I’ve made a lot of questionable decisions in my life, and I’ve had to live with a fair amount of doubt about them as a result. I can’t even imagine what life must be like for people who are not constantly filled with uncertainty or anxiety about the choices they make. How is that possible? I wonder. How do they go through the day without worrying whether they should have gotten the coat in black instead of turquoise, or if they should have signed up for that French class instead of taking another study period? And I know I’m not alone. We get a lot of Just Wondering questions about this very topic: Is it normal to not have any idea what I want to do in life? How do I develop interests and passions? What if I do this and it messes up my entire LIFE? Doubting Rookie readers: I hear you!
Of course, other people—like friends and especially family—love to give their opinion in these matters, often pressuring us to do one thing or another. When I dropped out of college after a year and moved across the country, my family completely freaked out: What was I planning to do for money? Where was I even going to live? I had no idea. It was an adventure, I told them. I would be fine! And I was—eventually—but there were just as many awesome fun parts as there were scary, am-I-going-to-be-able-to-afford-food parts, and I found myself wondering if I made the right decision a lot.
But doubt can be a good thing. First of all, it means you’re thinking seriously about what you want, and thinking about it is one of the first steps toward figuring it out. Also, it’s totally normal to try and avoid regret. Sometimes you need to consider how things might shake out in order to decide whether or not you can live with every possible outcome. Here are some things to keep in mind if you’re agonizing over your list of pros and cons, worrying about worst-case scenarios, or just generally confused about what to do:
There is no such thing as the right decision.
When you’re trying to make up your mind, one thing that can totally paralyze you is this idea that there is a foolproof choice—a clear-cut path to happiness—and that if you choose wrongly, you’ll end up miserable, and possibly living in your car and eating beans out of a can. In reality, every decision you make can (and probably will) have some positive and negative consequences: you picked a great college, but your awful roommate made your first year hell. You took the job you always wanted, but you are getting paid a lot less than you asked for. The objectively right decision is a myth. You can only consider what’s best for you right now. And decisions are what you make of them. Did you quit the school soccer team because you wanted more free time and now you’re bored? See if there’s a local league, or use the time to try something totally new, like volunteering or taking acting classes.
You do not need permission to live the life you want to live.
A lot of you probably want to make your parents happy, and that’s great, because they surely want to do the same for you. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to please everyone. I don’t want to be a downer here, but it’s your life, and your parents aren’t going to be around forever—I know, I’m sorry, but sometimes you need to think about that and ask yourself: do you want to become a 50-year-old doctor who wonders what her life could have been like if she had pursued marine biology or mixed-media art? We hear from readers all the time who are worried about what to do after graduating from high school or college. Most of the time, your parents encourage you to take a pragmatic route because they want you to have some security, and they also want to know how much longer they have to pay your phone bill, put gas in your car, and give you money to go to the movies (your parents are so nice, go hug them). In life, a lot of our decisions come down to risk versus reward: stay in school and get on the career track as soon as possible, or take two years off to be educated by the School of Life. Either option can end up working out or leave you feeling like you made a huge mistake. It’s scary, but you don’t need anybody’s permission to do what you want, as long as you have a plan for yourself. You’re not going to make a convincing case for your future independence as an artist if your parents still do your laundry and cook your dinner.
It’s never too late to change (your mind or anything else).
Remember this! This is what us doubters always have to fall back on! Uncertainty often stems from the belief that you can do something that so catastrophically messes up your life that you can never recover from it. I’ve written about how the permanent record is, for the most part, a load of BS, but even if things do take a turn for the worse, life is full of second acts! People reinvent themselves all the time. Remember when Martha Stewart WENT TO JAIL for insider trading?!? Yeah, I barely do either, because now she’s back and stronger than ever. Regret doesn’t have to be a factor if you don’t wallow in it, and a bad decision only feels permanent if you let it. Chalk your mistakes up to life lessons, and transfer schools, move cities, change majors, start over, whatever.
Just because things don’t work out the way you thought doesn’t mean you’ve made a mistake.
If you haven’t checked out the MAKERS website yet, get ready to find a ton of inspirational women telling you about their own struggle to figure out life (including our own fearless leader). Miranda July is a perfect example of someone who knew what she wanted to do when she was 16, dropped out of college, kept making art, and eventually found a way to make great movies, books, and all kinds of art. Pay close attention to the part where she says she submitted to the Sundance Lab THREE TIMES before they let her in. And sure, Miranda July is someone who found success in a very visible way, but the takeaway here is that she never stopped making art. Some people might define success by the number of degrees they have or the size of their bank account, but a lot of us feel like we’re successful when we do things that make us happy. Beverly Guy-Sheftall didn’t know that she was going to revolutionize women’s studies by teaching African American women at Spelman in the 1960s, when the canon was largely white and male—she just did something she felt was necessary. If you feel like you want to do something that other people tell you is useless, keep in mind that what is useless to them might be highly valuable to YOU. And if your screenplay or your band doesn’t “pay off” right away, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth a try, or that it isn’t worth it to keep on trying. The worst that can happen is that you eventually decide to do something else, and at least then you are free to do so without wondering what might’ve been.
You might not ever really know what you want to do, and that is perfectly fine.
Sometimes not knowing what to do is just a matter of not knowing what you want to do. But you know what? It’s OK. You don’t have to have a passion for any one thing, or be doing a spectacular project every minute of the day. Plenty of people go through their whole lives not knowing what they want to do, or they figure it out much later (Julia Child didn’t get her cooking career started until she was almost 50). On the flipside, I knew for a fact that I wanted to be a fashion designer in middle school, and I followed that dream all the way to college despite the fact that many people thought it was impractical, because I loved it! Then I went to school to study fashion—and it turned out I didn’t actually love it. I just wanted to make clothes for myself. You learn as you go along, and even people who appear to have it all figured out often don’t. You’re still young, your interests can change, and you may never be the type of person whose passion dovetails with a career, which is why we have hobbies.
There are people you can talk to about all of this.
Doubt can lead to anxiety, and anxiety can cause you to suffer from paralyzing indecision—it’s a vicious cycle. If thinking about this stuff makes you physically sick or want to hide in your bed forever instead of talking about it? It’s probably time to bring in a pro. I have sought out therapists and doctors a lot in life, most recently when I was feeling stressed about choosing a graduate school and some other major life decisions were keeping me awake at night. My doctor said that it’s totally normal, but she wanted to do a physical anyway, and the tests showed several non-serious things that could be contributing to my emotional state. Your brain is part of your body (duh), so if you feel like something is off, don’t hesitate to see someone.
It doesn’t always have to be a doctor—it’s also nice to just talk to friends or anyone you trust about your feelings. Maybe your school has guidance or career counselors. Sometimes it’s helpful to reach out to people who are doing what you think you want to do and ask them about how they decided on their career and what challenges they faced. It’s easy to worry yourself into a corner and feel trapped by indecision, so don’t keep all of your concerns to yourself.
Doubt is somewhat inescapable, but it doesn’t have to dictate your life. I’ve had major doubts about decisions that turned out to be great: I wasn’t sure that it would be a good idea to turn my blog into a book, since people tend to get sick of memes really fast, but it has absolutely changed my life. I hear from amazing feminist readers on the regular and have generally had a lot of great opportunities to connect with fantastic people because of it. I’ve also made some terrible decisions, like leaving my amazing, well-paid job at the United Nations to drive to Anchorage, Alaska, because I was a little freaked out after September 11th; I completely panicked and left my favorite city because I saw an Army dude carrying an assault weapon in Grand Central Station on my way to work. But Alaska—which I chose because it was as far away from New York as I could get without a passport—gave me great stories and allowed me to try new things, like camping and mountain climbing. The worst-case scenario is rarely as terrible as you think it will be, and in some ways, realizing that I had the strength to adapt and be spontaneous has been far more useful to me.
Remember that as much as you think and plan and scheme, there is no one way to make sure your life works out exactly how you want it to. And if you need a little push to help you with a hard choice, think of it this way: not making a decision is a decision in itself. It’s a decision to keep things exactly the same, just out of fear of the unknown. And that would be the only real mistake you could make. ♦