When I was young, I thought life was a linear series of achievements. A long list of boxes to check off, and once you checked enough of them, you were an adult with a career. I have since come to realize it’s a bit more like an Etch-a-Sketch, restarting and erasing constantly, because those two knobs are impossible to control.
When I graduated college, a decade ago now, I entered the workforce with that unjaded hopefulness that every millennial has. I had done everything I was told to do, so I just needed to find the jobby trees and pick my favorite job like an overripe orange. Or, at least that was what was supposed to happen.
Six months later I was yelling at children that weren’t mine. Don’t worry, I was a school bus driver not a lunatic, although somedays I felt more like the latter. The kids didn’t listen anyway, so I may as well have been talking to myself.
I finally gave up and decided the only bus rules I had were ‘no killing or maiming anyone’. It seemed to work. I just had to listen to 45 over-caffeinated shouting kids for 30 minutes while I attempted to navigate the backroads of Minneapolis, MN. I only crashed one school bus, so I count this as a success story.
I lasted a single school year before I shook the Etch-a-Sketch and found work as an assisted-living life-coach. I also found a ceramic studio that let me put me studio-art degree to work and I started selling mugs at my local coffee shop to pay for coffee.
I hadn’t found a job that would hire me full-time, and with the amount of student debt I had, I felt trapped. The idea of a career seemed like someone else’s dream. A fantasy that millennials are haunted with. I was 25, and my resume looked like an arts and crafts project, sans the glitter and glue.
I was stuck in the familiar loop of ‘you need three years of experience in this job, to get this job’. I stopped caring about any particular career-field, and in the end, I decided to enlist in the U.S. Air Force. It was a guaranteed job and job training for at least four years. Desperate times called for desperate measures.
I still don’t know if it was the best decision I could have made or the worst. But I wasn’t a bus driver or in a paint factory making road paint, so I had that going for me.
My assigned job was photojournalism, and my assigned base was in California, documenting missile tests and satellite launches. I think this is the closest I have been to a career and the longest I have ever had a single job. Granted, it’s not like I could have quit even if I wanted to.
I wrote news articles and feature stories for the base paper and website while I railed against the rigidity of the system. I wasn’t insubordinate but let’s just say the military and I didn’t always agree. Ok, that was an understatement, I walked the line between insubordination and obedience like it was a tightrope at the circus.
I have been told that if you have no expectations you can’t be disappointed. Well, I had expectations, and they fell drastically short.
I started driving Uber as a way to make extra money on the weekends. I was 30 and my time in the military was swiftly coming to end. I still had no plan, other than that I wanted my freedom.
After four years of chomping at the bit, I was free of the military. But once again I felt my life reset, and the stress of finding a career begin to bloom. I was still in California where the cost of living is insane, and so is the competition in the job market.
I wanted something completely different than what I had been doing, so naturally I ended up at a winery. ‘Drinking and knowing things’ seemed to work for Tyrion, so why not me? Perhaps it was a hard-right turn, but it offered new skills and challenges that I so desperately craved. It was also during this two-year stint that I decided to branch out into nightclub and wedding photography. I took this time of living paycheck to paycheck to figure out what I was doing next and question most of my life choices up to that point.
We live in the generation of manifesting our destinies by projecting our desires out into the world around us – sitting and meditating on what we want. But what I realised from that is that all I knew is what I didn’t want. I had no metric for success or even what a career would look like if it were staring me in the face.
Almost every job I had up till that point was based on a single thing – survival.
I would almost laugh when I sat down at job interviews and people would ask me why I wanted a job, and I always wanted to answer, ‘because I like being able to buy food.’
I turned 33 this year and I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up, but I am back in school for postgraduate studies, pursuing writing and publishing to see where that takes me. I think I’m enjoying the journey now, more than the destination.
I rather like the eclectic state of my resume now, although it often takes more explaining than it’s worth. But what I find most remarkable about all of it, is that my experience isn’t unique – it’s a generational phenomenon. Most of my friends have experienced similar things, collecting skills like it’s going out of style, but then realising that life is way more fun as an Etch-a-Sketch.
Senior Airman Ian Dudley, 30th Space Wing Public Affairs photojournalist, photographs an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile during an operational test Aug. 2, 2017, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ian Dudley/Released)
Ian Dudley is currently studying for his Master’s degree in Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. He keeps the existential dread at bay by writing absurd stories and learning random skills that will only be useful in the event of an apocalypse. He is from New Hampshire.