Eighteen months ago, I graduated from university.
While my friends found glamorous jobs with “Big 4” firms or jobs that sent them jet-setting all over Southeast Asia, I found myself plunged into a life crisis, struggling to find my perfect job.
What do I do with my life?
For the next 18 months after graduation, I tried everything that had almost nothing to do with what I studied: interned with a political party; served as an assistant for a member of parliament; taught as a tutor at a state-funded tuition centre; and signed up for a talent search company that promoted local independent musicians.
I’m not alone.
Every year more than 180,000 Malaysian students graduate with diplomas and degrees. But one out of four will end up being unemployed.
Employers point fingers at poor language proficiency, badly-written resumes and unrealistic salary demands.
A recent World Bank report notes that there’s a clear mismatch between the curriculum taught in universities, and what the industry needs.
But there’s a deeper problem here: If we knew what we really wanted to do, we would be really passionate about it, and our future employers would detect that passion during job interviews. But the trouble is we don’t know what we really want.
In university, we strive hard to ace our exams. We want our parents to beam with pride at our success.
We chase after the best-paying jobs with the highest recognition. Along the way, we burn midnight oil so that we become molten wax – malleable enough to fit into the Asian mould of success.
That’s the usual way to find the perfect job, right?
So I passed all my ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) papers in a single attempt. And graduated with first class honours.
And lo and behold: here I was, in a land of milk and honey, with so many possible audit and accounting firms to choose from.
I should have been proud of my achievements. But somehow, all I could think of was, why do I still feel so lost?
As I clinched the hard-earned certificate that would launch me into a 30-year career trajectory, I began to wonder, “Is this what I really want to do for the rest of my life?”
Most of us feel this way. But rather than think this through, we get busy by emailing our resumes, like a game of roulette, hoping to land a decent job that we do not hate.
And that’s why most young people feel half-hearted about their jobs. A 2012 Kelly Global Workforce Index survey in Malaysia indicated that less than half of us feel that our jobs give us a “sense of meaning”.
According to the survey, young people want personal fulfilment and personal growth more than compensation and benefits. We want meaningful work.
And that’s how I found myself sitting alone on a beach in Koh Phangan, Thailand, toes buried in sand, questioning the wisdom of pursuing a conventional career path.
As I flipped the pages of Barefoot Leadership by Alvin Ung, a paragraph drew my thoughts to a halt:
“We pay a costly price when we choose not to act on our most deeply held convictions. We violate our essential selves. We are paralysed into inaction. Above all, we are held hostage by our own minds. The fear of failure, ironically, looms larger than the failure itself.”
Listen and act
I knew what I didn’t want to do. I just needed the courage not to do it.
So I took a leap of faith. I made the decision not to venture into audit after spending the past three years studying ACCA.
That was the toughest decision I had to make.
My decision seems ridiculous – even self-indulgent – considering the efforts my parents saved and scrimped so I could get a higher education.
I am fully aware of the worries that cloud them as their daughter sets out on a journey of “self discovery” – a term that most baby boomers would deem unnecessary.
With these thoughts at the back of my mind, I hoped that along the way, I would find better ways to give back as a young person – to my parents and everyone else around me.
After my university graduation, I felt the urgency to find the right answers. Now I realise that the journey of finding purpose begins by not about finding the right answers, but by asking better questions.
The biggest lesson I learned is this: we need to change the way we ask ourselves questions about life.
Are you on a similar soul-searching journey?
My tip: don’t ask too many heavyweight, philosophical or open-ended questions about life.
They can lead to paralysis. Instead focus on asking three bold questions that will determine your next step forward.
Here are my big three:
- In what ways can I best use my skills and strengths for this season in my life?
- Right now, where do I feel myself being led to serve, learn and grow?
- What are the opportunities I see in front of me that will help me take one step forward?
These questions have propelled me on an unexpected, soul-searching journey.
The really nice thing about the three questions is that you can use them, too, even when you’re pursuing a conventional job.
Stephanie is embarking on a journey of self-discovery, carrying a backpack filled with big questions and a notebook to scribble down ‘aha’ moments. She hopes to find her true north some day and help other lost souls along the way. She is currently helping Alvin Ung, the author of Barefoot Leadership, facilitate workshops and write a book on purposeful leaders in Asia. Drop us a line or two in the comment box below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more Starting Young articles, click here.
Published in English daily The Star, Malaysia, 7 February 2015