I wish I could say this was a story about going into a tunnel and coming out okay on the other side. The trouble is that I am en route at the moment and so I can’t tell you how it all pans out (but believe me I’d like to know). In the meantime I can just go on what I have figured out along the way thus far.
For me, one of the most upsetting things about graduating from high school happens a few years later when you realize you adult life resembles the same social structure. There still seems to be the same competition for some elusive “coolness” and all you can really be sure of it that some people have it and other people don’t. You still feel the need to impress your mom, your coach, your friends, your boyfriend, teachers– whoever– but now that desire is seen as immature.
A few months ago I quit the job that I thought was going to help me build my career. I don’t suspect I will have the opportunity to re-enter the fairly exclusive field I was working in. In order to have some income I have taken a job that interests me little and has no room for growth. Every day at work I mostly feel embarrassed as I look around at my co-workers (my age and younger) who all seem to be headed somewhere. Shortly after giving up my old job I told a former professor of mine that I had moved on, her response was to swear me off completely. We used to talk a couple of times per month and now she no longer speaks to me and has asked that I not contact her. While on some level I always suspected that the only cache I could have had as a former student was my potential success story– her reaction really solidified that for me. Leaving the industry was a hard decision, but one I made to salvage myself. I hope that this was the right choice, but as of right now, I can’t really tell. The reaction I received from my former teacher bothers me more than any of it. Even if all the choices were wrong, the fact that making them so decreased my value to her that she doesn’t want to hear from me feels distressing.
At my current job I basically staple things for a living. And while I know I should be pleased that I have a place to go every day and pleasant people to work with and a paycheck that covers my bills, I can’t help but feel like a little bit of a failure. Additionally, I cannot help but feel a little ashamed when I think about all the people who spent time, money, and effort educating me so that I can do something other than staple things for a living. And when I flip to the back of my alumni magazine to read about overachieving peers and their work to make the world better, I keep wondering if I lack some strength of character. Perhaps if I were really dedicated, I wouldn’t stand for my current state of affairs.
I feel that mine is a generation brainwashed by the idea of the wunderkind. Rather than it being empowering– the possibility of achieving greatness early in your life and career– has become burdensome. You start to feel like if you haven’t made your mark on the world by the time you’re thirty, you may as well just pack it in. At the same time, the college educated of my generation are moving back into their parents’ homes in record numbers. It is a world of extremes– and if you reside in between those extremes there is an aimlessness that is hard to deny. Perhaps some are more willing and able to embrace this feeling as one of open possibility. I am not that type. I find myself reaching out in all directions to the people who used to measure my accomplishment. The trouble is they cannot assess my efforts in the same way they once did. What I am seeking really from other people is something I know I can’t get from them. I want some definitive way to know if I am doing things right. I want my report card.
So I am down one career plan and one mentor now– and the loss of a sense of perspective that is informed by experience worries me. Perhaps because I know it’s not something I can come to on my own, that I’ll have to earn it. In order to fight down the sense of panic, I try to think about things that at are bigger than me.
I think a lot about the universe. I invoke its name and sometimes blame it about as frequently as others might call upon various deities. But I like the idea of the universe mostly because it feels malleable to me, something that changes and absorbs and adjusts for impact. See, the trouble with high school mentality, (particularly for us overachievers) is that its ladder based. The only way to measure change is in success or failure, as you advance you move higher– any descent, any movement closer to where you began is a failure.
Even as I write this I find myself fighting the idea of my life as a ladder. Because, poetic as I may feel about the universe, I long for some way to measure that I am doing things correctly. I want my A paper with commentary, my student of the week nomination, my high five. The emotional equivalents of these types of praise that we see as vital to student development are not easy to find in the adult world. You’re much more likely to wander into forms of negative reinforcement or have your hard work ignored completely. And it seems there’s simply no room for noble but unsuccessful attempts.
I went to a very good college. With challenging classes and a good reputation, I attended this school with some incredible smart and dedicated peers. A community of people who knew how to achieve and how to pursue greatness– and were frequently recognized for it. It was not until a couple of years after graduating that I started to sense that school had left something out. We had all learned to be excellent students, diligent workers, and responsible citizens, sure, yes, all these things. But it would have been helpful if they’d mentioned how to be a person. Not an impressive person, not an achiever, just a person. When you stop for a moment and acknowledge that attempts to achieve and acquire are not in fact what the act of being human entails you have to take a pause. I know there are all manner of branded, time-tested, pre-packaged religions that can sum this up for me, and that I could just buy a magnetic bracelet on QVC that would realign my energies nip this whole existential crisis thing in the bud. I guess what I’m getting at here is that I hope there’s something to be said for the muddling through. Whatever my conclusions, I would like them to be my own.