In the second semester of my senior year of college, I sat down on the overstuffed sofa in my advisor’s office and buried my hand in her communal bowl of M&Ms.
“I still don’t know what I want to do,” I said. I’d been repeating this unproductive lament during my weekly visits with her ever since coming to terms with the revelation that, despite my deep affection for The Good Wife, I actually did not want to be a lawyer when I grew up.
My advisor stopped chewing on the end of her pen and gave me a look I couldn’t read (although in hindsight it might have been an expression of annoyance given I was treating her communal M&Ms like an individual serving). She began telling me about how she worked in consulting for two years after she graduated. Every time she was bored — on her lunch break, waiting for a document to print, or even peeing on the toilet — she found herself thinking about the concluding paragraph of her college thesis about postmodern theater and how she would elaborate on it.
“That’s why I became an English teacher,” she said. “Because I couldn’t get that out of my head.”
She asked me what I thought about when I was bored and my mind was free to roam around and noodle whatever it wanted to noodle. She asked if there was anything in particular that buzzed in the periphery of my thoughts as I went about my day, or inspired me to open multiple tabs to browse on my computer. She told me to consider what the answer was, and warned it might take some time to identify, because sometimes the thing you’re thinking about constantly has become so ingrained it feels like an actual part of you, like a nose or an eye or a name.
“Once you figure it out, ask yourself if there’s a job where you could think about that thing for a living,” she said.
That turned out to be the best career advice I’ve ever received. I realized the thing I loved to think about when I had nothing else to think about was my (now-defunct) blog, where I posted photos of dorky outfits I was wearing and wrote entire essays about them that no one read except my mom and a few other internet weirdos. Clothes were the recurring theme that colored in the gaps of my mental white space — clothes, and the stories they tell about who we want to be.
It would be a long time before I had the opportunity to think about those stories for a living. There were multiple years and multiple jobs in which I didn’t feel particularly fulfilled, but my advisor’s words of wisdom helped me navigate each career shift, bringing me closer and closer to what I knew I wanted.
What about you? What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?
Collage by Emily Zirimis.