Stylist’s columnist Billie Bhatia on how to stop feeling the career path pressure
“I still don’t know exactly what I want to do with my career. My current job is fine; I don’t love it and I don’t hate it, but it doesn’t ignite a huge passion inside of me. All my friends are well into building their careers, yet I feel as stuck as I did when I left university. The idea that I should know what I want to do is starting to make me really panic, especially as I’m about to turn 30, but I don’t know where to start. Please help!”
When I was eight years old, I had it all figured out. I was going to be a paediatrician. I remember declaring my ambition to be a doctor to my parents over dinner. For my sometimes-traditional Indian parents, the reaction was an inner fist pump of pride, as if to say, “Yes, we succeeded!” (Succeeded, that is, in the desire for second-generation immigrants to have kids who went on to be doctors, lawyers or dentists.)
Throughout my childhood, I really clung to the idea of medicine. Sure, there was a momentary dip after I watched The Wedding Planner and was swept away with the idea of a job that came with a Britney-inspired headset, but I wanted to be Dr Billie more. Not even my high school’s careers counsellor, who informed me that the results of my aptitude test came back with ‘florist’, would throw me off track.
Spoiler alert: I fell at the first hurdle. Turns out you need an A-level in chemistry (along with pretty sound scientific knowledge) to study medicine at university, and covalent bonds and I were just not meant to be. But faster than Ross Geller could shout “Pivot!” I had a new plan: Latin teacher. While I was optimistic that everyone would be as enthralled with tales of the Roman empire as I was, sadly, I soon learned there wasn’t a huge demand for students clambering to learn a dead language.
At 18, I had worked out my new career plan. I would be a lawyer, just like my dad. I wasn’t ready to give up on Caecilius just yet, so I convinced (read: hoodwinked) my parents into letting me study classics first and then convert to law. After that it would be Bar school, pupillage, finishing off with a wig and gown. Signed, sealed and deliver me to chambers; I was done with career choices.
As you might have already guessed, that plan didn’t quite pan out. I returned home after finishing law school at 22 with no better understanding of what I wanted to do with my career than I did when I was eight. My friends were all embarking on grad schemes and first jobs, and I had just signed up for a temp job working as a purchase ledger clerk. To this day, I still don’t really know what a purchase ledger is, and for three months I was actually in charge of one.
I was completely lost. Which is where I think you have found yourself now. What I wish I had known at that time, is that this feeling is completely normal. The internal struggle of trying to place yourself on a clear-cut path of knowing exactly how your career will pan out is like a pressure cooker waiting to pop. As someone who has stood in your shoes, I know how you feel.
During my mid-20s, I was pulling my hair out trying to figure out my next step by day and pulling pints by night. During this time, I started to apply for magazine internships. I had no idea what I was applying for, just blindly sending out emails into the ether with fingers and toes crossed that someone would come back with a ‘yes’ – and everything would click into place. Once I had that yes, surely that person or company would guide me into what I wanted to do. I just needed to get them to open the door.
Even when I finally scored my first internship, I was none the wiser about what I wanted to do. I had just entered the professional working world, but only on a temporary basis, so I spent the best part of the year deciphering what people actually do at magazines. From the art directors all the way down to the fashion cupboard interns – and attempting to align what I wanted to do with one of those jobs. I was so indecisive that in-between internships, I undertook a work experience placement at a famous concierge company, again, hoping that I would have fierce emotions about one or the other and my career choice would finally fall into place.
Even during the years after I landed my first ‘real’ job in the fashion industry, I still wasn’t sure if the job was for me. Do I want to write? Should I spend more time styling? Am I actually any good at either? Where does this all go? What job title do I want? Did I make a mistake? Should I go back to law? These questions ran through my mind on a regular basis. When I went home one weekend, my parents asked me how I was getting on and what my career plan was. I was totally stumped.
This meandering retelling of my life in work all boils down to one thing: don’t panic. There is this burgeoning pressure all around us to really love what we do, and a belief we will only be fulfilled in our careers if we do so, and I just don’t think that is a healthy way to come at your job. Yes, it really, really helps your motivation to like your job. But should it define you as a person? No way.
Most of my learnings came from trial, errors (many of them) and talking to people about their own work experiences. What they loved, how they got there and figuring out what they did along the way to discover a passion. Most people, like me, had a meandering path to their job; others just had an idea – whether it was their own or someone else’s – and got so far down the track that they couldn’t be bothered to turn around and find a different one.
It’s why my advice to you would be to have conversations with as many people as possible: friends, family, career experts – objectively, they can pinpoint your strengths and help draw out your interests much easier than you can. Make a list of things you like about your job and a list of things that interest you. Take quizzes (no, seriously). Try to make this discovery one born out of joy and not fear.
This narrative that we must have our careers all planned out with crystal clarity, and we won’t be happy unless they are, is bullshit. It’s imperative that you take your time on this one (ICYMI, there are a lot of working years ahead of you) and panicking about whether you should have made these huge life choices earlier will only lead you to settle for something sub-par. Take your time to think about what you want, and if you decide what you want is to have a job you feel ‘fine’ about, that’s OK too.
Ask Billie anything on Instagram, @stylistmagazine
Images: Portrait Sarah Brick/illustration via Getty