How Am I Supposed to Figure Out Who I Really Am?

Excerpted from

Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties

By ,

Finding a Passion

Penny and Devon were fortunate in that at least they knew what they were passionate about. They just had to allow themselves to get to the point where they could do what made them happy. For many twentysomethings, this period of self-discovery is marked by myriad attempts to learn exactly what they are passionate about in the first place-a process that can take years.

For Tracy, a second lieutenant in the United States Army who graduated in 1994 from Princeton University, the twenties are "about trying scary things and taking calculated risks. After an experience, I reflect on it to figure out what I liked and didn't like." She extends this modus operandi as a way to figure out her passions. "I know there are certain things that I love and that make me feel energized instead of drained. Whenever one of those moments happens, I remember it and try to see how it fits into what I want to do in the future," she says. "Then I try to repeat it. Ultimately, all of that will come together as a vocation."

Robin, a Lincoln, Nebraska native who will get a master's degree from New York University in 2001, has a similar outlook. "Figuring out what makes you passionate is no easy feat," she says. "I still try to figure out all the different things that make me hoot for joy. If I were to list them all, it would be a hodgepodge with no rhyme or reason. But that is the key aspect that sets me aside from other people-my stamp of individuality. Your passions constantly evolve according to new experiences and new encounters."

But finding those things that energize, that make a usually staid twentysomething's heart leap, is not always easy. In fact, in the months after graduation, it is difficult to imagine settling on anything. It is for this reason that Erin, a 23-year-old student at the Colorado State University School of Veterinary Medicine (Fort Collins), suggests that in order to find true passion, graduates need to reflect on a period of life that was settled enough that they had the time, energy, and confidence to know what they liked.

"Kurt Vonnegut once wrote something about how the only way to find true happiness is through the fulfillment of childhood dreams. Now, I'm not sure how serious he was (you know that Kurt Vonnegut), but sometimes I feel as though I've made my career choice based on that premise," Erin says. "Ever since I was five years old I wanted to be a veterinarian, and now I find myself in vet school with two years left before they turn me loose. I can't say that I haven't had doubts, and I tried to get as much exposure to veterinary medicine as I could before making this commitment, but I know that I'm happy with my choice right now. I think that's really all you can do for yourself-that is, be happy with what you are doing or heading toward doing right now. I can't say that in ten or twenty years I'll still want to be a veterinarian. But I truly believe that our childhood interests say a great deal about who we are: these interests are present within us without the prejudices and stigmas that we all take into account later in life."

It is important to note that many twentysomethings, like Erin, are openminded enough to know that their passions might change and that they will have to alter their lives accordingly. "Although I realize we must all make sacrifices, I hope I never feel like all of my choices in life have been made, used up," she says. "I want to know that my life can change whenever I want it to, and I believe that it should in order to keep me enthusiastic. Perhaps 'secure' would be a good word choice to describe what I would like my future to be like. I want to know that the chances of my waking up one morning with no job, family, friends, money, or future is very slim. Perhaps this is still a lot to ask."

Keeping the Faith

When everything else around them seems to become unhinged during the shift from school to the real world, some twentysomethings turn to one of the few solid rocks in their lives for help. By leaning on religion as a vehicle for introspection, some recent graduates find they can usually ease their transition. "My religion greatly helped me in defining my identity and it has been the path that I return to whenever my self-concept is shaken," says David, a 2000 graduate of York College (Pennsylvania). "I feel that I've been fortunate in knowing who I am and what I want out of life. Along with Judaism, my identity as an artist has shaped my world view and life perceptions. These two important aspects of myself led me to choose a career as an art therapist. Art therapy allows me to share the gift of creativity with people who are in need of emotional and spiritual healing. It is the perfect blend of my spiritual notions of the world and my belief in the power of art."

For 22-year-old Andrea, from Portland, Oregon, religion provides a part of her identity that she doesn't have to worry about discovering. Her relationship with her religion is, to her comfort and relief, something that she feels will simply never change. "For the past few years, my life has, I think, been characterized by desperate last-ditch efforts to escape from modern freedom: from the (mandatory) opportunity to discover what I 'really think' about things, from the requirement to listen to my 'inner voice,' from the rule that I learn to live my life on my own," she says. "When I was a freshman in college, this search ultimately brought me to an encounter with God, and my life has never been the same since. I had been brought up attending church, and I don't want to belittle that, because I think that it had a lot to do with where I am today. But after the experience I became much more serious and purposeful in my faith. I discovered that the narrative of God's love for God's people reveals a very different kind of freedom: the freedom to never again have to worry about whether I really am somebody, because the living creator of the universe says that I am. The freedom to know what story I'm a part of and to whom I ultimately owe allegiance. The freedom to do things that are hard and promise little in the way of material success or recognition, because I know that material success and recognition don't determine my worth."

Trial and Error

It is one thing for twentysomethings to figure out who they really are by experiencing some sort of revelation, whether they reach this epiphany because they love their lives or hate them. It is quite another thing for the twentysomethings who instead bumble along, apathetically surviving, but without extreme ups or downs, until they happen to stumble across something that feels right, that they can cling to. Hoping to encounter serendipity, some recent graduates subscribe to the simple hit-or-miss theory: that the only way they will find out what matters to them most has to be through trial and error. (We should also point out here that while many twentysomethings claim they don't want to define themselves by their careers, nearly all of the ones we spoke to still responded to questions about their identities by talking about their jobs.)

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Tags: Mental Health


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