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Navigating Career Anxiety in High School: A Personal Journey to Finding Clarity

6 minute read

Career anxiety in high school is a ubiquitous challenge that often goes unspoken about. The weight of future decisions can feel overwhelming, but rest assured, you're not alone. I've walked the same path and experienced my fair share of career-related jitters. In this essay, I'll share my own story of grappling with career anxiety during high school and talk about strategies you can use to feel in control of your career path and ease your stress. Together, we'll explore how taking concrete actions can help you seize control and feel calm while embracing the ever-evolving nature of our career paths.

My Experience Dealing With Career Anxiety As a Student

Picture a high school auditorium buzzing with excitement. It's dress rehearsal night for the school play, and I am a bundle of nerves like many of my peers. The pressure to perform well in both school and extracurriculars was already weighing heavily on my shoulders. On this particular evening, the unease reached its peak.

I vividly remember clutching a brownie from the refreshment table, my fingers sticky with chocolate as I tried to memorize lines. The cast and crew bustled around me, each consumed by their own anxieties about future careers and college admissions. I couldn't help but feel a creeping sense of dread. What if I made the wrong choices now and set myself on an irreversible path toward a miserable career?

As the curtains drew back and I stepped onto the stage, a wave of both excitement and panic washed over me. At that moment, I realized the parallel between the uncertainties of high school and the ever-evolving world of career choices. The spotlight was on me, and I had a choice to make: let anxiety control me or take action to find my own path.

Taking a breath and seeking help

First and foremost, it's essential to acknowledge that anxiety is a real and valid condition. If you find that any kind of anxiety, including career anxiety, is severely impacting your daily life, seeking the guidance of a mental health professional is a courageous step toward managing your anxiety effectively. There is absolutely no shame in getting professional help when you need it.

One of the most crucial lessons I learned in managing career anxiety is to take things one step at a time. It's easy to become overwhelmed by the grandeur of your future aspirations and swallowed in the plans and hopes. Anxiety thrives in the future. If you can, I encourage you to take each step as it comes. Focusing on actionable steps in the now can help you regain control of your career journey and make the experience feel less overwhelming. 

Actionable Steps to Ease Career Anxiety

Redefine how you look at careers

Previous generations may have set an expectation that you should know exactly what you want to do coming out of high school and stay in that career until you retire. Thankfully, that's different from how the working world often works now. Instead of straight lines leading to a 401(k), our jobs are more of a winding path—and that's okay! Understand that careers are nearly as dynamic as we are. They are not fixed routes but evolving journeys. Embrace the idea that your interests and passions can change over time, and it's okay not to have a map of the entire trip. 

Gain experience

Now we're onto the good stuff. High school is an excellent time to dip your toes into different fields. Explore internships, take classes that pique your curiosity, volunteer, and consider part-time jobs. These experiences will help you build skills and provide valuable insights into what you enjoy. Don't worry. You don't have to dive into one subject for the rest of your life! Instead, take a smattering of diverse experiences and reflect on how you felt during the process. That will help you narrow down your interests and what feels right to you.

And remember, there is no substitute for actually trying something out. I've enjoyed watching countless DIY videos but only realized it was a lousy fit once I held a nail gun in my hand.

Build your network

Like gaining hands-on experience, building your network can help you find what fits. Sometimes, it isn't a career that calls to you so much as a group of people you love being around. If you feel at home with the charisma of teachers, the wit of engineers, or the charm of marketers, that feeling can help you find a career. 

You can do this by actively developing and maintaining your professional network by using social media, attending conferences, and participating in extracurricular activities. Another great place to seek guidance is your teachers, who can connect you with mentors who can provide valuable advice and insights.

Conduct informational interviews

Another way to 'find your people,' so to speak, is to reach out to professionals in fields you're interested in. Conduct informational interviews to gain a deeper understanding of their careers, their daily lives, and their personalities. This can help you make informed decisions and connect with individuals who may serve as future mentors.

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Set realistic expectations

This is an unfortunately challenging, but critically important part of dealing with career anxiety. Despite what society often tells us, it's perfectly normal not to have your entire career path mapped out in high school. Don't compare yourself to others or succumb to external pressures. Recognize that the world changes rapidly, and the ideal job you imagine today might not even exist yet! Treat yourself with kindness and be realistic by focusing on the immediate next step instead of a full career map. 

Focus on the present moment

I know this is so hard!! But my regrets from high school are being too forward-thinking. It's okay (and even healthy) to use high school as a time for self-discovery. Venture off the beaten path and learn more about yourself and the world around you by being as in the moment as you can be.

Read Alex Yang’s post, Advice to My High School Self: Reflections From a Graduate Student for more insights about the importance of using your high school years to explore your passions.

Trust the Journey and Yourself

While career anxiety can feel all-consuming during high school, remember that you are not alone in this journey. In a few years, you'll look back with compassion and kindness, appreciating how much you've grown and learned since your high school self. Sometimes, the road to discovering your ideal career isn't straight and narrow, and that's perfectly okay. It's essential to try different things, stumble and learn, and embrace your path's ever-evolving nature.

So, take a breath. Career anxiety may be a formidable foe, but with these steps, you can make it through. You have the resilience and strength to navigate the uncertainties of your future. Trust in yourself, be open to change, and remember that you'll make it – one step at a time.

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