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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What It Means to Be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) + How to Use Labels as Tools, Not Excuses

What It Means to Be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) + How to Use Labels as Tools, Not Excuses | I recently discovered that many of the sensory and emotional experiences I've had throughout my life are indicative of a trait known as high sensitivity. Understanding what it means to be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) has helped me to better understand myself, but I also recognize the potential for danger if I use this label--or any other label--as an excuse for avoidance and complacency.

Recently I was trying to explain to my boyfriend why I have such a strong aversion to violence and gore in TV shows and movies.

It’s not that I’m some delicate flower who can’t face the harsh realities of the world, I tried to say. It’s that I literally feel these things. When I see someone get shot or stabbed, I experience physical pain. When I see blood, even fake blood, I feel like I’m bleeding.

As I said these words, I felt frustrated, partly because I wasn’t sure whether I was making any sense, and partly because I wondered whether I really was a delicate flower and just didn’t want to admit it.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that my unusual sensitivity extends far beyond on-screen violence. In real life, if someone is in physical pain–whether from a gaping wound or a simple sore throat–I feel it. Heck, if someone is in emotional pain, I feel that, too, even if they’re trying their best to disguise it. I soak up the vibes of those around me like a sponge.

Well, folks, it turns out that there’s a psychological term for this stuff. I’m currently reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, in which author Susan Cain discusses scientific, historical, and sociological perspectives on introversion and provides advice on how introverts can leverage their unique strengths. I just finished a particularly interesting chapter pertaining to a personality trait that is often associated with introversion: high sensitivity.

When I first heard this term, I kind of brushed it off, probably because I envisioned a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) as someone who loves babies and puppies and cries every time he or she watches The Notebook. But according to Dr. Elaine Aron, a California-based psychotherapist and leading researcher in high sensitivity, Sensory-Processing Sensitivity (SPS) affects 15-20% of the population (including some extroverts) and has as much to do with responsiveness to physical stimuli as to emotional stimuli. And the more I learned about the trait, the more I thought, Oh my goodness, this is me. And I’ve never even shed a tear during The Notebook.

On her website, Aron offers a quick self-assessment to gauge if you might be a Highly Sensitive Person. As I went down the checklist, I couldn’t believe how many of the items I was able to tick off (including, of course, “Other people’s moods affect me” and “I make a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows”). A few other examples:

“I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens close by.” Some of my most vivid early memories involve unpleasant sensory experiences. Once upon a time, I saved up all my birthday and Christmas money to purchase a sparkly Little Mermaid costume from the Disney Store–only to find that the sequins sewn all over the outfit made it unbearably itchy, and I couldn’t bring myself to wear it. Another time, I participated in a day camp in which members of a local high school dance team taught us some simple steps and then led us in a performance during halftime of one of the school’s basketball games. I was so excited to show off my moves–until the other participants and I filed into the gym and the noise from the crowd, the court, and the speakers nearly knocked me off my feet. My hands flew to my ears for protection, and it was everything I could do to hold back tears. I hated that I wanted to cry, but everything just felt so incredibly loud that I could barely stand it. Luckily, some of these sensitivities have lessened a bit over the years, but others remain. For example, I sleep with both earplugs and an eye mask because apparently even at night, the world can be too bright and loud for my liking.

“I have a rich, complex inner life.” You may have heard of “resting b*tch face”; I have “resting zoned out face” because, as I mentioned in my last post, I tend to get lost in the La La Land of my own thoughts. If you’re talking to me, I’m listening intently, but the minute the discussion stops, farewell, friend! I’m off to another dimension. My vivid imagination is a blessing as well as a curse, because the same creativity that enables me to dream up new and exciting ideas also allows me to think of every possible bad thing that could happen, ever. But either way, there’s always a lot going on up there.

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My brain 95% of the time, with approximately 1/3 to 1/2 of all thoughts being totally irrational worst-case scenarios.

“I am deeply moved by the arts or music.” It’s a good thing that I’ve been able to slowly adapt to louder and louder noises over the years, because one of my favorite things to do is attend concerts. (I still try to avoid being right up near the speakers, though, and it often takes me quite a while to wind down after such sensory overload.) Music isn’t just a fun diversion for me, it’s practically a spiritual experience. The right song at the right moment (or Pachelbel’s “Canon in D,” anytime) can easily give me goosebumps, bring me to tears, or both. 

“Being very hungry creates a strong reaction in me, disrupting my concentration or mood.” This is SUCH a first-world problem that I’m trying to overcome, but I am literally the reason why “hangry” became a word. So out of concern for those around me, I pretty much always have a granola bar with me just in case.

“When I must compete or be observed while performing a task, I become so nervous or shaky that I do much worse than I would otherwise.” Just ask anyone who has ever been in the passenger seat when I’m trying to park a car. Or sometimes even turn on a car. It’s bad, guys.

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My brain the other 5% of the time, when people are watching. What is this “driving” of which you speak?!

I could go on, but I think you get the point.

As you can probably tell, I love learning about personality, temperament, and what makes people “tick,” especially when it provides valuable insight into my own thoughts and experiences. For example, studying introversion has helped me to better understand how to take care of myself and leverage my strengths in both personal and professional situations. It’s also helped me to feel less ashamed of my weaknesses–and realize that, as Cain argues in her book, some of my “weaknesses” are actually just neutral personality traits that feel like flaws in our extrovert-oriented society. And discovering that my Myers-Briggs personality type (INFJ) is shared by less than 1% of the general population has certainly helped to explain why, for as long as I can remember, I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider.

Similarly, finding out that I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) has helped me to make sense of so many experiences I’ve had throughout my life, from racing thoughts to intense feelings of self-doubt to physical symptoms like headaches, stomach pain, and muscle tension. Researching the condition has enabled me to manage it more productively and communicate my struggles to others. And perhaps most importantly, by embracing my diagnosis, I’ve been able to separate my illness from the essence of my being. I have anxiety, but I am not my anxiety.

And now, I may have another piece of the puzzle–I’m likely a Highly Sensitive Person, and that’s not the same as wimpy, picky, or just plain weird. I mean, I totally am weird, but there’s a lot more at play there than my sensitivity.

I do realize, though, that there’s a fine line between using labels to better understand myself and using labels as excuses, and I’m still trying my best to find–and avoid crossing–this line every day. I want to know and take care of myself so that I can better know and take care of others, not so that I can live in a bubble free from anything that makes me feel anxious or overstimulated and totally ignore the needs of those around me. This might be my first instinct, but I don’t have to let my instincts become my actions.

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My first reaction to pretty much any situation involving people, places, or things.

I’m constantly presented with opportunities to enter into uncomfortable situations in order to achieve a greater good. Most of us are. And I don’t intend to let my introversion, anxiety, or high sensitivity stop me. Rather, I hope that by developing a greater sense of self-awareness, I will be able to find a balance between leaning into the discomfort and respecting my limitations. Maybe I need to leave a party or event earlier than everyone else. Maybe, after a particularly impassioned discussion or difficult confrontation, I need to take some time to be alone and restore my emotional equilibrium. Maybe I need to arrange my home or office to reduce the likelihood of sensory overload. Maybe I simply need to dive in headfirst to the situations that scare me the most just to prove to myself that the world won’t end as a result. 

What do you think about the concept of high sensitivity? Do you think that you or anyone you know might be a Highly Sensitive Person?

Do you like learning about personality types? Why or why not?

The Adventurous Life: How to Define Your Own Brand of Bravery

The Adventurous Life: How to Define Your Own Brand of Bravery | Don't think of yourself as adventurous? Think again! Learn how living adventurously can mean something different for each of us--and how to identify the risks truly worth taking in your own life.

When I hear the word “adventurous,” the first image that comes to mind is someone who spends his or her free time doing awesome things like skydiving and zip lining and scaling mountains. I picture someone who seizes every opportunity for new and fun experiences with little or no hesitation. I envision someone who thrives on taking risks both large and small and whose life motto is essentially “why not?”

When I hear the word “adventurous,” I also think of the exact opposite of me. As much as activities like skydiving and zip lining and scaling mountains sound awesome, they also sound kind of dangerous and expensive and let’s be real, I’d probably be equally content spending time alone writing and drinking coffee from my favorite mug (#turndownforwhat). I don’t think I’ve ever seized an opportunity without totally overthinking it first, and my idea of living on the edge is keeping my library books past the due date. And because I’m an INFJ obsessed with finding meaning and purpose in every freaking thing, my life motto is definitely “why?” as opposed to “why not?”

However, my conversations with my amazing therapist over the past 5 months have begun to shift my view of what it means to live adventurously–and for that matter, why it’s even important to do so in the first place. 

I’m about to make a big claim here, but it’s my blog, so…here goes nothing. I believe that the greatest adventure in life–and the bravest thing we’ll ever do–is to become the person each of us is meant to be. (And as a Christian, I believe this means becoming the person God created each of us to be.) Consequently, living adventurously means constantly challenging ourselves to step outside of our comfort zones in order to better align our actions with our values, goals, and unique strengths. Skydiving, zip lining, and scaling mountains may be out of my comfort zone, but is it imperative that I do these somewhat arbitrary things in order to live adventurously? Maybe, maybe not. It all depends on what I hold most dear.

For example, developing and sustaining deep and meaningful relationships is very important to me. I don’t need a large social network to be happy, but I do need a tight inner circle with whom I can be my most authentic self. However, as an introvert with a lot of social self-doubt, it feels much safer for me to hang out alone than to invite a family member or friend to catch up over coffee and risk feeling like a bother. And if we do end up meeting, it feels much safer for me to gloss over the tough stuff and act like everything’s fine than to admit to my struggles and risk being viewed as a Debbie Downer or an over-sharer. So for me, living adventurously means taking these risks on a regular basis anyway, because that’s really the only way to cultivate the types of relationships I’m after. And it also means returning the favor and being there for these individuals when they need me the most, when they’re scared to reach out or share, and loving them wholeheartedly, no strings attached.

As another example, having a fulfilling career is very important to me. This is not because I view my career as the pinnacle of my life and happiness but rather because I want to enjoy the many hours I put into my job and also feel like those hours are making a real difference in the world. But the further I get in my process of job searching and self-discovery, the more I realize that in order to achieve most of my professional goals, I’m going to have to step way outside my comfort zone. Leap outside it, really. My dream is to someday run my own online nutrition and wellness business, but that will be difficult and scary and require a significant shift away from the 9-to-5 mindset I’ve held for so long. (Even typing the words here is totally freaking me out.) It’s also likely that I will need to go back to school at some point and become a registered dietitian, which, after the completely overwhelming graduate school experience I completed just a few short months ago, is not exactly my favorite thing to think about right now. So living adventurously will mean going after these grand goals anyway, believing in myself even if no one else does, and knowing that I’ll still be enough even if I fail.

So maybe someday I will skydive, zip line, or scale a mountain. But if I do, it won’t be because I feel I need to in order to prove that I’m “adventurous” in some vague and arbitrary sense. Instead, it will be because it fits with my own brand of bravery and brings me closer to the person I was put on this planet to be. And that will be a risk truly worth taking.

What does living adventurously mean to you? How do your goals and values help you define your own brand of bravery?

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 II: Identifying the Strengths & Skills You Have to Offer

Job Searching & Self-Discovery, Part II: Identifying the Strengths & Skills You Have to Offer | 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 strategy I used to clarify the skills and strengths I have to offer an employer.

In my last post, I discussed how lost I had been feeling in my post-grad job hunt until I took a step back from the applications and did a bit of soul searching. I found two strategies to be especially helpful during my little period of Eat, Pray, Résumé, the first of which was exploring my career goals in light of the kinds of problems and questions that get me really fired up–and not in terms of what I want to “be” someday.

Once I identified the issues I’m passionate about, I had to figure out what, exactly, I could offer in terms of addressing them. This is where strategy #2 came in. Are you ready?

Drumroll please…

I made a spreadsheet!

MS Excel lovers, can I get an amen?! Data haterz, stay with me; I promise that the core of this post isn’t really about spreadsheets at all.

Rather, the spreadsheet was a tool–a means of capturing an eagle’s eye view of my life and experiences so far. I went through dozens of old folders and files, reviewed past papers and projects and performance evaluations, and compiled a massive list of everything about me that could be relevant to a career, from my degrees and coursework to jobs and extracurricular activities to hobbies and personal endeavors. It was a big undertaking, to say the least, but so worth it. Because you know what happened?

I began to discern patterns.

I started to notice the types of projects at which I excel and the topics toward which I naturally gravitate–as well as the tasks that are more of a struggle and the subject areas that are more of a drag for me. I started to see which soft skills are truly my strengths and which ones…need some more work. And perhaps most importantly, I started to challenge notions I had previously held about myself.

For example, I’ve always considered myself to be a major rule-follower. And in many cases, I am–I dig structure and order and general societal harmony, yo. But reexamining my past in this systematic manner revealed something that really shocked me: when it comes to the work I do, I love pushing limits and finding new and imaginative (and sometimes totally goofy or weird) ways of doing things. Whether I’m in the kitchen doctoring up a new recipe or in the classroom using a goofy skit to convey information to my peers, I rarely just look at the instructions I’m given and say, yep, that’ll do. If you would have asked me, prior to compiling the Spreadsheet of Clarity, whether I viewed myself as innovative, I probably would have said no. But now? I would respond with an emphatic yes–and be able to provide concrete evidence to support my answer.

As another example, reviewing my past work reminded me of the totally obvious–I love to write. I can distinctly recall being seven or eight years old and holing up in a corner, drafting the Next Great American Novel with my super cool purple sparkly gel pen (#ninetiesbabe) while the rest of the kids did normal kid stuff. I remember filling notebook after notebook with poetry and journal entries in my preteen years and throwing myself into my creative writing class in high school. The projects I was most proud of in college were typically reports and papers, and now, here I am, blogging for funzies. Before, if you would have asked me if I viewed myself as a writer, I would have said no–I didn’t major in English or journalism, and I’ve never been paid for my work. But now? Yeah, I think I may be a writer.

Tying all of this back in with Operation Job Search, the spreadsheet-making process helped to clarify what I have to offer an employer as well as what I’m looking for in a job.  I then revisited what I had discovered when I asked myself which problems most intrigue me, and I saw an important connection. I’m fascinated  with the fact that we live in society that is both saturated with health information and plagued with numerous health problems, and I want a career with plenty of opportunity for creativity, innovation, and writing. I don’t have everything figured out, of course, but it’s becoming more and more clear that a job in health communications would be a great fit for me. So this is where I’ve focused my job search since then, and it feels so much more “right” than when I was applying to a random assortment of positions across the public health field.

So if you’re ever lost in the career exploration process like I was, or if you even just need a reminder of who you really are–I highly encourage you to do what I did. Even if you don’t make a list or spreadsheet, and even if you don’t have a lot of extra time on your hands, take just an hour or so to reexamine what you’ve done. Look for patterns. Challenge previously held notions about what you can and can’t do. What do you find?

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?