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What to do when you’re too intimidated to ask questions?

It can feel like everyone else already knows what they’re supposed to do. Like there’s a script or a guidebook that you somehow missed out on. It can be hard to know where to even start, when every step forward feels like an acknowledgment that you’re not doing it right.

Here’s the thing:

  • Right where you are, with everything you know and have done up to now, is a great place to start.
  • Nobody else is going to live your life.
  • Your future depends on what matters to you, not on anyone else’s timelines or checklists.

Here are some ways to start moving forward in the face of self-doubt, uncertainty, and fear.

Do stuff. It doesn’t have to be obviously career-relevant stuff. If you don’t have a job, get a job. If you have a job that you’re bored with, get a different job that requires different skills, or look into getting promoted into a managerial goal. If you’re involved in a volunteer, religious, or political organization, look for a way to “level up” your participation — identify a project you can lead, an event you can create. If you’re not involved, and you would like to be, find an organization that speaks to your values and look for ways to use your skills. If you love your major, look for a research project, student group, or campus publication to get involved in. If you prefer to spend time on independent creative work, get serious about finding a platform, an audience, or someone to collaborate with.

Listen in. There are a lot of ways to get insight into potential future paths without having to expose your ignorance or uncertainty. Here at the University of Illinois, the Humanities Professional Resource Center, the Career Center, the cultural houses, Research Park, Illinois Entrepreneurship, the Office of Minority Student Affairs, the Siebel Center for Design, and many, many other campus units have workshops, panels, and guest lectures. The “Events” tab on Handshake will also point you to various ways to hear directly from employers. If something sounds interesting, that’s a good reason to check it out. Nothing commits you to (or blocks you from) a particular field or industry.

Know yourself. What do you want? What are your main priorities for life after graduation? You can’t always get what you want, but the better you understand the things that are most important to you (whether it’s having meaningful work, paying off your student loans as quickly as possible, satisfying your family’s expectations for prestige, living in a particular place, being in a position to help people, or or or…), the more likely you are to head in the direction that’s right for you. It’s also helpful to glean insights from the things you’ve done up to now. What kinds of things do people ask for your help on? What kinds of activities bring forth your best effort? What achievements are you proudest of? What part-time job or extracurricular activity have you found most satisfying?

Let yourself be curious. At some point it helps to start asking questions. It’s a lot easier when those questions are things you genuinely want to know. There are a lot of entities on campus — starting with the many career offices! — that exist to help you figure out what you don’t know and where to get answers. It’s also the case that most people really enjoy talking about themselves and love giving advice. If you encounter someone doing a job that looks interesting, ask them how they got it, what a typical day is like, what they do and don’t like about it — and if you want to know more, ask them who else you should talk to and what advice they have for you about learning more.

Just as you are, right now, in this moment, you have everything you need to start moving towards your future.