Advice for a kid who can't get his head out of the clouds?

I'm 21 and I'm about to enter my final year of college. In the past I've been pretty irresponsible and self-destructive (always maintaining decent grades) but in the last year I've really turned everything around and feel like I'm heading in the right direction. I walked into a fantastic job that pays extremely well, sends me abroad, and works around my school schedule and has taught me a lot about the professional world. My parents, who had previously been depressed over my lapses, are extremely proud and supportive.

My problem, however, is that for the first time in my life I'm trying to realize my future and it seems impossible for me to ground myself. I'm not thinking about anything in particular, but that's the problem. Over the last three days I've been reading a lot of the material on this site and it has reminded me of a lot of my father's advice he gave me when I was younger. I feel like I'm having this "buckle down" realization late in life and want to start building a healthy directed mindset that is reserved and adult. (Right now I still feel very much like a boy in the world and therefore am sometimes embarrassingly self-defeating.)

What advice do you all have?

Particular books or other references would be greatly appreciated (but only if they're really good!). I'm open to everything from literature to how-to's as long as it helps me out.

Thanks, and if you need more information I'll be responding to what's posted.

Cliffs for the wall of text: 21 year old trying to buckle down but can't gather his thoughts well enough to build a healthy forward looking mindset.

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Well Michael, for what it's worth, it sounds like you're making a fair go of it so far. You're taking your studies seriously, have a good job, and you seem to have a good attitute. I haven't got any book suggestions for you, mainly becasue, at 31, I still have my head in the clouds myself :) What I can do is offer a bit of advice...

never do nothing .

Over the coming years you'll likely find yourself being pulled in a number of different directions as you try to work out what you want to do with your life. This is a problem that the younger generations are facing more and more, and one which wasn't really an issue for our parents. The worst thing you can do, however is to not make a decision at all as you sit back and try to work out the best path. It's amazing how fast time passes by while you're making up your mind. I'm still trying to work out what happened to the years between 21 and 25 :)

So, in a nutshell, think of 1 thing, anything, that you're interested in, and pursue it with as much vigour as you can. Having a place to start will make it infinitely easier to get to where you eventually want to be, and will keep you out of trouble in the meantime. And don't worry about choosing a field that may be restricted. You have plenty of time to change your mind. You'll likely go through about 10 careers before you're 40, so don't worry too much about it. I'm personally on number 6 having moved from panel-beater to accountant to programmer along the way. it's easier than you may think and a lot more enjoyable than looking back at 30 and realising that you haven't started living yet.

Good luck!
"never do nothing."

That was a revelation to me a while back. At the very least it's failsafe because it's a fact that if you're not going somewhere you're going nowhere. (A lot of my friends give me weird looks when I tell them this.)

At any rate I have no idea what I want to do, although I intend on getting a master's later on. (In what I don't know) It's good to know that at 30 the ball keeps rolling. I find that people in their twenties think that 30 is the imaginary apex of their life and that everything is downhill from there, which is obviously not true.
I don't think there is a specific age when everyone realizes the apex of life. In my case, it was the point when I realized I had already lived more years than I had left! (around ages 40-45) That was a sobering realization, for sure!
Yeah, in a way you are right. I know that there really is no definitive answer to the question other than "keep your chin up," or something similarly vague, but it's worth a shot just to draw on the experience of others.

As much as I want to develop a plan for myself, I still think I'd disagree with "you can't effectively get where you're going if you don't know where you want to go." Chance has dealt me some pretty good cards lately and from that randomness I've solidified myself. I understand that someone can't achieve a goal if they don't have one, but it should also be important not to undermine the 'go with the wind' method. Sometimes doing something that is seemingly meaningless or uninteresting can spark a sort of insight that helps one find their way. I would say that if someone finds themselves perpetually surrounded by meaninglessness that it is time for them to move on, which is probably exactly what you meant. Sometimes I over-analyze things.
Well, I know (& have known) plenty of fellows a decade or so older than you who had not figured that out. I would recommend the following books. Revolutionary Characters, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, George Wahington's "Rules for Civility" (sic), and Shut Up, Stop Whining, and Get a Life.
Look, first up, don't feel that this realisation is coming 'late in life'. It isn't, truly. In 5 years, you'll be looking back, thinking, "I thought 21 was old? Wow!" And then in 10 years you'll be looking back, thinking, "and I thought 26 was old! Wow!" And in 15 years... well, you get my point.
Personally, I've always been moved by Rudyard Kipling's poem, "If". But let's face it, the vast majority of people here are moved by it. It's a good potted guide to manliness.
I agree with you about the part chance and randomness plays in your life plan. Don't rely on it, but learn to seize the moment when it is presented. At the end of the day, I think it's better to regret the things you've done than to regret the things you never did.
And personally, don't sweat not knowing the right answers. It's a far better skill to be able to ask the right questions. Which is what you're doing here!

Good Luck!
I had the same thought as Andrew when I read your "late in life" comment at the ripe old age of 21. It's true that you're never too young to seek direction in your life, but 21 is a far cry from being a regretful middle-aged man.

I think what you're feeling is common for a college senior. You're coming to the realization that your schooling is done with and the rest of your life beckons. What should you do with it?

Personally, I got married in the August of my final year of college, exactly where you're at now. From there, my path became a little more defined, to where I needed to find a place to put down roots for the family that my wife and I wanted to start. I also needed to get started on a career path that would enable me to support my family. My degree was in Computer Science, but during my entire senior year, I told myself that I would never be a programmer. "Just get the degree and leave! Never write another line of code!" Five years later, I took a job as a software developer (aka, programmer), and I've never been happier with my career choice. At 26, I'm still the youngest guy in the office, so 21 is nothing to be freaked out about.

It sounds like you're in an envious position for your age. A well-paying job that expands your horizons professionally AND physically? The best advice I could give you is just to keep your eyes open for opportunities, and pay attention to what you ENJOY doing. I like solving logical problems and being a know-it-all: PROGRAMMER! Do what you enjoy and what can support your chosen lifestyle.
Will (re: why I changed my mind about programming)-

I guess I got burned out on all of the hypothetical programming that we did in school. Writing programs that had no relevance. Four years of inconsequential code, and I was DONE.

I suppose it didn't help that I was misled into programming in the first place; I wanted to be a networking specialist, and my department chair instead set me on the path toward becoming a software programmer. By the time I figured it out, it was "too late" to switch majors, so I determined to get my degree and get out.

After being in the "real world" for awhile, I found myself gravitating toward those tasks that I was most suited for; surprise, surprise, they tended to be programming tasks (writing batch jobs, SQL queries, database design). I eventually took the leap and applied for an opening in my company's programming division, and I haven't regretted it. Of course, the exponentially better pay doesn't hurt... :)
Michael, there is a lot of great advice listed here, particularly from Shaun. I'd like to add a bit to what he posted. There is a great book out that really opened my eyes to my future, "Cure for the Common Life," by Max Lucado.

In short, think about the things that you are passionate about doing in all arenas of your life. From that list take those in which others have said to you, "Michael, you are a natural at that." Lastly, from there, take those that serve the greater good, or in my case as a Christian, bring God glory and focus on those.

Picture three intersecting circles (Venn Diagram) and the center is your sweet spot, the things that you love to do, that you are great at and those that bring God glory.

Stay strong.
We absorb a lot of expectations about what it means to be a man. In the US, it's usually some amalgam of John Wayne characters with a dash of Ronald Reagan's charm. But one of the things that is easy to forget as you struggle to wrest your head from the clouds is that your life is your own.

I think for me in my 20's the hardest thing to do was to wean myself of my father's expectations. Parent's love their children but don't always know what's best for them, especially once their adults. You're the only one who can discover your life. Try to find meaning and purpose but know that it will probably be unique to you. It will also probably lie outside of you, in service to others. For many of us, it lies in service to our families.

So I'd try not to worry about what you're "supposed" to be. Try lots of new things. Embrace the things you love. Try to do no wrong but forgive yourself when you do. I prefer not to worry so much about being a man but remember something Teddy Roosevelt said. He was 55 and had just lost his last election to Wilson. He decided to take a long expedition to the Amazon. When asked why he responded, "it's my last chance to be a boy."
I have to say, this being my first post, that I'm overwhelmed by the quantity and quality of the responses here at AoM. It's definitely a diamond in the rough.
Thanks for asking this question and articulating yourself really well. I'm 20 and asking similar questions, so the answers here have all been helpful.

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