Dear Class of 2021 Graduate,
Congratulations, you did it! Graduating from college is a big deal. It’s a milestone that you’ve worked incredibly hard to achieve. At this point, it’s probably been a about a month since you had your graduation ceremony and said goodbye to your friends and school community. So, how are you holding up? It’s a lot to process, I remember! Even 25 years out from my own college graduation (yikes!) I can still clearly visualize driving away on that wide, tree-lined street, with campus getting smaller and smaller in my rear-view mirror. At the time, it seemed like such an abrupt and final move away from my comfortable, familiar, and normal life.
But there was nothing comfortable, familiar, or normal about your final year of college, was there? The pandemic constantly forced you to adapt, weigh risks, shift-gears, and give up so much of what was supposed to be normal. You’ve experienced countless challenges and losses that came along with COVID. It wasn’t easy, but you made it through.
How’d you do that?
It’s called resilience. Resilience is typically defined as the capacity to adapt to and recover from difficult life events. Give yourself some credit for what you’ve overcome since the pandemic began 15 months ago. You’ve learned so much this past year about giving up things you wanted, letting go of things you couldn’t control, getting creative in response to unforeseen circumstances, and focusing on the things and people that matter most to you. My wish for you is that you continue to harness this resilience as you move forward in life.
What Lies Ahead
Hopefully at this point you’ve had some time to rest, reflect, and reset after this very challenging year.
It can be intimidating to think about diving head-first into the “real” world – especially into this newfangled post-pandemic world (which, believe me, we’re all figuring out how to navigate, regardless of how long ago we graduated).
Your self-doubt and inner critic may become louder, filling your head with a lot of “what if’s” as you start thinking about all the choices ahead of you. But here’s a secret: no matter what choices you make and path you go down, you’ve got this. You’ve got a head-start on resilience, with the capacity to adapt and bounce back from hard things.
Resilience and Your Career
As a career and mental health counselor who has worked with hundreds of students and clients in college counseling centers and in my own practice; and as someone who has experienced plenty of challenges, missteps, and set-backs in my own personal life and career; I’d like to share a few things that relate to the importance of resilience as you embark on your career journey:
1. You don’t have to figure out your whole career trajectory now.
Ask any mid-career professional about whether they are currently working in the field they majored in during undergrad, and only about 27% will say “yes.” Most people's career paths are more of a winding road rather than a straight, linear path, and it’s predicted that most recent graduates will change careers multiple times over their lifetime. In fact, there’s a whole theory of career development called Happenstance Theory, and more recent applications of Chaos Theory that help describe how people’s careers really unfold, unpredictably, over time.
This isn’t a bad thing. As we get older, our purpose and priorities change, and we learn more about ourselves – our likes, dislikes, abilities, values, natural strengths, and talents – and we'll want to shift gears accordingly in order to do work that aligns with who we are and what we're good at.
The great news is, you've got this! You are resilient and know how to adapt to change! You can navigate yourself through these shifts, let opportunities and challenges present themselves to you, and discover your authentic path along the way.
2. No, you are not too old and it is not too late.
Please note, at some point you may feel like you’re “too old” to make a career change, or that you’ve invested too much time, energy and money into your current career to try something else. I promise you – you have time. I didn’t go back for my masters in counseling until I was 34, and didn’t start my private practice until I was 44. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that being a career counselor is what I was meant to do at this stage in my life, but there was no way I could have known this at age 21 when I graduated with a BA in environmental studies.
What I do know is that now I work with 25-year-old career counseling clients who think it’s too late to switch careers, or pivot to something new. They irony is that my 45-year-old clients wish they were still 25, and the 55-year-old clients wish they were still 45 because they feel at those ages it wouldn’t be too late to start over. It’s all about perspective, and it’s never too late to make a change if it means having more joy, fulfillment and balance in your career and life.
One quick note: please don’t let social media fool you. A lot of younger clients tell me that all their friends already have their lives completely figured out and everything seems perfect. This is false, an illusion. Most people are not going to post on Instagram that they’re dying inside every time they have to drive into the parking lot of the company they can’t stand working for.
When it comes down to it, you have time to figure this out, through some trial and error and some career design and prototyping. Along the way, you’ll sort out not just what you’re good at, but what you love being good at. We all have strengths, natural talents, and skills we use that put us in that zone or “flow” state, where work doesn’t feel like work and time seems to dissolve. That is the sweet spot, and what you want to spend as much time possible doing in your career, and in life in general. If it’s sucking all the energy out of you to the point that you can’t enjoy the rest of your life, then it’s not the right path. If you find yourself in this place, you can pivot – you’re resilient, remember? You've got this.
3. When it comes to your career path, there are usually no “right” or “wrong” choices – just choices to make.
You will be faced with countless moments in your career where you'll need to choose one path versus another. This is exciting. Choice is awesome. It provides us with an opportunity to do some self-reflection, to explore our priorities, and set some short- and long-term goals.
You should spend a good amount of time exploring what careers would fit best with who you are. It’s critical to identify your career values, skills, interests, and priorities. This is primarily what I help my clients do. But at some point, you’ll need to make a choice and take some concrete action toward that next step, which also comes with some risk.
4. Don't let your fear of the unknown keep you stuck.
What I see so often with my clients is that choice paralyzes them. Choice stops being exciting and freeing, and instead turns into something overwhelming, burdensome, and scary. Clients become so fixated on making the “right” choice, and wanting to know the exact outcome of their choice years from now, that they agonize over every decision. This leads them to make no choice at all and get stuck where they are – often in a miserable job (or relationship or other bad-fit situation).
Although keeping things as-is guarantees we’ll know the outcome of our choice, it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’re so afraid of the choice not working out, that we stay in situations that already aren’t working out.
To make a change in your life, you have to make a change in your life … or a choice, or a decision, or some tiny baby-step that will move you away from what’s not working anymore and propel you toward something better. Don’t stay stuck in a miserable place because you’re afraid you’ll fail.
Which leads me to…
5. Mistakes are okay. In fact, they are absolutely necessary for success.
You are going to make mistakes – some big, some small. Everyone makes major mistakes in their career and life. It's just part of the deal of being a human. In the moment, these mistakes may feel like the end of the world, but mistakes are vital to learning and growth. The most successful business leaders, athletes, celebrities, public figures, mentors, therapists, teachers, will all tell you that they had to make mistakes to get to where they are today.
You've got this! Use your resilience to learn from your mistakes. Try to reframe them into an opportunity for growth (also known as “growth mindset”), and use what you learn to redirect yourself toward a meaningful and potentially positive lesson and outcome.
With all this said, if you’re really struggling, please reach out to a therapist, counselor, or your doctor.
It’s one thing to feel somewhat anxious and uncomfortable about moving forward in your life and career after graduation. But if your anxiety, worry, and mood are interfering with your ability to live your life day-to-day, and/or you've lost interest in the things or people that used to make you happy, then it’s time to reach out for help. Speaking with a professional can help you connect with your thoughts and feelings, and gain access to the resources you need to feel better and be ready to move ahead in a healthy way.
One final note…
While this letter was written for recent graduates, these lessons are applicable to anyone making a choice or taking a step toward a new career, goal, or path, or for anyone who simply wants more balance and fulfillment in their life. Whether you’re 22, 32, 45 or 65, the unknown can be tough to sit with. But you are resilient, and when you’re scared of a change, it probably also means there’s excitement just around the corner, and that there is potential for amazing things ahead!