Making the Most of the 20s, Pressure Free


Q:  "In a recent newsletter you mentioned the work of Dr. Meg Jay and the importance of using your 20s to best advantage. I was wondering how an early-20s individual like myself can balance the pressure to achieve before 30 and the worry about delaying life after 30. I would love to hear your personal reflections on how you navigated these achieve/delay tensions, and what you would recommend for those still trapped (as Erik Erikson said) in 'disengaged confusion.'"  - Maria Legault, @legault_maria A: Since you asked specifically for "personal reflections," let me start by saying that I'm no poster child for living the 20s "right"! I wish!

There's a reason I enjoy arguing against societal pressure to achieve before 30, like I did on HuffPost Live last week:  it's precisely because I let that very pressure define much of my 20s existence.

I always felt like I wouldn't be "good enough" if accolades and other external measures of success arrived after the big 3-0 marker. In other words, I believed that 1/8th of my adult life was somehow more valuable than the other 7/8ths of it. (Crazy, no?)

Once I passed the 30 "deadline," though, I finally began to truly live my purpose because I was no longer afraid of failing. It was like, "well, I missed that 30 goal so I may as well throw caution to the wind and start trying crazy things out." Which, it turns out, is exactly the sort of attitude that makes great things happen.

Finding the Sweet Spot

Had I lived differently, though, what would have been ideal?

Well, I picture the pressure to achieve RIGHT NOW and the feeling that life can wait until 30 as two ends of the same continuum, as shown above.

Meg Jay argues heatedly against waiting until 30 to start living. I argue heatedly against feeling like you need to achieve before 30. Do we disagree with one another?

Yes and no.

I do think that, taken literally, Jay's argument can create the very pressure that will undermine what she most wants to see happen in 20something lives. Like in my case, a pressure cooker feeling of "oh no, time is slipping by!" doesn't typically make us move faster. It paralyzes us.

Which leads me to one of my major beefs with Jay's approach:  the vast majority of twentysomethings I encounter are not "wasting their 20s" because they are think life can wait until 30. They're being inefficient precisely because they're scared to death that they're not doing enough with their lives fast enough.

That's why I advocate for taking the pressure off.

Here's the major caveat, though:  I believe in taking the pressure off WHILE reflecting WHILE taking intentional action WHILE being mindful of glimpses of purpose whenever they arise WHILE finding your internal compass WHILE quieting the voices around you WHILE engaging in a life filled with active trial and error.

Life is a creative process.

Given that time pressure is negatively related to creative cognitive processing, the more stressed we feel, the less we'll be able to construct fulfilling lives for ourselves.

So we must structure our days like productive artists:  By finding some method for shutting out external deadlines, but still showing up to the canvas or the blank page every day. Every day.

While feeling no pressure to put any particular thing on it.

Only You Can Judge Success

Speaking of squashing creativity, classic research by Teresa Amabile points to another divergent thought killer:  external evaluation.

If life is a creative enterprise which we each undertake in our own idiosyncratic way, the goal is not "succeeding" by some external standard before an externally-imposed deadline.

Instead the goal is making the most of each day set before us by living our life that is grounded in equal parts reflection AND action.

A number of commenters around the blogosphere have remarked that Jay's TED talk and book, The Defining Decade, are great for people who desire a traditional lifestyle - straight-arrow career, marriage, home, kids - but off the mark for people who want to live more unique lives.

I completely agree. Honestly, her book would've messed me up big time had I read it in my 20s. She advocates for a life I didn't - and still don't - want. A perfectly good life, mind you, but not mine.

So another key way to balance the pressure to succeed before 30 with the concern that we'll wait until 30 to start building a life is by living like no one is watching. Now and every day, regardless of the age we happen to be at the time.

And the secret is, nobody is actually watching. It may feel like they are, but that's a relic of adolescent thinking that will fade by the late 20s thanks to cognitive development. That may be why we get unstuck in our 30s and beyond:  because we're finally free from the constraints of "others" that have dominated our adult lives to date.

Putting it All Together

No need to wait for your brain to mature, though.

You can act like an artist and create the life you want right now by:

  1. Taking the four steps to reducing social comparisons
  2. Finding your honest hour and using it
  3. Setting an anniversary date during which you actively make change for the coming year
  4. Soaking up past, present and future simultaneously

And don't forget to disregard "under 30" lists as you go!

Happy journeys,


Have a Q for our new Wednesday Q&A feature? Email it to me at or tweet me @WorkingSelf. If your question is chosen for publication, you'll get a free mini-e-coaching session with me about values PLUS a backlink to your website!

Now what do you think? What are you doing - or have you done - to make the most of your 20s?

4 Steps to Surviving Your First Autumn After College


This guest post by Avery Johnson of Some Blissful Thinking is part of our Millennial Perspectives Series. Check out the guidelines if you'd like to add your voice to the series! My vision of life after college was a fairytale of cheerful coffee mornings and power meetings followed by clinking glasses with my coworkers during happy hour. After graduating last May and starting a full-time job, occasional days somewhat resembled my dream. More often, though, reality found me eating marshmallow fluff straight from the can as I watched Pride and Prejudice for the millionth time, freaking out over having no idea what I want to do with my life.

Besides the occasional break down, the summer months felt somewhat like any other summer. Between working, going to the beach on the weekends, and meeting my family for vacation, it seemed like nothing had really changed. Then September rolled around.

I felt myself growing increasingly anxious around mid-August. It felt as though something was coming up or an important date was fast approaching, but nothing was. I was consumed by a deep-seated need to prepare for something and found myself cleaning out my closet, throwing away old magazines, and rearranging my drawers, anything to make this feeling go away.

It didn’t.

Something was off.

During Labor Day weekend, my Instagram feed flooded with “First weekend back at school!” photos from my friends in college and grad school. I felt like I was missing out.

Everyone is doing something with their lives, I thought. What about me?

It all came together in that moment: my life until this point revolved around learning. It started on a Monday in late August, took a month off around Christmas, then powered back through until June. This was always how it was.

After extensive debate, I came to the conclusion that signing up for the GRE and applying to graduate programs was not going to quench my nostalgic thirst to walk to school with orange leaves crunching underfoot and a backpack of brand new notebooks and pens behind me.

I learned I had to make this fresh-start feeling for myself.

Here are my “Avery-tested” tips on how to transition into your first autumn after college.

1. Establish a Routine

During school, my daily schedules would be packed and all over the place, but I had a weekly routine that kept me sane. I knew what to expect. Getting settled into a daily and weekly schedule helps me feel more established and motivated. Going into each week, I plan meals so I can grocery shop, decide where to fit in runs or trips to the gym, see when projects are due and mark down what meetings are when. To further that fresh start feeling, I buy a new planner with a September start date and a fresh set of felt-tip pens for color-coding to keep me on track.

2. Join a club or a team

One of the things I miss most from college are the extracurricular activities. I found leadership opportunities, fun events, and my best friends and future roommates in my sorority. Being a part of something bigger and sharing space with like-minded individuals is an opportunity to grow in community. That doesn’t have to end after college. Join a book club, a meetup group, running club, or even a kickball team. Meeting new friends and engaging with your passions on a weekly basis will keep you learning outside of a classroom.

3. Plan something to look forward to

Working the 9-5 grind Monday through Friday can get quite mundane. Planning something to look forward to in the future helps to stir up the excitement in the midst of a bad day. This plan could be something as big as saving up for a weekend trip to visit a friend, or as small as simply making a plan to try a new restaurant or local hike during the weekend. Call up a friend, make a date, and mark it on your calendar.

4. Quit the constant comparisons

I wrote to challenge the view on what it means to be happy a couple of weeks ago and was overwhelmed by the response: everyone could relate to just going around with their happy face on all the time. We get on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and see these picture-perfect lives of our friends and former classmates and think to ourselves, What am I doing wrong? How can I become successful/happy/so-dang-put-together? The reality is nobody is perfectly happy all the time. And if they think they have it all figured out at the ripe old age of 22, chances are they are lying.

I will be the first to admit that I for sure do not have it all together. My car keeps dying because I didn’t get its battery replaced when I was supposed to. I shrank my favorite shirt and managed to permanently stain another. I still call my mom to ask how to cook chicken, I want to write a novel but I don’t have a storyline, and my last batch of banana bread was actually really gross. But when I get online, in an effort to stay positive, I never post any of those realities. Social media allows us the freedom to edit our lives down to display only the best parts. So next time you’re having a bad day, call home, call a friend, go for a walk, or read a good book. But whatever you do, don’t get online.

You Don't Want Grad School. You Want Your Childhood Autumn Back.


When you think of autumn, what springs to mind? Crisp evenings? Shortening days? Earthy scents? Halloween pranks? Oh come on, you're holding back. Just try to convince me you don't think of school.

And no wonder you do:  after umpteen-odd years of trucking off to pencils, books, and dirty looks at the first drop of a leaf, autumn and school are strongly conditioned in our minds.

Which is fine and all.

Until this association starts making you think you want something that you don't.

The Dangerous Grad School/Autumn Link

Let's get this out of the way up front, lest I be labeled an anti-gradschoolite. There are many valid, terrific reasons to attend grad school. For instance:

  • Working toward better placement/career potential in a field in which you have proven and sustained interest
  • Increasing your knowledge of a subject about which you have proven and sustained interest
  • Engaging with the brightest minds in an area in which you have proven and sustained interest

(Sense a theme?)

If everyone were attending grad school for valid reasons, though, I wouldn't see a sudden surge in "hey former prof, I'm thinking of going to grad school!" emails every darn autumn. Which I do. Every year. The onslaught is a-coming.

To understand why the "huh, grad school is sounding good" blitz is a seasonal phenomenon, we must travel back in time to our childhood autumns. In particular, to the prelude of our first day at school. (Cue the wavy lines and do-do-do-do music.)

The New School Year Scene:  Your mom is ironing the brand-new outfit you’ll wear on your first day, and you’re loading your crisp, clean backpack with all manner of school supplies. Your erasers are pink and four-cornered. Your pencils are sharp and smell like a day in the words. Your notebooks are ripe with blank pages so fresh and new that they stick to one another in their spiral spine.

Can you feel it?

I'll bet you can.

For twentysomethings, The New School Year Scene is as irresistible as the (ever so brief) 'N Sync reunion.

Why Twentysomethings Crave Autumns of Their Past

How come? Because in our twenties, we're positively unmoored by the lack of what I call The 3 P’s:  possibility, predictability, and purpose.

When we conjure The New School Year Scene, those 3 P's become tangible all over again. We remember what it felt like to be poised on the edge of an entire new existence. Life seemed organized, opportunity-filled, and oh-so-beautifully structured.

No wonder, then, when autumn comes lugging its conditioned associations to The New School Year Scene we think:

“Oh! I could have those feelings again! I want that! I think I’ll go to grad school!”

Sorry to break it to you, but your days of experiencing an externally-imposed sense of the 3 Ps are over. Period.

The twenties are all about accepting that very point. And then figuring out how to create your own internally-driven sense of predictability, possibility and purpose all the same.

This process is often termed "becoming an adult." And it sucks. Totally sucks. No sugarcoating there.

Thing is, going to grad school solve the underlying issue of needing to learn how to create for yourself what the world once created for you.

It only defers it.

(Full disclosure:  I write this not as someone who took my own advice, but rather as a recovering Autumn-Allure Addict. Yes, a AAA. As bad as it gets. To avoid facing the fact that my days of externally-derived 3 Ps were over, I jumped into grad school AND teaching. That's right, I'm here to scare you straight.)

The Problem With Going to Grad School To Relive Childhood Autumns

Point number two why grad school is the wrong answer if it's just hitting you each autumn:  not only does grad school fail to provide the 3 P's for the long run, it also fails to square with nostalgia.

To see what I mean, please join me again in my time machine. This time we're traveling back to about two months into any given school year.

The Two Months In Scenario:  You’re back to wearing hand-me-down clothes that fit awkwardly and get you teased. Your backpack’s bottom has blackened and the zippers have begun to show signs of rebellion. Your erasers have turned into dark, amorphous blobs that are inexplicably sticky. Your pencils are perpetually broken and smell of cheese puffs. And your notebooks? Oh, your notebooks. Once a stack of possibility, they now hold words and symbols you barely care to try to understand and their voluminous ranks have been decimated from notes passed to friends and paper airplanes flown at recess.

Had you forgotten that scene? Ours minds are convenient like that, scraping the moderately crapping portions of life from our memories. Hence the onset of Twentysomething School Nostalgia.

This delusional nostalgia is a major issue. I’d wager it causes a good portion of poor-grad-school choices, with desire to impress and social comparisons being the other major reasons. (Or you can be really awesome and go for the trifecta. I did!)

The reality is that grad school consists much more of the Two Months In Scenario and barely any of the New School Year Scene.

In fact, you don’t even get The New School Scene beyond the first year of grad school - if you even get that - because you work your butt off year round. And you’d better be damned sure that you care about the words and symbols that you’re writing in notebooks because you won’t only be jotting them down, you’ll be creating some of those jammies of your very own.

(For the record, the same could be said of teaching, so don’t even go there unless you have a “proven and sustained interest” in pedagogy. Identical urge, different cloak.)

How to Fight the Autumn Siren Call to Grad School

Alright, now for the good part:  how to not end up like me.

1) Start by accepting what you’re actually craving each autumn:  a return to a life you’ve outgrown. Allow yourself to grieve the loss of the rhythms of childhood and the comforts those rhythms brought.

As Meg Jay writes in The Defining Decade:

“Our twenties can be like living beyond time. There are days and weeks and months and years, but no clear way to know when or why any one thing should happen. It can be a disorienting, cavelike experience.” –Meg Jay

2) After grieving, create ways of infusing your current existence with hints of seasonality. It’ll take the edge off the false allure of autumn. For instance:

  • Schedule a day-long clothes shopping trip every autumn (bonus:  take mom with you; nostalgia and financial support in one fell swoop)
  • Go back to using a paper planner and choose an academic year one even though you now live on a calendar – or fiscal! - year
  • Reinvigorate your office supplies every fall with a fresh infusion of pens and desk organizers. And some of those big rubber erasers. Just for kicks.

3) Make a concerted effort to construct the 3 P's – purpose, possibility, and predictability – for yourself. This is, of course, a humongous task. No wonder I devoted an entire website to the process.

All in all, do whatever you have to do to experience the clear path, opportunities, and “my life is all in order” feeling of your childhood autumns…without jumping into grad school. Your wallet, social life, and mental stability will thank you for it.

I’d love to hear you commit to one thing right now:  what are you going to do l to create a sense of purpose, possibilities and predictability this autumn – without entertaining the notion of going back to school? Tell me in the comments below!

Ready to jump into the creation of your 3 P's? There's no better time to start career & life coaching than in the fall! That said, I have room for only FOUR new coaching clients this September, so if you're ready for some Action & Accountability in your life, become one of those four by checking out my Coaching Page. ASAP!

Quarter Life Crisis Q&A


If you want to see someone get crazy enthusiastic about the quarter life crisis - I mean, arms flailing, camera bouncing, cheeks reddening - then check out the interview Nicole Denise conducted with me on the topic. To say I was "animated" while we were talking is an understatement. Don't believe me? Just look at the still image embedded below. <cringe> But there's good reason I get impassioned while talking about the quarter life crisis:

  1. Having a quarter life crisis marked a major, wonderful turning point in own my life (as you'll hear on the video).
  2. I strongly believe that the quarter life crisis can be an incredible (the best?) opportunity for positive change in the lives of twenty- and thirtysomethings.
  3. I know, contrary to popular opinion, that having a crisis is a GOOD sign, not a bad one. It means that you're engaging with life and questioning your future rather than simply accepting what "others" say is best for you. In other words, you're making the time and space to find your true identity! That process should be celebrated, not lamented (or even worse, avoided).
  4. I passionately believe that we can't do the work we're meant to do in the world unless we figure out who we are. Period.
  5. Ergo, quarter life crises change the world. For the better.

Nicole interviewed me as part of her thoughtful, well-researched post called The Quarter Life Awakening: 20-Something Crisis as The Portal to Epiphany. I highly recommend you give it a read.

Then watch the 8-minute edited clip Nicole produced from our interview, in which she poses the following questions:

  • What is your background?
  • How did you find your true self?
  • What does it feel like to be "not yourself"?
  • How would you explain the symptoms of the quarter life crisis?
  • What do you believe is the cause of the quarter life crisis?
  • Is there a definite answer to identity crisis?
  • What should come first:  thinking or acting?
  • Do economic woes cause or affect the prevalence of the quarter life crisis?
  • What is the solution to the quarter life crisis?

Want to know the answers? Then watch Ms. Ridiculously Enthusiastic give the answers!

When you're done, I want to hear from you in the comments: What are YOUR questions about the quarter life crisis? I'll gather the best Qs to address in future posts (or in embarrassing videos, whatever the case may be!)


Quarter Life Crisis Coaching

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Millennial Perspectives: March Your Way to the Top


The following guest post is part of our Millennial Perspectives series. It was written by Lexi Kubrak, who blogs at The Nerdy Socialite. Lexi started her own company at 22, a challenge she took on after knowing times were changing in social media and new innovations had to be made. Enigma Agency gave her the edge she needed to learn about business, competition, trends and mistakes. You can follow her on Twitter @LexiKubrak Boomers seem to have one thing that particularly ticks them off about millennials:  we’re too demanding.

It’s the same spiel every time I read a review about millennials in the workplace, or about "the GenY problem." It seems like Boomers are getting sick of us being arrogant, irrational, and entitled.

I say, you forced our hand.

One of the biggest bonuses of being in your 20s in 2013 is the available free connection tools we have to find the right people quickly. Once upon a time our predecessors had to climb their way to the top. Starting at the worst jobs, they worked every day for 20+ years at the same company, hoping and praying to get that needed meeting with the big cheese. But now, the economy isn’t based on lifetime contracts with amazing pension payouts. Unfortunately the business world is now about growth, meaning shorter contract times and harder work than ever before.

Millennials have to step up their game in order to succeed – and the most important part is getting noticed first.

I believe that Boomers have never had such an influx of young and brilliant minds into their workplaces. Traditionally, people slowly amassed reputation in one company. Hiring came straight out of post-secondary institutions as the older executives wanted to mold fresh graduates to keep the status quo of secure profits. Now, with the fickle stock market and online connectivity, corporate businesses don’t have the luxury of planning over decades, and the higher ups are finding out that the status quo doesn’t work.

Therefore Millennials unfortunately have to be a bit bolder than their predecessors. If you want to be hired even for a ground floor career, you have to be noticed by the knowledge and gumption you have. Sometimes the best way to get that first job is to march into the CEO’s office and treat them like an equal. Does it work every time? Not necessarily. But that type of courage is what business leaders see as a defining quality of a valuable employee.

In a world where things can fail within seconds, it takes someone who doesn’t fail in troubling situations to be a true asset to a company. Though I may evoke argument among my peers, I must say I have read about and seen firsthand more Millennials being hired by approaching heads of companies than by applying online and waiting for a response. Nontraditional ways may upset the status quo, but it’s creating a foundation of innovative workers who are changing multi-millions into billions overnight. 

Marching our way to the top is working, and it’s changing businesses for the better.

Do you agree that assertiveness is a positive attribute millennials are bringing to the workplace?

Top Five Secrets for Millennials


Yesterday the long-awaited book 101 Secrets for Your Twenties hit shelves, e-readers, and horrified old ladies' hands across America. Written by my friend Paul Angone of All Groan Up, 101 Secrets is a funny, heartfelt excursion into the depths of millennial angst and triumphs. Actually, mostly angst.

Which is what makes 101 Secrets great:  you feel like you're walking alongside a funny older brother who's not only cracking jokes about what you're both going through, but offering meaningful words of wisdom to help you find your path.

To give you a taste of 101 Secrets, I plucked my five favorite secrets that resonate with our site - the secrets about who we are and what we do. After each, I've included a link to a piece I've written on the topic. If you want to see Paul's take on these secrets (and trust me, you do), then try to win a copy by signing up for the Working Self Newsletter no later than midnight this Sunday. Then go buy a copy. You know, just in case. Especially since it already sold out on Amazon!

1.  101 Secret #25:  Your twenties will produce more failure than you'll choose to remember. The key is, when you fail don't begin calling yourself a failure.

2.  101 Secret #76:  No one knows what they're doing.

3.  101 Secret #42:  A Quarter-Life Crisis might be the best thing to happen to you.

4.   101 Secret #93: Being lost might be the exact spot that you will be found.

5.  101 Secret #19:  Our plans aren't the problem. Our timeline is.

There you have it:  my five favorite secrets from 101 Secrets for Your Twenties, leaving you 96 to discover for yourself! Buy the book and enter the contest today. Then I want to hear your thoughts: What is YOUR top secret for the twenties? Or what secret do you wish someone could offer to you?

(BTW, the Happiness Engineers at managed to move everyone who followed Career Avoidance 101 over here to our new site - something I'd been told wasn't possible. I'm so happy to have you all here, and I thank you for your continued support!)

You Don't Need a Destination Before You Begin


Did you ever dream of going on a crazy road trip, one that you plotted as you went along, stopping at roadside attractions as they caught your fancy, hunkering down in flea motels when you found yourself reverse blinking? Maybe you even lived the fantasy and took one of these trips. Here's the secret:  That roadtrip process? That's life.

Far too often I see my senior students paralyzed by uncertainty, waiting for some mythical work/life destination to appear before they can begin moving forward. In reality, you'll find the endpoint as you travel. And, in so doing, come to realize that the travel is the destination.

Start Moving Toward a "Region"

In your twenties, you don’t have to be able to say the job-equivalent of “I want to go to Coos Bay, Oregon.” Even if your friends can. You might just be able to say, “I want to go to Oregon.” Or “I want to go to the Pacific Northwest.” Or even, “I want to go somewhere on the West Coast.” And that's plenty. As long as you start moving.

Where should you go? When it comes to work, pick a "region" based on the topics that resonate for you, the skills you've developed, and the experiences you've had. In her book The Defining Decade, psychologist Meg Jay makes the excellent point that twentysomethings don't have as many options as they think; your past and your abilities constrain your options. While this may seem frustrating, it's actually sweet relief. Too many choices leads to decision paralysis, so it's best to work with the limitations instead of against them:  accept the "region" that resonates and move toward it.

Avoid the Push Toward Specificity

Imagine you take my advice and announce to your family the work equivalent of "I'm heading to the West Coast." For instance, you say, "I'm gonna try working in communications." Yikes. Welcome to pushback galore. To put it mildly.

That's because the people who care about you - the people who are honing in on a more concrete destination for themselves (but don't let them fool you, they're most likely still searching too) - will experience discomfort over your lack of specificity. They want to feel like they "raised you right" and set you up for an independent life. That is their issue, not yours. Thing is, as long as you're moving forward - as long as you're going somewhere and staying mindful, reflective and engaged while on the journey - they have nothing to worry about

Even if you can't convince them of this, as long as you believe it, that's all that matters. And trust me, you'll be better off for living an active nonspecific life, despite the fallout:  specifying too soon for the wrong reasons can result in extreme confusion later in life.

You Can't Plot It All Out

Not only is it better for your sense of self if you avoid early specificity, it's also potentially impossible to specify early in life. As many scholars claim, what you end up doing in ten or fifteen years may very well be in a field, industry, or company that doesn't even exist yet.

The most compelling example I've seen of this is in Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In. She writes that there was no way as a twentysomething she could have possibly prepared for or plotted toward her current role of COO of Facebook:  when she was graduating from college, Mark Zuckerberg was in 8th grade.

You'll Miss Out on the Best Stuff if You Plan Too Much

Back to the roadtrip analogy, as you drive out toward your "region,"  you’ll start seeing billboards and brochures for cool diversions and roadside attractions. Since you're not on a set timeline with a strict destination, you’re able to shift course and check them out. A giant whale? Cool. A beer can house? Cooler. The World's Largest Pez Dispenser? Sounds cool, but it's not so much.

As long as you keep forward motion going - I wouldn't recommend camping out indefinitely at Totem Pole Park, for instance - this process can be not only enjoyable, but also highly informative. When it comes to identity development, this sort of action paired with reflection leads to the best outcomes.

Start The Journey

If you take the forward-motion-without-a-clear-destination approach, you might pick a career that you'd never expected that fulfills you in ways you couldn't have imagined.

Using our analogy, you might be much better suited to life in Seattle than you'd imagined when you were still on the East Coast, focusing solely on the volume of rain in the city (150 days!). But as you get closer to the West Coast, you realize that coffeehouses and grunge revival bands and men throwing fish grossly outweigh your distaste for rain. And, voila, you find a "city" that you love.

It all comes down to what E.L. Doctorow said about writing novels:

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

So too with life.

Don't get too far ahead of your beams. And don't wait to start moving until you can see the end of the road.

Time to rev up the comments engine here at our new site:  What's your experience traveling without a destination, literally or figuratively?


Need a boost in your forward movement? For just $20 we can have a power-packed 20 minute jam session in which we'll strategize about ways to get you moving, clarify your goals, and set up an action plan of next steps. Millennial are my specialty (I have 10 years experience!). Contact me if you have questions - but do it soon:  this offer ends at midnight on July 7th, and I won't be offering a rate this good ever again! Launch special, baby!

A Millennial's Take on Decision Making: Digressions of a College Senior

The following is a guest post from Stephanie, a Marketing Associate at Argopoint, a management consulting firm in Boston. Argopoint LLC was founded in 2005 with the goal of improving corporate legal department performance at leading Fortune 500 companies through innovative management consulting strategies. During senior year of high school I took “Senior Humanities," a double-period class that discussed everything from philosophy to religion to history and government. On the last day of class, as seniors rejoiced at the definitive end of our academic careers (we didn’t care to face the reality that the next 4-10 years of our lives would still be spent in the constructs of academia), our teachers instructed us to go around the room, naming our final college choices and what we intended to do there.

Deutsch: College of William and Mary in Willia...

“The College of William and Mary with a chemistry major, minor in economics and pre-med concentration,” I said.

That's where I stood in June of 2010. I had already changed my college choice twice; first it was Johns Hopkins (where I revoked my Early Decision application a day after the deadline) and then UCLA (whose deposit letter got torn up seconds before it got in the hands of my postman).

I chose the College of William and Mary on a whim. I had forgotten that I had applied, and it was the last decision letter to come in the mail. I opened up the large white envelope, read over the glossy materials and thought, “it’d be nice to go here.” I made the decision right then and there, standing in my kitchen, with hardly any uncertainty. For someone as detail-oriented and obsessed with the college process as I was, my decision to go to the College of William and Mary involved surprisingly little consideration.

Despite my inability to pick a college, a decision that I had convinced my young self would determine the course of the rest of my life, I was firmly committed to the idea of becoming a doctor - a surgeon, to be specific. I had always done well in my high school science courses, enjoyed the idea of helping people, and thought I was up for a lifestyle that required working 80 or more hours per week. It seemed like the obvious career choice for someone who was ambitious and wanted to contribute something of substance to the world.

Boston College

Fast forward three years, and I am now a rising senior at Boston College, a student in the Carroll School of Management, with a double major in Economics and Art History and a pre-law concentration. Past freshman chemistry, you won’t find a single science class on my transcript. In three years, I have changed nearly everything that I was previously so sure about:  I transferred to another university, entered a completely different field, abandoned my career path, and embraced subjects I had never once considered. I look back at my high school self and ask, what was I thinking?

Here's what I've learned about myself in college:

  1. I hate science.
  2. I need a minimum of 10 hours of sleep per night to function.
  3. I'm no southerner.

Fortunately, college is the time to make these mistakes. Transferring schools is not the end of the world, especially if you’re lucky enough to figure it out early, like I did. Switching majors is also relatively inconsequential; fill out some paperwork, send an email to your academic advisor, and voila! The course of your college career is transformed in a heartbeat with surprisingly little pain.

Alas, senior year is on the horizon. At some point (May 14th, 2014, to be precise), all of this confusion and indecision must come to an end. Most of the poor decisions made in college are inconsequential. You can fix almost anything with an email, and in more serious situations, a cordial visit to someone’s office. The “real world," from my limited perspectives, seems much different.

Upon entering the “real world," decisions become infinitely more consequential. Switching career paths, say, from art curation to law to management consulting carries incredible weight, especially when simply “going back to school” isn’t possible in the face of thousands in already accrued student loans.  Once I’m officially disowned from my parents (financially, obviously), my ability to make mistakes disintegrates.  This is perhaps the scariest point of realization for any college senior.Screen shot 2013-01-31 at 6.47.42 AM

The title of this blog is “Career Avoidance 101." I have spent my entire college career doing exactly that:  attempting to avoid all serious interaction with the real world. As a rising college senior, I can’t afford to keep avoiding it any more (literally and figuratively speaking). May 14, 2014 is coming, and it’s coming fast.

Fortunately/unfortunately, I’ve had a number of varying tastes of what real life will be like, in the form of internships. I worked as an intern at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and am currently working at a management consulting firm. The two experiences couldn’t be less similar – the catch? I enjoy both equally, for vastly different reasons. Each career path comes with its own unique set of challenges, and has extremely different consequences with regards to their impact on my personal life.

900 words and one year later, I have come to realize that I am no closer to providing any kind of conclusion for this post; I am only reiterating what has been demonstrated time and time again on this blog. Picking a career is like picking a college, with vastly more at stake. You have to keep searching, trying, shifting, and adapting in the vain hope that eventually, you’ll get it right.

Note from Rebecca:  Thank you Stephanie! You will figure out it. Bit by bit, and year by year. And don't worry, you can still change course. I sure have!

I couldn't have dreamed up a more fitting final post for Career Avoidance 101. I picked the name "Career Avoidance" six months ago, in tribute to my Bates students who, like Stephanie, want to do anything but think about their careers. My original plan for the blog was to take a tongue-in-cheek approach that would provide solid life-building advice in the guise of being anti-career. It turns out I don't do tongue-in-cheek well. It also turns out that, as Stephanie said, we can't afford to avoid career forever. Which, of course, is what this blog has actually been about all along.

In the interest of making that point clear to the rest of the world, it's time for a name change. So starting on Monday you'll find me over at The site will contain all of the posts and info from CA101 - plus a lot more.

Be sure to stop by next week to sign up for our brand new email newsletter, which will automatically enter you in our first-ever giveaway! (Not to mention that it'll provide me with a much-appreciated dose of moral support.)

Lots of firsts ahead! Thank you all for giving me the guts to tackle this new challenge. Let's stop avoiding and start working. Happily.

Destination #3 (real destination #1): The College of William and Mary (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Current residence = Boston College. Up next = ??? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Embrace Your Pain

The following guest post was written by Nick at A Young Pro. Nick is a recent college graduate trying to find his way in the crazy corporate world. He is a happy husband, a proud father, and he blogs about Career, Personal Finance, and Millennial Life. As a 20something edging ever closer to becoming a 30something (full disclosure: I’m 28), I can’t help but engage in increasingly frequent bouts of self-reflection. I consider my late 20s to be a perfect time to analyze both what I have done well, and what I have done not-so-well to this point in my life.

No Train No Gain Sign

One concept that I have become intrigued by lately is “growth”. In my early “adult” life I struggled to grow. I moved away from my parent’s home when I was 18 years old to attend college, only to move back home when I was 18 ½ years old, having flunked my first semester resulting in a lost scholarship. I spent the next several years working low-paying jobs, living with my parents, not growing at all. I was in a holding pattern and I didn’t know how to break out of it. I’d like to think that my situation is not all that uncommon. I believe many young people struggle to learn how to move on to the next phase of their lives. I want to teach you an important concept I recently learned. Something that can help you learn from the struggles of your early adult life and grow into the next phase of your life.

I have been reading a book lately entitled “The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth”, written by John C. Maxwell. As I reflect back on my early adulthood, one law in particular sticks out to me. It is law #8, entitled “The Law of Pain”. The Law of Pain states that “good management of bad experiences leads to great growth”. I didn’t realize it at the time but back then I had a lot of pain points, and instead of growing from them, my pain points were holding me back. Here are some of them:

  • The Pain of Accountability – I didn’t know how to take responsibility for my actions. I had a sense of entitlement about certain things and that caused me to fail most of my classes in college.
  • The Pain of Hard Work – I knew how to work, I just didn’t know that I knew how to work.
  • The Pain of Identity – My lack of self-awareness caused me to engage in activities for the wrong reasons (such as attending college). Because I often lacked the proper motivation, success was much harder to come by.
  • The Pain of Financial Incompetence – In my early 20s I had very little knowledge of personal finance. This caused me to get myself into debt, which I would have to claw my way out of eventually.

I could list more pain points, but I’m sure you get the point by now. I would even wager that many of you have similar items on your list as well. Mr. Maxwell points out three universal truths about bad experiences (pain). First, “everyone experiences them”. Second, “no one likes them”. Third, “few people make bad experiences positive experiences”.

The third point is what I really want to focus on here. Early on, I didn’t know how to learn from my mistakes. Mr. Maxwell seems to think that is more common than actually knowing how to learn from mistakes. Maybe you know, maybe you don’t. If you are a 20something reading this blog there is a good chance that you are more self-aware than most of your peers; there is also a good chance that you frequently make mistakes (I hear the same can be said for 30somethings, 40somethings, and beyond). Can you imagine the power of harnessing those mistakes and turning them into your largest growth opportunities? If you are like me this concept gets you pretty excited. So how do we do that? Luckily Mr. Maxwell has some advice on the matter.

  1. Choose a Positive Life Stance – I’m a big believer in the power of positive thinking. I can’t explain it, but good things happen when you have a positive attitude. If you learn to be positive through the bad experiences, clarity on what may have caused those situations comes much easier. I have found that a positive attitude helps me to recognize the lesson in my bad experiences.
  2. Embrace and Develop Your Creativity – I have a feeling Rebecca is a big believer in this one. Mr. Maxwell states “The people who make the most of bad experiences are the ones who find creative ways to meet them”.
  3. Embrace the Value of Bad Experiences – Growing as a result of bad experiences is a choice. You must decide that you are going to learn from your bad experiences.
  4. Make Good Changes After Bad Experiences – Once you have learned a lesson from your bad experience you must apply that lesson to your life and change your behavior.
  5. Take Responsibility for Your Life – Another personal favorite. No one is in charge of your growth but you. You decide you need/want to grow. You find the lessons to learn from your experiences. You make the changes in your life.

I leave you with this final quotation from Mr. Maxwell:

No matter what you have gone through in your life—or what you are currently going through—you have the opportunity to grow from it. It’s sometimes very difficult to see the opportunity in the midst of the pain, but it is there. You must be willing to not only look for it, but pursue it.

So get out there, face your pain, grow, and prosper!

We need pain to grow. (Photo credit: Peter Kudlacz)

The Creative Path to Personal Fulfillment


It's a big day here at CA101!

  1. We have an awesome guest post from Raimy Diaz of Creative-Guru. She was one of CA101's original students, and has been on a fascinating journey to find her path, as you'll soon read. I believe there's no better way to find your road through your twenties than by hearing how your peers are making their way.
  2. The post I wrote a few weeks ago, Letters to Graduates: Do No Harm, is being featured today on the fantabulous GenY site The Questionable. My guest post is a shortened, reorganized form of my original post, so I strongly encourage you to check it out...even if you already read the original!
  • And now, here's Miss Raimy D:

I grew up in a foreign country, speaking a foreign language, and being completely foreign to my true identity. Last year, after many painful years of being exiled from my self, I decided to return home. My home, my soul, was unwelcoming, cold, and elusive. I don’t blame it for eluding me, I had for so long been shunning it as if somehow it was all wrong. And to think, all this started in an elementary playground where I experienced the first culture shock that triggered an identity crisis and many years of shame, guilt, and fear.

As Cuban political refugees, my family and I were granted welfare assistance and paid rent in a small apartment somewhere in “the hood.” I got to attend a nice inner city school, made up of mostly Mexican and a few African-American students. It was here where it all began. I remember the exact moment:  I was 10 years old, I was in the 5th grade and we were out on the playground for recess. A group of girls and boys were playing tag, I stood out on the sidelines watching excitedly as one of the girls was reaching for a little boy’s shirt collar, I yelled “cojelo, cojelo.” In Spanish-- let me rephrase- in “Cuban Spanish,” the word cojer means to get. What I thought I was saying was “get him,” what my little peers heard was “get some.” Unbeknownst to me, the word “cojer” in  Mexican lingo means something completely offensive, with heavy sexual innuendo. The stares I got right after the word escaped my mouth were painfully humiliating. I had no clue what had gone wrong and why everyone all of a sudden just stopped running.

This was when I first realized that my Spanish was not their Spanish, that it was different, and different was not good.  I was teased endlessly for that and then some more for my funny accent. You see when Cubans speak Spanish it sounds like an angry rap, when Mexicans speak Spanish it sounds like a melodious ballad. I wanted desperately to make friends, I was in a lonely and strange city with no extended family and no friends, and I would do whatever it took to fit in, even changing the way that I spoke. To blend in with the Mexican little girls, I started mimicking their speech styles and patterns. Eventually, it was so well ingrained that when I would meet new people they would say “but you don’t sound anything like a Cuban.” I would smile and consider myself a success.

The rest of my adolescent years were comprised of similar cultural encounters each eroding my identity into tinier and tinier pieces. I spent a such long time trying to be anyone else but me, eventually I lost my real identity.  This loss led to unnerving anxiety and stress and shame and guilt and fear, lots of fear. The moment I renounced my true self for a more “acceptable” pseudo-self, I inherited a world of fear-- a paranoid fear of being found out and being exposed for the fake that I really was.

I developed a debilitating social anxiety and was in mental turmoil even while alone. When you don’t know who you are as a human being and are unaware of your individuality, living becomes a real ordeal. Veiled behind fear and social anxiety, I couldn’t even see which direction to take my life in. I felt misplaced and embarrassed that even at the late age of 24, I was still wandering. Setting goals that were in line with my true self was impossible, I had no clear sense of self so how could I realistically expect achievement of myself. I was completely unaligned within; what I frantically needed was physical, mental, and spiritual calibration.

At first I turned to self-help literature. Soon I found that scientific, well researched pieces of data did little to comfort me. It was a different type of literature that made sense to me, the kind that comes from the soul and speaks to the soul- poetry, art, and creative writing. Only when I started embracing the creative-spiritual path did all the pieces start to fall into place. Only when I turned inward was I finally able to see the outward picture.

Creative-Guru I call it, my soul searching project-- the process by which I started becoming comfortable with myself by identifying who I really am as person, both physically and spiritually. Through creative exercises such as subconscious drawing, poetry writing, and color meditation I’ve come to learn my self anew. I found the root of many of my fears and insecurities and have gained the confidence and courage to start moving toward realizing my dream of writing and designing for a living. I’m no longer afraid of what others might think when I tell them I want to create for a living, this is me and I can’t for the life of me try to be something else.

There are many ways to go about finding yourself, your purpose, your career path. For me the way was poetic spirituality. For some, this way may seem too impractical, new agey, and incompatible with who they are and that’s fine. The important thing is realizing which way does speak to you and gaining the necessary self-awareness that leads to a fulfilling life.

For too long I was unaware and because of that, I constantly worried about creating an impression, meeting expectations, putting on pretenses, and being judged. It hurt like hell living like that and creative soul searching helped me heal. I forgave myself for all the pain that denying my truth caused and decided to share my experience with others who might be going through a similar hell. To be true to your soul, to live purposefully, to seek self-knowledge and to live in light, these are the creative soul searching objectives at If you are up for a little soul searching stop by, the first step to becoming comfortable with yourself is to start identifying who you really are.

Three Lessons Worth Taking from the TIME Cover Story on Millennials

A portrait of a young girl taking a self-portrait on a smartphone Let's start with what we already know:  the recent TIME cover article about millennials is little more than a desperate bid to boost sales.

The cover itself simply restates hackneyed stereotypes about today's twentysomethings - lazy, narcissistic, entitled - which The Atlantic compellingly demonstrates has been said - probably correctly - about just about every generation of young people. Not only that, but the cover, meant to raise hackles and get you scrambling to pay for a copy, doesn't truly match the article inside. In fact, the author, Joel Stein, thinks you guys will be just fine. And I happen to agree.

Doesn't make for much of a story now does it?

So is there anything worth taking from the latest media spotlight on millennials? Here's what I gleaned:

Let High Career Expectations Drive You

The TIME article discusses the self-esteem movement we've touched upon in the past - the one that made you feel special for simply rubbing a crayon across a piece of pulp - and then blames it for raising your career expectations too high:

"This generation has the highest likelihood of having unmet expectations with respect to their careers and the lowest levels of satisfaction with their careers at the stage that they're at," says Sean Lyons, co-editor of Managing the New Workforce: International Perspectives on the Millennial Generation. "It is sort of a crisis of unmet expectations."

Lyons' observation is probably true. From my experience, Millennials in general have high hopes for their careers, not necessarily in terms of wanting "success" but rather in desiring work they can feel good about doing. You want to something that goes beyond "career" to something that's more meaningful to yourselves.

Does that "meaningful to self" indicate that you're narcissistic? Well if it does, live it up, people, because we know that individuals who experience greater meaning in their lives have higher levels of life satisfaction, work enjoyment, and happiness. Those, in turn, can result in better quality work that has the potential of having a broad impact on society.

Not to mention that if something is meaningful to you personally, it's likely meaningful to someone else (and probably many someone elses). In other words, its value extends far beyond yourself.

So Point Number One:  Revel in your unmet expectations about career. Demand more from your career. And from your employers, which takes us to Point Number Two.

Demand That Companies Accommodate Your Higher-Level Needs

You're a powerful force. Not just anyone gets on the cover of TIME magazine, after all. (Alright, that's debatable.)

In any event, your power has the potential to change corporate structure, according to the article:

Companies are starting to adjust not just to millennials' habits but also to their atmospheric expectations. Nearly a quarter of DreamWorks' 2,200 employees are under 30, and the studio has a 96% retention rate. Dan Satterthwaite, who runs the studio's human-relations department and has been in the field for about 23 years, says Maslow's hierarchy of needs makes it clear that a company can't just provide money anymore but also has to deliver self-actualization. During work hours at DreamWorks, you can take classes in photography, sculpting, painting, cinematography and karate.

And why shouldn't we expect self-actualization from our work? We've long passed the point of needing to toil all day simply to kill the animals and grind the grain that we need for tonight's dinner. You guys get that, and so you want more.

Good - demand it. With your feet.

Diagram of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

Yes, the economy sucks right now. Yes, you can't go walking out on a perfectly good job in this particular climate. But guess what, in two years or five or ten, employees will be able to do that again. Just like we 2000-era college graduates did. Don't let this downturn in the job market change the way you see the employer-employee relationship, making you feel beholden and grateful because they're dishing out a salary to you.

So here's Point Number Two:  Maintain your feisty desire for "more" from your jobs and, as a group, demand that companies be like DreamWorks, providing for your whole self and replenishing your capacities, as opposed to draining from your energy and cognitive reserves while covering little more than your safety and physiological needs.

And if the companies can't or won't make these changes, then make it happen yourself, which happens to be Point Number Three.

Be the Inventors of Your Own (and Others') Futures

I strongly believe that come twenty years from now, your generation will have the largest proportion of entrepreneurs and self-employed individuals than any generation preceding you. And I'm not talking about founding big companies; I'm talking about simply working for yourself. And maybe having an employee or two.

Many factors have me believing this, not limited to the potential for affordable individually-purchased health insurance once the Health Insurance Marketplace opens in 2014; a job market that can't accommodate all of the college graduates spilling into the world and, due to changes in technology, may never do so again; and your willingness to take calculated risks and create for yourself what others fail to create for you.

Tom Brokaw said it best, in the TIME article:

Their great mantra has been: Challenge convention. Find new and better ways of doing things. And so that ethos transcends the wonky people who are inventing new apps and embraces the whole economy.

I hope you'll seize on the ingredients for entrepreneurship that are so ripe in your laps. For if you do, you'll not only delve into work that is meaningful to yourselves, you'll also create small businesses that look after others' self-actualization needs, too.

In other words, Point Number Three is that you have the potential to address Point Number One and Point Number Two with your own industrious, creative power.

Find what you're passionate about, figure out how to sculpt that passion such that it meets a gap in other people's lives, and then market that gap-filling to bring you income while doing what you love and meeting a real need in the world.

That's the recipe for millennial success, in my opinion. And we didn't need a controversial Time cover piece to tell us it.

What did you take from the TIME article? Did you even bother to read it?


Steger, M. F., Frazier, P., Oishi, S., Kaler, M. (2006). The meaning in life questionnaire: Assessing the presence of and search for meaning in life. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 53(1), 80-93.


Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Aim for the top, baby. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Letter to Graduates: Do No Harm

Dear Graduates, As you ponder what to do next in your lives, lofty maxims encircle you:  "Follow your passion." "Shoot for the stars." "Live the life you imagine." Ethicist William MacAskill recently added another to the list: "Do something valuable."

Saint Anselm College graduation

"Do something that genuinely helps others and makes the world a better place in a major way," he writes. "That’s the way to have a happy, fulfilled life."

While I believe altruism is a fine goal, and one toward which I encourage my own students, I also think it overlooks the basic element required for a worthy life. It assumes too much and asks too little. Allow me to explain.

This morning I learned that my daughter was once in harm's way. Her infant childcare provider, whom we abruptly after a child's suspicious accident, is being investigated for physical abuse. Damning evidence heaps about her. I can't help wondering how my daughter escaped attack. Or whether she didn't. The latter is a thought too overwhelming to bear.

As I ponder this, and the many recent events in our country, I come to this plea:  graduates, do no harm. This is the greatest aim toward which you can aspire.

Regardless of your occupation, you will probably not be asked to take "do no harm" on professionally. It's not even written in the Hippocratic Oath, which is rarely used besides. It is then incumbent upon you to choose to look the words deep into their darkened curves and consider what they truly mean. To score them onto your chest, your heart, your very soul. To live by them when no one is holding you accountable for doing so. Choosing to carry this vow with you as you inch beyond the gauzy veil of college is a momentous decision.

It may also prove your greatest challenge.

For I don't just mean harming in large ways. Thankfully the scarred creatures who undertake bombings of innocent citizens, who batter defenseless children, who send poisons through the mail, they are few and far between. We can rest reasonably assured that you will not turn into one of them.

But in your lifetime you will have many opportunities to harm others. More opportunities than you can count. Most will provoke no censure. Many will remain hidden. Some will even lead to praise.

Hipócrita (o algo por el estilo)

You can vow to forgo such opportunities. Regardless of their outcome. Regardless of whether the intended victim is someone you love or someone you've never met. Regardless of whether there is a victim at all.

You can also vow to be alert to the harm that comes as a byproduct of your actions, the most insidious opportunities of all. You will not be able to deter every one. You will only be able to prevent what is within your scope of awareness and resources. To expect more would be to live a life of anxiety and paranoia. To expect less is to be negligent.

So take it upon yourself to raise your awareness bit by bit, day by day; to continue learning about the world when no one is grading you on your efforts. Simultaneously work to improve your resources - mental, social, financial - for reasons that go far beyond your personal benefit. This is what people mean when they implore you to "do good" after college. In actuality they mean, improve yourself in order that you can avoid doing harm.

One arena for improving yourself that is surely on the front of your mind is your post-graduate job. A job doesn't have to be altruistic, it doesn't have to speak to your truest desires, it doesn't even have to fully pay the bills in order to be valuable.

A valuable job is one that doesn't cause damage. Including to yourself.

The jobs that require you to work gruelingly long hours that deplete your resolve, that ask you to harass or exploit or manipulate others in the name of financial gain, that make you feel like someone you don't recognize, that cause you to be so burnt out that you snap at your loved ones and withdraw from the people who need you most, those are the jobs not to take. Or at least the ones not to keep. Even if your job is not "worthy" of posting on Facebook, is labeled "beneath your potential" by parents and professors, or generates no income at all (e.g., parenting), if the job fits you well enough such that you do no harm to self or others, it is an excellent job, and one that all would be wise to envy.

After graduation I do wish you greatness and the fulfillment of potential and the stroking of the stars far above. But I wish even more that your wake be free of hurt and pain and ruin, small and large, suffered by you and those around you. If you manage as much, you will be among the fortunate few. And you will have lived a life of which you can be quite proud.

It sounds easy to do no harm after graduation. In fact, it may be the hardest thing you aim to do. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although the Hippocratic Oath doesn't contain the phrase "do no harm," you can choose to embrace the sentiment. (Photo credit: Lionel Fernández Roca)

Why the Bad Economy May Be Good News for Millennials

You're screwed. That's the message millennials keep being sent. Such as in the New York Times' much-discussed article "Do Millennials Stand a Chance in the Real World?" which predicts that new graduates may feel economic pain for 15 to 20 years, even if fiscal prospects suddenly brighten. What's my take? This is good news. You heard me right:  good news.

The economy stinks. And you'll be better for it.

It's Not the Economy, Stupid

Wall Street New York

Let's get this out of the way:  the stretching of adolescence has not occurred because of the economy. The trend was noted during the economically expansive 90s and the term "emerging adulthood" was coined in 2000. Furthermore, features of emerging adulthood - identity exploration, instability, self-focus, feeling in-between and having a sense of possibilities - are observed in people from all economic backgrounds.

Since prolonged youth is a psychological phenomenon, not an economic one, we need to stop hiding behind the bad economy as the reason we're living with our parents and putting off figuring out our lives. We were doing that when the economy was plum and we'll be doing it when the economy rosies back up. So economic forecasts? They simply don't mean much to me. Tell me what's going to happen psychologically instead.

You'll Never Have to Downsize

You might look all green-eyed at me and my 90s peers who graduated with jobs in hand. Not so fast.

One of the more painful things a person can be asked to do is to downsize. Following the concept of the hedonic treadmill that we discussed in our "Chase Happiness" class, we quickly adapt to whatever pleasures surround us and then come to expect those pleasures as a baseline for our contentment. (And, indeed, to desire even more.)

Small Apartment

Furthermore, we overvalue things we own; we might have thought a mug was worth $2 before it was ours, but once we own it, it's worth $10 in our eyes. This is called the endowment effect and it helps explain why we're loathe to give things up.

Many people who graduated in the past two decades accepted lucrative post-college gigs while saying, "I don't plan to do this forever. In truth, I don't like finance/insurance/dot-coms, I love _______, but I'll go back to that in a couple of years. I'll just earn a little money, and then I'll go to grad school/join AmeriCorps/become a teacher/take a severe and debilitating pay cut."

HA! As if.

Instead they got stuck in that job they never liked for years on end. Miserable, they wandered around saying they still wanted to go after what they love. But they didn't know how. The money, the lifestyle, the plushness, it was all too good to give up. Until they were forced out by layoffs. Now they're too busy desperately clawing to get back what they lost to think about what they used to want.

You Millennials will never have such problems.

You Can Make Use of Underemployment

Millennials tend to be unemployed or underemployed. This is nothing to sneeze at. As Meg Jay says in her book The Defining Decade, "Those who are underemployed for as little as nine months tend to be more depressed and less motivated than their peers-than even their unemployed peers." And unemployment in the twenties is associated with "heavy drinking and depression in middle age even after becoming regularly employed."

So, yes, we're dealing with serious stuff here.

a human directional holding a sign for Cingular

That said, unemployment and underemployment can be prime opportunities to forge your identity - if you embrace them as such. Think of it like a snow day*. Remember when that happened as a child? You woke up and your mom announced you didn't have to go to school and you could stay home and do whatever you wanted all day long? How did you react? Did you let yourself get paralyzed by the crush of options that then lay before you, or get depressed over the lack of options that were within the confines of your home? Or you did you instead seize it as an amazing opportunity to do everything you always dreamed of doing when you were sitting in school, bored to death?

So too with unemployment or underemployment. You can lament what's not happening in your life, or you can use the cognitive  and/or temporal space to plot out what you want to be happening in your life. You can choose to sit in the uncomfortable space of an identity crisis (which isn't a bad thing), make active decisions about what you can do to work toward the identity you decide you want, and start to make incremental steps in that direction. You don't always need a job to help you gain identity capital - volunteerism, attending adult education classes, networking, or honing skill sets on your own time can do that just as well.

You Don't Need Money to Find Fulfillment

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we know from our class "Money and Happiness" that beyond about $50,000, money doesn't equate with fulfillment. Granted, even that salary is hard for millennials to find. This is a real issue, which plenty of others have taken up. While we're perseverating on the ugly economical outlook for millennials, though, we're completely ignoring the psychological outlook. I'd love to see data about the psychological outcomes for various generations; are people from the 1990s cohort actually better off psychologically compared to those who joined the work force during the recession of the 1980s?


Given what we know about the paths to happiness, I can't imagine the 90s graduates are. Happiness comes from finding work that you find meaningful and that puts you in a state of focused challenge called "flow" on a regular basis. It does not come from material pleasures.

Furthermore, materialism has been linked to problems with intimacy, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem, as Tim Kasser discusses in his book The High Price of Materialism.

Finally, when we have little, we tend to be more grateful for that which we do have. In many studies, such gratitude has been linked to psychological well-being. Thus when the New York Times notes that millennials are developing their "own Depression-era fixation with money" I think, is that such a bad thing? Even the Wall Street Journal admits that economic downturns result in psychological boosts, including less complaining. "In many quarters, we're seeing a return to Depression-era stoicism and an appreciation of simpler things," writes WSJ's Jeffrey Zaslow.

Final Thoughts

So remind me again why millennials don't "stand a chance"? Because their economic portfolios will take a hit for the foreseeable future? On the contrary, when it comes to psychological well being, identity formation, and the building of a genuine life, I think millennials stand a better chance than young people have in decades.

*Thanks to agent Sorche Fairbank for the snow day metaphor. She used this at a writers' conference I attended, as a way for writers to embrace the economic downturn.

The bad economy is not to blame for our desire to avoid adulthood. (Photo credit: Mathew Knott)

A tiny apartment is fine. When you've never had anything better. (Photo credit: nekosoft)

With a job like this, there's plenty of cognitive space to do some serious thinking. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We all know this to be true. So why do we focus solely on the economic details? (Photo credit: agitprop)

Finding Yourself is The Creative Challenge of Your Twenties

My two-year-old daughter's need for creativity overrides her basic needs. She's been known to wake up at one in the morning shouting "I want to do work!" (cute except when you're the one who has to get up with her...) and to refuse dinner in deference to an intense coloring project. The urgent drive to create doesn't go away as we get older, it simply finds different outlets than crayons and scrap paper. And I'm here to argue that its outlet in the twenties is finding yourself. crayons

"Creativity is a central source of meaning in our lives," says psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in an article for Psychology Today. He's famous for his research on "flow," which we discussed in our class "Chase Happiness" as one of the bedrocks of lasting contentment.

"Of all human activities, creativity comes closest to providing the fulfillment we all hope to get in our lives," Csikszentmihalyi says. "Call it full-blast living."

As a result of its importance, the creative drive never leaves us. In late childhood it's found in a need to forge and maintain friendships, in early adulthood in the need to find love and create a family (of whatever composition), in middle adulthood in the need to nurture the next generation, and in later adulthood in the need to create one's cohesive life story. These are the psychosocial stages described by psychologist Erik Erikson, and although I've studied and taught them ad nauseum, it wasn't until watching my daughter intently apply stickers to a window pane that I realized that they're truly stages of how we direct our creative energy.

What, according to Erikson, is the direction of creative energy in our late teens and twenties? Identity. Finding ourselves. Figuring out our paths.

In other words, the creative challenge of our twenties is to invent ourselves out of the confusing rubble of our pasts, the shifting dynamics of our present, and the lofty aspirations of our future. Like we said in our last class, we must balance all of these elements and find a way to see ourselves emerge from within the overwhelming, often contradictory blur of information.

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...

It's a lot like reading a Twitter feed and trying to separate the noise from the gems. We each approach this task in varying ways, and we each take a different overriding message from the same feed. So too would we each combine the exact same "life ingredients" to find a different sense of self than would our friends or family. This is why finding yourself is a creative act:  there is no one way to do it right and you must experiment in order to find the best solution for you.

Which is, indeed, hard to do. So, in fear of the process, many of us run from the challenge. We try to shove identity development aside, to tell ourselves that it doesn't matter, to convince ourselves it'll work itself out. But I'll tell you this:  if you shrink from the creative task of finding yourself, one of three things happen. Or sometimes all three. Which really stinks.

  1. You'll begin feeling vague, diffuse panic and unrest. Life just never feels settled any more and you simply can't figure out why.
  2. Other people will begin to define you. Into the vacuum of your identity, the nearest and/or strongest forces will come rushing and you'll be unable to stop them.
  3. Eventually, the question who am I will overtake your thoughts. This will happen as surely and as urgently as your need for food if you stopped eating for days on end. It will feel insistent and desperate and you'll give anything to have an answer. You may even disrupt your family life and your career and your entire existence in the press to figure it out. Problem is, this might not happen until you're in your late thirties or your forties or even your fifties if you shove off the urge during your twenties, and at those later ages there's a lot of "entire existence" to gamble in the process. Best do the figuring out now, when unsettled is the norm and you have much less to risk.

Convinced? Then we need to figure out how to stop running from ourselves and get constructive. We'll have to save that humongous task for future classes.

A good start, though, is simply embracing your innate need to be creative, and fully accepting that your creative energy is, at least for now, channeled into the task of finding yourself. Once you acknowledge those facts, you can begin to encourage the creative side of you:

Each of us is born with two contradictory sets of instructions: a conservative tendency, made up of instincts for self-preservation, self-aggrandizement, and saving energy, and an expansive tendency made up of instincts for exploring, for enjoying novelty and risk. We need both. But whereas the first tendency requires little encouragement, the second can wilt if it is not cultivated. If too few opportunities for curiosity are available, if too many obstacles are placed in the way of risk and exploration, the motivation to engage in creative behavior is easily extinguished. Sustaining high levels of curiosity is the starting point of creativity. - Vedpuriswar, reviewing Csikszentmihalyi's book Creativity:  Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention

In other words, grab your identity crayons and a stack of blank mind space and start scribbling. You need to do this as strongly as does my toddler daughter with her literal crayons. Just, please, not at one in the morning.

Class Assignment:

Where are your identity crayons? (Photo credit: dyetochange)

Too much information!

When to Go to Graduate School (& When Not To)

Want to avoid the career search? Then I bet going to grad school is high on your list of considerations. Especially in this bad economy, it's tempting to "hide out" in a secure academic institution that will can take care of your meals and housing. What could be more appealing to a choice overloaded twentysomething than that? The Graduate School Library

I would know. The grad school temptation proved too great for me. I'd been planning to get a job after graduating from college. Then I hit Thanksgiving of my senior year. My relatives' probing questions, skeptical looks, and not-so-subtle whispers were too much for me. What was I going to do after graduating? They were right. I had no plan. I had no sense of the real world. Yikes:  I had no future at all!

In a panic, I applied to nine graduate schools in the span of three weeks. When acceptances amazingly rolled in, I had my future in my hands  - and the self-righteous answer to the dreaded question So what are you going to do after graduation?

Problem was, it was not my time to go to graduate school. A reality I hit on the very first day of class:

"So what are you planning to research while you're here, Rebecca?" a professor asked.

"Um, cognitive development?" I said.

"That's the title of this course," the professor replied. "Can't you be more specific?"

Uh, no.

I ended up leaving my PhD program after receiving my master's degree. I don't regret the decision to leave, but I do regret the decision to to go to graduate school too early. If I'd waited - the way I'd planned to before everyone freaked me out - my grad school experience probably would have been richer, more rewarding, and filled with a lot fewer panic attacks.

So in the interest of avoiding becoming me (always a good goal), here are my pointers about when to go to graduate school:

Go to Graduate School After You've Had a Few Years Away From College

You know what going to grad school directly after graduating college is? It's a rebound romance. And we all know how well those work out. Seriously, you've just been in a highly committed relationship for four (or five) years of your life. You're afraid that you can't live without that relationship in your life. So you reach out and cling to the best approximation of the thing you're afraid to lose. The thing is, the next-best-thing isn't like the actual thing. Grad school is a completely different beast from undergrad. Completely. You have to be ready for that experience, not longing for the old experience, in order to get the most out of it. So give yourself a little time to be by yourself, to get to know who you are outside of that long-term relationship, to have some good cries over cartons of Ben and Jerry's. Then you'll have the clear head you need to commit to a new relationship. With a university, that is.

Go to Graduate School Once You Truly Know Yourself

I've seen more than a few twentysomethings - myself included - go to graduate school in order to figure out what they want to do with their lives. Uh, no. Wrong idea. Grad school is not the place to explore and try things out and spend lazy afternoons lying on the grass staring into the clouds and introspecting about your future. You might have been able to do that in college - in fact, hopefully you were able to do that in college - but grad school is a place to be focused, driven and to work toward a specific goal. It's a lot like taking a direct flight from LA to NY. If you'd rather take a super-scenic, slow-mo train tour across the country, grad school isn't for you. Instead, take some years to think, experiment, and try out career paths, like twentysomething researcher Dr. Meg Jay did before she went to grad school. When you're truly convinced you want to head to NY, then and only then hop on a plane. Grad school will be the most efficient way to get there.

Go to Graduate School Only After You've Tested Out the Profession

2009 Graduate School Commencement 005

So you want to head to grad school to become a lawyer or a clinical psychologist or a dentist? Good for you. But before you go, how much can you tell me about your chosen profession? What's a typical day like? What are the frustrating parts of the career? What are the rewards? What is the rate of burnout, and why does it occur? And on and on. You should know your chosen profession cold before you enter grad school. Of course some of that knowledge can only be gained by doing a job day in and day out for years on end. But much of you can gain virtually by:

  • Engaging in internships and jobs in positions as close to your desired profession as possible (simply observing a bunch of people doing who what you want to do can tell you a lot - e.g., how much coffee do they need to get through the day, and how haggard do they look at the end of the week?)
  • Conducting many informational interviews (and I do mean many, to give you a wide-ranging sample of experiences)
  • Job shadowing

You're about to invest a good chunk of change and many years of your life into your graduate work. You'd better be darn sure you want the profession that waits on the other side. If you aren't inspired enough to do the legwork to research the career up front, then maybe that isn't the career for you.

So there's my short - alright, semi-short - treatise on when to go to graduate school, a.k.a., the lecture I wish someone had given me when I was 22. Would I have listened? Probably not. The desire to escape social scrutiny and fear ran pretty darn strong in me. But maybe it would've at least planted a seed of doubt discomforting enough that I'd have paused and listened to myself.

Is grad school next for you? Maybe not quite yet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What awaits after you've crossed that stage wearing your grad school garb? You'd better know before you even enroll. (Photo credit: pennstatenews)

The Twentysomething Identity Crisis

Listen up, class:  you're getting rid of your professor for a day. (My god, you could at least wait on the hoots and hollers until I'm out the room.) Today we have our first substitute teacher, Ms. Ashley Sapp from Chaos and Words. Ms. Sapp recently approached me, saying she wanted to work with you rowdy bunch. Seeing as how I enjoy her lyrical, impassioned blog - and given the fact that she's an actual twentysomething (read: not an old codger like yours truly) - I thought this would be great. Please give Ms. Sapp a warm Career Avoidance 101 welcome by clicking over to her blog, engaging in some thoughtful post-lecture class discussion, and refraining from throwing spitballs! I'll be back on Friday to dole out penalties accordingly (no recess for you!). What is the identity of the twenty-something? Why does this identity constantly shift?

We feel the need to fit ourselves into categories that make sense because we've got one foot in our adolescence and the other in adulthood - this is a confusing time, and we can end up feeling split between two worlds and not quite like "ourselves". Sometimes, we don’t even know what it means to feel like ourselves. We are still figuring things out, and that’s fine. Some adults don’t have things completely figured out, and that’s also okay. There is incredible pressure to be someone. Particularly growing into a twenty-something and moving through such a defining decade, we don’t always know who that person should be.

Question Mark Graffiti

As a child, we're asked what we want to be when we grow up. This question is a big deal. At younger ages, these answers can range anywhere from an astronaut to a cowboy to an actress to a race-car driver (or whatever the case may be).

I remember taking little quizzes that told us which profession we would most likely excel at depending on our personalities. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a singer and performer, and because that’s what I wanted, my quiz answers reflected this. Eventually I heard a recording of myself singing (you know, practicing) and realized that I’m totally tone-deaf. Some dreams just aren’t meant to be.

However, there is a difference between having certain talents (or in my case, not having those talents) and feeling as though we have to fit a certain mold. Parents and teachers can often times play a large role in this, wanting us to become "successful people". What exactly does this mean? Many times, it’s based off monetary success, so careers such as lawyers and doctors are considered the best route to take. Yet, wouldn't any career that makes someone happy be considered a success?

I’m a writer through-and-through, but I’ve still been asked, “Okay, but what are you going to be?” as though my answer was a joke. I’m sure I’m not alone in confessing what my dream is only to have it be deemed ludicrous. We go from declaring ourselves astronauts as children to having that same dream smashed as being too far-reaching (there’s some irony for you).  When does this transition happen? Obviously, some people go on to become all those things.

No, we are not all destined to have out-of-this-world careers, but my point here is who is anyone to tell you what is right for you, your dreams? We made it through the awkward years, the bullies, the drama, the stresses of middle and high school only to be told when we finally reach the end that our dreams are not realistic. We have to start being serious, go to college, get a job. However, it does not always work out the same way for everyone – we can go about these stages at our own pace (or skip some altogether). There is a reason we are individuals, and we don’t all go about living in the same manner.

One thing I’ve learned, though, is that people have a lot of opinions on what you should be doing. Apparently to some what I am  is not good enough – it’s not who I should be. So here’s the number one lesson I can perhaps provide to you today:

Question mark in Esbjerg

It does not matter what anyone else says you should do with your life. It is you who must live it day in and day out, and the only way you’ll ever be satisfied waking up each day is if you do what feels right to you. Your number one concern should be to make you happy, not to satisfy someone else’s idea of you. That will never last. The best way for your life to have any sort of impact is for it to be undeniably, completely, messily, and unabashedly yours.

We have been taught and conditioned that whatever we do for a living is what defines us, makes up our identity, and deems us successful. Perhaps that is why our identities shift so often, but I think it's our perceptions that shift rather than our actual identity. For instance, I'm the same person I was when I worked in retail, but I wasn't defined by that – that does not make up who I am as a person, my morals, my thoughts, my inspirations. Lessons were taken from the experience, certainly (like patience), but that's not my entire make-up.

A career should be something that motivates you and inspires you, and retail just did not do that for me. On that note, retail is not an easy job to have, but people tend to rank it rather low and as being "unsuccessful". That's simply not true. I have a friend who actually enjoys working retail, and I say all the more power to him. When a career coincides with how you feel about yourself and what you desire out of life, I think you’ve made your match.

Going after a certain career can be terrifying and amazing at the same time. We fear we’ll fail, we fear we’re not good enough, and we’re unsure we’re making the right choice at times. Try to remember, though, that whatever career you choose is not your entire identity. Your core is not made up of dollar signs and nine-to-fives.

So if whatever path you choose isn’t right the first time, that’s okay, too! My path of singing was quite short-lived, but I have that notch in my belt and found a different route to take that is right for me. The identity you have is always there, but paths tend to bend and twist and go off-roading at times. Don’t let it become a crisis.

Will the real you please stand up? (Photo credit: Bilal Kamoon)

Hmm, hmm, hmm. (Photo credit: alexanderdrachmann)

Can't We All Be Above Average?

That's what a student with red-rimmed eyes asked me last week. She stood before me, distressed about her average (perfectly acceptable) grade on a paper assignment, visibly willing her tears away. I said her paper was just fine, it's simply that I reserve the top 10% of grades for students who do a standout job, going beyond the requirements or looking at the topic in a novel way. "But that's not fair," she said. "Can't we all be above average?"

I felt like I was watching the "WHY?!" Nancy Kerrigan video play out before me (if you were, like, a year old when this event happened, start the video at 1:55 for a refresher; man, you make me feel old). I alternately wanted to shake my student and say, "Snap out of your self-pity!" and then to hug her while cooing, "I know. It sucks. I get it. This hurts."

The thing is, I do get it. I've felt it. I sometimes still feel it. I mean, why can't we all be above average? Well, because, obviously, we can't.

So the real question is, why did we get it in our heads in the first place that we could be?

revphil's awards

Partly it's due to the self-esteem movement - you know, the campaign that had you winning "Participant Ribbons" rather than real trophies in grammar school - but even more importantly, it's due to our natural cognitive development.

During adolescence, we all think we're special. No one has to tell us we are, we simply believe it. Nobody has ever had these thoughts before, we tell ourselves. Journal, dear journal, you are witnessing the dawn of a magnificent mind afire. With thoughts like these, I'm destined to take the world by storm.

Don't believe me? Then you haven't been reading many blogs.

The thing is, it's healthy and normal to think this way. For a while. It's called the personal fable and it's part of normative adolescent egocentrism. Psychologists debate its origins, but it may arise as a way of coping with individuation - the process of becoming your self, a being who is separate from those around you.

Sound familiar?

I think it should, because that's what you guys are grappling with every. single. day. I watch it in my office. I read it in your blogs. I see it in our class discussions. Figuring out who you are - and doing so independently of the subtle, all-encompassing, often-overlooked influence of your parents - is what today's twenties are all about.

So here's what I believe:  the personal fable and egocentrism aren't just an adolescent thing. They're here and they're now.

And they're screwing you over. Two times over.

They're paralyzing your quest for a fulfilling life and career, coming and going:

  1. When the personal fable is in full effect, you're afraid of making a misstep that would prove you aren't actually special. I remember thinking just this in my early 20s:  what if I leave my Ivy League "I can prove I'm smart by just saying where I go to school" grad school and simply become a person with a job? Who am I then? And what will have happened to the "mind afire?" I'm too special, too unique, too destined for greatness for such an end. I know I'm not satisfied with my current life, but if I make the leap, take the chance, reach out for the life I really want...<pause for a freak out>...I might end up realizing that everything I've believed about myself has been a complete and utter lie.
  2. Then, as the personal fable wanes, you give up the will to strive for a better life. Wait, I'm not actually special? you begin to think. Everyone else thinks like this, too? Crap. Then who am I to believe I can do anything wonderful with my life? Who am I to bother to fight for fulfillment and to try to "do what I love"? That's impractical. That's unreasonable. Best to just suck it up and take a cubicle job and sell my soul down a river of memos and meetings and incessant cesspools of insipid, pithy emails.

The thing is, both ways of thinking are flawed. We're not all above average. Statistically, that simply doesn't work.  But we do all have the right to a life that gives us a sense of purpose and passion and meaning. There's no quota on that; no requirement that only 10% of us get to engage in that search.

In other words, when my student was standing before me last week, ineffectually blinking back her tears, the urgency welling within her wasn't about a paper. It wasn't about her performance. It wasn't, even, about being "average." It was about being blocked from a life worth living.

And so I said, "No, we can't all be above average. But we can all live extraordinary lives. If we choose to."

She stared at me for a long moment, the tears ceasing to flow. I could see the epiphany creeping into her. Inch by inch. Cell by cell. Atom by atom. These are the teaching  moments we live for, through many a botched lecture, through many an awkward class discussions, through many a hand-cramped session of grading.

Finally, she spoke.

"Uh. So what about my grade?"

Lapsley, D. K (1993). Toward an integrated theory of adolescent ego development: The "new look" at adolescent egocentrism. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 63, 562-571.
Vartanian, L. R. (2000). Revisiting the imaginary audience and personal fable constructs of adolescent egocentrism:  A conceptual review. Adolescence, 35, 639-661.

There simply aren't enough ribbons to go around. (Photo credit: ideath)

I'm Awesome. Except Next To You. And You. And You... (aka Millennial Failure Pie)

Which of these scenarios makes you feel better about yourself:  You're at a bar with A) your uber-attractive, date-bait friend whose mere presence ignites a firestorm of sexual interest, or B) the friend who might as well be a beer-lacquered bar stool in the eyes of potential suitors? You are totally lying if you said A.

Being around people who do better than us - whether it's at scoring numbers on the social scene, answering questions correctly in orgo, or having futures laid out in organized little lists (ha, what a ruse) - can make us feel like total crap. Yet we continue to hang around these people. And, more importantly, to compare ourselves to them. (BTW:  this never ends. The 30s redux are uber-parents who present organic snacks in fabric pouches and sew their own cloth diapers. I tell you, after a toddler playdate I think my life is in such shambles that Lindsey Lohan's looks good in comparison.)

Why do we do this to ourselves?

Because we're hard-wired to. Social comparisons enable us to see ourselves and to understand the value of our abilities. This is necessary and can be helpful, especially when there aren't any objective criteria available. How else could we know if we're a worthwhile friend or a talented writer or a good singer ? (RE: the latter - you're not. Hasn't American Idol taught you anything?)

The thing is that doing too much social comparing, especially in one direction, can drive us to drink, as my dad likes to say. The comparisons that tell us how badly we're doing relative to someone else - "upward comparisons" - do have some pluses:  they can make us feel like we're part of an elite group (e.g., if I'm comparing myself to Beyonce, I must be doing something right) and they can make us want to try harder. But they can also make us feel downright cruddy.

Enter "downward comparisons." Here we look at someone with a worse circumstance and think heck yea, I'm doing pretty good!  Downward comparisons give our self-esteem and well-being a major boost.

Thing is, I feel like a total schmuck when I make downward comparisons. For instance, I'm in the children's library the other day and there's a young mom feeding her 1-year-old Gatorade out of a bottle and Doritos. Then she throws a puzzle (that my 2-year-old can't yet do) at her daughter's feet and proclaims, "She's so lazy. She doesn't even try." That would have been a perfect scenario for me to make a downward comparison or two. But how crappy would it be to look at that scenario and think, Wow, I am a good mom! Go me! Ugh.

You Millennials seem to have the same hesitancy. For all the talk about your generation's narcissism, I find you to be loathe to make downward comparisons. Oh sure, you'll cut someone down for a bad choice (Can you believe she's wearing those boots with those pants?). In a heartbeat. But you're also super-attuned to social and economic disparities and you don't seize on others' unfortunate circumstances as an opportunity to feel good about yourselves.

Which means that you're left making a ton of upward comparisons and very few downward comparisons. No wonder you guys feel like you're always failing.

Michelle Kwan, New York, NY, 1997

Especially since failure hinges on social comparison.

Worse yet, while there is no absolute standard for failure (even the "absolutes" that do exist - like the average score on an IQ test - are actually constantly shifting), we continually talk about failure in absolute terms.  Common phrases heard in my office:  "I totally failed at that interview I went to." Or "I'm really failing in my stats class" (by which the student means getting a C). Or, most disheartening of all, "I'm failing at everything I try."

This is stupid talk. We don't go around saying things like, "That building is taller" or "That guy's pecs are bigger" or "Donald Trump's hair is scarier." They're meaningless statements. (Well maybe not that last one.) We were taught in the first grade to state comparisons when we use "-er" words.

The problem with failure, then, isn't that it's based on social comparisons, it's that we don't acknowledge those comparisons. We act like failure is a state of being that has no referent when in actuality it has "comparison" smeared all over it.

Put this all together, and you get Millennial Failure Pie (MFP):  You're making tons of upward comparisons, not balancing them with downward comparisons, and doing it all unconsciously. Disaster.

There are probably a million things we could do to try to address the MFP. But how about starting here:  changing the way we think and talk about failure.

  1. Failed compared to who? For instance: "I failed at that interview." Meaningless. "I failed at that interview compared to the person who got the job." True. "I failed at that interview compared to the person who walked into the interview room hammered, vomited on his shoes, and then fainted." Actually, there you kicked some butt.
  2. Is the comparison reasonable? For instance:  I failed the SAT compared to my cousin who got a perfect score. Twice. (Yes, really.) But who didn't?

If we thought and talked about failure in this way, it might unconsciously activate some of the downward comparisons that we need to make in order to stay psychologically healthy. And we wouldn't feel like callous, pompous pricks while we're doing it.

Then maybe we could hang out with our gorgeous BFF, our I-could-calculate-the-molecular-weight-of-plutonium-without-trying classmate, and our has-it-all-together friend and not feel as crappy as Taylor Swift's latest ex. We'll just feel like us. Which is more than enough.

Michelle Kwan was awesome. Just not on the Olympic podium. Is that failure? (Photo credit: cliff1066™)

Oh, Grow Up! (Emotionally, That Is)

"I guess I'll be able to handle it when I'm a senior," one of my freshman students said, talking about the thesis she'd have to complete before graduating. "But for now it totally freaks me out." This student held a reasonable assumption that we all cling to:  we'll outgrow our fears.

Hate to break it to you, but we do not outgrow our fears. (Just ask my grandma, who still hates the dark.) Fears themselves don't "go away" as we get older. What changes is our ability to manage those fears, and other strong emotions. The 20s are a key time for that development.

OK, we're going to get into brain science so get ready. (Do not fall asleep on me, people!)

Brain structures involved in dealing with fear...

During puberty, the area of the brain that creates emotions - the limbic system, including the amygdala - grows rapidly. This causes emotion overload, with strong feelings popping out left and right. I think of it as a field of fireworks that has accidentally caught fire, causing the fireworks to shoot off randomly and in all directions.

That's why your feelings were so intense during adolescence, and why they changed so frequently -  because your brain was churning out emotions the way the Duggars churn out kids.

If there were some way to control the surges of emotions - if we could, say, put a protective barrier over the blazing fireworks - then it wouldn't be too bad. And eventually, as we get older, we are able to do just this. But not for a while.

The part of the brain that controls emotions - the prefrontal cortex - is still developing into at least the mid-20s. In the early and mid-20s, nerve cells that we don't use die off. This makes our prefrontal cortex more efficient at controlling emotions. In addition, insulation (myelin) is accumulating around the nerve cells in that area of the brain, making the neural impulses faster. This insulation building may continue into the 30s.

In other words, we're still a bit unhinged in our 20s.

“The prefrontal part is the part that allows you to control your impulses, come up with a long-range strategy, answer the question ‘What am I going to do with my life?’" said the lead researcher, Jay Giedd, in the New York Times article What Is It About 20-Somethings. “That weighing of the future keeps changing into the 20s and 30s.”

So what's this mean for you? Well, you're not quite your adolescent self any more (thank goodness). But it also means that you do have a lot of "growing up" left to do.

Not "growing up" in the sense of getting rid of fear and the other emotions that block us - an emotionless life would be awful - but in the sense of handling them. That's what psychologists call emotion regulation, and it's a process we begin in the toddler years. (Not so successfully, I might add, as the frazzled mother of a 2-year-old.)

So, as a twentysomething, what can you do?

  1. Accept that your emotions are going to overpower you sometimes (often?!). Especially so-called negative emotions, like being afraid and feeling hurt. You literally can't help it. Your brain isn't equipped to override these emotions efficiently yet. When you feel afraid or sad or angry, just say to yourself "Oh sheesh, there goes my out-of-control amygdala again." You can even say it out loud. But only if you're looking to shed some friends.
  2. Use this knowledge to step back and let the emotion flow past you, whenever you can. You now know that emotional control isn't yet your strong suit, developmentally speaking. So choose to not let the emotions get the best of you. Emotions last only as long as we allow them to last. In her book My Stroke of Insight, neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor writes "there are certain limbic system (emotional) programs that can be triggered automatically, it takes less than 90 seconds for one of these programs to be triggered, surge through our body, and then be completely flushed out of our blood stream." If we keep thinking about whatever triggered the emotion - like fear that we'll let our parents down if we choose to pursue art instead of law - then our bodies continue to feel a flood of chemicals that cause the emotion. If we choose to think differently, the emotion passes. That's where #3 comes in.
  3. Come up with strategies to deal with fear and other strong emotions. Not thinking about fear and anger and sadness sounds great, but how do you do it? Strategically, that's how. You can override your brain's immaturity, if you have a plan in place. Since I've already bludgeoned you with neuroscience today, though, I'm going to end class here. In our next lecture this is where we'll pick up - with strategies that help us regulate emotions, especially that naughtiest one of all:  fear.

In the meantime,  your homework is to write about how your emotions have changed since your teen years. Do they feel different now, or do you just manage them differently?

Brain structures involved in dealing with fear and other strong emotions. The amygdala is a key part of the limbic system. If you're still reading, you might note that this is the most serious caption I've written on this blog. Go me! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Time, Time Everywhere, and Not a Second to Use

“I’m too busy” may be the most ubiquitous excuse in existence. Even if you’re not so arrogant and self-important to say such a thing, chances are you’ve appealed to its cousins “I’m not sure if I can,” “I’ll see if it works out,” and plain old “If I have the time.” Why The "I'm Too Busy Excuse" Works So Well

Nowhere does the “I’m too busy” excuse get more play than in Career Avoidance. It’s an effective excuse for two reasons:

  1. Because you truly believe it. There really is no time to spare in your life. I bought Do What You Are early in my college career. That fat book moved from dorm room to dorm room to grad school apartment to adult apartment without being cracked more than an inch. It’s not that I didn’t want to read its personality-based career recipes, it’s that I simply didn’t have the time to do it. Alas, what’s a girl to do? Our recent class poll backs this up. 36% of you are too busy working dead-end jobs to focus on the Career Search. Burgers need to be flipped, people. Shirts have to be folded. Cubicles need to be occupied. There’s no time for this “big thinking” stuff.
  2. It's hard for others to combat. Even if you manage to have some time in your day, who actually knows it? Does anyone follow you every second of every day, keeping tabs on your every move? (If you answered yes, either call the cops on that stalker or find your mom a hobby. Stat.) In other words, “I’m too busy” is a convincing, bullet-proof excuse to use against intrusive parents; freaky, overinvolved uncles; and way-too-eager professors (not that I know any of the latter...).

The Passage of Time

Cling fast to the “I’m too busy” excuse, valiant Career Avoiders. Cling fast. It’s one of the goodies.

Just hope you don’t run into someone – some evil, sinister someone – who tries to wrench the “I’m Too Busy” excuse away from you by, say, making the following claims:

Your Leisure Activities Are Telling

In our poll, 36% of you said you turn to YouTube to procrastinate the Career Search. Little did you know that this activity can actually shed light on your future career, if you let it.

The old advice career advice said to figure out your interests, pay attention to what section of a library or bookstore you’re drawn to. Thing is, no one goes there anymore (well, except old people; at the bookstore last week the gray-haired lady sitting next to me was snoring her way through Forever, Erma. Please refrain from commenting on what my bookstore presence - and the instant recognition of her book's cover - mean for my age.)

Instead of going to the bookstore, these days we go online. So mount a virtual camera on your shoulder and keep tabs on what you’re doing. What do you most like to watch on YouTube? What do you most desire to read on blogs? What books and activities fill your Kindle or iPad? It doesn’t take “time,” per se, to keep track of this. It just takes a shifting of attention.

You might argue that much of what you do is solely for “entertainment.” True, true. But I, for instance, don’t think a Truman documentary is entertaining in the least. My husband, on the other hand, would strongly beg to differ. In fact, he has begged to differ for the past three nights. (I used the opportunity to catch up on my sleep...) Is it any wonder he ended up becoming a social studies teacher? Albeit not until he was in his thirties...

Your Leisure Activities Can Actually Help You

If you’re keeping track of the poll results so far, you know there are still some class members unaccounted for. Pop quiz:  what percentage is missing? Oh wait, this isn’t a math class. Thankfully. You’d be screwed if you had me teaching you that.

27% of you procrastinate by Facebook stalking, a time-honored tradition indeed. You probably think you’re wasting time on Facebook, don’t you? What if I told you that you may actually be getting closer to your dream career and happiness by being on there? Seriously.

Research shows that we're more our “true selves” when we’re interacting on social media than when we’re talking with people face to face. In other words, we put on less of a show than in the real world. Studies also show that the more we get in touch with our true selves on a regular basis, the more meaningful our lives feel (which, as we’ve discussed, is one of the two lasting forms of happiness).

In addition, we're more satisfied at work when we're being true to ourselves.

That said, if you are putting on a show on Facebook or Twitter or Site-Too-Hip-For-Thirtysomethings-To-Know-About, the activity isn’t helping you. The pure act of stalking isn’t, either; you have to be actively contributing and getting in touch with you - not Lena Dunham or Robert Pattinson's abs or your grade school crush - in order to reap the benefits.

You Don’t Need “Time” to Solve Problems

In essence, the Career Search is one big problem to solve. You have to take all the disparate, often conflicting information about your interests and your true self – info gleaned from the previous activities – and figure out what it means for a career.

In the last post I briefly mentioned that incubation can be key to problem solving. If you step back from a problem rather than focus on it, you're more likely to reach a solution. Sleeping may be especially helpful (I am indeed giving you an excuse to lay around more).

For this approach to work, you have to seed the unconscious with the problem you want to solve (such as – shameless plug ahead - by reading Career Avoidance 101’s daily Facebook posts or Tweets). This takes little to no time. You do need the passage of time to get to your "flash of insight," but you don’t need chunks of time.

To incubate, Einstein turned to music, developmental psychologist Piaget walked, and physicist Helmholz went on a "slow ascent of wooded hills on a sunny day" (poetic much?). You go on YouTube and Facebook stalk and sit at your dead end job. In other words, you can tell your parents that you're simply "Being like Einstein."

The Decision-Making Process Isn’t As Strategic As You Think

After you’ve determined your interests, gotten in touch with you and used those pieces to solve the career problem, you’ll probably be left with a general, resonating vision for your life (some might call it an, I don’t know, “All I Want to Be” statement…). But how do you translate that into a specific career?

Here’s where you engage your decision-making skills. You need to decide between the various career options that would satisfactorily meet your life goal. Sounds time-consuming, doesn’t it? Actually, it doesn’t have to be, and it's perhaps even better when it’s not.

We’re taught that the best way to make decisions involves reason and strategy and ridiculously long pro and con lists. In reality, that’s not how people do it. People tend to make decisions – even huge decisions, like about what course of cancer treatment they should pursue – based largely on "intuition" or "gut feelings." There’s no weighing of evidence, no systematic elimination, no creation of compulsive spreadsheets. Instead we humans throw our fates to the stars and go with our guts. We silly humans!

Or are we?

It’s not such a stupid approach, it turns out. The gut feeling isn’t some flimmy-flammy, semi-mystical, call a 1-800-psychic number type of thing. It’s actually based on our subconscious picking up lots of subtle – and often important - cues that our overly rational, conscious mind overlooks. The subconscious adds these cues up and, voila, the gut feeling!

So What To Make of the "I'm Too Busy" Excuse?

When we consider these attacks on the “I’m too busy” excuse, it seems the evil someone who presented them pretty much mucked up all hope of using this defense.

Don’t lose faith, though. The process of job searching – a far different process from looking for a career, or, ideally, for looking for something even bigger than career – does take time. Literal, physical chunks of minutes type of time. You have to create a resume, find job openings, send out application packets, go on interviews. There’s no way getting around how much time that takes.

And so, even if you happen to run into someone who pokes holes in your “I’m too busy” excuse for avoiding the big-thinking portion of Career Search (wherever would you meet such a person, anyway?), you can still use the excuse when the pedal meets the metal and you have to find an actual job.

Which is fitting, I suppose, since that’s all you’ll be finding – plain, old, punch-the-clock, end-up-in-a-stupor-from-boredom jobs - if you don’t give the Career Search a good go. Fair enough!

Time always gets in our way...or does it? (Photo credit: ToniVCand over-eager professors.)