The highlight of my senior year of high school was getting accepted into my dream school — the University of Oxford. I’d had my sights set on the English program at this university for years, and everything I did throughout high school was geared towards getting in. My parents admitted they’d been worried about how I’d react if I hadn’t gotten in, because my focus was so single-minded. Opening that email felt like an affirmation of years of work and dedication paying off, but also like a sign that the attitude I’d adopted was the right one. A one-track mind and a solid outline of what I wanted my future to look like seemed like a recipe for success.
And then I found my last year at Oxford cut abruptly short by the COVID-19 pandemic. My roommates and I barely had time to say goodbye as we moved out, not knowing if we would see each other again, I took my final exams from my bedroom in California, and instead of a graduation ceremony, we watched a video montage on Zoom. Yet this was all still easier to deal with, somehow, than the confusing, stagnant few months that came after. I had envisioned my plans for immediately after I graduated almost a year in advance. I pictured myself moving to New York City to do an internship, taking some time to travel, getting a job for a year, and then applying for a master’s program — and all of those opportunities seemed to dry up in an instant. The internships I was applying for went radio silent halfway through the process as the companies spent all their efforts readjusting to COVID-19, travel was out of the question and it was hardly possible to imagine what the next day would look like, let alone the next year.
For a long time, I felt stuck. Neither I nor anyone else in the world had a plan of action for how to deal with a situation like this, and it’s hard adapting to a set of circumstances that have no precedent or rule book to guide you. I felt increasingly powerless, and despite knowing that a global pandemic was out of my control in every conceivable way, it was hard not to view my state of stasis as a personal feeling. My mental health and motivation got increasingly lower, and even though this was an experience that just about everyone I knew shared, it still felt deeply isolating.
The thing I hadn’t accounted for, however, is that stillness doesn’t have to be a bad thing. For the first time in as long as I could remember, I had space and time — so much time — to actually explore and revel in the freedom of not having a plan. There’s something very healthy and liberating about releasing yourself from your own expectations. Having plans and a roadmap is great, but it also makes it easy to fall into the trap of holding yourself to decisions you made when you were younger, in completely different circumstances and with a different set of experiences than you have now. We grow and change as people, and it’s only organic that our ideas for what we want to do with our futures change with us.
I got myself out of feeling stuck not by looking at statistics and news articles the way I used to, but by reaching out to speak to other people. I knew I loved to write, so I reached out to people on LinkedIn who wrote or had creative careers for a living and messaged them, asking about how they got where they are. I lucked out because not only did I get to speak to people who were willing to be generous with their time, they all had more time on account of being home during the pandemic! Several women I messaged were happy to chat with me on the phone about careers in fields like publishing and advertising.
Through speaking to them, I found out about a fantastic copywriting program I’d never even heard of before last year, and ended up being able to apply really quickly, since I didn’t have to consider moving to another city. Since starting, I’ve been taught by teachers and worked with classmates all over the world thanks to Zoom, and have been able to spend time pursuing my writing and a host of other interests, even doing research into careers I’d never considered as actual possibilities before the pandemic.
If you’re going through a similar period of uncertainty to me, the good news is that I’ve realized there are things you can do to navigate it. The most important thing to know is that it’s absolutely okay to ask for help! One thing the pandemic has encouraged us to do is to make an effort to use technology to reach out to people and make connections we might not have thought were accessible to us. This is a perfect time to cold message people and ask for advice about your career and lifestyle and anything else.
You can also take this time to think about and evaluate what you want the next stage of your career or life plan to look like. Spend time doing research on careers you’re interested in, look for avenues to enter that career, and see if that’s something that sounds interesting to you.
And remember, moves you make right now don’t have to be huge, permanent commitments. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to apply for jobs or positions that aren’t the glamorous entrances to the industry you might have imagined. If you need something that helps support you financially, then it’s as important to accept that as it is to look for the fancy internships and roles that you feel like you might need to advance your career.
This a great time to reset your boundaries and remind yourself — say it with me now — you are living through a pandemic! Just keeping afloat is a feat at the moment, and it’s completely fine that grand plans have been thrown off. None of this reflects any failure or inadequacy on your part. Ultimately, all you can do is your best, and prioritizing the wellbeing of yourself and the people around you is a perfectly valid reason not to dedicate yourself to job hunting and career planning the way you might have thought you would.
Being at home has also given me the space to work out how I can centre myself and deal with anxiety and uncertainty in my own way — I’ve been journaling and using the Calm app as really cathartic outlets to turn to when I feel overwhelmed, as well as turning to friends and family all over the world through messages and video calls. It’s not that everything has magically worked itself out, but I’ve learnt to be okay with uncertainty and find the benefits in it. The ability to stop and take stock, and to explore new things has been a surprising gift in such strange times.
Most of all, however, I’ve seen proof that the best-laid plans can get upended from right below me, and yet I can still come out the other side looking forward to whatever comes next. Getting through the turmoil and uncertainty of the pandemic isn’t about magically being put together and on a straightforward track — it’s about taking the time to check in with yourself and learn how to manage your reaction to that sense of the unknown. Once you handle that, whatever comes next can just be another big adventure.