I went West and now I'm lost

L.A.'s got me all confused -- can I go home again?

By Cary Tennis
Published February 4, 2005 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I am in the midst of a quarter-life existential crisis and am beginning to be afraid that I'll never find my way out. I'm from a middle-class family in the South and went to a good liberal arts school, majoring in the humanities. Since then, I've moved across the country to Los Angeles, working as a bartender and an administrative assistant, and while I love my friends and the beautiful landscape and culture here, I miss my family and feel as if I'm wasting my life. I am 26 years old and want to go back to school to gain a marketable skill by which I can make a life for myself doing something other than pushing paper. My parents are very supportive of the idea of my returning to school and have told me more than once that they would be happy to help me.

But here's the problem: Every time I think I've found The Career, it fades. It's different every week! I missed grad school application deadlines last month because I couldn't make up my mind what degree I wanted to achieve. I long for meaningful work that I actually enjoy and am reimbursed adequately for, but I have an anxiety attack every time I start feeling that I need to decide. Choosing a career feels like slamming all other doors forever, as if my life would be only that career until I die. Meanwhile, not choosing means that I am dissatisfied with my life, and I am deeply afraid of being a secretary my whole life through my sheer inability to make a decision and stick with it.

I'm very decisive in other areas of my life. I don't understand why I am seemingly incapable of picking something and moving forward. Every time I try, it's as if I've run full tilt into a gigantic brick wall. I enjoy academia, but fear I'll never be able to support myself teaching the social sciences, and I want to be a little more enmeshed in the world than that career track will give me. I'd love to do research, but I'm a social creature and can't see myself as conducting solitary work (not to mention maintaining an interest for that long!). And so on and so forth with every career choice under the sun.

I came to California at 22, chasing my college boyfriend, and it wasn't until I arrived, hopeful and in love, that he told me he had another girlfriend. I had already moved all my things (at his request) and was determined not to let California beat me. I'm proud that I stayed and made my way in this city, but really I'm just scraping by, and I'm not enjoying my life too much. For years I was so intent on survival (and drinking heavily as a way of not dealing with the emotional upheaval) that I never really thought about where I was headed, only giving thanks that I woke up every morning, still had legs to walk whatever road I was on, and could still move forward and be able to eat. This went on for several years. When I think back on it now it feels hazy and nebulous, like floating.

Then, last summer, I moved away from my drinking friends, cut ties with my on-again, off-again boyfriend of five years, began a yoga practice, left my old job (which I loved) to take a job at a museum (at the time, my career track du jour), and then fully freaked out.

There are so many choices, and I so want to be happy. I try to trust that things are happening at the right pace and the right time. But I'm just so impatient, terrified I'll make the wrong decision, but don't want to waste any more time. I'm terribly afraid of sleepwalking through my life as I have the past few years, then waking up even more baffled in another 10 years. How can I help myself settle down and relax enough to make the necessary decisions? How can I retell the story of these dreamlike years to myself in a way that makes me feel less defeated?


Dear Baffled,

At a certain point you simply have to choose and live with the possibility that you didn't make the best choice. How do you choose? We'll get to that. How do you live with the uncertainty? It's a little like living with any slight discomfort: You just learn that it's not going to kill you, that it's not going to last forever, and that it's part of being alive. If you have a low tolerance for uncertainty, perhaps you have some underlying anxiety that keeps popping up when you have to make a decision. Perhaps it's the anxiety itself that you need to address.

No decision about your future can be perfect. Every yes implies many nos. You say yes to one field, you say no to many others. You say yes to one city, you say no to many others. You have to live with the nos. If you're interested in everything -- if you want to have many fields, or many cities -- then maybe you try to say yes to one thing that encompasses many things. But you have to say yes to something. You can't simply not choose. That won't work.

If you are curious about many aspects of life, then you pick a field in which generalists thrive, a field, say, like journalism, or public relations, or perhaps certain kinds of teaching. If you don't want to settle in one city, then you try to pick a job that moves you around a lot, or a job in which travel is the main component, such as an airlines job, or a job in a chain of hotels. If change is important to you, then you pick something that has a lot of change in it, like jobs based around projects, such as construction, or consulting jobs that take you in and out of many different settings. If you haven't been able to think this through on your own, a career counselor can help you clarify your likes and dislikes and identify the kinds of jobs that would be best suited to you.

Choosing is hard but you have to choose. The inability to choose, as you have found, leaves you paralyzed.

The way you actually do the choosing is interesting. Everyone's process is different. If you are completely paralyzed, you can start with small choices and work your way up to bigger things. Start making little choices every day: What kind of ice cream do I want? How do I feel when I choose the ice cream? What route am I going to take today? How do I feel about the route not taken? What am I going to wear today? Pretty soon you can work up to What graduate school application am I going to fill out today? What career am I going to explore? Maybe something like that.

I tend to be a little like you. I like the gathering of information, the flow; I don't like to cut off the process too early. It always seems to me there is one more option that ought to be explored. The thing is, I know that at a certain point, usually before I am ready, I have to shut the door. I have to close the bidding. I have to pick a color. I have to choose. So I dither as long as I can, gathering information, looking and thinking, talking to people, and then, invariably, I have to choose. Luckily, I do eventually become impatient for something to happen, which works in favor of making a choice. I become restless and want a change, so whether I've been as thorough as I'd like to be, at a certain point, though I might like more information, I know it's time to choose. So I choose.

Now, it's not for me to choose for you. I can't do that. Nonetheless, if I were you, just because I happen to have a certain sort of poetic, wistful notion, here's what I would do: I'd go back home and get a job at a paper. Report on the school board, the courts and city hall. Learn the 10-codes on the police scanner. Ride around at midnight with the chief of police. Work your way into a beat with better hours. Write carefully and with economy. Move up notch by notch in the media market. Get your clips together. Live at home and save some money. Find a boyfriend who at least knows he's mortal. Take care of your parents. They'll be old before you know it. Stick around and watch your elementary school pals take their slots on the school board and eventually the city council. Watch the popular one run for mayor. Maybe make some sweet land deals to set you up for later.

If I could do it over, that's probably what I'd do: Go back to where I came from and try to get it right.

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