It’s Ok to Be 30 and Have No Idea What Your Dream Job Is

Dreaming and job hunting

by O. Patel

Today, one of my best friends started her self-proclaimed “dream job,” and when she initially sent the good news through our group text, I swelled with pride. This girl is smart, brave and very good at what she does. Not only was I beaming with joy for her, but I was in awe—to be twenty-eight and starting your dream job? Isn’t that the dream?

I, on the other hand, had just spent yet another day cold-emailing resumes to every position I thought I’d be even slightly qualified for, each time hoping the folks on the receiving end could see streaks of my potential through the large gaps in my resume. Yes, we move a lot. Yes, I left a lot of jobs. But can’t you see I’d be perfect for you?

Each click of the send button was an exercise in self-inflicting inner turmoil; please give me a job and do I even want to work there pressed equally in my head and heart. I’d close my eyes and all I could see was: What Are You Going To Do? And then, in the parentheses of my head, in a much smaller font: (what do you want to do?)

I thought of all the people in my life whose answer to both of those questions was the same—they had achieved dream job status. And me? Thirty, and still desperate for both of those answers. Or, even one answer.


This past January, I did what I typically do: reflected on the past year, thought of what I needed to improve on, and set some goals. After all, this was a big year—in a few weeks, I’d be turning thirty (something I always vowed never to do). It had to be brilliant.

As I’ve grown older and lived more, I’ve become more introspective. I used to want things. Things made me happy. But, when I make mental lists of goals now, I make them based on feelings, not things. I want to feel stronger, so I’ll try to run and do yoga consistently. I want to feel healthier, so I’ll eat cleaner. I want to feel like a better mother, so I’ll be more present when my kid is around.

I want to feel successful, so I’ll… ?

I am thirty and still hitting this roadblock. In the past, I’ve ignored it, and kept going. I was happy at work, and good at the job I was doing. It was meaningful work that made me feel alive, but I hardly thought I’d do it forever. I thought I’d do it for now.


The people I envy lately are not those with the things and the power and the success, but the calm, and the stability and the knowledge that they’re doing what they most want to.

I don’t know what I want to do. The jobs I have are not my dream jobs. But I do them because I can and because my family needs me to.

I don’t know who I want to be. All I know is that I want to be someone.

I hope that in time, I can become one of those people who not only knows what they want to do, but is able to do it.

In the meantime, my dream job is to keep dreaming.

O. Patel

O. spent her childhood getting lost in literature, but always hated writing. That all changed when she read To Kill A Mockingbird and was struck by just how powerful words can be. Since then, she has spent a lot of time dissecting human behavior and emotion, collecting BAs in english and psychology and an MA in education through the process. Now, she continues the perpetual study of human behavior via writing and photography. She lives with her wonderful husband outside of Chicago, where she spends most of her time chasing their awesomely wild toddler. She’s also forever chasing the enigma of the perfectly crafted sentence.

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  • KJS

    This is so me. Except I’ve (kinda) figured it out.

    I used to worry all the time about not being able to find a career to commit to – that one “dream job” or pathway that would make me happy for the rest of eternity. I’d stress out when I had doubts about what I was doing, or start questioning whether it was even what I wanted to be doing in 20 years.

    Then I realised that it doesn’t matter what I’m doing in 20 years, and what matters career-wise for me is that I’m happy, fulfilled and committed to what I’m doing here and now. And there’s no question that I can commit on a short term basis and give something 100% dedication (or in my case, usually 120%), whether I make that commitment for a few months or a few years. I’m constantly learning new skills, re-evaluating and considering what’s not working for me, with the result that I’ve had some pretty awesome adventures and a great career trajectory over the past 5 years, while still remaining flexible and giving myself the option of an ‘out clause’ if I ever feel I need it.

    Of course needing that ‘out clause’ and knowing how happy it makes me sets me up to worry in other areas of life (like marriage) where I WANT to commit, but can’t handle not having that ability to remain adaptable that has worked so well for my mental state and happiness elsewhere. One to keep pushing in an attempt to discover more about myself, which is part of why I’m here on APW.

    But work-wise, do what works for you at the time, which will be a balance of what’s best for your personal career happiness and what’s best for your life and family overall. (And possibly consider starting some kind of online business writing or consulting, that will give you flexibility if/when you need to move again?)

    • Greta

      Yes yes yes! To this comment and to this article. I feel like it is such a load off when you unburden yourself from needing to find your “dream job forever and forever”. Dreams change, careers can change too! I feel like we are moving away from the previous generation where you would work for the same company doing the same thing for your entire career. My dream job has changed drastically over the past 10 years. It has shifted with the lifestyle I want to live, with the place I want to live, with the person I want to live with. I’m very happy with what I’m doing right now, but I don’t feel I’ll do it forever, or even 5 years from now, because I may very well be in a different life place that inspires me to work differently.

      • KiwiSarah

        Yes yes yes to this comment too! I GOT my dream job at 22, straight out of university. I’m now 28 and doing exactly what I hoped to be doing, and doing it pretty well too. And guess what? Lately, all I’ve been wanting to do is pack it all in, buy a house and have babies. That’s partly because dreams change, and partly because, as others have said, work is… work. My job is awesome, especially to an outside observer, but sometimes it’s hard and stressful, and sometimes it’s tedious, and sometimes I’d just rather be doing something else. Pretty much like full time parenting would be, I guess! So maybe I’ll find a way to combine my career and my family goals, or maybe I’ll take some time out and see what happens, or maybe I’ll find a whole new dream. My parents were always very clear with us that, although you should make good life decisions, choosing a job or a degree or whatever at a certain point doesn’t need to restrict you further down the track. My mum studied to become a teacher when I was at primary school and a lawyer after I left home – I’m just hoping that my next dream doesn’t involve multiple years of study!

        • “That’s partly because dreams change”

          “although you should make good life decisions, choosing a job or a degree or whatever at a certain point doesn’t need to restrict you further down the track. My mum studied to become a teacher when I was at primary school and a lawyer after I left home – I’m just hoping that my next dream doesn’t involve multiple years of study!”

          I love this. As someone who has a lot of interests and feels restricted having to choose just one, it’s always encouraging when I come across people who have more multi-facetted backgrounds.

          I worry, though, that it’s not easy to change fields, since most industries are built for mono-career tracks, and sometimes it’s hard to convince people to see your transferable skills when they are used to seeing conventional climb-this-corporate-ladder resumes.

          • BR

            I’m dealing with changing fields right now and it IS hard. People really question my motives in interviews and don’t seem to believe that I mean it when I say that my previous employment is not an accurate representation of my interests and that I really want to work in X Industry. It also means I’ll be taking a pay cut because when changing fields you often need to take a more entry level position to gain the industry experience they feel you lack. At least that’s been my experience.

            However, I feel that jobs never have to be permanent if you don’t want them to be. It may just take a bit more persistence to move around where your dreams take you.

        • Meg Keene

          Ha. Exactly like parenting.

          Man, work is work is work (always). But parenting is like that double. It has it’s great moments, but just like anything, there is a lot of drudgery. Such is life, really.

        • Violet

          Ha, your story is exactly the same as mine. Had a plan, executed it, very happy with where I am right now, career-wise. But I mean, my god, it’s still work.

    • One of the most successful people I know calls herself a “serial-quitter” because she moves on when she gets tired of something.

      • KJS

        It’s a tough one, because we’re taught that quitting is bad, so we feel like we need to keep trying or push through. That was part of my struggle in figuring out what I wanted to do – “I’ve already put x years or x $ into this… And what will people think if I give up and start over?

        But it’s not starting over. Everything you do leads to the next thing, and so much of what you learn is transferable (and is sometimes the reason WHY you’re doing the new thing). It all works out. As Steve Jobs said, “The dots never connect looking forward.” You have to look back before you can figure out how it all came together for you.

      • Meg Keene

        YES. Failing is the best!!! Hate it, left it, next.

    • Meg Keene

      Yeah. Who knows what ANYONE will be doing in 20 years! Working in a brand new industry that probably won’t exist in anything like it’s current form in 20 years has helped me with that. I need to be happy with what I’m doing now. If I’m happy, and I’m gaining skills and experience, chances are I can turn that into something else further down the line, when I need to. (Or… I won’t be able to. Because life has no guarantees. But I still better off just do the best I can right now.)

      Careers are scary. Jobs seem more manageable.

      • KJS

        “If I’m happy, and I’m gaining skills and experience, chances are I can turn that into something else further down the line, when I need to.”

        Exactly! With the added bonus that the skills and experience gained from something you’re happy with now will likely be partially applicable to something you’ll be happy with later.

      • Liz

        YES exactly. That’s actually one of the great things about working in tech – there’s no real answer to “what job do you want to have in five years” because that job doesn’t exist yet. Depending on my mood, it’s either scary or freeing. (“Scary or freeing” is my constant waffle.)

  • Bea

    “Yes, we move a lot. Yes, I left a lot of jobs. But can’t you see I’d be perfect for you? Each click of the send button was an exercise in self-inflicting inner turmoil; please give me a job and do I even want to work there pressed equally in my head and heart.”

    THANK YOU. It feels so good to know that there is someone out there in the same situation and feeling the same thing.

  • Jade

    I’m 35 and I already know what my dream job is but I’m stuck in my current job for financial reasons (and if I’m honest, for fear/social expectation reasons). Maybe one day I’ll have the opportunity to make it a Real Thing in my life, but for now it’s just a hobby (that’s on temporary hiatus because WEDDING.)

  • Noelle Bakken


    But seriously, I have this same conversation in my head every. single. day. I want to have a dream career – if only I could figure out exactly what that was, or how to get there.

  • up_at_Dawn

    Maybe this is an unpopular opinion- but I feel like expecting the work you do to be your “dream job” or “dream career” is a lot of pressure to put on your work life to fulfill you. Sort of like expecting your spouse to be your soulmate and fulfill all your emotional needs.

    It’s a lot of pressure to put on a job, or a spouse as something that is supposed to make you feel fulfilled and satisfied with your life.

    • Jess

      I agree that one thing cannot really fulfill anybody, not a job, not a spouse, not a child, not a hobby – fulfillment comes from balance.

      That said, I do really want to be motivated to go to work. Just to not be constantly apathetic or even negative about it. There’s a difference between a “dream career” and “motivation” I know, but I want to show up and actually care about what I’m doing.

      • HannahESmith

        Exactly! We do spend a significant amount of time at our jobs, and we shouldn’t be miserable.

      • up_at_Dawn

        Or sometimes being happy- comes from a conscious decision.

        • Alyssa M

          Yes. My job is just a job. Night audit manager at a mid scale hotel. Nothing fulfilling in that at all. But I care about doing the job right, take pride in being good at what I do, and that’s my motivation. I chose that. I could easily phone it in and be apathetic, but then I would be miserable.

    • kate

      yes yes yes.

      • up_at_Dawn

        Thank you! This is excellent.

        Aside: I have a HUGE problem with unpaid internships. Or masters or PhD students receiving a “stipend” for their work that doesn’t even come close to covering a minimum wage for all the hours of their work.

    • I agree. I find that when I’m feeling really rough about work, if I throw some extra effort into hobbies or side jobs when I’m off (because, for real, selling illustrations on Etsy is not going to be a “quit your day job” situation for everybody) I actually feel a ton better about about my job because I see that things that I love that having this job allows me to do.

      I’m getting kind of okay with that.

      • PinkyAndNoBrain

        That’s a good way to look at it. There are so many things I love to do — blogging, snarking about videogames — but it’s not really an all-or-nothing scenario. Even if what you love to do isn’t something that can pay the bills, you won’t be able to do it at all if you don’t have something that WILL pay those bills.

        It’s hard, looking at those gamers or Etsy-ers who managed to get that full-time dream, but maybe a job is something you do so that you can enjoy the rest of your life. Idk . . . that’s not totally satisfying, but it’s better than nothing. Thank you for introducing a new perspective. :)

    • Whitney S.

      So true. The sweet spot is “Satisfied” which is between Dream Job! and miserable.

      Core of this to me it turning things from an external motivation/fulfillment to internal motivation/fulfillment. As long as you are waiting for the world to make you happy, you’ll be unhappy.

      • kate

        you’re like, wise, and shit. ;)

        i love this! “As long as you are waiting for the world to make you happy, you’ll be unhappy.”

        • Whitney S.

          I don’t know about all that. But I could use the warm fuzzy today, so I’ll take it! :)

    • qj

      I totally see your point, and also understand the desire to do something that feels meaningful/part of a bigger mission. I use the phrase “dream job” to mean “job that aligns with stuff I’m interested in and doesn’t prevent me from living life in meaningful ways.” So, in that sense, I totally want a dream job, but don’t imagine that my work will provide fulfillment and satisfaction – it’ll be a part of a bigger whole.

      I think the huge question here, and the source of many (including my own) existential-seeming-crises, is: what am I interested in and what are the meaningful ways to live my life? And figuring out the answers to those (for now, in this particular season) has, at least for me, definitely been wrapped up in “dream job” conversations even when I never expected the job to be ultimately and singularly fulfilling.

      • pajamafishadventures

        Yes on your definition of dream job. I am currently working at my “dream job.” I also submitted an application yesterday for my “dream job.” Current job was the introduction to the field, applied-for job is upward movement. I know that there is no such thing as a perfect, flawless one job to rule them all, but “dream job” still feels like a succinct way to sum up what I mean.

        • qj

          Best of luck!

          I applied for my “dream job” and was offered the position two years later (bizarre, I know); except, by then, it wasn’t a “dream job” any longer because it no longer fit into the new life that had emerged in the interim. It felt completely crazy to turn it down (on one hand), but really affirming (once my partner and I hashed out the “meaningful life” part of the equation) to go ahead and turn it down in order to stay in my less-dreamy (on paper) job that allowed us to live our lives in a way that made far more sense for us, for now.

    • “Sort of like expecting your spouse to be your soulmate and fulfill all your emotional needs.”

      Can we have an open thread about that? To what extent should/shouldn’t our spouses be able to fulfill our emotional needs?

      • kate


      • Meg Keene


    • Fiona

      I feel like no job is truly a dream job, though some jobs are damn good ones.
      What I mean by that is that there are always components of a job that suck. Hopefully they are few and far between, but there are always a couple things or days or mornings that aren’t quite a “dream,” and putting that pressure on a job makes it hard for said job to satisfy you.

  • The whole lean in movement is really making it hard for women. We are supposed to have a work calling, and we’re supposed to also be awesome friends/wives/parents. What if work isn’t your top priority? What if you don’t WANT to be a CEO? It’s easy to forget that all women don’t have the same “have it all” dreams, or the same definitions. And I think these lean in-type movements also make us forget that we can define success and happiness in other ways.

    I like my job and I’m good at it, but there are parts of it that aren’t great–I’d love to get paid more, for instance, and have more vacation. Plus, now that I have a job that checks most of the boxes, what am I supposed to do next? The “dream job” is not often the end.

    • kate

      and moreover that maybe your version of “success” doesn’t have to have much to do at all with what your job looks like.

      my job is a means to an end. period. not a dream, not a wish fulfillment – it’s just simply the way i make money so that i can afford to do other things in life. i happen to be pretty good at it and most days i even enjoy a lot of it and i’m lucky for that, but it’s not my “dream job” and i don’t need it to be. my version of success is basically that my job doesn’t get in the way of other successes that are more important to me – being a “successful” traveler, friend, dog-parent, yogi, reader, beer-sampler, etc. :)

      • lady brett

        “my version of success is basically that my job doesn’t get in the way of other successes that are more important to me”
        i love this!

      • Greta

        Yes, so much about “does this job enable me to live the life I want to live?” Do I have enough vacation, benefits, sufficient salary, time home with my husband, social time at work (I love people!), just the right amount of stress, balance, etc.

        My dream job used to be this nomadic thing but once I met and started living with my husband, I was no longer happy when I wasn’t seeing him on the regular. I realized that I wanted a job where I got to spend time with him every day. That’s important to me, but it’s definitely changed the type of job I can do.

      • Kate – I am really working hard to get to that point of making my life outside of work more important. I’ve never known what I wanted to do with my life but always felt that it was supposed to be the most important thing, therefore I’ve failed at finding the career AND failed at life. Now that I have a baby, it’s become a lot easier to make my home life a priority, but I still need to learn to make the other things I enjoy a priority too.

        • kate

          oh i think you’re probably being a little hard on yourself there, but it’s so easy to de-prioritize your non-work life in our culture. what’s almost always one of the first questions we ask people we’ve just met? “and what do you do?” so i think it really takes some intentional effort to prioritize in a way that’s actually valuable and meaningful to you.
          the whole idea that your career has to be a certain kind of fulfilling is just sort of crushing – like you said, it makes you feel like you failed at being career-successful and at creating a life outside of your career because you spent all your energy chasing that “dream job”.

          • I’ve seen/heard a lot of talk about trying to change that question, “what do you do?” But what do you change it to? Does “what do you enjoy doing?” make it better?
            I’m actually not as hard on myself as I made it seem above. I’ve more or less given up on trying to please “society” or whomever. I just really like how you said, “my version of success is basically that my job doesn’t get in the way of other successes that are more important to me.” I couldn’t upvote lady brett’s quote/comment enough!

          • kate

            “I’ve more or less given up on trying to please “society” or whomever” – good for you! :)

            i usually try to ask people other questions about themselves – where they are from, what activities they like to do, about their children or family (or pets!) etc. depending on context. it almost inevitably comes up even if you don’t ask it, but trying to ask other questions is just one small way to de-emphasize the idea that we are/should be consumed and defined by our jobs.

    • Rachel

      I think this is a misunderstanding of the “lean in movement” that people seem to want to perpetuate. It makes it easier to ignore the whole thing, sort of like saying feminism requires all women to stop cooking. Nope, keep cooking if you want to. If your job isn’t a high priority, then you don’t need to apply the advice from Lean In.
      At least in the actual book “Lean In” Sandberg clearly states that the CEO track isn’t for everyone, and even the working track isn’t for everyone. She is just advocating support and advice for women that ARE interested in the CEO track. Sane, practical support and advice for women who are career track oriented is lacking, so I appreciated Lean In for that reason.
      I would love to see your response to Lean In be “Good for you, not for me” not that its making it hard for all women.

      • No, you’re right. I should have clarified that the book itself doesn’t push that all women should strive for this, but that some people have picked it up and pushed it this way. The “lean in” path sometimes feels like it’s what all women SHOULD want, because I feel like it’s been presented by enough people (who may misunderstand its meaning and goals) to make me feel like I’m supposed to want these things. I appreciate Sandberg’s original message, but I think it’s been misconstrued by some and is being misunderstood as this is what all women want.

        That being said, can someone write a book about indecision and how it’s OK not to have it together by the time you’re 30?

        • BR

          I would so read that book, but only after spending way too long hemming and hawing about the pros and cons of spending money on it.

        • Meg Keene

          I think most people don’t have it all together by 30. I think that’s a total total myth. (Or maybe I’m just saying that because I sure as hell didn’t. But I was starting to figure out what I wanted and cared about after a decade of work, and that was important.)

      • Amy March

        My take away from lean in has always been- don’t give up on a career you like in anticipation of future relationships and children you might someday have. Not- don’t have kids, don’t have balance, work all the time.

        • Meg Keene

          Yes. Exactly. EXACTLY. Which was so life changing to me when I heard it, and to so many people I know. (I haven’t read the book and don’t plan to. The TED talk seems to pretty much cover it.)

      • Meg Keene

        Yes. Thank you.

  • Liz

    I thought the same thing at 30 – could I do this forever? Was it a dream? Was it a PASSION?

    As time passed, it turned out – no. And it didn’t have to be. My real passions take place outside my work – and when I pursued them AS work, they BECAME work, and were less fun. I think we put too much pressure on ourselves to have jobs that look like The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Us. Ultimately, finding a position that kept me learning and paid well – enough to take care of my mom, keep my partner and I comfortable, and save for a stable enough retirement that I don’t end up where my mom is now – were much more important than chasing a dream job. Now I love being able to shut the door behind me at the end of the day and move on to the really important stuff. All this to say – don’t put too much pressure on yourself to find a job that fills every need. It may not be all it’s cracked up to be. And that’s fine.

    • Yes. I love food, and I’m a writer, so I thought: FOOD WRITING. This is what I want to do! I did it freelance for a bit and realized that it made eating less fun. I’m glad I tried it out so I don’t wonder, but I’m also glad I’m not trying to pursue it for a living anymore.

    • anon

      I agree with this so much. I got my ‘dream job’ at 27. Over the next 8 years it morphed, the industry changed, my role changed. And I learned to look for my joy in other places. I stay because the benefits are great, my pay is enough, and the schedule allows time for my passions. This realization and contentment has only come in the past year or so…I feel like I am becoming wise as the years tick on.

    • Exactly. I feel like my entire life, I’ve been told that nothing is worth doing unless it’s a path to a career. It has completely sapped all of the creative life out of me. Because I never could do something I enjoyed doing well enough for long enough to sustain me, so then it just wasn’t worth doing.
      Well, hobbies are meaningful, helpful, life affirming. So I just need to give myself permission to do things I enjoy simply because I enjoy them.

    • PinkyAndNoBrain

      “My real passions take place outside my work – and when I pursued them AS work, they BECAME work, and were less fun.” This is so encouraging; I think we tend to look at people who do our hobbies for a living and think that they must have the best lives ever . . . and I’m sure they’re happy, but what we do for fun, they HAVE to do whether they feel like it or not. It’s hard to keep that in mind, but it’s good to hear.

  • Tonikat

    GET OUT OF MY HEAD. Wow, the first paragraph felt like everything I say to myself every day. You lured a lurker out of the woods!!!

    I thought I had the dream job figured out. I got the education, I interned, tried to network, cold call… Alas, I got a few interviews but no job offers. There are not a lot of jobs out there in the field I like, and the few that were advertised went to other people.
    Right now I am at a different job which I like well enough, but… I struggle every day with my failure to break into the business of my dreams… In turn, it makes me feel like a failure at my current job, where I cannot find any long-term prospects.
    Time to give up on my dreams altogether? Right now I would settle for a non-dream job with an upward career perspective and, at least, a good salary to compensate for lack of wish-fulfilment.

    • kcaudad

      “[…] and, at least, a good salary to compensate for lack of wish-fulfillment.” preach it! It’s that the real goal of settling for a job that isn’t the ‘dream’? How about an ‘entry-level’ position that pays well and has benefits!

  • Vilmos Kovacs

    O’s posts have been really illuminating for me. I have a friend who I think is in a similar spot to O (minus kids) and the posts have been helpful because I do not get how to be a friend to my friend right now. I don’t understand her motivations. I am confused why she doesn’t have more anxiety about when she will be able to start supporting herself. I’m not sure she is thinking things through. And on top of that, it is just really hard to relate. I bet it is lonely for her. We are in our early 30s, the time when most of our peers are digging in and grinding out out professionally. It dominates a lot of conversations (especially here in NYC). I feel bad talking about my work with her. I don’t get great reactions from her when I do (judgement about the value of my work/the “lack of balance”). I just feel really disconnected from her right now and don’t know how to fix it. I feel like I’m being really dishonest with her (and she knows it) by supporting her in this process (when I don’t actually feel very supportive). I read O’s posts, and while I can’t relate to the thought process, they give me more empathy for the emotions.

    • Jess

      I have been in the same place on some of her essays, especially plus kids, where I go, “Oh my gosh, this is what my friend is feeling! I didn’t understand what she’s been telling me, but these are the feelings behind her words!”

      If nothing else, it reminds me that regardless of what choices she’s making and what she’s feeling about me and my choices, I can be a friend.

      • Vilmos Kovacs

        So what do you guys talk about or do together? How do you keep that connection?

        • Amy March

          The weather, current events, tv shows we like, stuff we’re cooking, how adorable cats are, who we are dating, who we are fake dating in our heads, whether the doorman is hitting on us or gay, what we think about the 2016 presidential election, our friends weddings, future travel plans, cookies and how they are awesome, work outs, what we did last week, Ryan Gosling, climate change etc.

          I have friends I have big involved career focused conversations with, and I have friends I hardly ever even mention work to because we’re so busy talking about things we find more fun. And some friends it’s turned out that without a common school or career bond we don’t have a lot in common and aren’t as close.

          • Vilmos Kovacs

            As I said in an answer to your comment about checking my attitude, I said that I’m having a hard time because her path is really all consuming for her right now and I don’t think I can constructively contribute to that process. It sounded like Jess had similar relationships, where right now things are aligned, but you want to do the work necessary to get through this period. I was hoping she could fill me in on how she did that in a similar situation.

        • Jess

          I have two friends that are doing very different tracks from me. One I met recently – we talk about everything from how we grew up, to how we manage our lives now, to what we’re reading or cooking. The other, I grew up with and every few months we’ll trade e-mails or phone calls or share some quote we read.

          It comes down to being heard – really and truly heard.

          There’s a lot of honesty about what we do and how we feel about it – whether she’s frustrated because she’s home with her son all the time and rarely has time to be anything other than a mom or she’s really excited because he’s starting to crawl around and she sees all this personality coming through, she tells me. If I’m pissed because I’m making mistakes at work or if I’m excited because I nailed a presentation, I tell her. Rather than becoming a conversation of “look what I’m doing now!” it feels more like we’re just… saying where we are, good or bad.

          One thing that I try really hard to do is look at it from the “I will learn something about what it is to have made this choice” angle – rather than try to help or to mentally put myself into their shoes and remark on how I’d feel or why I wouldn’t want that, I just ask questions about what they feel and what they want to do.

          I can’t say I always get it right, or that I don’t say super offensive things (or the other way around) because that does happen. I’ve definitely regretted sharing certain things at a less-than-sensitive time, or making some opinionated statements.

          I don’t know if that makes sense or if it helps, but that’s kind of what works for me right now.

          • Vilmos Kovacs

            So helpful – my relationship tracks the friend you grew up with. I need to get more comfortable with sharing the “where we are – good or bad.” Really, really helpful thoughts. Thanks!

          • Jess

            Hooray! Yeah, that’s the really hard part. I know APW has a lot of discussions about honesty (especially on social media) and when it has a place.

            It seems really hard but in practice is pretty easy… once you get over the initial decision to trust somebody with things that we mostly just keep in our heads.

    • TeaforTwo

      One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about over the last little while is how friendships change, generally as we get older, and also particularly with marriage.

      My closest friends now are the people I met in university. And at the time, we were all doing more or less the same thing, with similar priorities. Ten years out, we’re all on different paths with work we love/hate/tolerate/are succeeding in/are thinking of leaving, with kids, with marriage, etc. Some of my friends married people I love, some married people I avoid at all costs.

      What’s been key for me in maintaining these friendships, though, is realizing that other people’s choices are just that. I don’t need to get anxious for someone else because they’re marrying someone I don’t like, or making a career choice I wouldn’t. We can stay friends even if we’re making different choices.

      It’s also become really important to me that my friends take a similar approach: my husband and I make our decisions together, and because those big life decisions are about both of us, and made with our family’s best interest in mind, I am particularly unwilling to entertain unsupportive comments from well-meaning friends.

      • Jules

        “We can stay friends even if we’re making different choices.”

        Yes. And from my limited experience, friendships start to tank when people start judging each other’s choices – they’re NOT YOU, and they will not make the same choices as you, and that’s ok.

        “I am particularly unwilling to entertain unsupportive comments from well-meaning friends.”

        Agreed. Maybe I’m getting crochety, but even though I can acknowledge that people can “mean well” to an extent, it can also be an excuse for some varieties of ignorance, intolerance, and egocentrism that don’t sit well with me.

      • KJS

        “It’s also become really important to me that my friends take a similar approach: my husband and I make our decisions together, and because those big life decisions are about both of us, and made with our family’s best interest in mind, I am particularly unwilling to entertain unsupportive comments from well-meaning friends.”

        Yes, this! Thank you for this. :)

    • Amy March

      I think you be a friend to her by majorly checking your judgmental attitude. It’s so clear from this post that you think she’s making a terrible choice, but is she? Life is long and while it can feel like you must have all the career now, not doing that doesn’t mean you are doomed. She isn’t anxious because she doesn’t need to be and that’s awesome!

      • Bethany

        Just a point of thought — is it any less judgmental to claim that Vilmos needs to check a judgmental attitude when it’s clear from her post that she’s being as supportive as she can?

        Not understanding our friends is not the same as judging them. I don’t see her saying that her friend is a bad person (though I do get that she feels judged by her friend for a perceived lack of balance that may not actually exist), just that she doesn’t understand her but wants to be a good friend.

        • Amy March

          Of course not. But I’m not trying to maintain a close friendship with Vilmos. It think its easy to say “oh I just don’t understand” and “I’m trying really hard to be supportive but I don’t know how” but actually you just don’t like your friend’s choices at all and you are judging them. And that’s toxic to friendship. It’s really not that difficult to understand how someone might chose to value a marriage before immediate career goals, or think she’s taking a risk but doing it anyway, or talk to her about things other than work if work isn’t a happy place for both of you.

          I’m certainly not describing myself as a non-judgmental person (ha!) but it’s not a productive attitude to bring to a friendship. People make all kinds of different choices and it’s fine.

          • Vilmos Kovacs

            My friend is not married. I didn’t think it was relevant.

          • Amy March

            Oh, I thought that was what you meant by pointing out her similarities to O, who is balancing her career ambitions with the demands of her husband’s career, but just without kids.

          • Vilmos Kovacs

            I can see how it read that way. I see their similarities more in the uncertainty and frustration of where each is career-wise. O definitely has another layer going on with the demand’s of her partner’s career. But I didn’t think the status of having a partner (or not) was as huge of a deal as the layer of difficulty that comes in when a family has to figure out how to care for young kids.

      • Vilmos Kovacs

        My main emotion for her is fear. And I think life is both long and short. I wish I could help her figure out what she wanted to do. But I know she is getting a lot advice on all sides so I will be more helpful by not focusing on that area. I just think picking something would be helpful. And while we are young (and as you point out, life is long), the career decisions you make in your 20s impact the rest of your life. ( I wish I could encourage her to just get on the ladder and figure it out from there. But I know my anxiety sounds like judgement (or maybe if I’m being honest with myself, jealousy), so I avoid engaging with her about her process of finding herself and her path. And because that is taking up so much of her energy and time, there is little left to engage with her on.

    • Bethany

      I love what you say about not being able to relate to the thought process but having empathy for the emotions. It’s definitely a rough spot to be in, trying to be supportive despite a part of you definitely not being. I’ve been there trying to figure out how to suppress the part of me going “Seriously?? That’s your decision? You’re going to end up homeless in 2 years and I’ll let you crash with me for as long as you need because I adore you, but I hate this decision so much and think it’s so very very wrong.”

      • Vilmos Kovacs

        When I think those things I feel so UNCOOL and BORING. But I’m glad I’m not alone!

        • Bethany

          Not alone at all. Honestly, most of the artists I know have plans and backup plans, and secondary sources of income because a serious artist knows that starving sounds dramatic, but having food gives you the energy to move an audience to elation or tears.

  • Ok you can all look at me like I’m totally lame, but read What Color is Your Parachute and actually do the exercises with an open mind and without irony. That book really changed my life – opened me up to what my strengths really are vs. the story I’d concocted for myself. It didn’t immediately focus me on a career path, but I did eventually get to a much better place.
    I run my own business now and it’s pretty great but it’s not *everything*. Sometimes I wonder if I’m not *still* in the wrong field and if something else might make me happier. Perhaps that’s something we’re all destined to struggle with forever and ever.

    • Jess

      I need to go back and do that again… I did a lot of it out of college, but I feel like I’m pretty different than I was then.

    • joanna b.n.

      This. A thousand times this. I did it too, and I now have my “dream job” (for now). I can’t recommend it highly enough to someone at this point in your work life.

  • Violet

    Success as an adult. Who the heck knows?

    Success as a child is relatively straightforward. You can succeed academically (using semi-objective measures like grades) or athletically (again, some ground rules and objectivity). Even if you throw in success in the arts, like being first chair in orchestra, childhood activities are so constructed. They’re usually defined by adults, so the rules tend to be overall pretty clear with clear outcomes. (Obvious exceptions for things like learning disorders or other aspects that make it so so so not a level playing field, but okay, that aside.) But children are usually only allowed in certain arenas, and these constraints create some measure of clarity around success.

    Adulthood doesn’t seem to have those parameters. As an adult, you can do… anything. There are so few adult activities that are governed stringently for us to even know what “success” looks like. I see the Olympics for sports as one of the few obvious ones. I could say high elected office for politics and the CEO position for business, but even those become pretty fraught with lots of other factors. I mean, is it “more successful” to be an editor at Vogue or the Wall Street Journal? I don’t know. Can anyone say with absolute conviction?

    I guess what I’m getting at is that success isn’t something I think of as a feeling. I can feel proud, or fulfilled, or satisfied, but I don’t know if I can feel success. I think it’s more of a thing than a feeling, but in adulthood, as a thing so nebulous, I’m not even sure what I should be going for.

    • Meg Keene

      I think the best you can hope for (if you care about a feeling of success at all, which I think is important to acknowledge isn’t important to everyone), is to feel successful by your own internal metrics. IE, lots of people don’t understand what I do, but I don’t really care because I’m internally happy with it. (Which is a blessing I wasn’t sure I’d ever have. I sure as hell didn’t have it at 30, I’ll tell you what.)

      I’ve had jobs that were externally viewed as success jobs but didn’t make me happy, or make me feel successful by my own internal metrics. Those were… not sucess stories for me, even if they could be spun into one at a party.

      For me success is not even wanting to bring up what you do at a party, because you really don’t give a shit what anyone thinks about it anymore. Your milage on what makes you feel good may vary :)

      • Violet

        Isn’t that the truth! I don’t make like, the most money, or whatever, or have the highest degree one could hold in my field. But you know, I’m happy with where I’m at. I know there’s more room for growth and new challenges. And that works for me. (I just don’t tie that to a *feeling* of success, because to me success is a thing to obtain, not a feeling. Obviously some people experience it as a feeling, I guess I’m just missing that chip.)

  • SJ

    I’ve learned (very recently) to have a job that fills these requirements: 1) Most days I like it 2) I feel supported and safe 3) I can help other people. The dream job is probably a cross between getting paid to read and hostage negotiation (I tend to do well in emergencies), but I’ve put aside the belief that I’ll need to land the ultimate job and keep it for the next fifty years….life just doesn’t seem to work that way nowadays.

  • Ali

    I’ve never had a clear idea of what a ‘dream job’ looks like and have a lot of difficulty working out what I want career-wise. I’ve been working for the same organisation for several years, and definitely have a fulfilling job that I’m pretty good at, great colleagues, and am being paid a very good wage for the work that I do, but I wouldn’t call it my ‘dream job’ as I have no idea what that even looks like!

    I am probably still a little jealous of my friends who have ‘always known’ what they wanted to do in their career. I remember being really worried about not having any idea what I wanted to do in the future after finishing high school and my father – who was just about to retire at the time – said that he still didn’t know what he wanted to do for a career even though he was at the end of his career. Perhaps not everyone will have or needs to have a clear dream about their career path.

  • BR

    This is my life. It can be painful to feel like everyone else has their shiz together and you don’t have a clear path, so it’s nice to hear from others who struggle with this. I feel like most of my friends have clear goals and I am still working on just getting into an industry that I don’t hate, let alone feel passionate about.

    • Cathi

      “I am still working on just getting into an industry that I don’t hate, let alone feel passionate about.”

      I marinated in that feeling for about two years, and eventually just shy of age 29 I just picked a ‘future career’ that met three criteria. One, it would pay me well and be stable/always hiring. Two, I wouldn’t want to stab my eyes out doing it. Three, it had a 9-5 (or nearly) schedule so I could actually spend time with my friends and family, unlike now where I work nights and weekends.

      Pre-Script: I obviously have a lot of feelings about this, haha. I’m sorry for hijacking your poignant, succinct thought. The tl;dr is that I FEEL YOU, I’m maybe like, one step ahead of you?, and I’m a little afraid that step isn’t actually going to help.

      I’m not sure my choice (accounting–thrilling, right?) is going to be an epically amazing fit for me or that I’ll actually be like, HAPPY when I’m finally employed, but I think I’ll be content. Perhaps it’s a “grass is always greener” thing, since I’ve been a bartender for almost the last decade which is something people *leave* lucrative careers in order to pursue [once they have a nest egg and retirement savings in place, I might point out, ahem], but having a “socially acceptable” career, a regular schedule, and benefits sounds like heaven to me at this point.

      I didn’t realize how much the weight of feeling like a “failure” had been crushing me until I received my acceptance into a professional graduate program. Suddenly, I had a timeline and a plan–something people would think sounds responsible to boot!–and I was no longer “aimless”.

      BR, it sounds like you and I might be cut from similar cloth. I didn’t feel “free” or empowered by simply “doing my own thing”. I found the lack of direction to be a very great burden, and I definitely felt very guilty for feeling burdened by it. A lot of people would kill to support themselves as a bartender and have that kind of scheduling flexibility and social expression, and there I was viewing it as “less than”.

      • Kate M

        As someone who fell into the accounting career, and am good at it, although not passionate about it, it is really a great choice for what you are looking for. I have been in it for 15 years, and there have been jobs when I have been all in working 80 hours a week and loving the pressure, and jobs when I am out the door as soon as that clock strikes 5. It has also always been easy to find a job, and now I work from home full time which is great because I get to see a hell of lot more of my two year old and am pregnant with our second.

    • Tonikat

      That’s it. The lack of an aim and any path I could discern is more stressful than I care to admit. I mean, I never expected to stay in one career (just like my parents or something), but it would be nice to have at least an inkling of where I am going.

      “…still working on just getting into an industry that I don’t hate, let alone feel passionate about.” – THIS is exactly how I feel.

      I also feel bad because I know there is something out there I could feel passionate about, but the scene has so few jobs that pay a living wage… I have no idea how to get my hands on one of these without major connections. I must have done something wrong during the years when others were building careers and forging connections, and now I feel like I am floundering.
      Maybe it’s never too late?

      • It’s never too late. It just isn’t.

    • kate

      shoot, i stumbled into my job when i was temping because i was broke. now my “goal” is to basically keep doing what i’m doing because i don’t hate it, i’m pretty good at it, and it pays the bills so i can do other stuff i enjoy when i’m not at work. other than that, i’m pretty stumped.

      and i’ve become pretty convinced that the idea that you have to feel passionate about your job is pretty much BS and it sets us up for disappointment – if you’re lucky enough to find a job you enjoy that pays the bills, you’ve done pretty well. and on the flip side, work can just be work. it doesn’t make you lazy or dumb if you’re not climbing a corporate ladder and you don’t have to love your job everyday (or at all). the fact that we even get to consider that is a huge privilege (i mean, c’mon – do you think every person out there collecting your garbage is “passionate” about waste collection??)*

      *not meant to be a lecture, more like, don’t let it stress you out that you haven’t found a job/industry you’re passionate about. maybe you don’t need to and that’s ok too.

  • SimpleMarine

    I’ve noticed that a fixation on being happy in a career or job can lead to apprehension about doing the hard, boring bits to get to the good stuff. An example is someone switching out of a science major in college because they didn’t like calculus. (Almost) nobody likes doing calculus for the sake of it, but you need it to understand cool stuff at the higher levels. You can’t ask yourself “I really hate this class, am I not meant to be a marine biologist” or whatever, you have to be thinking many, many steps ahead. (This observation is not directed at the author of this post.)

    • Violet

      That’s so interesting; I tend to see the opposite. I’ve witnessed people being really able to justify the hard/boring parts in service of a goal. But once reaching that goal, realizing that even dream jobs have hard/boring parts can be quite a surprise, and sometimes leads people to question if it’s really their “dream job” after all.

    • I love this analogy. Unfortunately, in some creative fields, it actually works the other way — the senior leadership positions are heavily admin/management based, while the “fun” creative stuff is left to fresh interns. It’s pretty discouraging when you’re looking at a ladder that plateaus and gets increasingly more boring.

  • Fiona

    I’m currently still enrolled in a masters program for nursing for the fall, but I’m working in international education right now, and I love it so hard. This is not technically a bad thing, except that I have a sinking feeling that higher education might implode at some point in the next 15 years, and that is unlikely to happen to nursing any time this century.

  • DMC

    I’m in the same boat! One of the best career coaching books I’ve read so far was “I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was” by Barbara Sher. It mostly focuses on the fear of success, but there’s some great stuff in there for people who don’t know what they want to do, who are interested in too many things, or are focused on what they feel they’re supposed to be doing rather than what they really want to be doing.

  • The pilot episode of the series “Chuck” starts with a party where someone asks the title character what his next plans are. He says he’s working on his 5 year plan, he just needs to pick a font.

    That’s about where I’m at right now. It’s a rather nebulous idea this future thing for me currently. So I’m just going with it till I can pick a font. Then I can start writing down details.

    • I like that. Picking a font. Nice!

  • kira

    Eek! This is exactly where my head is at — I’m 29 and am sending out resumes into the void with those thoughts and fears. Thank you for sharing this — it’s incredibly reassuring to be reminded again that everyone’s path through the world looks different, and that I’m not alone in struggling to find mine.

  • I’m 38 years old and I have no idea what I want to do with my life. I even took a class called Passion Search to try to uncover what it is that I should be doing. But all I could envision were those weird basics: work/life balance meaning I can go home at a decent time; respect from my coworkers; and the ability to get up and go to the restroom without telling anyone. I don’t have my “dream” job, but that’s okay, because I don’t know what that is. I do love my job right now because I have nice coworkers, a good schedule, potential for growth but no pressure (which is wonderful given I’m just back from my maternity leave). Will I want something more? Sure. But right now I just need what I have.
    And I agree with the idea that sometimes the dream isn’t what you want to do all the time. I’ve been burnt out quickly trying to do what I thought I loved so much. I’d rather enjoy what I enjoy on the side than try to force a career out of it.
    And there is something to be said for being a Jane-of-all-trades. I can do a lot of things.

    • Violet

      “But right now I just need what I have.” I like this a lot.

  • I’m an artist and I used to think after maybe ten years of “paying my dues” with internships and various no-or-low-paid projects, I would “make it” and have a well-paid arts job that I loved in a mid-size institution (ie. my “dream”). I did not think that I would be in my later 30s and still unable to support myself with only work in my “dream” field. And in the time from my later twenties to later thirties, I’ve realized that I don’t think I want the steady job in the mid-size institution. I think I prefer creating my own work on a smaller scale.

    Thankfully, a few years ago, I got a day job that I enjoy. It’s somewhat artistic (in a different arts field), uses some of my skills, and it’s flexible. It makes it possible to keep doing my artistic work (for pay now, thankfully). And I started another (somewhat artistic) freelance work path to make ends meet, but it turns out I like it too. What I am coming to realize is that my “career” might always be piecemeal. It’s not what I imagined when I started out, but if I enjoy the “pieces” in their own way (for stability, pay and/or passion) maybe that’s enough. I suspect if it ever stops being fun, I will re-evaluate and see if my dreams have changed…

  • Stacey Tan

    Great for sharing this information as event planner in Dallas. Really helpful. Thanks.

  • InHK

    I feel like this all the time. Especially lately as I’ve watched friends solidify their careers or move closer to their goals.

    We moved to Hong Kong because we wanted to live abroad. And that part is great! But my husband doesn’t like his job here and wants something else. I got the easiest job to get as a native English speaker with a BA in English – I’m a private tutor. I’m spinning my wheels, career-wise. Add to that my (wrong) idea that I couldn’t progress my career in a place I know is temporary and I really spun my wheels.

    I’ve sporadically done PR and marketing, but I want to break into the sustainability field. I don’t know yet if that means more school, but I did decide in January that I was going to take steps. And sure enough, there’s a budding environmental movement here that still fairly small and great for networking. So I just have to make it happen with whatever time I’ve got left here.

  • Kate M

    I am a little late to this conversation, but in some ways that is nice because I got to read a ton of comments before adding my own thoughts. The idea of dream jobs seems to be relatively new phenomenon. I have worked in accounting/HR for about 15 years and I can say that my experience in the last few years is very different when it comes to interviewing new college grads. The trend is to find something fulfilling, I hear it interviews all the time. When I was interviewing as a new grad, it was a clock ticking in my head as to how long I had before my loans kicked in. I figured I just needed to start somewhere, I would put in my time and figure out where I wanted to go eventually. I have never looked for fulfillment in my job, I always assumed it was my life outside of work, my family and friends and hobbies would be my fulfillment. I didn’t want to work at a job that I hated, but I figured if i liked it, and did it well, that would be enough for me. And so far it has been.

  • No Path

    I’m late to the conversation AND I’m going to be slightly off-topic.

    I’m 38 and don’t know who I want to be… actually, I’m clear on who I am. I’m not clear on the best way for me to earn money (or, for that matter, if earning money is even going to be a part of my married life). One thing I’ve been thinking about a ton lately is the path idea. I’ve recently realized that so many people are able to think in stepping stones – for instance, “I’ll have this job for 2-3 years and gain the experience to be able to move to THIS position.” I have never been able to do this… in fact the realization that people can do it has been something of a bombshell.

    I wish I could get on a path, engage, figure out my role in the outer (as in out of the house) world.

  • britney

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  • Rahul Jain

    I felt the same few years back .. your Articles seems to me as my story.. I used to get motivated every single day and demotivated as soon as i faced failure.. Life changed a last year when i was 29 after a Vipassana program (meditation).. I discovered I was just lazy.. lazy to work harder, lazy to find solutions, lazy at damn everything.. I am on a process of breaking my comfort zone.. I do one thing daily that raises my heart beat
    I push myself one step ahead when I feel lazy.. Now when I am 30 I took up a Business and decided to achieve my goals by this year end.. and will not stop until i reach my goal. I believe every problem that we face.. has a solution and the solution should come from inside.. DESIRE is the biggest thing in life.. A Burning desire in heart.. make the mind to work.. and a working mind command the body.. and when the body works beyond its limit MIRACLES HAPPEN… These are my personal views – Rahul Sancheti from INDIA..