Why I Keep So Much Stuff I Don’t Need: Life Lessons from a Closet De-Cluttering

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A few months ago, I listened to an episode of The 5AM Miracle Podcast featuring guest Joshua Becker, creator of the website Becoming MinimalistIn the interview, Becker recounts the story of how and why he went from leading a typical suburban lifestyle to embracing a philosophy of minimalism. He describes the ways in which paring down his possessions has enabled him and his family to live more fully and create more physical, mental, and emotional space for the things that truly matter. Intrigued, I jotted down the title of his new book, The More of Less, on my “to read” list. If nothing else, I thought, getting rid of some stuff will make my upcoming cross-country move far more manageable.

So last week, when I found myself wandering the aisles of my local public library (a characteristically Paige pastime), I thought of the book and decided to see if it was available. It was, so along with a Jodi Picoult novel and a biography of the Blessed Mother (a characteristically Paige combination of reading material), I checked it out.

Thanks to Becker’s charismatic writing style, I was only a few chapters in before I began to experience the overwhelming urge to chuck my belongings out the window and start a new life free from the chains of clutter and consumerism. Today, my closet, tomorrow, the world! And within 24 hours of starting the book, I actually began chucking stuff. I yanked piles and piles of possessions from my drawers and shelves, only putting back the things I truly wanted to have around. I was the Sorting Hat of crap and tchotchkes, carefully discerning whether each item rightfully belonged in the House of Keep, Donate, or Sayonara Buckeroo

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“Hmmm, very difficult. A great deal of nostalgia, I see…Not overly large, either. And yet, rather lacking in utility. Better be…Donate!”

But Becker’s book is about more than just getting rid of things; he also emphasizes the importance of understanding why we, as a society, tend to accumulate so much stuff in the first place. He explains, for example, that we all have an innate need for security and often attempt to satisfy this need with material goods. In addition, most of us are more vulnerable than we’d like to admit to the persuasive tactics of the media and advertising industries. Becker’s insights prompted me to further examine my own personal motivations for keeping so much stuff around, particularly when it comes to things I don’t use or even like all that much. So in addition to security needs and sneaky ads, I came up with several viable explanations:

1. I hold onto things because I like to be prepared, and you never know when you might need [insert item that is actually pointless in 99.9% of scenarios]. Remember when I admitted to toting around the contents of a small convenience store in my purse just in case? Yup. If I were a superhero, I’d probably be Preparedness Girl–able to develop a checklist in the blink of an eye! (Not overly endearing or catchy, I know, but we can’t all be Wonder Woman.)

So as I went through my stuff, I found that I still had, among other useless things, each and every one of my notebooks from my high school French class–because what if I finally plan my dream trip to Provence someday and want to parler a little francais while I’m there? What then?!

I’ll download an app or a podcast, that’s what. Au revoir, French notes.

2. I hold onto things that make me feel like I could be anyone or anything. I’m still working on the whole “accepting myself for who I am” deal, as I bet you are, too. (And if you do happen to have this figured out, please visit my Contact page and let me in on your secret.) In the meantime, I tend to hold onto things that really aren’t “me,” because I want to think that they’re “me,” or could be “me” someday.

All of which is a long way of saying that I had not one, not two, but three different shades of blue eye shadow because heck, maybe someday I’ll be That Girl who knows how to pull it off.

The blue eye shadow doesn’t represent a look so much as a persona that I have always wanted to channel: the girl who takes risks, who wears what she likes, and who is unafraid to be herself and stand out in the process. And that’s not a bad thing by any means. But on a practical level, guys, I don’t even like how I look in blue eye shadow. Warm colors are a far more flattering accompaniment to my skin tone.

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Totally awesome…On someone else.

So one by one I toss out the blues but vow to hang onto the spirit behind them. As such, I keep my vintage Mickey Mouse sweater, and my cat cardigan, and my elephant scarf, and my leg warmers, and my fake red glasses. Because I wear and treasure these items on a regular basis, regardless of what the rest of the world thinks. They honor who I am now, not who I might be–or feel like I should try to be–someday. I guess that’s kind of edgy after all.

3. I hold onto things because they bring to life cherished memories–and given the uncertainty of the future, I want to hold tight to any and every reminder of happy times. Woah. This realization really hit me hard. In my last post I described why I tend to harbor so much anxiety regarding the future, but prior to the Great Purge, I hadn’t realized how much my fears have driven me to stockpile items from my past. I discovered souvenirs and trinkets from countless experiences, ranging from the memorable to the mundane–my childhood state quarters collection, piles of free t-shirts from random events throughout college, a plastic trophy from a 5K I ran in high school, an old favorite scarf that I never wear anymore, the ticket stub from a One Direction concert, a fancy pen from an awards ceremony, dozens of cards and letters from friends and family over the years–and on and on.

In some of these cases, it was truly difficult to decide what to keep and what to toss. After all, I want to get rid of the excess stuff–the stuff that doesn’t serve me or bring me any joy–not pare down my belongings to nothing more than a mattress and a toothbrush. And some of the crap and tchotchkes really do enrich my life. So ultimately, I chose to keep the handwritten notes that warm my heart every time I read them, but I tossed the trophy, donated the scarf and t-shirts to Goodwill, and deposited the state quarters in my bank account (like a real adult!). These latter items were simply taking up space and collecting dust, and I already feel lighter (not to mention $12.50 richer) without them.

4.  I hold onto things because I want people to like me and I worry that I, alone, am not enough. Yikes! Another deep and not-so-flattering revelation. If I don’t have trendy clothes, or chic apartment decor, or fancy kitchen equipment that allows me to whip up unpronounceable appetizers to impress party guests (you know, should I actually decide to throw a party), then no one will want to hang out with me, right?

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Because who would deign to join me for tea if I didn’t serve it out of the world’s cutest teapot, on my magazine-worthy garden patio, while wearing my Sunday best?

Uhhh, maybe in a TV commercial or a parallel universe, but not in my world. People who like me for me won’t care what I’m wearing or what my apartment looks like, and people who care about those things aren’t the kind of folks I’d like to be friends with anyway, thanks. But more importantly, regardless of whether everybody loves me, hates me, or couldn’t care less, I am enough. Material items may affect my net worth, but they bear no relation to my true worth as a human being. The same goes for you, dear reader. I think we all need to be reminded of that every once in a while.

I still have quite a ways to go on this journey towards a less cluttered lifestyle, in terms of owning less, acquiring less, and ultimately, wanting less. I’m not even close to the enlightened phase in which I can stroll down the aisles of Target and not experience a burning desire to buy all the things, and I doubt that I’ll ever be a diehard minimalist with only a few dozen possessions to my name. But after tackling just my bedroom and bathroom, I already feel less encumbered and more in tune with myself. I can definitely see how clearing out physical space also creates a lot of untapped room in the mind and heart, and I look forward to continuing on this path. I’ll keep ya posted. 

Do you tend to hold onto things you don’t need or want? Why do you think that is? 

What’s your best advice for deciding when it’s time to get rid of something–and then actually following through with your decision?

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Faith, Fear, & the Five-Year Plan: Re-Examining the Notion of Staying “On Track”

Faith, Fear, & the Five-Year Plan: Re-Examining the Notion of Staying "On Track" | My default approach to new opportunities tends to be fear and trepidation rather than excitement and curiosity. In today's post I explore why--as well as what this mindset says about my faith (or lack thereof) and desire for control.

The highlights of this past Thanksgiving were many: delicious food, Christmas shopping, more food, Christmas crafting, even more food, a family Mannequin Challenge–and did I mention that we had a few things to eat? Perhaps my favorite part, though, was getting to catch up with loved ones, many of whom I don’t get to see very often. It can be challenging to carry on a conversation in a group as large as ours–we totaled around 45 people, even with over a dozen family members unable to attend–but once the meal was over and the younger children ran off to play, the adults gradually broke off into smaller groups, and the real discussions began.

During one such conversation, the topic of my blog came up. As one of my relatives opened up about her own experiences with anxiety as a younger woman, she made a statement that really resonated with me:

“I used to approach everything with such fear and trepidation.”

Fear and trepidation–what a simple, succinct way to sum up my own default reaction to new opportunities and experiences. Fear, a word that makes me think of running away, of hiding. And trepidation, a word that brings to mind tip-toeing, whispering, constantly doubting.

All of this begged the question: Why do I tend to approach life in this way? Sure, I may just naturally be on the cautious side and sure, I’ve experienced some tough times. But overall, my past really doesn’t warrant the darkness and gloom that I so often cast on my anticipated future. So why is this my response?

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You’d think my life was a horror movie, given how I tend to tiptoe up to new situations and jump at every unfamiliar sound.

At first, I reasoned that perhaps I tend to expect the worst so that I’m never disappointed, so that situations always either meet or exceed my expectations. But this explanation didn’t quite fit. I’m not a cynic; on the contrary, I tend to be an idealist. Even amidst the pain and brokenness of the world, I see how beautiful things could be–how beautiful things were meant to be–and feel called to make that vision a reality. Sure, I’m often disappointed along the way, but my light hasn’t been totally snuffed out yet. So I don’t think my fear and trepidation come from a place of inherent negativity.

Then I thought that maybe I approach everything with caution because I simply like to be prepared. After all, I adore plans and lists and lists of plans and plans to make more lists. I practically carry an entire Walgreens store in my purse just in case I–or anyone in the vicinity–need a Bandaid or a cough drop or a Tylenol or a snack or some cash or a library card or an expired coupon for hummus. I recently had a phone interview for a job and wore a nice outfit just in case the interviewer changed her mind at the last minute and asked to do a Skype call instead.

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I also Googled “How to answer the phone for a job interview” right beforehand just in case my mind went blank and I forgot how to, you know, people and stuff.

But, I wondered, if I truly like to be prepared for everything, then why do I only brace myself for the bad stuff? Why do I never try to anticipate what might happen if things go well? If I succeed? If I actually make a difference or a new friend or a recipe that looks just like the photo on Pinterest? What then? I don’t know, because I’ve never actually thought about it.

Just ask my family members and friends–for the first few years months that my boyfriend and I were dating, I felt excited, sure, but also totally freaking confused because I had never actually imagined myself being in a relationship. After my comedy-sketch-worthy dating life in high school and college, I had adopted this mindset in order to prepare myself for the very real possibility that I remained single indefinitely. I had even begun to feel kind of okay about it! So when the potential for a relationship seemingly dropped out of the sky, I kinda panicked. Wait! I’m not ready for this! I don’t even know what to wear on a second date, let alone how to be someone’s girlfriend! I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. Sometimes I still can’t.

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When I finally stepped down from my role as the Mayor of Friend Zone City, I was wholly unprepared. What is this “dating” of which you speak, and where can I find the instruction manual?

So the preparation hypothesis didn’t quite hold up, either. I thought about it for a few more days, and I think the answer finally came to me as I was driving to church last Sunday.

My default approach to new situations and opportunities tends to be fear and trepidation because I’m constantly scared of making a mistake that will lead me off track from where I’m “supposed” to be. I worry that because of my own failures or poorly informed decisions, I won’t get the job I’m “supposed” to get, live in the place where I’m “supposed” to live, meet the people I’m “supposed” to meet, and have the experiences I’m “supposed” to have, and as a result, I won’t end up as the person I’m “supposed” to be. It’s like FOMO on an existential scale. And to make matters worse, I tend to view my past as a series of detours and missteps that have only served to postpone my arrival at some elusive destiny, which further fuels my anxiety about making these types of mistakes in the future.  

As I mulled over my newly discovered fear of somehow screwing up my fate, I realized 1) how irrational these thoughts are and 2) how weak my faith is. For the record, I don’t actually believe that we are all just puppets on a string, enacting some pre-scripted drama as God sits back in the wings, taking notes on His Almighty Clipboard. I don’t believe that “everything happens for a reason,” especially in times of loss and tragedy. I do, however, believe that God can bring good even out of the worst circumstances, and that sometimes we do need to go through hard things in order to grow as individuals and better relate to those around us. Coping with my anxiety disorder, for example, has been more of a grueling trek along the Pacific Crest Trail (a la Reese Witherspoon in Wild) than a Sunday afternoon stroll through the park. But at the same time, I can identify a number of ways in which I’m better for the journey because of what I’ve learned along the way about life, love, and the freedom of vulnerability. And there will likely be even more good and beautiful things to come from these struggles in the future, some of which I may never fully realize.

So rather than label so many pieces of my past as detours from the “right” path, what if I viewed more of my experiences as important, even necessary, stops along the way? And rather than perceive my future as a laundry list of targets and deadlines to meet, what if chose to see it as a series of opportunities from which I can learn and grow–and who knows, maybe even find some unexpected joy? And what if I made peace with any mistakes, past or future, by knowing that God can still work with these decisions? That God can still work with me?

I will probably always be a planner and a list-maker to some extent. It’s part of what makes me who I am. My goal now is to jot these ideas with pencil, not carve them in stone, and know that if things don’t go according to my 5-day, 5-month, or 5-year plan, it’s not the end of the world. In fact, it may actually be the beginning of something great.

P.S. This past week I had the privilege of publishing my first-ever guest post on one of my favorite blogs, Nina Kardia. If you’re striving to create a life and career that align with your passions, strengths, and grandest goals, then hop on over to Kamina’s awesome corner of the Internet and read the post here, my friend. (And when you’re done, be sure to follow Nina Kardia via e-mail, Twitter, Insta, Pinterest, etc., to infuse your inbox or newsfeed with a regular dose of wit, wisdom, and captivating honesty. You can thank me later!) 

A Playlist for Connection: Songs for Healing & Harmony in a Broken World

A Playlist for Connection: Songs for Healing & Harmony in a Broken World | In times of pain and division, we need real, authentic connection more than ever. Here are some of my favorite songs for cultivating relationships and interactions based on honesty, charity, and humility--and for remembering the brokenness and fragility that unites us all.

I really, really didn’t want to write about the election, or about politics in general.

I felt that I couldn’t possibly say anything that hadn’t already been said–or take any stance without my position being misconstrued.

And since my blog isn’t about politics, I reasoned that it was acceptable, even advisable, for me to avoid the topic.

But then I found myself totally overwhelmed with pain, frustration, and hopelessness regarding the current state of our nation and world. It seemed that I was witnessing more nastiness and division–both online and in real life–than I remembered observing at any other point in my life. In so many other upsetting and uncertain circumstances, from natural disasters to terrorist attacks, I had seen people rise to the occasion and come together–but this time, it seemed that our differences were only driving us further and further apart.

So I did what I so often do in these situations: I made a playlist.

It’s such a simple thing, maybe even a silly thing, but throughout my life, music has truly been there to help me muddle through my lowest lows, celebrate my highest highs, and live out every experience in between. I’m always searching for the perfect soundtrack to match every mood and moment, from driving around town to drinking coffee to decorating the Christmas tree, and this time was no different. So I compiled a list of songs that just seemed to resonate with me in these post-election weeks, that seemed to say what I’ve been struggling to put into words. Then I tried to figure out what they all had in common. And then it hit me.

In one way or another, all of the songs were about connection.

About supporting and sacrificing for one another.

About walking a mile in another’s shoes.

About turning enemies into friends. 

About persevering together in the face of pain, disappointment, and uncertainty. 

About our common tendency to pretend that everything’s okay when it’s not. 

About how love has always been–and always will be–the antidote to fear. 

About the brokenness and fragility that unites us all.

And this common theme made so much sense, because based on my observations over the past few weeks, I believe that what we need the most right now is real, authentic connection–the kind that demands honesty, bravery, and vulnerability. The kind of connection that requires us to listen intently to others, even if we don’t understand–even if we can’t imagine ever understanding–their views. The kind of connection that challenges us to share our own stories and beliefs with charity and humility, free from any air of snark or superiority. The kind of connection that absolutely hinges on the fact that every individual–whether loved one, stranger, or reviled politician–is a human being with worries, dreams, strengths, flaws, and–no matter how unlikely it may seem–the potential for good.  

So I  wanted to share this playlist with all of you, because although this blog isn’t about politics, in so many ways, it is about connection. It’s about letting people into the messiness of our lives, balancing virtual and real-life interactions, practicing self-care so we can better serve those around us, and being open with our struggles and encouraging others to do the same. And such connection is especially important as we approach the holidays, which, for many of us, means spending time with family members and friends with whom we strongly disagree on a variety of issues.

I had hoped to write this post without any disclaimers, but given the sensitivity of the topic and the fact that some of you may not know me in real life (and therefore may not read my true intentions as readily), I want to make this very clear: I’m in no way trying to minimize the suffering or fear of any individual or group. I’m not implying that we can just bake a cake made out of rainbows and smiles and suddenly get along. What I am saying is that I know we can do better. We have to do better. It’s a broken world out there, so let us each do our part to heal and be healed.

Spotify users: If you’re currently logged into your account, you can click on any track below and start listening right away. If you’re not logged in, clicking on the playlist below will prompt you to do so. 

Non-Spotify users: Clicking on the playlist below will prompt you to sign up for Spotify. If you’ve never tried it, it’s a pretty amazing digital music service that I use practically everyday, so I highly recommend it! (I’m not receiving any sort of compensation for this endorsement; I’m just a huge fan!) But if you prefer to get your tunes another way, I’ve also created a graphic displaying all of the track and artist names. 

Songs for cultivating relationships and interactions based on honesty, charity, and humility--and for remembering the brokenness and fragility that unites us all.

 

5 Ways that Traveling Rejuvenates the Mind, Body, & Soul

Remember when I discussed my love-hate relationship with traveling? Below is a story that I’ve wanted to share on the blog for a while but haven’t due to a fear of sounding spoiled or ungrateful for “complaining” about an incredible opportunity. But I finally decided that in order to truly illustrate how crippling anxiety can be–and how much it can lead someone to think and act in ways he or she isn’t proud of–I needed to share. I also hope this post will serve to remind me, as well as anyone else who suffers from anxiety, of why it’s so important to travel anyway, worries and all.

5 Ways that Traveling Rejuvenates the Mind, Body, & Soul | Anxiety can tempt us to remain in the comfort and familiarity of our homes forever, but sometimes traveling is exactly what we need to calm our minds and lift our spirits.

Imagine having the opportunity to enjoy a two-week summer vacation in Europe with your significant other.

Even better, imagine that airfare costs are already covered, and you’ll get to stay with relatives who can help you navigate the unfamiliar landscape and plan all sorts of fun activities. Sounds pretty peachy, right? I mean, who wouldn’t totally jump on this once-in-a-lifetime chance?

Well, apparently me.

More specifically, the anxious and depressed version of me that was presented with this exact opportunity last winter.

At that time, I was so exhausted and overwhelmed by school, work, and life in general that the thought of any additional commitment, let alone one of this length and intensity, was simply too much to bear. My mind was so ridden with anxiety that I could think only of what could go wrong, and my heart was so depleted of hope and enthusiasm that I no longer knew what it meant to enjoy or look forward to things.

My boyfriend, on the other hand, was totally jazzed for the opportunity–as anyone in a healthy state of mind would be–and (lovingly) begged me to say yes. Thankfully, in between lengthy periods of fear and dread, I experienced a few moments of clarity that enabled me to see how much the trip would mean to him and to our relatives abroad. So after weeks of painful deliberation, I agreed, albeit with great reluctance. And in the months leading up to our departure in May, I continued silently dreading the trip and wanting to bail approximately every 5 minutes.

Things finally started to turn around for me during the week before we left, when I attended my first therapy session and got a much-needed dose of perspective (as well as some helpful strategies for managing my anxiety while traveling). By that time, I had also completed my final semester of grad school and gotten a few nights of decent sleep under my belt, and as I’ve said before, adequate rest truly does wonders for my general outlook on life. As a result, I was able to board our first flight with significantly less apprehension.

To make a long story short, as you’ve probably already guessed from the title of this post, the trip ended up being fantastic in spite of all the worry and hype. I assumed that traveling would only further drain me, but instead, I found the two-week excursion to be completely reinvigorating. I’ve taken several smaller trips since then and have noticed similar effects, so I’m convinced that there’s something both energizing and healing about going somewhere new, even if the thought of doing so initially generates a lot of anxiety. Specifically, here are five ways that I believe my trip to Europe served to rejuvenate my mind, body, and soul when I needed it most:

  1. It provided a much-needed change of scenery. Although I had fantasized about spending my first few weeks of summer break lounging around and doing next to nothing, I’m not sure I would have been able to get the R&R I craved this way. I still had an ongoing research project to wrap up and a summer job to prepare for, so if I had remained within reach of my desk, laptop, and Bottomless Pit of Death and Despair e-mail inbox, chances are that I would have spent all of my time either working or feeling guilty about not working. By leaving everything behind and surrounding myself with brand-new sights, sounds, smells, and tastes, I was finally able to break free of old habits and thought patterns that only served to heighten my anxiety or spiral me deeper into depression.
  2. It allowed me to lose track of time. In my day-to-day life, I tend to be pretty obsessed with plans and schedules and staying “on track.” When I travel, though, I typically pay far less attention to the clock, only checking the time when I need to make a flight, dinner reservation, or the like. In Europe, I went with the flow and slept when I was tired, ate when I was hungry, and let activities and conversations last as long as necessary without feeling pressured to wrap up and move along to the next agenda item. And it. Was. Awesome.
  3. It enabled me to engage in many rewarding conversations. One of my favorite things about traveling with family members and friends is that spending extended amounts of time with these individuals naturally seems to spark awesome discussions. Long walks, relaxed meals, and late nights provide the opportunity to go beyond small talk and delve into the things that really matter. And being in a different city, state, or country always opens my eyes to new insights and observations about the world, providing the perfect springboard for a good heart-to-heart.
  4. It included plenty of rest, great food, and exercise. Vacations can definitely present an opportunity to skimp on sleep, eat a ton of junk food, and forgo exercise, but I think the most rejuvenating trips incorporate healthy habits in an organic way. On this trip, for example, we didn’t schedule any sort of daily workouts–but boy, did we end up walking a ton as we explored beaches, castles, markets, and more. We also didn’t adhere to any sort of diet plan, but in our efforts to enjoy the wide variety of foods we encountered, we ended up eating plenty of fresh, wholesome stuff along with the French pastries, Danish hot dogs, and other treats.
  5. It reminded me what I’m capable of. For some people–maybe even most people–going on an extended trip may not require much strength or bravery, but for me, it took a whole lot of both. So when all was said and done and I had accomplished the thing I had feared and dreaded for so long, I regained a bit of confidence that I could take on additional challenges in the future. And I regained a bit of hope that maybe anxiety and depression didn’t have to be my forever.

Your turn! Tell me, do you find traveling to be rejuvenating? Why or why not?

Job Searching & Self-Discovery, Part I: The Best Question for Clarifying Your Career Goals

Job Searching & Self-Discovery, Part I: The Best Question for Clarifying Your Career Goals | Applying for jobs can be a frustrating and discouraging process, but it can also present a wonderful opportunity for reflection and self-discovery. Here's the best question I asked myself in order to clarify my life and career goals.

I’m currently looking for my first full-time job out of graduate school, and I’m beginning to understand what people mean when they talk about the difference between the “academic bubble” and the “real world.”

In school, you’re given a syllabus that clearly outlines what is expected of you. In most cases, if you adhere to the guidelines, submit your work on time, and generally try your best, your efforts will be rewarded. And if your work isn’t quite up to par, you can easily request feedback on what you need to do to improve. In the job search arena, on the other hand, you can follow every tip and trick out there for formatting your resume, you can pour your heart and soul into your cover letter, and you can spiff up your LinkedIn profile until you’ve reached “all-star” status–and you can still be met with total radio silence.

Bubble = popped.

Yet despite its many discouraging aspects, the job application process can also present a wonderful opportunity for self-discovery. I know that personally, it has prompted me to explore some of my greatest fears about the future and clarify many of my life and career aspirations.

About two months ago, a series of conversations with my therapist revealed how terrified I was of getting stuck in a job that I’m not passionate about, that offers little room for growth and creativity, that constantly drains my time and energy and compels me to live for nights, weekends, and those few precious vacation days each year. The reasons underlying these fears were numerous and complex, but a huge factor was that I simply didn’t know what I wanted to do, and it’s pretty hard to find something if you don’t know what you’re looking for. I love my field (public health), but it’s so broad and interdisciplinary that the career possibilities are almost endless. That’s awesome, of course, but also seriously overwhelming.

Once I realized this need for greater clarity, I took a break from the job apps and focused instead on research and exploration. After many hours of reading, listening to podcasts, journaling, conversing with trusted mentors, and taking a hard look at what I really have to offer the world based on my knowledge, skills, and experiences, I have arrived at a much clearer picture of what I want my career–and life–to look like. Within my broad field, I have discovered several niches that I believe make a truly good fit, and armed with this knowledge, I have begun applying for jobs once more.

Because the purpose of this blog is to detail a journey toward living a more vibrant and authentic life, and because I know that a lot of other students and recent grads are facing similar struggles, I’d like to share two key strategies that have helped me achieve greater clarity in my career goals.

Today I’ll discuss the first one: Asking the right questions.

It seems that one of the most common questions adults ask of young people is some variation of What do you want to be when you grow up? And I totally get it–it’s a reliable conversation starter that demonstrates interest in the individual’s personality and aspirations. I’ve posed this inquiry plenty of times myself, and always with good intentions. However, in attempting to discern my next steps, I have found this question to be unhelpful at best and downright counterproductive at worst.

We live in a world where lifelong careers with the same company or under the same job title are becoming increasingly rare, where many people study one subject in college and then end up working in an entirely different field, where technological advancements seem to create new positions–and render others totally obsolete–on a daily basis. Thus, asking young people what they’d like to “be” when they grow up encourages them to conceptualize their career path in a way that often doesn’t coincide with reality. There are exceptions, of course, but even relatively straightforward jobs can involve twists and turns–a teacher may decide to move into an administrative role, or a doctor may choose to start seeing fewer patients in favor of pursuing research. And personally, I recall hating this question as a teenager because it made me feel like, at the ripe old age of 15, I had to have the rest of my life figured out. Rather than knowing where I might want to start after college, I had to know what I wanted to “be” for the next 40+ years.

Instead, I have found it far more useful to reflect on what kinds of societal problems and questions most intrigue me. For example, I am fascinated by the fact that despite the plethora of health information available today, many people still do not adhere to basic recommendations for diet, physical activity, sleep, stress, alcohol and tobacco consumption, sun protection, food safety, and more. Identifying and addressing the reasons underlying this reality–including poor health literacy, a lack of access to necessary resources, competing priorities, or inaccurate perceptions of outcome severity and susceptibility–is literally the kind of thing that makes me want to get out of bed in the morning (public health nerd alert). It’s the place where my passions and the world’s needs collide, which has to mean something in terms of finding a career that’s flexible, fulfilling, and in demand.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the second key strategy I’ve used to clarify my career goals. Until then, I’d love to hear about your job search experiences (success stories and horror stories both welcome!) and thoughts on asking What do you want to be when you grow up?