THE BLOG
07/03/2007 05:58 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

For Twenty-Something's, Life is like the Cheesecake Factory

Its summer time and twenty-something's with freshly diplomas are on the hunt. And those already employed who are getting cabin fever at their current jobs, are hovering over jobsites and books on finding your passion. I anticipate this time of year and prep myself for the ultimate question I am asked, "How do I figure out what I want to do with my life?" Boy I wish my crystal ball wasn't in the shop.

Despite a crammed and quaffed resume (can margins get any smaller?), twenty-something's seeking me out for career coaching are asking for directions to their own career path. They are confused, overwhelmed with expectations, and doubt their decisions. Why? How can a generation that is so technologically and socially hooked in be at such a loss when it comes to deciding who signs their paycheck?

My answer: because for twenty-something's when it comes to choosing a career path, life is like the Cheesecake Factory. Ever been to the Cheesecake Factory? It's a chain restaurant known for, well, its cheesecake of course. But what I remember most about my first dining experience there was not the cheesecake, but the menu. This is no ordinary menu. It is spiral bound. There are 167 food items to choose from and that's not including cheesecake. When handed the menu, I felt like I needed an hour to read through all my options -- there were too many things to decide between.

How was I supposed to pick just one? What if what everyone else ordered was what I should have? Once I did choose something, after asking the waiter an incessant amount of questions, how did I know I was choosing the right thing? As the food was delivered to the table, I looked at everyone thinking their decision was better and I would have liked another entrée more. What was in front of me, now that it was mine, did not seem that appetizing anymore. What happened to my nice evening out? Who knew going out to dinner could be this challenging just because of so many options!

Do you get the analogy? The twenty-something experience is full of limitless options and choices with no guarantees and constant opportunities for comparison. Growing up, today's young adults were exposed to an expansive life: other countries, other cultures, and new forms of entertainment and technology that made possibilities seem limitless. Entrepreneurs along with new types of businesses have multiplied career options. Yet as options expanded, contentment and a sense of direction among the twenty-something generation has contracted. TOO much possibility has become paralyzing. Being told, "You can do and be anything you want" has become more of a pressure-cooker expectation than a motivational quote.

So what's a twenty-something to do? Here is some advice if you feel can relate to the Cheesecake Factory analogy:

You don't have to read the entire menu

Young people often want to know everything about everything before they make a decision. Although I admire the thoroughness of this approach, it often keeps you spinning around in options, sending resumes out haphazardly to everything from film studios to pharmaceutical companies. To focus, I recommend asking yourself three questions in this order:

1. Where do I want to live?
2. Who do I know whose job sounds interesting and appealing?
3. What industry is something that I am interested in reading about in my spare time?

Question one will geographically narrow down your search as you pick a city. Question two will give you ideas of informational interviews you can set up and entry level jobs you can apply for. And question three will support you in identifying an area of work you could be passionate about. Then research, network, and job search. Focusing your efforts on a particular area of interest will make you a more organized and efficient job seeker . . . and you will get to "dessert" (landing the first or next job) faster.

Decide on your order and go with it

You know what you want, you know what's best for you - I promise, you do. Resist the temptation to discuss your decisions with everyone you know. It's great to talk to your peers about what they are doing or what jobs they are applying to, but don't get stuck on someone else's career path. For instance, I had a client who always wanted to teach abroad; however, all her peers were landing jobs and making serious dough. Plus, her parents were pushing her to buckle down and get benefits. She had an offer to work at a consulting firm but ultimately decided to go to Japan and pursue what she really wanted. A year later, she came back and was offered a job by the same consulting company but for more money and a better title as they were so impressed by her work in Asia. You are the one who has to live your life so pick what YOU think is a fit and remember, nothing is written in stone . . . you can always order something different if you are totally unsatisfied.

Don't compare your dish to others

Everyone is on their own unique path. What is working for someone else, may not work for you. Excuse yourself from the belief that you must know what you are passionate about to be a success. Allow it to evolve. Stop comparing yourself to your peers and measuring your worth by societal expectations. If you do find yourself envious of someone else's job, use them as a source of motivation and information. Ask them specific questions that may spark insight on your own career and rescue you from comparison land. For example: "What is the most significant event or decision in your life that has gotten you to where you are today?" "What qualities do you attribute to your success?" "What did have you had to sacrifice?" "What has surprised you about your job?" "What do you really enjoy?" "What challenges do you face?" As you talk to people who have found their niche, remember it's okay if you have not (yet!). Some people really know what they want during their twenties . . . but others have to sample a few things out before acquiring a taste for something.

Enjoy your Meal

Any job is an opportunity to learn and meet people - and no job is "perfect." Sometimes you just have to get a J.O.B rather than waiting for the perfect career to call out your name and seat you at your dream job. Be content with your decision otherwise you will continue to be overwhelmed by possibilities. Make the most out of your current situations. Ask to take on more responsibility and befriend the more senior people at your company by asking them to lunch or coffee - there is always more to learn no matter how unfulfilling you think your job is. Learn from and appreciate reality rather than obsessing over the "make-believe" in your head you think is better . . . trust that every experience will fill you up in some way.

Oh - and in case you're wondering, when I do go to the Cheesecake Factory, I don't take a menu. That's right - I refuse it. I have found one particular dish (Herbed Salmon Salad) in the encyclopedia of food they call a menu and I always order that. Why stress myself out with all the choices? I order what I know I like and don't fret over what I am missing out on. And when that is no longer fulfilling, I may entertain the idea of investigating the menu - but I will never try to sample everything, it's just impossible. Plus, I'd have no room left over for cheesecake.