Goals are important, even necessary.
All the times in my life when I have felt myself “fall apart” have been moments where I could no longer see my own future. I hadn’t quite lost all hope, but I had lost direction, and without that so many things in my life simply lost meaning.
As a child, my biggest goal was “to go to college on a full scholarship,” because my parents valued my education but would never be able to afford college tuition. But when I finally reached that goal at the age of 17, when I arrived on the campus of one of the most prestigious liberal arts schools in the country, I had nothing left to chase. I had made it there, just barely, but for what? And what should I do next?
Within the next 4 years I completed two majors in fields I could not see myself working in. The people around me seemed to have something figured out but I was lost. I wondered what I had missed. The one time I reached out for advice, I was shut down.
I felt desperate not to be left behind by my classmates, but I was also so exhausted from pushing myself for years without any discernible reason. Yes, education was important, I firmly believed that, but for what purpose? I was too tired to think about it.
I graduated college with no job lined up, no GRE scores, no plan for the future. My plan was to figure out my plan.
So I went home to an unfamiliar place, and I worked. I left home because I no longer fit, and I worked. I scrambled to find a new purpose, a goal, a career. I found I wanted so badly to return to that familiar academic environment I’d so recently escaped from. I looked at a careers list online and chose something just so I could have an excuse to apply to graduate school.
I don’t know exactly how long I was in burnout. It wouldn’t be wrong to say it started in 2017 when my department at work was understaffed and I started doing overtime just to keep up with the demand. It also wouldn’t be wrong to say it started in 2015 after I graduated and was working for a company going nowhere (good). And it wouldn’t be wrong to say it started when my first friendship at college fell apart at the end of 2011 and my first finals season brought me to tears.
So I went home again. I hit pause on my life, took a deep breath, and looked inward. I honestly don’t know what I would have done if that was not an option for me.
I learned a lot about myself in the months that followed. I learned I was autistic. I felt relief at having found an explanation for so many struggles I had faced all my life. I felt happiness at finding a community of people who understood, at the knowledge that I was not alone.
But I also felt bitter. At all the missed chances to learn this earlier, and all the missed chances because I didn’t know myself. I felt bitter about the neglect from the adults around me whose job it had been to guide me to a successful future. Never in my education did I ever get any guidance as to the paths I could take — nothing beyond “go to college” which I was already determined to do. No one even asked me what I wanted to do. They just said “go explore.”
But explore what? and explore it how? What should I be looking for? and how will I know once I’ve found it?
I didn’t push for those answers myself at the time, because I didn’t understand the importance of having a goal. I had been told that the “experience” of college was more valuable than the academic content, but not which experiences to chase or value. Somehow I focused on the academic experience without focusing on the content; I threw out all my notes but also spent too little time making connections because I didn’t know. I was told that no matter the major I chose, I could still continue on to any profession, so I chose based on what was interesting to me at the time. I don’t exactly regret my majors, but I wish I had taken a few writing or literature classes at least.
In college, it was almost as if professors were afraid to engage in conversations about careers. They never brought it up, or only lightly mentioned the most obvious ones. They didn’t want to be responsible if we failed.
I didn’t want an answer or a path laid out for me. I just wanted a conversation. But in retrospect, I realize there were conversations, I was just never part of them. By the time I found out about them they had already happened and the distance between me and my peers had increased. And the few I heard about beforehand, I skipped because I was so busy drowning in homework I couldn’t bear to lose the hour (even if I got nothing done in that hour). If only I could catch up, maybe I would engage more. But I would never catch up.
I spent a year abroad in Kyoto, Japan. Doing that had been the only goal I had during college. But throughout that year I could never answer the questions: Why was I there? What was I there to accomplish? I’d placed into the lowest Japanese language course. I was incapable of engaging in conversation with anyone, incapable of building connections. I couldn’t even eat the food. (See My ARFID Journey.
The single seed of hope I found during that year was a budding interest in literary translation. But when I went back to college and arranged a meeting with a professor to talk about it, I was immediately shut down. I was told that translation work wasn’t what I thought it was. That’s it. I wasn’t asked of I was interested in “real translation work”, nor was I given any alternatives based on my interest. And the fact of the matter is that there are people who do the translation work I was most interested in, that professor simply didn’t believe I could ever make it there.
If a professor within my own academic department couldn’t (or wouldn’t) help me, what chances did I have at the career counseling center? I had nowhere else to turn. I was so far outside the realm my family could understand, yet so far behind my peers. Even though everyone said they felt lost, they were still taking steps towards something. Where did that leave me? Who did I have to turn to?
I did the only thing I could. I tried to reassure myself that I didn’t have to have it figured out at all. I told myself I would focus on graduating first. Then go home and think about it. Get some work experience and think about it.
And that’s what I did. But in that time, I also hit the lowest point of depression I have ever reached.
I can’t speak for everyone, nor do I wish to, but I have personally experienced the hopelessness of aimlessness and I never want to go back. I believe that perhaps for many, but definitely for me, having something to strive for is strictly necessary for a satisfying life, for a good life, for a life.
So I’m doing the work now, trying to solidify a vision of the future. I’m spending a lot of time thinking about what I want my life to be like in 10 or 20 years. And it’s hard. I don’t have the skills or the practice, and perhaps I’m struggling precisely because I’m neurodivergent. But I’m working towards it because that’s what’s going to keep me going.
There are hard times ahead for all of us, but we have to see the light at the end of the tunnel, even if it’s only in our imaginations for now. Otherwise, we might just find ourselves turned around and trapped forever. What is there to work for if not for the future?