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How to Conquer Millennial Career Paralysis

11/21/2013 09:18 EST | Updated 01/25/2014 04:01 EST

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Mary has not yet finished her undergraduate degree, but is already paralyzed with fear about whether to apply for grad school or get a job. Enid is so terrified she'll end up in a joyless job that she (ironically) took a crappy job working just 10 hours a week, so as not to limit any big opportunities down the line. Marcus is overwhelmed about whether to travel after graduation or work and pay down his student loans. His choice will impact not only the next eight months of his life, but also the future of his relationship, his finances, and his career.

I know each of these individuals personally, and none of them fits the coddled, overindulged, and bratty stereotype so cruelly assigned to the millennial generation as a whole. Mary, Enid and Marcus are down-to-earth, accomplished, hard-working, and highly capable people. But each of them struggles with what I call "career paralysis" -- the inability to make any career decision for the fear of making the wrong career decision. Career paralysis is often the result of an overwhelming number of possibilities, and it is a phenomenon all too familiar to millennials in their twenties.

Twenty-somethings often find themselves paralyzed with indecision as they anxiously deliberate the creation of career, family, and future when on the doorstep of graduation. In her book F*CK! I'm in My Twenties, twenty-something author Emma Koenig writes, "The truth is that graduating from college is just like any other landmark rite of passage, like, say, losing one's virginity." Which is to say that the actual event itself hardly lives up to the hype, given all the fevered anticipation.

Koenig says that being warned about this twenty-something turmoil is not the same as experiencing it first-hand. "The accumulated impressions from past experiences, others' reports, and media representations did not fully prepare me for the WTF-ness of actually living it." Perhaps no other word so concisely and accurately nails the twenty-something career experience as "WTF-ness." This WTF-ness phenomenon may partly explain the hype around HBO's Girls -- one of the first representations of the true-to-life frustrated apprehension experienced in one's twenties. It's novel in a sea of inaccurately projected glamour.

A person's twenties are fraught with questions about future career, home, partner, family, and all of the other grown-up realities that creep up on people in this age group. New graduates, especially, stand apprehensively at the threshold of adulthood -- no longer students, but not yet confident in their preparation for what lies ahead. Their trepidation is understandable. Any step forward also means a missed step in another direction. Mother-daughter authors of Twenty Something Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig say, "Maturity, arguably, means coming to the realization that it's time to start making choices and closing a few doors." These closed doors, the many possibilities not pursued, are what make it so hard to move forward in your twenties.

So what's a twenty-something entering the workforce to do? Consider these three steps.

1. Find strength in numbers.

First, take comfort in the fact that you are not alone in grappling with paralyzing decisions. For the most part, your peers grapple right along with you -- it's a rite of passage. While this may not dissolve the anxiety, there is a certain relief that comes in knowing you're not alone. If you're a paralyzed twenty-something, I expect you're already talking with your friends about your shared angst. If you're not, you should. Strength in numbers.

2. Pick a door.

Second, get ready for it (*deep breath*)... you have to do something. Up until now, the real world has loomed largely hypothetical, which is why the seemingly simple task of making decisions is so damn daunting in actual practice. The main problem with doing something, of course, is that you cannot do everything. I hate to be the bearer of bad news on this, but eventually you'll have to pick something. Door #1 might be a job in marketing. Door #2 might be a year abroad. Door #3 might be graduate school. You cannot go through all three doors. Not all at once, at least. Pick a door. Take a deep breath. Walk through the door. Which brings me to my last and most important point...

3. Change course if necessary.

Remember that you can change your mind. There are very few exceptions to this. When it comes to a career, a home, a country of residence, a romantic partner, and many other areas of life, you can change your mind -- not always, but often. If you don't like what you find behind Door #1, you can gather up the lessons you've learned and take them to Door #2.

Anyone who has ever had a breakup, accepted a promotion, moved to another city, been fired, changed careers, or gone on another first date is simply trying Door #2...or #9, or #14. Heck, my great-grandmother went back to school at the age of 70 to study computers. There's no age restriction on do-overs, but take comfort in the fact that they're easier in your 20s than they are in your 70s. And if all else fails -- if you find yourself in the fetal position on the floor, paralyzed with indecision -- just remember that it will pass, and that being a twenty-something means dealing with a little "WTF-ness."

Published at Forbes and Careergasm.

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