In my 20s and confused

Will doing what I'm good at make me happy?

Published August 5, 2009 10:18AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm writing to you because I've never been this confused before in my life.

I graduated from college two years ago and have worked at a couple of jobs since then, the most recent one being at an educational nonprofit. This led me to want to become a teacher, so I applied and was selected to join an alternative certification program to become certified to teach middle school for the public schools in New Orleans, where I have lived for the past five years. In order to join this program, I obviously had to quit my job. I completed the five-week summer training, and now cannot find a job.

I always thought it would be easy to find a job as a middle school teacher in inner-city public schools, but apparently in this economy, it's not. On top of that, throughout the training, I had nagging and persistent feelings that this wasn't what I was meant to be doing.

Now I'm faced with confusion. Should I keep trying to find a job as a teacher, which will require a great deal of energy and time, when it's a job I'm not even sure I want anymore? Or should I pursue something else? The problem is, I don't know what.

I always thought I would go to law school, since that's what I would be good at, but a part of me said, No! You're meant to do something more meaningful, something where you can give back. I know I would be good at being a lawyer, I just don't know if it would make me happy. The problem is, I don't know what makes me happy anymore. My boyfriend and I broke up a month before I began this teacher training, and now I am lost and alone and don't know what to do or where to turn.

I could just wait tables for a while and figure out my next step, but nothing I think of sounds appealing or like it would make me happy. I always thought I would be successful at whatever I pursued and to have to face this failure is difficult. I struggled with the training, and I honestly don't know if I would make a good teacher, which makes it very hard for me to go out and sell myself at interviews in a very competitive job market. I'm trying to see this as an opportunity to find myself and what truly makes me happy, but every day I feel like I'm slipping further and further away from happiness. I have no idea what I want to do now and everything seems like a dead end.

I'm getting sick of talking about my predicament to friends, because I feel like I'm boring them with my endless indecision. Why can't I just be happy? All of my friends wait tables or do something in the service industry and they're happy just doing that and drinking and hanging out with friends. I don't know, it doesn't sound like a bad life, but what about my grand goals for myself? Are those going to be sidelined if I work in the service industry for a while? I wish I could do something like move to another country or travel for a while or something similar, but money is of course an issue. I feel like a failure and I don't know how to stop these feelings of self-doubt and unhappiness. What should I do?

Confused 20-Something

Dear Confused 20-Something,

What you have is a set of wrong assumptions. It's not your fault you have these assumptions. They were probably conveyed to you by teachers, parents, friends and various media -- advertising, popular culture and the like.

These assumptions are that success and achievement would follow an orderly path, that whatever you encountered in life would lead to greater happiness and freedom, that you would excel at whatever you attempted and that any opportunity you chose to pursue would bear fruit.

You've had a setback. Because you were not prepared to have setbacks, you've interpreted this setback as a failure. It is not a failure. It is just an encounter with life as it is lived by millions of people all over the world. You have begun to find out what the world is like. I hope you can now turn your intelligence and your heart toward a deeper understanding of what the world is like, and thus be relieved of the pain that comes of battling against the world and what it is like.

It is natural, I suppose, during our many years of preparation, to acquire the habit of assuming that by excelling in our assigned tasks we will find happiness, or by finding one kind of occupation or profession we will find happiness. In fact, it is probably a useful misconception to believe that excelling in school or work will bring us happiness. If we believe such a thing, we are more likely to do well at our tasks. But such a belief acts only like a carrot dangled before a racing greyhound: It keeps him running after something that stays always out of reach.

Doing well at our tasks does not bring us happiness.

You broke up with your boyfriend. You are alone and feeling lost. That is how you are supposed to feel. Yet you are fighting this feeling, as though this is wrong, as though this is not how you are supposed to feel. And you are torturing yourself, holding yourself to some cruel, impossible standard. The truth is that you've been hurt and you're going through a tough time. This is a good thing. This is your chance to admit some new knowledge into your core being -- knowledge of setbacks, lostness, the difficulty of making your way, the many false starts and illusions that are placed in your path.

This is the classic course of youth into adulthood.

If I were you, I might be a little angry that my culture neglected to tell me the truth about these things, that my education did not prepare me for adversity. I might be upset that I had not gained an understanding of economic forces, of class forces, of the way power is wielded in hidden ways in the workplace, how we are led to believe that things will be easy when they are actually hard. I might be angry that I did not study how advertising and popular culture portray a world in which problems can be solved instantly, by making certain purchases or wearing certain clothes.

That just isn't how it is. There are reasons for the distortions you have been shown. Our economy has a lopsided reliance on the production and consumption of nonessential goods; for these goods to be sold, certain messages must be promulgated; certain illusions must be upheld -- that these products and services will make you happy, that certain professions will make you happy, etc. These beliefs motivate us to continue, like the carrot dangled before the nose of the greyhound. They serve a purpose. But they are not always in our best interests. They serve the interests of other people, with whom we are in competition for finite resources.

You are beginning to see that much of what you have assumed to be true is false. That is a good thing. Now you must begin to replace your assumptions with a more balanced view.

That takes a lifetime.

Write Your Truth.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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