There might be no time more terrifying or exciting than the first couple of months after graduating college. If you’re not opting directly for grad school, it’s the first time in your life you’re truly in charge of your path. And that, frankly, is scary as hell.
Which is why I thought I was the luckiest person in the world when I found my dream job before I even graduated. After a grueling interview process that spanned several months, I had been accepted to a community organizing training program. I was going to help people. I was going to effect real change on the local level. I was going to make a difference. It seemed all the hard work I had done for the past four years was going to pay off.
My last few months in Chicago were spent saying goodbye, packing up and looking forward to the next big step in my life. While my friends continued to job hunt, I was jetting off to a new place—glamorous Toledo, Ohio—to get started on my dream work.
In my mind, this wasn’t just a job, it was truly the start of my greater purpose. I had always seen myself as someone who wanted to fight injustices. I grew up with a mother who never had health insurance or a bank account. We spent my childhood moving around every time she couldn’t pay the rent or her friends got tired of us sleeping on their couch or in their attic. She did her best, but everything was a struggle. I wanted to grow up to work helping people like her. To defend those who couldn’t defend themselves. This job was the start of that life for me. There was only going up from here, right? I had done it.
Flash-forward four short weeks when I began to realize this job wasn’t all I had been promised. I was working with one other person, who, like me, had just graduated college and was ready to save the world. But we didn’t know what we were doing. And we didn’t have any guidance. We were on the ground in the middle of nowhere, with no direction and no support.
Not only had I picked the wrong job, I felt I had picked the wrong dream. The wrong goal.
Flash-forward to when my car was broken into at a church I was working with in the middle of the day.
Flash-forward to when someone was shot in my backyard while running from a police officer.
Flash-forward to me sitting in what they called our office, trying to make sense of what I had done. I uprooted my life. I left Chicago—a place I called home for almost five years. I left my friends. I left my mentors. I left people who could have helped me grow and find a career that would have really fit, all for the chance at a dream that was collapsing around me after less than two months.
Six weeks after my arrival, I began packing up my life for the second time to head for Charlotte, North Carolina, to move in with my newly relocated parents. Defeat. Failure. Screw-up. I repeated those words over and over in my head. Not only had I picked the wrong job, I felt I had picked the wrong dream. The wrong goal. I didn’t know what was next. I couldn’t think past all the wrong decisions I made to get to this spot. I was starting over at 22, and it sucked.
But today, six years later, I’m sitting in a café in Charlotte overlooking the skyline. I am an entirely different person than the one who packed up her life in a PT Cruiser and cried all the way from Ohio to North Carolina, blaring Alanis Morissette and mourning her seemingly lost dreams.
You will find a new dream and a new life. And you might just be surprised at what you can make of it.
My career isn’t at all what I thought it would be, this is still true. I work for a lending company, but despite working in an industry I had not planned for, I found a company that makes me want to come to work every day. And I found a new list of criteria for my dream job: money to pay my bills and pay down debt, enough freedom and time off to travel, the flexibility and opportunity to take time to do the things I love outside of work.
I’m not helping people in the way I thought I would through my career, but I now have time to volunteer. I work at a yoga studio that has become a second home to me. I surround myself with people who encourage me to grow and learn every single day. I write. I found a home in Charlotte that makes my life feel whole and wonderful.
The dreams I had when I graduated college are not the dreams I have now. A part of me will always wonder what could have been if I had stayed in Chicago. Where would I be? What would my life look like? Would I have gone back to school? I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.
What I do know is leaving that job was the best decision I’ve ever made. Recognizing that the path you start on, that the dream you start with, isn’t what it turned out to be—that’s not easy. To start over, to admit defeat, to re-evaluate big life choices. But if you can do it, you will find a new dream and a new life. And you might just be surprised at what you can make of it.
Related: 7 Life Truths I Wish I Knew Sooner