Hello and welcome to our advice column, Ask MR, where we answer your burning questions, hoping we’ll become the ointment to your life rash. Ask us a question by sending one of us a DM, emailing firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “ASK MR A QUESTION,” or simply leaving one in the comments.
“I am 30 years old and you could say that I am quite successful in my field of work. But I am not happy. Signs are not visible at first. I look happy, my social media feed looks happy, my family and friends think I am happy. But the truth is this: I am very angry at myself for taking this career road, for putting effort into it, for accepting promotions, and for acting like I want it. I am a liar and hypocrite. But now I want to change. This is the moment, I am 30 years old, I am still youngish. But I don’t know where to start? What to do? How to do it? I don’t know what I want. Is there anything you can advise me?”
On my first read, your letter sounded kind of dark—a little depressed maybe, and definitely anxious. But I’ve probably read it around 30 times now, and it’s starting to lighten up for me. In fact, every time I finish it again, I get a little more excited for you. I don’t know why I missed it the first time, but your words read a lot like a necessary reckoning, and they’re imbued with a sense of urgency—two things that make for great change agents and motivators, even if they make you feel a little panicky. You’re clearly on the cusp of something.
I can relate to your situation for a few reasons. For one, I’ve been where you are, professionally: angry at myself for following a path I didn’t ultimately want. I remember how overwhelming that feeling was, how it would build up in my chest, making me feel powerless. I also recently turned 30 and experienced a birthday-related spiral I didn’t anticipate, so I understand the insidious, almost surprising role age can play in self-analysis. And finally, I know how it feels to want something different but have no idea how to get it—or what “it” even is. All of these scenarios are deeply uncomfortable, and they can make you feel one of the strangest emotions: urgently aimless.
Obviously I can’t tell you exactly where to go to find yourself (I wish I could), but I hope I can offer you a kind of pathological roadmap—a way to mentally chart your path forward so you don’t feel like an errant traveler with her boots stuck in quicksand and a fake smile on her face. That’s a little how your letter reads, but I sense this isn’t it for you. You’re just a little stuck, which is one of the most fundamental human predicaments.
As I see it, your first hurdle is yourself. You’re angry, doubting your life decisions, calling yourself a liar. I know those shamey feelings well—I remember the anger the most viscerally. During the peak of my professional ennui about five years ago, it would crash over me in waves at random times. I’d be halfway through a spreadsheet or in the middle of a meeting when suddenly the pivotal choices that had gotten me to where I was would flash through my mind like a lowlight reel and I’d just seethe. Once I remember texting my mom in a flurry of 3 p.m. frustration, asking why she didn’t stop me from doing this or that in the past, desperate to pin my choices on someone else, and she just said something like: “Babe, I don’t know what to tell you. You were confident in your decisions! And they taught you a lot.” She was right, but that just made me hate myself more.
As you might imagine, those months where I courted my anger and regrets over and over weren’t particularly productive. In fact, often they felt like the opposite; I was so busy retracing my missteps I couldn’t imagine a path forward. That didn’t stop me from trying though—I thought and thought and thought, waited for an answer to appear, didn’t find one, got mad all over again. This is how shame works; it keeps you on a toxic feedback loop going nowhere. And I didn’t manage to find my way out of it until—brace yourself, Pinterest—I learned to forgive myself. It’s hard to explain without sounding corny, but accepting my past decisions and having compassion for the version of me that made them was critical to my ability to make new ones I could be proud of.
So my first question to you is: Who were you when you made the decisions that got you here, and how can you better understand her? Consider the version of you that chose this career path, pursued it ambitiously, and tried to project happiness to her family and friends. What motivated her? What fears, what insecurities, what uncertainties? Consider what factors were out of her control—her upbringing, her environment, her mental health, her luck. Can you extend her the empathy you might extend to your best friend? And maybe more importantly, what about her do you cherish and hope to still embody?
It took me a long time to answer that last question for myself, but ultimately I realized the 17-year-old me who chose to study something I didn’t care about was deeply thoughtful and future-oriented. As much as I envied the kids who made choices emotionally, nary a thought to the consequences, that was never going to be me. Learning the benefits and drawbacks of my pragmatism was so much more helpful than maligning it outright (and it also helped me understand where I could stand to take more risks). You may feel different from the person you were when you got yourself into this situation, but I’m sure there are parts of her you want to protect, if only to use a little differently going forward.
I know all this sounds like woo-woo therapy shit (which happens to be some of my favorite shit), but I think you’ll find it hard to make progress if you don’t make peace with yourself. You said you’re ready for a change, but the good kind of change—the kind that blows up the sediment and fortifies the good stuff—requires patience, self-respect, and a willingness to take a chance on yourself. If you’re too busy calling yourself a liar and a hypocrite, I think you’ll find it hard not only to move forward, but to quiet the noise enough to figure out what forward even looks like to you.
Speaking of which, another question: What does it mean? You mentioned happiness a lot in your letter, but I’m not sure that will be your most useful measurement if you’re looking for something more sustained and rooted. My guess is you’re after fulfillment. (As Leandra implied in this story, it’s easy but not helpful to confuse the two.) Whereas happiness is fleeting and unpredictable, fulfillment points to something deeper and more fundamental. This word is thrown around a lot in modern conversations about work and life and work/life balance, but I find it helpful to view it less literally. In my experience, fulfillment isn’t a checklist of things I’ve managed to master and balance, it’s simply knowing myself and building a life around that knowledge. Of course, that’s not actually so simple, so it may help to ask yourself two things: What’s fulfilled you in the past, and what can you do to get to know your present self better?
Maybe “getting to know yourself” sounds like a strange or teenage endeavor, but the impulse to fill in the blanks of who we are and what we want with cultural scripts and other people’s voices can still be strong around our age—especially when it comes to a rite of passage like turning 30. This is why the question of what we want can feel so impossible to answer (and unproductive to ponder). But getting to know ourselves better, whether through experimentation or risk-taking or therapy, has a satisfying sense of momentum to it. It offers us a path forward when we don’t know what we want yet.
When I was struggling to find professional fulfillment, things started to turn for me when I stopped thinking about my path and instead started forging a new one, even if I still didn’t know what I wanted. This is where my newfound self-acceptance and respect became really helpful, because forging a messy path takes a lot of guts and humility. It means asking for help, looking silly, trying things you’ve never tried but wanted to. It might even mean enduring a bunch of false starts, which can be embarrassing. I’m not necessarily talking about trying a new hobby or quitting your job (although I could be), I just mean the kind of boundary-pushing you’ve shied away from over the last 10 years. The things you’ve put on the backburner due to shame, anger, and fear.
For me, trying new things and breaking my rules helped me rewrite some of my old scripts, which led me to new and surprising definitions of “fulfillment”—all of which helped me make more confident decisions, something I couldn’t have done from my original, stagnant shame spiral. I always feel cliché when I advise myself or others to just do something (anything), instead of ruminate, but life has shown me over and over that action answers more questions than inaction, so I’m sticking to it.
Maybe that’s why the sense of urgency toward the end of your message excites me. I get the feeling you’re about to break through your antsiness to something actionable. Maybe it won’t be the “right” thing on the first try, but sometimes the right wrong thing is all we need to shake the right thing loose. Until then, I think the reckoning you’re experiencing is something to be proud of. You’re being honest about your feelings—you could push down them all down, explain them away, and maintain the status quo, but instead you’re facing them. And if that’s not something you’ve done before with such acuity, that means you’re already making a change. Now see if you can keep the momentum going.