I graduated from college four years ago. I know four years probably seems like an infinitesimal blip to many readers (disclaimer #1: self-aware millennial realizes she has far less life experience than you do), but when I remember the anxious stress case I was at 21 — incapable of imagining life as a gainfully employed, emotionally available adult without a crippling fear of failure/with more than two pieces of silverware — it seems like a solid chunk of time.
I wish I could share the often painful, always valuable lessons I've learned over the past 1,461 days with my 21-year-old self, even though she would probably fake-smile and then completely ignore all of it. (She can be pretty stubborn. She's working on it in her old age.) Here they are.
Disclaimer #2: I attended a public university near a big city and thus graduated with no debt and a slew of both unpaid internships and "real" jobs at big-name publications under my belt. I feel extra fortunate because I knew I wanted to be a writer from a young age; most of my 20-something friends still don't have a "dream job," however unrealistic, in mind. Given that total student loan debt now totals more than one trillion dollars (jesus fuck), I know advice from someone who doesn't struggle to pay loans might not work for you. These are just some insights I wish someone had shared with me when I graduated, which is why I'm sharing them with you.
If you know what you want to "do" (for money or passion or, if you're lucky, both), focus on your work and block out excess noise.
2009: not a fun year to graduate with a liberal arts degree. (Thanks, subprime mortgage crisis!!) Possibly well-intentioned people literally laughed in my face when I told them I wanted to be a journalist. "But…print is dead," they'd say. "You can't get a job at a newspaper anymore, unless you went to, like, Harvard. Did you go to Harvard?" (No.) "You'll never be able to support yourself by writing." "Have you considered a career in social media?"
I don't want to turn you into a misanthrope at such a tender age, but listen: most people do not have your best interests at heart. I now see that most of the idiots who told me I'd surely fail were projecting their own insecurities onto me. I wasn't as jaded back then, but I did quickly realize that I had two options: I could run through endless downer "What If?" scenarios until I scared myself into giving up before I had even really begun, or I could — at the risk of being buzzily trite — ignore my haters.
I chose the latter. I was still passed over for countless jobs and had to struggle to make ends meet for a while, but I focused on fine-tuning my writing and reaching out to everyone I knew in my wannabe field instead of listening to people who said I was foolishly dreaming of a pre-recession era. Months later, I was offered a very well-paid, full-time editorial position at the San Francisco Chronicle. A year later, I was writing front-page stories. At a newspaper. Which was not dead. Even though I didn't go to an Ivy League school or time-travel back a decade. Look at that! It didn't happen right away, and it definitely wasn't easy, but I made it happen by working hard and blocking out all that destructive bullshit. It's important to be realistic and set time-sensitive goals for yourself, but it's just as important to ignore the nobodies and trend pieces gleefully predicting your demise.
As I said before, I knew I wanted to be a reporter for years and I've always been pretty career-oriented. But you don't have to be like me or want what I currently want out of life to benefit from filtering out schadenfreude from people who expect or even want you to fail.
Don't create drama. Create stuff.
All of the qualities that had made me "me" for years seemed to vanish at warp speed as soon as I received my diploma. I had been an official student of something ever since I was a toddler; no more. My boyfriend of 3+ on-and-off years and I "officially" (ha) broke up. I was living in my best friend Corey's bedroom because the cheap sublet I'd rented was infested with Golden Orb spiders. (No, I did not appreciate their beautifully crafted webs.) Corey was still in school, so I spent my days babysitting, copy-editing and applying for jobs while sitting in his crumb-infested (my fault) bed and waiting for him and his roommates to come back from class so we could all get drunk. "Babysitting is awesome," I told everyone. "I have so much time to write! And the snacks rule!" But I wasn't writing. I was drinking, and watching old episodes of The Real World, and feeling violently jealous whenever anyone I even vaguely knew seemed to be having a nice day, and devising ways I could convince my ex-boyfriend to get back together with me so I wouldn't feel so lost.
Here's a photo of me and Corey in his bed/my home from a Facebook album I made during this time, entitled "The Current State of My Life." Cute joke, right? Hey, look at that Tecate! I knew I was a cliche — and this was years before Girls, no less — but I was so, so unhappy.
I was miserable because I wasn't in control of my life. But then! Instead of trying to create drama, I started creating STUFF. I tentatively started "freelancing" — very literally for free most of the time, since few outlets wanted to pay me yet — and working on a novel, and every time I finished an article or completed a page of my book I felt 10000x more confident.
Writing reminded me that I was not my job. Eventually it became my job, but back then I paid my rent by chasing little kids around and copy-editing what I can most nicely refer to as drivel. Don't worry about landing your ideal job right away; very few people do.
I'm talking a lot about "ideal jobs" because I'm extremely fulfilled by the one I have now, which is one I wanted for a long time. But it's okay if you don't have a dream job in mind, or if you don't want the way you make money to define you. We're taught by the media and banks and our parents that the only way to feel successful is through socially accepted methods of making money. Remember that you can define success on your own terms instead. The time you spend as a server or an administrative assistant or working retail is not worthless. And if you carve out even a teeny bit of space to make stuff that matters to you — whether that's music, web design, jewelry, whatever — you'll feel more confident. If you don't feel inspired to "create" anything and wish I would stop sounding like your hippie summer camp counselor, go on hikes. Volunteer. Do whatever makes you feel like you're in control. I don't know what your thing is, but I can tell you what won't make you feel like you're in control: waking up past noon on the regular, watching Wife Swap episode after Wife Swap episode, and picking fights with people you care about to create drama in hopes of feeling distracted or fulfilled. Don't create drama! Create STUFF. Let's make t-shirts.
Don't know what to "do" or make? Just fucking pick something.
Ugh, this is embarrassing to admit, but here goes: I used to be obsessed with comparing myself to Esther, the protagonist in Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. I know, I know. It was all about this god-damned fig tree. Plath wrote:
"I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet."
So I would regularly get stoned and describe my own personal fig tree to my friends in painstaking detail until one of them finally said, "Why don't you just fucking pick something?"
"But…what if it's the wrong thing?" I said.
"Then you'll know, and you'll choose something else," she said.
She was right. I was using my fear of "boxing myself in" as an excuse not to move forward. I decided to focus on reporting on reproductive rights and sexual assault, two issues I cared very much about. I developed sources and wrote a weekly "women's news" column and, eventually, I wrote my first front-page investigation exposing San Francisco's crisis pregnancy centers. Now I get to write about this stuff for Jezebel on the regular. Will I always want to write about these totally not at all depressing topics? Probably not. But I don't think I would've landed this job without narrowing my focus.
Again: I know you are not all as obsessive about your career as I am. (Sounds healthy!) But I think it's important to start making commitments whenever you can in all areas of your life. Don't be afraid to fucking pick something. You can always pick something else if it's not the right fit.
Hello, young person! Can you hear me? Probably not, because you're lost in your own neuroses. It's to be somewhat expected. You have a lot going on right now, and it can be difficult to make space for other people besides yourself. But you know how amazing it makes you feel when your family, friends or even strangers ask you how you're doing, or compliment you or simply listen? Do that for other people. It's so easy! Check up on your friends. Don't be a flake. Be supportive. Be openminded. Don't be a bitch because you're feeling insecure, or take your shit out on other people, or talk shit about other people (...unless absolutely necessary for cathartic reasons).
Be as thoughtful as you can afford to be, financially and emotionally, but don't let yourself off the hook because you're broke in either department.
Also: be kind to yourself! Accept that you're in a weird, hard place and you're going to experience feelings of jealousy, frustration and depression. Don't get mad at yourself for feeling those feelings, because beating yourself up won't allow you to move past them. Try as hard as you can to love the person you're in the process of becoming. Therapy can help, if that's something that's possible for you. (Also because I don't think I've ever written anything this non-cynical and I'm starting to get the shakes.)
Everything is not "going to be ok," but that's okay (?)
Growing up, I thought "adulthood" was this nebulous, dreamy scenario where everything was finally OK. Adults had stable relationships, supportive friends, steady jobs. Once you reached adulthood, you'd be set for life. It's really hard to let go of that fantasy. It's hard for me, even now.
I don't want to be that 25-year-old who tells you what "adulthood" is all about. (See disclaimer #1!) But I think life = constantly learning and rethinking the rules by which you want to live — constantly GRADUATING, one might say — to new experiences and, yes, struggles. Does that sound depressing? I hope not, because it's supposed to be reassuring.
Because what happens is that — sloooowly — you get better at dealing with overwhelming responsibilities and terrifying experiences because you've been through similar overwhelming responsibilities and terrifying experiences before and you know you'll pull through. It still sucks, but it sucks less to get rejected (professionally or personally) because you've been rejected before. You become more resilient and more empathetic at the same time. You get used to yourself and realize that you'll never not be you, that, maybe, you don't want to ever not be you.
Wait, stop. Let me re-write that paragraph sans second-person narrative because no one, with the exception of Lorrie Moore, can pull off second-person narrative.
I've slowly gotten better at dealing with overwhelming responsibilities and terrifying experiences because I've been through similar overwhelming responsibilities and terrifying experiences before and I know I'll pull through. It still sucks, but it sucks less to get rejected (professionally or personally) because I've been rejected before. I've become more resilient and more empathetic at the same time. I've gotten used to myself and realized that I'll never not be me, that, maybe, I don't want to ever not be me.
I still have a hard time remembering to be kind and focused and to follow all of the other guidelines listed above. But I'll always remember this scene from Greenberg — an otherwise extremely insignificant movie — when Greta Gerwig's character says she's been out of college for longer than she was in college. Fuck, I thought at the time. That sounds fucking depressing. As of last week, that's me, and that's just fine. 21-year-old me would've been psyched at what 25-year-old me has accomplished. I hope 25-year-old you will feel the same way, too.
Image by Devin Rochford.