Nowadays, people are very concerned with how they use their time, both in the short-term and in the long-term. Since childhood, we’ve been pressured to move on to the next step of our lives and not waste any time getting there. The next grade, high school, AP classes, college, graduation, internships, jobs, careers, marriage, etc. We’ve been forced to search for these supposed goals and inevitably felt guilty if we had not achieved them by a certain point in our lives, or at all for that matter. And of course, social media doesn’t make it any easier when you see people you know traveling the world, getting their dream job right out of college, getting engaged to their significant other, etc. All of this plastered on the blaringly bright laptop screen while you scroll through Facebook with a bag of popcorn on your lap, scolding yourself as every minute passes that you should be doing homework or some other mundane task.
Somehow, we’ve come to believe that if we don’t have exactly what we think we want right away, that we’re wasting time. Because of this, we’re failing to notice how we come to decide what we want, and how that process, no matter how long it takes, is never a waste of time.
I’ll be speaking from the perspective of a millennial, because since when do millennials not write about every thought and feeling they have? But this is a lesson that people of any age can appreciate. Throughout our lives, we are always faced with the next task and the most efficient way to get it. Most millennials probably find themselves in a situation similar to mine. I just graduated, and now I have no freaking clue what to do. I mean, I know that somehow I need to start making money too, you know, survive and pay off massive amounts of school loans, but how? It seems like I’m either stuck or that every time I make a move in one direction it turns out to be the wrong one. It took me a while to realize that any direction is the right one.
Too cliche? You betcha. Am I right, though? Yes, let me explain. People obsess over their next choice as if it’s life or death and that they can’t ever turn back, but that’s not the case. You’re supposed to turn back if you have to because you’re supposed to find out what you want. We would not learn anything if not through trial and error. Our fear of making the wrong decision keeps us from making any progress. At some point, we need to ask ourselves what’s scarier: making a mistake or never learning from them.
Let’s put this idea into reality. Plenty of college students graduate not knowing what they want to do with their freshly printed and slightly underwhelming diploma. Some go on to grad school immediately afterward, some find a job right away, some travel the world, and some take their time with their job search. It’s overwhelming how many options one has after graduating, and you’ll always second-guess yourself as to whether you made the right decision But the secret is you did. Whatever you chose, at that moment, you did what you thought would be best for you, and that’s all you can do. Because if you didn’t make that choice, you’d regret not going through with it.
The trick is to learn something from each choice you make because that way you’re always moving forward. Getting a job right out of college and then realizing it’s not right for you is not a waste of time, it’s the opposite. You learned something that you could not have possibly learned any other way than trying it. If you found something you love with your first job, great, and if you discovered something you don’t want to do for a career then you’ve uncovered another piece to the puzzle.
While we’re on the subject of puzzles, let me make a complex comparison to give you that “ah-ha” moment. Because what is life advice without a vague metaphor? If you haven’t heard of Einstein's Riddle, look it up online now. Go ahead, go spend a good chunk of time trying to solve it and inevitably not being able to stop until you’ve figured it out. This journey of making mistakes and learning from them is a lot like solving Einstein's Riddle. You might have seen an easier version of this riddle in a high school math class. You’re given a certain amount of information and have to deduce one fact from this information. For instance, you may know that Susie has four lollipops and lives in the city and that Brad has 2 apples and lives in the country, so how many turnips does Anne have? (Disclaimer: Do not waste your time on that example, I made it up to trigger your good old math class memories). The goal is to use deductive reasoning to find the answer to the question, and the only way to do that is to take specific steps to find out what everyone else does and does not have. Finding out what is not the right answer is equally as important as finding the path to the right answer, in fact, it’s necessary. And that is how life works too.
Finding out what we don’t want is equally as important as finding out what we do want, and is, in fact, an integral part of the process. So you took a year off and worked at a job you hate? Good, check that off the list as something you’ll never do again and use that knowledge to find what you do enjoy doing. You traveled the world and took a giant break from life? Good, you probably needed it and would have regretted not doing it. There is something to gain from every experience you have, the difficult part is recognizing what you’ve discovered and learning from it.
Life will be full of these experiences, and you have to remember that life doesn’t stop if you make a mistake, that is life. Whether you like it or not, you’re living life, right now. And whether you know it or not, you’re learning from it, so don’t let that knowledge go to waste, and use it.