When Soul Searching Isn't Enough

03/16/2009 06:59 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

My parents, like everyone else's parents, want me to get a job. "What are you passionate about? What do you love to do? What makes you happy?" Within the first five minutes of any conversation we have, I am asked these questions expectantly, as if they are hoping that I have learnt my way in the world since we last spoke...yesterday. Of course, I haven't. Their incredulity is met with my eye roll. It would all be humorously cliché if it weren't happening to me...

The inquisition began 12 months ago, over spring break of my senior year in college. Then, I was so entrenched in thesis-crunch that the real world bore little consequence (there was still the matter of graduating to accomplish). When the issue was again raised with some gravity as graduation loomed in June, I finally began to consider what life outside the bubble would look like for me.

Since my class went through hiring season before the recent implosion of Wall Street, most of my peers were off to work for the big banks. Though I envied the "security" and foreseeable trajectory of their positions, I was confident that my happiest course would be a path less traveled.

I knew from a variety of internships that the 9-to-5 beat was hell on earth for me. I wanted something that would allow me to be creative within a structured environment, where there was room for advancement and adequate compensation, where I could feel useful and necessary. I think being your own boss is part and parcel of the American Dream. And I was convinced that my first job, despite conventional wisdom, could be all this and more. As it turns out, my lofty aspirations bore little resemblance to reality (I soon came to know the meaning of "paying one's dues"). And there was still the question of what career I would select.

Thinking that I would just jump into the river and see where the current took me, I went to work for an entertainment news company. I operated on the production side, where I was responsible for contracting some of humanity's most reprehensible characters to appear on our show and create totally awesome television. I was ruthless. I became an expert in coercion and incentivizing; I could convince an Eskimo he needed snow. But then again, my master of manipulation mettle was only really tested by the KFC girls and that dude who shot his wife's teenage lover, so take from it what you will. I enjoyed my six months of gossip glory, but it was time to move on.

So now we're at January. Paranoia sets in. My parents begin peppering me daily with phone calls, emails, video chats...facebook messages??? I mean, really now. "What do you want to do? The world is your oyster...have you meditated today? Focus clearly on where you see yourself in 10 years. Discover what you are passionate about and do it!" At first, I appreciated their interest. Then I became indignant at the ferociousness of their incessant pestering. And now, I fear I have settled into a desperate phase where I am overwhelmed by the sheer number of things I want to do, and the absolute absence of a clear choice.

Of course I want passion in my life, but can this passion be learnt or conjured over time? I think about my career, and where my life will take me, and what I need to be doing to get there 24 hours a day. But thinking is not doing, and so far, it has produced limited results. "You can't catch the ball if you're not in the game," as my dad would say.

Interestingly, every time I discuss my limbo state with someone outside my family, they seem to identify. Apparently, it is normal for twenty-somethings to be confused about what they want to do. At 23, I have only seen such a small portion of the world. I've spent the last 19 years of my life in school. My point of reference is--by virtue of living in America--drastically different than what the rest of the world knows as life. Therefore, I need to travel! My parents didn't buy it. "Why would you need to go somewhere else to find yourself. Anywhere you go, it's still going to be 'you' that you need to figure out." And they're right.

Though we have entered an "economic downturn", it seems that the world is still ripe with opportunity: now more than ever, there is incentive to experiment, to try your hand at something new and unconventional. And perhaps that is the problem for recent graduates like myself. We have grown so accustomed to the rigid form of advanced education, where there are deadlines, and grades, and professors to tell you what to do, that we have forgotten how to make a (difficult) choice.

My parents' most recent threat has been that the only way they can see to "force my hand" is to "make life less comfortable". In effect, by adding some urgency (financial independence) to my hunt for the professional me, my parents hope to draw my true passion out of its deep hiding place. But I worry whether this will simply force me into a job of necessity. I need a paycheck, as do so many others. Are all first jobs just something to pay the bills? But then how can I be expected to discover my passion?

I think where the disconnect lies is that on the one hand, I am expected to project now where I see myself in years to come, to know beyond a doubt what will keep me happy and excited so that working never feels like work. But I don't feel like I know myself well enough to be certain of what this future looks like. On the other hand, being a dilettante is not an option. At some point, everyone sacrifices some degree of freedom and "fun" to make ends meet. Where is the happy medium?

Neither my parents nor I have the full answer. They want what's best for me, but they can't tell me what that will be. I want to find something that I can have fun with and be proud to call my profession, but I've been focusing too much on the negative question "Why hasn't everything fallen into place already?"

If there's one thing I have learned through the cathartic experience of writing this post, it's that life is a series of questions with multiple answers: if you get bogged down reading and re-reading the question, gearing up to take the test, you never get to the choosing part. And unfortunately, we're working against the clock. Maybe it is just about engaging with life and seizing each opportunity as it appears, even if you aren't sure what you want just yet. Finding your passion may just be about being open to each new experience, good or bad. Where should I get started?