing a term paper that’s due at 8am. So lighten up a little. Your mid-to-late 20s is when you figure out what you like or don’t like. Every experience you have, whether good or bad , is essential in narrowing down your career path.

2. Stop comparing yourself to everyone else.

Facebook and Twitter have revolutionized our social lives, from the way we interact, to who we keep in touch with, so that we can easily acquire a distorted view of reality. When you’re having difficulty figuring out the direction you want your life to head, looking at Mary Jane’s status update about her new job promotion or pictures from Joe Smith’s six month European travels will only increase your feelings of worthlessness. Facebook and Twitter merely encourage an idealized view of reality. They offer peeps of people’s “highlight reel” – the carefully chosen and edited information they chose to share with the world. This in turn makes it appear that everyone else’s life, but our own, is awesome.

3. Write down your strengths and weaknesses.

In order to figure out what you want to do, you need to know what you’re both good at and challenged with. Seems easy enough, but it can be surprisingly difficult to keep a objective point of view when evaluating oneself.  Make a point to really take the time to do some self-evaluation.  A great book to help is Strength Finder 2.0 and if you buy a “new” book there is a code in the back you can use to take an online strength assessment!  One of the key questions employers ask is what are your strengths.  When you do this test you will be able to answer “I have 5 strengths!”  You can also take online tests that can help, or talk to those close to you who might be able to enlighten you to strengths (or weaknesses) you didn’t know you had (or those you may have chosen to overlook).

4. Talk to someone – open up.

You are absolutely not alone in this struggle.  There are many individuals in their 20’s or 30’s who have experienced this before, and who are experiencing it right now alongside you.  Talking about it is a great way to process what you are going through.  Plus, the generations before you have a lot of wisdom that you can tap into and use for your own benefit.  Join a group or organization that will allow you to interact with others who are in similar positions as yourself.  Or go and interview some people who are working in fields that you are considering and learn about their experiences. Getting out and connecting with people is not only a great way to network and open door to new opportunities, it is a great mood lifter! Now is not the time to “veg” on the couch, watching TV, playing games, or partying.  Now is the time to be proactive!

If you still feel like you need more assistance, you might benefit from talking to a professional who specializes in career counseling to do a career assessment.  They may be able to help you identify your strengths and refine your interests, in order to determine which career path would be the best fit for you. They can direct you to resources that are designed to help you take that next step towards a more meaningful and enjoyable career.  There is no better time than the present to set specific goals and begin constructing the future you desire.

NOTE: you can freely redistribute this resource, electronically or in print, provided you leave the authors contact information below intact.

Authors: Matthew Martin, M.S., Registered Mental Health Counselor IMH#10418 Orlando Florida | Carissa Rodriguez, B.A., Student Intern