My daughter Samantha recently got an email from a college acquaintance, a young man named K., to thank her for the book she and I co-authored. K. is going for a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, and is unsure about a lot of the decisions he's made since college. "I've been struggling to make the process feel "right,"" he wrote in his email to Sam. "I often think about what's coming next." He told her our book, Twentysomething, was "a relief," because it showed him that he's not the only young person plagued by thoughts like these.
I suspect that one of the people in our book who gave some comfort to K. was a woman we called Elise, who works part-time in a transcription office in Boston. Much of what she wrote in response to a questionnaire Sam and I sent out sounded like it could have been written by K. “I feel like I should be figuring out exactly the thing I want to do forever and then work toward doing that, but that’s paralyzing because there are way too many choices,” wrote Elise, who is 26. “I don’t like closing doors and committing to one thing for my entire life; I need to convince myself that nothing is necessarily forever and that I can always change my mind.”
But Elise is still quite up in the air about what she wants next. Her original plan, when she graduated from college with a major in psychology, was to get a Ph.D., become a psychology professor, and do research. “But I was burned out after college,” she wrote, “so I was going to take a couple years off, get research experience working in a lab, and then worry about applying.” She moved to Cambridge and started working in a bookstore, confining her lab experience to signing on for some of the psych experiments that advertised for subjects on Craigslist or on the Boston T. She submitted to a series of EEGs, functional MRI brain scans, and pen-and-paper psych tests, both for the money (the pay ranged from $10 to $25 an hour) and for the chance to play a tiny role in "the furtherance of some scientific knowledge even though I wasn't doing any furthering of it myself."
Instead of clarifying her options, though, being out in the real world kind of unnerved her. “I’m really only becoming increasingly scared of applying,” she wrote. “I don’t feel like my undergrad education was terribly useful (it was extremely broad and rather shallow), and I don’t know how to go about discovering a narrow enough interest (that I can convince someone to admit me to study, since I presumably don’t have any significant background in it) to find someone to work with.”
Besides, as Sam and I wrote in Twentysomething, Elise is worried that she no longer has what it takes to be in school. She wrote that she can feel her mental abilities slipping, and worries that she might be a bit too old for “intense school work.” (Talk about unnerving; Elise is more than 30 years younger than I am - and I would like to think my brain could rise, albeit more sluggishly than it once did, to whatever intellectual challenge I decided to throw its way.)
Has that been your experience, too -- that as distressing as it is to be in your mid-twenties (or, for that matter, in your mid-sixties, or any other crossroads kind of age) and not quite sure what comes next, it's a lot less distressing to hear about other people in the same boat?
Adapted from Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck? by Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig, Hudson Street Press, Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2012 by Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig.