Content warning: mention of suicide
Fourteen-year-old me was an anxious wreck with a negative outlook on life and my future. Despite my pessimism, on the day of career matching, I was hopeful that my result would ease the stress I had about choosing a career. I thought I could use this as an opportunity to finally have some idea of what to do with my life.
Well, I got my hopes up for nothing because the day didn’t go as planned. A quiz from my school’s “trustworthy” career planning program told me I was supposed to be a comedian. My heart sank and my mind raced at this result. How was I, an extremely shy and introverted person, going to be a comedian? I didn’t believe I had a sense of humor. In fact, “funny” was the last adjective anyone would use to describe me, as I always wore a solemn expression. All this absurd match did was intensify my anxiety.
Since the school couldn’t give me sensible advice about my future, I turned to the most credible source I had: my dad. He is a well-respected and successful professor. His career has remained stable over the years, and he seems to enjoy his job well enough. For those reasons, I decided to ask him what job might suit me best.
To my disappointment, I found him to be no help at all. He simply told me to “follow what I love doing.” What did that mean? I didn’t know what I loved doing. Nothing made my heart sing enough that I’d want to build a career out of it.
With no clear career goal in my mind, I went through the first three years of high school telling everyone I wanted to be a doctor. It wasn’t because I was in love with the idea of helping the sick restore their health. I was merely good at biology and didn’t hate it as much as other subjects, which, of course, was not the same thing as loving it. At the time, many of my friends also aspired to be doctors because it has always been seen as a respectable career. Consequently, I thought becoming a doctor was a reasonable target.
My career goal only changed after I took a psychology course during the summer before my senior year of high school. Unlike natural sciences like biology, where information is more black and white due to concrete results from experimentation, psychology sits somewhere in the shades of gray. I found this quality intriguing, as it reflects psychology’s seeming impossibility: trying to understand intangible aspects of human nature, such as love and happiness.
Since I was trying to understand what it meant to love something enough that I’d be willing to do it for the rest of my life, I thought perhaps psychology could give me some guidance. I decided then to study the subject and traded becoming a doctor for a career more related to the human mind. However, what exactly that was, I didn’t know. My decision to study psychology lasted until I was about to graduate from college, when I had to reevaluate my life again.
Another chapter break in life meant another headache. Up until recently, I was struggling with post-graduation plans. Should I continue studying psychology or try related fields, like law or social work? Or, should I take a break from school? Maybe I could find a job or an exchange program. I didn’t know how to answer these questions. The only thing I knew was that my anxiety escalated.
I became an insomniac. There were days when I would stay up for 48 hours straight, worrying about what I should do with my life, before finally tiring myself out to sleep. Nothing seemed to break this unhealthy cycle, no amount of exercise, medication or chamomile tea. I felt lost and afraid of making a wrong decision about my future.
Feeling like I was wasting time during the night when my mind could not shut off, I eventually decided to do something productive. I started taking shifts as a counselor at Crisis Text Line — an online platform that provides real-time counseling — where I answered texts from people who were struggling in their lives. Surprisingly, supporting “texters” helped me gain perspective on my own situation.
I realized I wasn’t alone in feeling lost; many texters felt the same. This realization eased some of my anxiety. I also learned that whenever I was able to help texters, whether by validating their feelings, connecting them to resources or talking them out of committing suicide, I felt fulfilled. I was able to apply what I learned from psychology to make a difference in people’s lives. This feeling, I realized, was what I wanted to experience in everything I did.
I finally understood what my dad meant when he told me to follow what I love doing. Since most of my supervisors were licensed social workers, social work seemed to be most in line with what I was doing at Crisis Text Line. I decided to pursue it. In fact, I will be starting school next fall at the University of Michigan once again, only this time at the School of Social Work.
Looking back now, I’m glad everything worked out just fine. Of course, there are still many unknowns in the future. For example, I’m not entirely sure what I will do after getting my master’s degree. However, I’m beginning to think maybe that’s the point of life: you have to live it to find out. Armed with this realization, I’m finally ready to face the future with a less anxious heart.
MiC Columnist Tian Yeung can be reached at email@example.com.