When I graduated college five years ago, it's safe to say that I had no career goals.
I'd spent the majority of my life wanting to be a dancer, and even after that became a stretch, I never really thought about how I would spend my working life. I picked up a marketing major because it was "smart" enough to please my parents, and I just assumed that I would figure it out.
When my first job came along, it seemed perfect. I was working for a nonprofit that catered to dancers, and I was in a marketing function (among several others). It blended the two things I'd studied so exactly that it was almost too good to be true.
As it turned out, it was.
I hated getting up every single day to go to the office. I hated keeping my head down at a desk for eight hours. And at the end of each day, the idea that I had to wake up and do it all over again the next day would send me into a fresh panic.
I had numerous breakdowns to my mother that year — histrionically proclaiming that I just wasn't "cut out for a desk job." She laughed at this, in the midst of trying to comfort me and told me that I just hadn't found the right job. She promised that it would get better, that such is life for everyone, that I'd get used to it.
But daily verbal abuse by my boss, "high importance" emails with their stupid red exclamation points coming in at 3 a.m., and the prison feel of the office itself had triggered a relapse of my depression, and put my anxiety at an all-time high.
I couldn't even imagine another way of being, never mind another job.
Everyone had told me that no one would hire you for a second job if you hadn't stayed at your first job for at least a year, so I was on that path. I could see "the plan" rolling out in front of me; I tried to imagine my mediocre life in five years, at my still-imaginary second job. I couldn't even visualize it, but I felt powerless against it.
When I did start my second job, almost exactly a year after starting my first, things started looking up. No one was hovering over me incessantly, micromanaging my every move. I wasn't being berated for showing up at 9:33 instead of 9:30, and I didn't feel terrified to speak to anyone for fear it would look like I was slacking off.
In fact, people would go out of their way to have conversations in the kitchen while getting coffee and to take some breaks throughout the day. On my first day, I was invited to join an intramural soccer team.
Over three years at that company, I grew a great deal.
I'd gone from being a permission-asking marketing associate to being the marketing lead, building a brand from the ground up within six months. A year after that, I joined the sales team and hit the decidedly non-permission-asking status of top biller less than a year later.
My boss especially helped me on that journey. He'd had a large part in hiring me in the first place and was one of my strongest advocates throughout my time there. He praised me constantly, though I told him not to, and largely credited himself with discovering me.
By all accounts, those three years were a skyrocketing start to a long and fruitful career. But despite all the success I was having, both personally and professionally, I was still unhappy.
In July of last year, right around the time I was hitting my stride on the sales team, I found myself unable to stop thinking about leaving. I'd been on several interviews over the previous months, but none had panned out.
Several companies had tried to woo me, but I felt more like I was trying to "get back out there" after a divorce than I was trying to find a new job. I found something wrong with every open position. They were too big, the team was too small, I didn't want to be in tech, I didn't want to be in advertising, I didn't want to be a salesperson, I didn't want to be a marketer.
I was terrified that at some point, whether it was immediately or a couple of years down the line, I'd end up exactly where I'd been at my first job, and exactly where I was at that moment: miserable and looking for any way out.
Over dinner one summer Sunday, I announced to my boyfriend that I was going to leave my job in October.
"And do what?" he asked.
"I don't know," I said. "I'll figure it out."
"Well," he said, with cutting snark, "you must be making a lot more money than I am."
I felt my stomach drop. From his tone and the way that he looked at me, I could tell that I was on this particular journey alone. At least for the time being.
He wasn't the only one to feel like they could speak freely about what a terrible choice I was making.
"You don't have another job lined up?" everyone marveled. "How will you make a living? What will you do?"
No, I didn't have a job lined up. I didn't have the answer to any of those questions, really. But I knew that I wasn't supposed to be sitting at a desk all day. There was a reason that I was as unhappy as I was, and it was because I was living a life I wasn't supposed to be living.
So many of us grow up on a path: go to school, get good grades, go to a good college, get a good job. And that's where it ends. But what happens next? Ostensibly, I'm the one who figures it out. Alone.
But when you're only just realizing that you've been told what to think and what to do for most of your life, it isn't so easy to figure out. When everyone has consistently told you that you need to have a plan, the idea of not having one is not only tremendously scary, but can feel completely stupid. And people will tell you that it's stupid.
In the time between deciding I was going to quit and actually quitting, I did do some preparation. I made a conscious effort to save more money, I started a yoga-teacher training program that I'd meant to do for a few years, and I picked up a couple of freelance writing gigs.
Nothing huge — I won't call it a plan — but it was the seed of something. It was a start.
During my final two weeks of work, I got the sense that people were a little jealous; covetous of the adventure I was about to go on without them. My boyfriend came around and said that he was excited for me. My friends and former colleagues were all ecstatic that I would finally shut up about quitting.
And my boss, with whom I'd grown so close and who had brought me out of the truly dark place I'd found myself in after my first job, told me he was proud of me, and that he knew I'd be OK.
And then I was.
I can't say that the last few months have gone the way I thought they would, but then again, I never really thought they would go any way in particular. The thing about plans is if you follow the one that's been laid out for you — whether it was by your parents, your peers, yourself, or all three — you miss out on everything else that could be out there.
Sometimes, it isn't about knowing where you'll end up. Sometimes, the most you can ask for is a start.