By Gabrielle Moss
No matter who you are, what you do for a living, how many graduate degrees you’ve earned, or how often you successfully guess the answer to those trivia thingies that they play before the trailers at the movies, there are going to be times when you feel like a failure. The good news is that feeling like you’re falling behind in your career isn’t a sign that you actually are. And even if you are not where you want to be professionally right now, you’re not doomed to be stuck there forever. The bad news, of course, is that when you’re in that “I’m a loser/failure/general drain on society who should go accept my fate and live in cave where my crappiness won’t rub off on anyone else” headspace, it’s extraordinarily hard to believe that there’s any better future on the horizon.
I should know. For the better part of the decade, I had a very stable, boring office job where I spent most of my day unfavorably comparing myself to other people my age. You’ll be shocked to find that, yes, most people are more successful than someone whose full-time job is Being Jealous And Then Not Doing Anything. This helped me develop a sideline career in Drinking Heavily And Yelling About How Life Is Unfair, which, shockingly, also did little to change my professional fortunes.
Eventually, I turned things around, developing a career that I am actually proud of — but I’ve never forgotten how it felt to think that I was a permanent loser. In this spirit, I present the five thoughts below: consider them counter-programming for the next time you read your alumni newsletter and decide that you are obviously the world’s biggest failure.
You’re Not Helpless
Think It Instead Of: “Only people with well-connected parents/prestigious degrees/extroverted personalities/the money to take unpaid internships can have the jobs they want.”
When you start feeling like a professional failure, it can become extraordinarily easy to fixate on the idea that your career fate is totally out of your control, decided by forces far outside your own power. This kind of thinking is seductive because it provides a narrative that indulges all your darkest thoughts: not only does your life suck, but it was predestined to suck long before you were ever in a position to do anything about it, and so there is literally nothing you can do now.
Luckily for you, it is also totally not true. While I’m not going to lie to you and claim that people from wealthy families or high-profile colleges don’t get a leg up when it comes to careers, that advantage often feels most pronounced in the years right after college, before anyone has real work experience.
But after a few years in the workforce, employers are more interested in what you can do, not where you went to school. As Michael Bernick, the former director of the California department of labor, wrote in Time, the college one attends has much less impact on what kinds of jobs you end up with than the skills you develop there and afterwards — and developing and refining your skills is something you’re in complete control of. Your professional life is a marathon, not a sprint, and just because someone got a few seconds head start on you, doesn’t mean you’re never gonna catch up.
You’re Not The Only Person Who Feels This Way
Think It Instead Of: “I’m the only person I know who is a big enough loser to feel unhappy about my career.”
If all your friends seem to have landed dream jobs, while you are only able to drag yourself into your hated workplace by promising yourself unlimited jalapeno poppers and Netflix ’til your eyeballs dry up in the evening, it’s easy to think you’re all alone your frustration. But guess what? You are not the only person who feels miserable and anxious about work — in fact, plenty of your friends who look to all the world like they are hauling ass up the corporate ladder may feel this way, as well.
Some of them may have a fun psychological problem called “imposter syndrome,” where they don’t feel like they’ve earned their success; some of them, despite being in a glamour job, just don’t enjoy their work. Not all jobs that look great on the outside actually are great.
The important thing to remember is that your fears and worries about being behind or on the wrong path in your career don’t isolate you; if anything, they’ll probably give you something to talk to strangers about at parties (if you are going to parties where no one will admit to worrying about their career and future, I suggest finding some different parties — the ones you’re going to sound very boring).
No One’s Career Is A Straight Ride To The Top
Think It Instead Of: “I made one bad decision and now my career is ruined.” I’ve always loved the above drawing by comedian Demetri Martin, not just because it’s funny, but because it’s true. Most people change careers multiple times in their lives; and even folks who stick it out with one career don’t just go straight to the top. People are fallible; even the sharpest of us make some bad calls or experience setbacks outside of our control. Eventually, most of us figure out how to bounce back — but getting where we want to be is nowhere near as easy as most of us were raised to believe.
Look into the life story of anyone you really admire, from a star in your field to a relative you’ve always looked up to; if you really dig in to the details of how their career trajectory played out, you’ll find that it has way more ups and downs that you probably thought. No one’s entire future is decided by the fact that they weren’t a mind-blowing professional success right out of the gate.
You’re Not Too Old
Think It Instead Of: “Sure, I could have changed things last year; but now that I’m 23/28/38/48/whatever, it is too damn late to change anything.” No matter how old you are, it’s easy to think that all the important opportunities have passed you by. As someone who started having these thoughts around age 20, I can assure you that if you’re truly motivated, there’s always a way to convince yourself that you’re a has-been (even if you can’t legally buy a beer yet). And as we get older and constantly have to deal with articles about which arbitrary milestones we’re supposed to have achieved this year, it can become easier and easier to convince yourself that you’ve missed your shot.
I’ll skip going too far into the lists of people who started their professional careers late, though that always soothed me during my days of career failure obsession (OK, just a few: writers Judy Blume, Haruki Murakami, Raymond Chandler and, of course, one Joanna “J.K.” Rowling; film directors Lynn Shelton and Claire Denis; and fashion designer Vera Wang all got their careers going later in life).
Unless you’re looking to become an Olympic athlete, age restrictions probably won’t keep you out of your desired field. This is especially worth keeping in mind if you’re in your early 20s, and feel like everyone’s already made all the decisions that shape their entire lives. In reality, you’re a few years away from seeing many of your friends go through the infamous quarter life crisis and quit jobs, change careers, go back to school, move across the country to become an organic beet farmer — you name it. Your future is far from set in stone; in fact, you’re likely only just learning enough about yourself to figure out what kind of career would really make you happy.
You Don’t Know What Other People’s Lives Are Really Like
Think It Instead Of: “Everyone loves their job except me.” Social media can make us feel like we understand what other people’s lives are really like — even though we know that our own curated Instagram feeds comprised exclusively of picturesque beach vacations and mimosa-soaked brunches only tell the story of, like, 1/200 of our own lives (we somehow keep forgetting to post those pictures of that day the toilet kept overflowing). But the truth is, you don’t know what other people’s lives are like inside, no matter how perfect things look outside. This applies to lots of things beyond career success — from love lives to personal finances.
But it can be easy to think that our career lives are all on the surface — that someone whose Twitter bio lists an insanely impressive job title, or whose name ends up on one of those”30 under 30″ lists, is blissfully happy about their job and has everything figured out. (I think “30 under 30” lists should pretty much be banned under the Geneva Convention, personally, but that’s a thought for another article). But just as you’ve seen perfect couples suddenly explode in ugly break-ups, you should know that a lot of people’s perfect jobs are anything but.
Years ago, I was shocked to find that a certain successful peer of mine quit what seemed like a plum gig in our field to go to grad school for social work. Wasn’t she living the dream? How could she walk away from all of that?It turned out that, as shiny and cool as her achievements looked to me, they just didn’t make her happy. Your dream job is someone else’s nightmare job — crazy to think about, but true.
In my years as a professional Person Who Whines About My Job, I’m not sure if I would have believed all of this stuff I just said; but as someone who’s come out the other side, I can tell you that it’s true. After being depressed about my career, working to change it, and coming to accept that that hard work still doesn’t mean that everything will go well for me forever, I feel confident saying that feeling bitter about your life is the only true career failure out there — and that’s one thing you’re in total control of.