Friday, May 9, 2014

837 Roads

Photo credit Adam Fagan /
I think the old adage is, "the only certainty is change." Well, for me, the only certainty is the what I'll call the Frantic Fifth Month.

Sometime between the four- and five-month mark at the last two (now three) jobs I've had, something weird (but now totally predictable) has switched on inside me. I start feeling career anxiety, and I mean really bad career anxiety. And it's actually not because I don't like what I've chosen to do and need to "locate the nearest exit." In fact, it's always exactly the opposite. Invariably, I find that I love what I've chosen to do and I want to do it at a higher level, but I worry that I will never ever get there. And I'm paralyzed by the fear of leaving behind all the other options.

At the D.C. think tank where I performed research for book authors, I fell in love with journalism and the book-writing process. I worked with some of the smartest, most resourceful people I'd ever met. I saw them craft arguments, find stories, and dig up research no one else knew they cared about until that author argued it, wrote it, found it and made it fascinating. I started at that job in August 2011. By November, I just had to write the next Great American Investigative Non-Fiction Whatever. Or find my way onto the Pulitzer Prize track (which does not exist, as far as I know). Or become a White House Correspondent. Or just cover the metro beat at the Post. Something. Anything both radical and richly literary. Instead, I moved to San Diego.

Then, at the small public health non-profit, where I earned a coordinating role in a local community-based obesity prevention project, I finally got a chance to see the real world applications of the organizing and anti-racism theories I'd learned over the previous year. I saw the hard work required to affect real health change in a community and the perils of parachute program management. I saw my privilege and how it affected authentic engagement in a community of people who didn't usually look or think exactly like i did. I quickly decided I'd never amount to anything if I didn't earn a PhD and join up with a scrappy liberal arts college or inner-city non-profit to do some real community-based participatory research. Some time between the hypothetical town hall meetings, library stacks sessions pouring over "the literature," and the recording of octogenarians' oral histories, I'd need to define the exact physiological pathway that causes people who experience (and work hard to overcome) racism to end up with hypertension and chronic diseases that lower their life expectancies by 20 years. I'd take my college mentor's life work to the next level. Only that kind of humble contribution would be worthwhile.

Now that I work in non-profit marketing, I've come to love using both parts of my brain - the behavioral economist and the artist. I love thinking about what compels people to act and then writing or designing something beautiful that elicits that response. I get to play at work - the very best kind of work. But four months and one too many Mad Men episodes into this job, and I'm feeling queasy thinking I'll never be the Creative Director at Y&R. Last night, I spent two hours looking at senior copywriters' portfolios online, wishing I'd designed the Tropicana ad campaign recently plastered underground in New York.

My ambitions - and the anxiety around them - get the best of me. And then (here's the kicker), they're coupled with crippling indecision. The desire to learn quickly and move out of entry level work has led me to take a fellowship with two six-month job placements and three full-time jobs in the last four years. I have no desire to make any more job moves any time soon--and the strength of my resume probably depends on it--but the breadth of career interests I've discovered in those four years scares the hell out of me.

How will I ever choose what to do with my life?

The following is the shortlist of things I'd probably be perfectly happy doing for the rest of my life, in no particular order:

  • Ad copywriter
  • Newspaper/magazine journalist and book author
  • Book or magazine editor
  • Civil rights lawyer
  • High school English or government teacher
  • Social policy or behavioral economics researcher
  • College professor on any of the same topics
  • Community organizer
  • Senior staffer for an elected official
  • Elected official
  • Psychologist
  • Non-profit lobbyist
  • Organic farmer
  • Sole owner and operator of a handmade greeting card company that sells at farmers markets, craft shows, boutique shops, bookstores, cofeeshops, and Etsy (if I'm being specific)
  • Any conceivable position at the White House
So there you have it. Decision paralysis combined with an all-consuming urge to move up, learn new things, feel recognized for my work, and develop deep expertise.

At least 837 roads diverged in a yellow wood. And I, I had a panic attack at my desk.

1 comment:

  1. Sending you courage and good thoughts! You are such an awesome individual, I know you could excel at any of those things. My unsolicited advice would be to take a deep breath and remember that you're not even 30 yet and have all the time in the world. You can potentially do many, if not all, the things on your list and still have time to do and be a bunch of other things besides! As someone who's in the middle of multi-year career track preparations, I'm envying your options. No matter what you decide, you'll be great! Best wishes!