“Very few decisions have to be final”: What I wish I’d known at age 21

Brides-to-be participate in the “Running of the Brides” race in a park in Bangkok, Thailand March 25, 2017.
Brides-to-be participate in the “Running of the Brides” race in a park in Bangkok, Thailand March 25, 2017.
Image: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha
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When I was 21, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I knew I was headed to law school, so I assumed I would be a lawyer for the rest of my life. I didn’t know that life is long enough to allow for reinvention, do-overs, and big errors—that very few decisions ever have to be final, or are ever as monumental as they feel when you’re at a crossroads.

Now, at 33, I’m a lawyer who doesn’t practice law, a feminist who has turned writing about women into a job, and a journalist who covers US politics from Nairobi and travels the globe covering health, development, and women’s rights. Sometimes, my parents and friends and colleagues and random acquaintances still ask me where I see myself in five years, or in ten. What is my dream job?

I smile and say, “I have no idea.” And it feels good.

It did not feel good at 21, when that kind of uncertainty felt paralyzing, when I felt like not knowing what I wanted to do was some sort of great character flaw—revealing that I wasn’t driven or passionate, wasn’t even practical or responsible.

It did not feel good at 25, when six-figure student loan debt and a continued lack of clarity about what I wanted to do had me eschewing the kind of legal career I thought I would want—working in the public interest, advocating for reproductive freedom—for a job at a big law firm.

It did not feel good at 27, when I was struggling to find my footing at that big law firm, and it was increasingly clear that even if I could cut it, I didn’t want to.

Now, though, I’m less attached to the idea that a career needs a straight trajectory, or that a career is only one thing. I have a job that, a lot of the time, feels like a dream—even though it’s technically a cobbling-together of several different jobs, most of which involve writing on the internet, which means they didn’t exist in this form when I was 21. Maybe my future self’s dream job doesn’t exist yet either.

So too with the markers of an adult life. At 21, I probably thought I’d be married by now, own a house or at least an apartment, maybe have a kid or two. None of that has happened, not because I haven’t found the opportunities (although I certainly haven’t found the financial stability to buy property), but because I haven’t wanted them. As my life has changed, so have my goals. Instead of owning a house in the suburbs, I rent an apartment in Kenya; instead of supporting children, I buy plane tickets. I’m sure that eventually those priorities will change, too; I’m also deeply relieved to have decided I don’t have to change them according to some external timeline.

Most people pursue the things they think will make them happy, but for women especially, that’s complicated. Much of what we’re told will make us happy is transforming our identities from individual ones to relational ones—that is, becoming someone’s wife or mother. Certainly those relational identities can be, and often are, components of a happy life. But too many of us have been told they should be our whole lives, our primary sources of meaning and joy. And we are told that we are on a tight timeline if we want to attain them.

You don’t have to be. In longevity studies, which follow individuals throughout their lives and track what makes people live longer and healthier lives, strong social connections mean greater happiness and better health. That includes marriage, but also rich friendships and engagement with a broader community. And for women, a life that is adventurous, dynamic, and convention-defying can often be a happy, fulfilling one. There is no one best model. But few of us thrive when we feel that our lives are dictated by external expectations, or when we’re frozen by our own belief that we ought to be able to imagine our futures in detail.

The best people I know do not have static “selves.” They grow, change and evolve—what they care about, what suits them, what nourishes them, and who they want to be when they grow up. Sometimes, they shape-shift on purpose; sometimes, they do it with flailing limbs and broken hearts.

I always have a hard time ordering food in restaurants, convinced that that if I pick the wrong thing, I’ll miss out on the dish that’s the best on the menu. I inevitably ask the waiter for their suggestion, and they inevitably tell me there are a lot of good choices; it just depends on what I like. Given that I can’t even decide between chicken and steak, you can imagine how debilitating more important decisions can feel. In the lead-up to big transitional life moments—graduations, milestone birthdays, significant moves—I’ve often found myself paralyzed with the fear that the choice I’m making may not be the right one. I imagine this happens even to people who always know what they want the steak.

There’s a lot of freedom in realizing that you don’t have to have a planned-out path. Say yes to what sounds engaging and exciting, to what seems to fall on the thrilling side of scary, even if you don’t see where exactly this puzzle piece fits into the big picture of your life. There’s almost always lots of good stuff on the menu—so go ahead and try something new. You can always come back.