The greatest intellectual challenge I ever had to undertake did not come from reading Jacques Derrida for the first time or writing my master’s thesis. No, it came from beginning the process of introspection. While I thought that I had a good understanding of my mind, I learned not too long ago that this is not the case. Perhaps I could do a psychoanalytic reading of Christopher Marlowe’s plays or Jane Austen’s novels; however, I could barely gain basic insights when I turned the attention to myself. I was an example of what former Yale professor William Deresiewicz calls an “excellent sheep,” someone who may have been “driven…but also anxious [and] timid…with… a stunted sense of purpose.” In essence, I was not an independent thinker who viewed university as a time for self-discovery, I was more of a hoop-jumper.
In an article I published last summer in University Affairs, I discussed my struggle in trying to reinvent myself after leaving graduate school. I provided three pieces of advice to help those who are trying to figure out what path to do next in in their life. After gaining another year’s perspective away from postsecondary, I want to add three more tips to the list. These tips are focused on looking inward, since many of us have more time on our hands to engage in self-reflection and also because some of the advice I gave in the previous article, such as seeking out new jobs or volunteer opportunities outside of our comfort zones, are not as easy to follow given our current circumstances. This advice is not only for recent graduates who may be leaving school for the first time but also for those who are hoping to eventually leave this quarantine with a better understanding of themselves.
1. Reflect on your childhood
Near the end of high school or university/college, we are often asked the same thing: “what do you want to do with your life?” Many try their best to answer this question by only considering their present curiosities and then making a rash declaration from there. I would argue, though, that we should slow down the decision-making process by reflecting on what excited us as kids.
I will use myself as an example. After I graduated from my master’s, I said that I wanted to pursue law. Why did I say this? I liked the show Suits and thought that since I enjoyed reading and writing, I should be a lawyer. Luckily, I snapped out of this line of thinking a few months later and admitted to myself that I did not have any sort of desire to one day practice law, let alone devout three years and thousands of dollars to studying the field. What helped me gain clarity on things was thinking back to my younger years, a time when, however cliché the phrase sounds, life was a lot simpler. When we were, for instance, seven, we likely were not influenced by societal demands or money. Instead, we did things because they brought us joy.
Upon reflecting, I remembered something that brought me joy was listening to and practicing music. I would spend countless hours at my grandmother’s house tuning into various radio stations to hear anything from punk rock to Beethoven. Growing up, I also played in a number of piano recitals and competitions. It is only after recalling how much I loved music that I got back into practicing on a regular basis. I eventually ended up taking additional courses to help qualify me to teach music in public school. Since then, I have had the privilege to work as a music educator on a number of occasions. If it wasn’t for taking the time to think back to what I loved before the pressures of choosing a particular career got in the way, I probably would have never worked as a music teacher.
2. Identify the characteristics of the people that you admire
At some point, you most likely said you wanted to pursue a particular field because you had a mentor who was working in it. For example, one of the reasons I decided to major in English was because I had an outstanding literature teacher in high school. Since I loved being in his class, I thought it is was only natural that I should study English in postsecondary. What I learned, however, was that I was drawn more to how this teacher taught me to enjoy life, follow my dreams, and be a good role model than what curriculum he was covering. I loved listening to the many stories that he would share with us and was amazed at how during each of his classes, all of us would be at the edge of our seats. While I did very much enjoy my time studying literature in postsecondary, I decided to pursue a career in education not so that I could teach English but be in a position that could allow me to make a positive difference in my students’ lives.
What I recommend, therefore, is to separate the person you admire from the job that he or she does. Do not just assume you want to pursue a particular field because you look up to someone working in it. Try writing out a list of characteristics that you like about this person and reflect on what sort of path you can take that will allow you to use and develop these sorts of traits and skills. I also recommend getting in touch with this person, if you can, in order to ask about his/her journey. You may find out this person worked in a number of interesting careers before deciding on his/her current position. This reality can teach us how finding our way in the world is a messy process that can take years to figure out, and that that’s okay.
3. Consider what you want out of a career
There are different aspects that can make a job meaningful. Some of these include pursuing something that allows you to use your talents, achieving financial stability, making a difference in the world, and being creatively and intellectually challenged. It does become difficult, however, to find a career that incorporates all of these categories, at least right after graduating. Outside of entrepreneurial work, you may have to settle for something that meets only one or two of the above criteria. Therefore, start thinking about what categories are most important to you. In addition, you may realize that you can tap into some of the missed categories outside of your working hours. For example, perhaps you get a job that allows you to write advertisements for an online company. It could be something that brings you financial stability but you find it very boring. However, a silver lining can be that since you don’t have to work an additional part-time job to make ends meet, you can pursue creative hobbies after you leave the office. As you progress in experience, your job may also transform in such a way that allows you to incorporate more of these categories, or a potential interest that you are devoting time to outside of work may end up taking off and becoming your full-time gig. Be open to trying new opportunities and embrace the process.
Similar to what I said in my previous article, don’t feel obliged to follow all of the above advice I have given. Just know that introspection takes time, and if you feel even more confused after months of self-reflection than you did when you started, this is completely normal. Also, be open to the possibility that your priorities and interests may change over time. I know mine certainty have! As the aforementioned Dr. Deresiewicz says, “don’t try to figure out [right away] what you want to do with the rest of your life. You’re going to be a very different person in two or three years, and that person will have his own ideas. All you can really figure out is what you want to do right now.” This quarantine offers a great opportunity for us to do just that.
Ryan Racine earned his master’s of English language and literature from Brock University. He is currently working as a high school teacher and college instructor in Ontario.