Updated: Apr 1, 2022
Life is a continuous opportunity to learn. It’s a series of trial and error. If you gave something your best and it’s not working, it’s okay to let it go. It was not a waste of time if you learned from it. Sometimes, learning what we don’t want to do helps clarify what we do what to do.
I remember walking across the University of Kentucky’s campus on a beautiful spring day with a lump in my throat and tears rolling down my face. I had recently decided to major in Nursing and was walking back from my first meeting with my new Advisor. It didn’t go well. She made me feel like I was behind since my first semester of college was spent as “undecided.” She told me there would be no room or reason to study abroad, which was something I was incredibly eager to try. She laid out the Nursing track, and there was nothing about it that excited me.
Navigating decisions that determine your future can be overwhelming, and this is especially common for people in their twenties. For many of us, there are several unknowns during this time. Who will I end up with long-term? Do I want to have a lifelong partner? Where will I live? How will I make money? What will I do?
This time of uncertainty can be uncomfortable. So uncomfortable, that many people rush decisions to avoid ambiguity. For example, the people who decide to go to law school because their family approves, yet years later - after countless hours of studying, realize they haven’t ever stepped into a courtroom or obtained any concrete experience to help them determine if they actually like practicing law. Or people who rush the decision of marriage so they can avoid not knowing who they may or may not end up with.
It’s completely understandable that people make rushed decisions to avoid the unknown, considering there are constant external pressures. Academia pushes you to select a major quickly. Changing your major later in the game can make you feel behind, or negatively impact your GPA. Parents, family members, and friends love to ask questions like “So, are you dating anyone?” or “What do you plan on doing after college?” or “Now that you’ve graduated high school and taken time to work and travel, what do you plan to do next?”. When you don’t have clear answers to these questions, it can be hard. In fact, it’s exhausting. But it’s okay to not know what you’ll be doing in five years, who you will or will not be dating, or where you’ll be living. If we can learn to embrace uncertainty, it can be exciting and invigorating.
It turned out that I did not major in Nursing. On the day my Anatomy 101 professor brought an actual spinal cord to class to use as a demonstration, I thought I was going to pass out. I knew at that moment I did not want to work with body parts. I had to study for hours and hours and make stacks and stacks of flashcards to make it through that class with a C. It felt like I was swimming against the current. What I know now that I wish I knew then is: that experience was not a waste of my time. And I was not behind. Sometimes, learning what we don’t want to do helps clarify what we do what to do.
If college is the path you’re on, there is a lot of pressure to select your major. The most important task to accomplish is getting the degree, whether that’s in Accounting, Engineering, Literature, or Sociology. Obviously, there are some careers that require a specific education. But ultimately, getting a degree, no matter what it’s in, will propel you forward and elevate your career. However, academia is only one piece of the puzzle. It’s important to gain a variety of experiences while you’re obtaining your degree.
Taking different classes, doing internships, working jobs, meeting new people, traveling, and reading a variety of material are all ways to determine what you enjoy. There can be a stigma associated with trial and error, but it’s a great way to learn what you like and don’t like. Work and internship experience, in particular, are never a waste of time. Even if you do an internship that you absolutely despise, at least you learned that’s something you don’t want to do, and at least you spent time strengthening your skills. There are many transferable skills, such as communication, organization, creativity, and time management, that are applicable in almost any job. Every time you embark on a new work experience, it’s an opportunity to strengthen your skills, develop connections, and gain substance to discuss in future interviews.
If college is not your path, that’s okay too. Higher Education is not the best option for everyone. Gaining professional experiences to help you discover your strengths, skills, values, likes, and dislikes is one of the most effective ways to advance your career. Your twenties are supposed to be a time of exploration. So explore. Experiment. And remember - your dreams can change and evolve as you do. Don't get so fixated on one goal that you miss out on an opportunity that naturally presents itself to you.
In Greg McKewon’s book “Essentialism” he explains a common psychological phenomenon called “sunk-cost bias” which is “the tendency to continue to invest time, money, or energy in something we know is a losing proposition simply because we have already incurred, or sunk, a cost that cannot be recouped.”
Often, we continue to invest time and energy into something that we know isn’t right for us, simply because we have already invested time into it. This keeps us trapped. It’s the reason why we continue reading books we hate, dating people who we know aren’t good for us, or pursuing careers that we’re not interested in. Life is a continuous opportunity to learn. It’s a series of trial and error. If you gave something your best and it’s not working, it’s okay to let it go. It was not a waste of time if you learned from it.
In Brené Brown’s “Dare to Lead” podcast episode with Maya Shankar, Shankar states that “The reason why we can have so much discomfort in the face of change is because it can threaten our self-identity.” In other words, if you spent years envisioning yourself as a nurse, felt pride when you told others you were planning to become a nurse, and identified as a nursing student, it can be difficult to make the decision to select a new major. The change of major forces you to redefine a significant piece of your self-identification. But don’t let that hold you back from making a decision that is most aligned with your intuition.
We are constantly changing, evolving, and growing. As the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus said, “The only constant in life is change.” Accept change and embrace uncertainty. It’s not easy and it takes a lot of practice, but it’s worth it. When we do, it can lead us to places that are better than we ever could have imagined or planned.
Brown, Brené. “Dare to Lead.” Brené with Maya Shankar on Courage in the Midst of Change, Spotify, 7 Nov. 2021. Link.
McKeown, Greg. Essentialism. New York, Currency - The Crown Publishing Group, 2014. (p. 146).