When I've lost a job or a significant other or am, in some other way, sent into a tailspin of change, there is a sense of infinite possibilities. My boyfriend was let go from his job just before Christmas. There have since been conversations about other cities, about other careers, about teaching English in Argentina. I remember well the sense of limitlessness from my stint in joblessness in 2012 and recognized it in his experience. There has been resignation to uncertainty, to 2013 being an unplanned year.
Then, today, my boyfriend got on a bus to seek his fortune in New York. He found out last week that he has a promising job interview. The certainty of uncertainty dissolved with that invitation. We could no longer pretend that simply anything could happen when several more probable options suddenly pulled more sharply into focus. What has already been a very existential new year became an even more existential weekend. How do you decide what the future will be? How do you know which commitments to make?
I feel like I deal with this problem every year. Every year since graduation there have been new options. Every year, at the very least, I sign a new lease. Every year so far, I've had to hunt for a job. Every year so far, I've dated someone new. Every year, there is some risk to take, a choice to make. So far, though, these choices have been mainly informed by what options were immediately present, by what came my way. Most of my bad dating decisions have stemmed from dating whoever came into my life at the time. Until recently, it wasn't the most discerning process. The same with jobs. I applied to many and in a best case scenario heard back from two. I took the one that made a firm offer first.
When you are younger and doing everything for the first time, it's easy to live this way. Because something has never happened before, it's easy to imagine that it will never happen again. You take what comes because everything is scary, and the world seems almost limiting in its newness. Friends, lovers, jobs, even fashion accessories wander in and out according to availability. Intentional choices are far more rare.
But that's the difference between innocence and experience. Now that my boyfriend and I have each had several jobs in the past and dated several people, we have some basis on which to make decisions: decisions about work, about our individual lives, about one another. It's not necessarily made life easier, but it has made life better, having this background to draw from.
Still, change is inherently unnerving, especially when you get old enough to realize there are more possibilities than those that come floating by one afternoon. At some point, you have to plan and you have to strategize, or at the very least you know better what you'd like to be reaching for. After years of incompatible boyfriends, I realized my goal didn't need to be anything as lofty and mythic as marriage. It would be a better relationship goal just to look for someone who bothered to, say, communicate with me. After years of straight copywriting jobs, I realized I'd be much better suited for marketing than writing technical manuals. I didn't know how to get a communicative relationship or a marketing job, but I at least knew I wanted more than whatever happened along.
So, through a combination of age and finding ourselves suddenly cut loose from the few ties that bind in your 20s, my boyfriend and I have each had to seriously contemplate what we wanted to aim for. The result for me was starting to write again and to find a job at a local marketing company. The result for him is yet unknown. The thing about these tough contemplations, about these quarter-life strategy sessions, is that you never know if you are making the right decision. You look around and wonder how anyone is capable of any kind of decisive action.
When I first started freelancing for my current company, I was unsure. I enjoyed working from home and liked my clients. Sure, I was never completely confident I'd be able to pay rent, but freelancing suited me. I was nervous to work for one company and to feel the weight of an employer's expectations after my last full-time experience was so traumatizingly awful. When they offered me full time, I was even tempted to turn it down. It was a positive change and a step forward, but terrifying nonetheless.
It wasn't entirely a conscious choice to go to work for them. I kept showing up, and it turned out to be a perfect fit. I don't know what I would have done if I hadn't been able to ease into a job in a field I'd been aiming for in the town I already lived in. What if it had been a big firm on the West Coast who needed me to move in less than a month? That's a commitment and leap of faith I'm not entirely sure I could have made.
It's this experience that makes me wonder how one, my married friends knew their spouse was absolutely the right person; and two, how they knew it was absolutely the right time to get married. How do you make a leap like that? Inertia? A gut feeling? A slew of engagement ring ads in that little column on Facebook? Fortunately, dating isn't a call out of the blue from a distant company. It's a way to ease into commitment, much as I eased into my current job. But you can't always go through life just easing in to situations. At some point you have to jump in, whether the water is warm or freezing cold.
My boyfriend is on a bus to seek his fortune or maybe just learn enough to make those tough calls. One of my best friends just changed gears, forgoing grad school for now, and is deciding what comes next. Another friend, married and expecting, knows she made the right choices but is sometimes still surprised how they shape her life. She marvels at where she finds herself today, compared to what she might have envisioned a few years ago. A former neighbor met her partner by chance on a trip out west and later moved up north to be with him as soon as she could make professional arrangements. Every day, people make choices that lead them somewhere new. They might be right; they might be wrong. None of us knows without a crystal ball.
No matter how impulsive or pragmatic or adventurous or paralyzed by change we may be, we all have to make these commitments, to pick one of many possible futures. The Clash sang about it in "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" We think about it when we weigh a new job against home and family and friends and love. We think about it when we wonder if a great love could be THE love. We think about it when we contemplate if a town could be better than our town, a job better than our job, an apartment better than the one that already has all our things neatly arranged in it. No matter how perfect or problematic our lives, we still have to decide how and when and in what ways they will change. The older we get, the more experience gives us confidence in our choices, whether because we see our failures or because we've made good bets. Nothing is for certain. Sometimes, all you can do is act on your gut and your know-how and step forward, hoping and praying each time your feet hit the ground.
Meghan O'Dea is a 20-something writer, pop culture critic and social media fanatic. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter if you have questions, comments or stories on being a young adult in the workforce. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.