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Searching for Your Next Step: How to Deal When You’re “In Between”

Seeker

“A truly happy person is one who can enjoy the scenery while on a detour.” ~Unknown

After finishing my master’s degree, I felt pretty directionless. I felt like I graduated with more questions than answers, and I really didn’t know what career I wanted, or where.

I figured I should take whatever opportunity came my way, so I accepted a low-paying teaching job in a foreign country, which didn’t work out for various reasons, and ended up leaving after only five months.

I came back to the U.S. the day before Christmas, feeling like a total and utter failure. I was unemployed, living with my parents in a sleepy midwestern town that I had sworn never to return to, with an empty bank account and over a hundred thousand dollars of student debt staring me in the face.

To add insult to injury, I almost immediately contracted the flu, which turned into pneumonia, and was essentially bed-ridden for almost a month.

I felt miserable.

What had happened to my dreams? My aspirations? My idealist musings about my dynamic, passion-filled, world-changing future career?

I felt more confused than ever and had figured very little out, except how to screw up romantic relationships and spend all my money in the process. I had to figure out what to do next, and fast, or flounder.

If I’ve learned anything from my encounters with Buddhism, it’s that moments like this, when it feels like the rug is being pulled our from under your feet, usually end up being the most valuable.

It doesn’t feel very valuable when it’s happening, of course, but being shaken forces you to stop for a while and take account of what’s unshakeable. In moments of utter insecurity, you realize what is really important in your life.

Here are my takeaways from months “in between”:

1. Don’t panic, and breathe.

Not having a next step can be scary. Really scary. Our culture is obsessed with progress, personal growth, and especially next steps, so not knowing where you’re going can seem overwhelming. It’s hard not to get swept up into that feeling of helplessness.

Stop, breathe, maybe meditate for fifteen minutes, and keep going in whatever way you can.

2. Focus on what matters to you, not other people.

This is an important, and difficult, one. When I was first considering leaving my terrible post-grad job, I reached out to a lot of people to ask for advice. I knew that if I quit the job, it might take awhile to find another hopefully better one, and that I might experience the cold, dark grip of failure.

Some people told me to finish out my contract, because it was safer. Others told me to do what made me happy. But ultimately, I had to sit with my anxieties and fears, dissect them, and figure out what was best for me, according to my goals.

I had to totally let go of everyone else’s ideas of success, security, and happiness and define what those concepts meant to me.

Did being unemployed, single, and homebound make me feel like a failure because I personally felt like a failure, or because someone else had told me once that those things = failure? Sometimes, it’s really hard to separate what really matters to you from what matters to the people around you, but it’s necessary.

Also, the job search can be oh-so-discouraging. It can be really hard to receive mass rejection email after mass rejection email (or no email at all) and not get enormously depressed.

Don’t take it personally. Know that you’re great, smart, and capable, and divert the energy you were going to spend weeping into writing a fantastic cover letter for your next job application.

3. Set realistic goals and get organized.

For a while, setting goals seemed impossible. How could I set a goal if I had no idea what I wanted out of a career? Every job description I looked at seemed unattainable, unrealistic, or unattractive to me. Goals? I couldn’t make goals! I was broke and stuck!

In truth, I was overthinking it. I didn’t have to know exactly where I would be in five years, or one year, or even one month. Sometimes I just had to have a plan for the week, or the day, or the next hour.

Setting small, realistic goals was key to moving forward in a productive way, and not staying paralyzed by fear and anxiety. For example, I set goals for how many jobs I would apply for in a week and how I would make enough money to get by, etc. I made spreadsheets keeping track of the jobs I applied for, as well as a strict budget.

Having daily goals made me feel like I was accomplishing something, even if the results weren’t necessarily tangible at the time. At the end of the day, I could say, “Well, I did everything I set out to do today. Good job, me!” instead of “Ugh! I still don’t have a job! What’s wrong with me?!”

A journey is made up of small steps. I had no idea where I would end up, but I kept moving and that saved me.

4. Relish the journey, regardless of the destination.

As mentioned in takeaway number one, not having a clear destination can be overwhelming, especially in a culture that is always leaning forward into the future. Perhaps the hardest part of the unemployment journey was settling in instead of looking ahead.

Being at a crossroads is a moment of opportunity. It’s at that moment when you feel like you don’t know anything, that you truly know. You know then that all those notions you’ve had about what you need to feel happy and successful are illusions.

I may not have had the fulfilling career, the loving partner, the adorable puppy, or the reasonable, plant-filled apartment I wanted, but I was alive! Being starved of the things that I thought were important made me take stock of all the things that really mattered and let go of the things that didn’t.

Every day, I wake up. I have an amazing, healthy body that is capable of some really miraculous things. I have an active intellect that enjoys reading and learning and doing things. I love a lot of people and activities and have regular access to many of them. I have a bed to sleep in, food to eat, books to read, and time to exercise regularly. These are all pretty amazing things!

Even when nothing seemed to be working in my life, there was so much that was working. This sense of having some unshakeable core to my experience made moving forward so much easier, and way less scary.

It gave me a wealth of patience to seek out and wait for the right opportunities, and leave behind the wrong ones. It gave me the liberty to dream up new possibilities that I hadn’t thought of before instead of putting pressure on myself to adhere to old, tired ideas.

It made me realize that being “in between” was, in a way, a blessing. I had the freedom to pursue opportunities where, when, and with whom I wanted. Settling into the journey forced me to treat myself more kindly and give myself the time and space to craft meaning in new ways.

Feeling suffocated by the seeming lack of direction in your life? Go for a walk and feel the wind on your cheeks.

Received another rejection letter and want to cry? Get out that new recipe you’ve been wanting to try and listen to your favorite jams while you cook.

Need a mental health day? Take one. Read. Go to the gym. Learn something new. Meditate. Celebrate your successes, job-related or not. Because if you can find peace in the midst of what feels like a total breakdown, you can find it anywhere.

Photo by Hartwig HKD

About Emily France

Emily is a human rights advocate, feminist, and aspiring writer, among other things, and recently completed an MA in International Human Rights. She is still looking for a fulfilling career in one of those fields, if you happen to know of any. She finds joy in running, practicing yoga, traveling, reading, speaking French, and eating sushi.

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  • M.

    Thank you.

  • gardenyogi

    This is my story verbatim, even to the MA and yoga… Emily, thank you for sharing your story! Two of my dearest friends and I had this similar conversation just two nights ago…one of the things we’ve learned is that sometimes you know what you want (or are at least closer!) by knowing what you don’t want…out of life, a job, a relationship…and sadly, too often we our measuring our lives against someone else’s. I appreciate your candor about sifting through the opinions of others and taking the ‘risky’ choice of leaving something unsatisfying but ‘safe’ behind. Bravery matters and your next endeavor will benefit from the lessons learned from this time of the unknown…and should I learn of some great gig, I will think of you and send it your way!

  • Claire

    thank you for this! im encountering the same problems you mentioned, still unemployed after a year (can you believe it?!?!?) and still looking for some direction. its been a tough year for me but I must say I understood alot better about myself through all of these 🙂 frankly, I’ve never been happier and more relaxed although there are still times I feel discouraged after receiving a rejection email. and like what you’ve mentioned in the last three paragraphs, I did all of them and I always feel hopeful again 😀 I’ve always wanted to share my thoughts here but I’m never a good writer so I’m really happy that you wrote this! thanx again 🙂

  • Esti

    I can relate myself to this, I’ve always believed that “in between” life phase is a blessing in disguise 🙂

  • Wow, Emily what a great post. I could relate to it all the way from the first quote to the very end. Most of us don’t embrace the in between because we are in a hurry to get to the destination. We can use the journey as an opportunity to learn more about ourselves and to experience life. Thanks for sharing!

  • krutika

    wow im speechless Emily nicely written loved it! 🙂

  • DE

    Emily- Have a gratitude what we have in life “in- between” is a unique idea, but if somebody don’t have mean or support system in place to survive “in-between” , I am wondering what to do?

  • Anneli

    I think I really needed to read this as I can relate to this in so many ways. The hardest part is to stop for a minute, or so, and appreciate what we have in this life and being happy with ourselves exactly in this moment. It is hard for me too, a lot of the times. So thank you for this lovely article!

  • Carolyn

    Thanks for the post….it came at a point in my life when I needed it most!

  • Doug Robertson

    Great insight Emily! As you say enjoy bein alive and the right opportunity will come! Life is about so much more than just working to achieve and acquire the things society says we should.

  • Angelica

    If you’re still looking, go on Idealist.org! That’s my go-to website for all of my internships. It’s also how I found my current job!

  • Essential Rose

    Wow! I am in this exact position except I’m about 20 years older than you. I haven’t found a job since coming back from overseas 4 months ago and temp work has been pretty hit and miss. Sometimes it’s a hard slog to pull myself out of depression after dealing with bill collectors, job rejection e-mails, and generally feeling like I should just jump off a bridge. I can only keep moving forward and appreciate what I do have and have faith that this situation is only temporary. Thank you for writing this; it reminds me that I’m not alone in the world.

  • Talya Price

    I am going through the same thing with my plans for moving to France.

  • ShePuentes

    I can relate to this on so many levels. Thanks for sharing.

  • ronah

    thanks… it brought me a new vision of things.. in between… not so bad, right? 😉 love it

  • Kristin Daemon

    Went through this myself (still am to an extent). Wonderful article!

  • The Finder

    Thank you Emily. 🙂 I appreciate it.

  • Josh

    Thank you for this really great insightful post

  • Rampal Bhardwaj

    Thanks you very much. Every word of it is so real.. will definitely follow that !!

  • Ingemarie

    Great article. I am in the same in-between situation, but i recently realized that my ‘status’ or ‘professional identity’ has nothing to do with who I really am… well for the job junt for you Emily: http://www.oneworld.nl/werken/vacatures/betaald is a nice page for jobs in the humanitarian aid sector! The site is in Dutch but the vacancy descriptions are usually in English!

  • lv2terp

    GREAT advice!!!!! Thank you for sharing your learned experience and wisdom! 🙂

  • Wow! I feel like this article was wrote specifically for my eyes! This is exactly where I am right now….although I do have a large goal floating around me, everything else is kind of a question mark for me now. Where will I go next? What will I do? What’s the ‘right’ decision? Sometimes we get so stuck throwing so many questions at ourselves and it really can be paralyzing! Great article I saved and shared it:-)

  • The part where you said “it’s really hard to separate what really matters to you from what matters to the people around you, but it’s necessary” struck a chord with me because that is so true in many instances and I think that so many of us are in need of taking time to realize how focusing on what matters to other people contributes to our being in the “in between” or at a crossroads, which can apply to most areas of life.

  • Jas

    Hi Emily,
    I can really relate on what you’ve written on so many levels.
    I was in a similar position as you a few months back. Finished my masters, took on a job at a company not knowing what I was doing. Ending up leaving the job 6 months later and also ended a relationship shortly before.
    During the this period when I was doing my job search and healing my heart, I learnt to count my blessings, to try to live in the present, how to let go of certain people and mindsets and how to go easy on that perfectionist in me.
    Things have taken a turn for the better since, I am still working through certain struggles.
    So this is a shoutout to you and all those going through rough times- keep you head up, sunshine follows the rain, it wouldn’t be cloudy for long. Lean on your family and close friends if you must, but remember, it’s ultimately yourself who can take you and your life forward. Just keep going!

  • Ramya Venkatesan

    Excellent article !

  • Emma

    Wonderful article. I have felt ‘in between’ for most of my adult life! I spent a long time at university and have had many short-term contract jobs in multiple countries. Only in the last couple of years have I started to come to terms with the reality of my life which is characterised by instability. I have realised that things like ‘stability’ and ‘security’ are not necessary. In fact, they are impossible; they are a lie. The only certainty I have is inside myself. Accepting this has been liberating.

  • jen

    Thank you for your post, I really needed to read this today. I just graduated, worked really hard and did well but I just do not find the subject fulfilling and there is no hope of ever finding a job in my field. Plus the rejection letters from job applications are really getting on my nerves! I keep worrying about the future and not appreciating the present and this post just brought this home to me. I a definitely going to the daily ‘to-do’. Thank you 🙂

  • Ellie

    Awesome. This summed up my current life, right down to the moving back home bit. I appreciate the story and perspective… It’s nice just to hear that I’m not alone in my experience!

  • L

    “Because if you can find peace in the midst of what feels like a total breakdown, you can find it anywhere.”

    That’s totally what I’m learning right now. I’ve never been in such a precarious situation in my life before, and yet I’ve been doing it for a month and I’m still alive. I’m proud of myself for having had to the courage to do it. Sometimes I have moments where I feel down and I freak out about my lack of direction and certainty, and other times I’m really thankful for the experience and I trust that with great risks come great rewards. If I can accept that this scary and stressful time in my life is just a part of my journey, it makes it easier, and even a little bit exciting.

  • av2009

    What a fantastic article! I’m 23 and have been lost in the “in-between” since graduating college in 2013. Sadly, I have allowed a difficult situation that occurred during my final semester to inject fear and anxiety into my life for far too long. After reading this, I feel encouraged and inspired. Thank you!

  • danetroup

    Great article. I’ve been going through some changes recently and have found myself frustrated with trying to force things to happen too quickly. I think I need to adjust to the changes and enjoy the moments that will create the new path.