Thursday, April 25, 2013

After College: How to Go Somewhere With Nowhere

I'm doing everything I wanted to do with my life. I mean, of course things could be better: I could have a garden, have a bigger kitchen with real windows, live somewhere less hot with more rain... But in terms of what I do, I couldn't be happier. I'm writing a book, blogging my incessant, non-stop thoughts out, editing other people's books, reading old books from the library that have that wonderful musty smell (yes, this is part of my job), and write & edit for a group fighting sex-trafficking. Every day I wake up, read my Bible, and turn on my computer to start writing.

This is wowing to me because two years ago this didn't appear to be anywhere close in my future. I always wanted to be a writer, but it's not really something you can just do and expect to have food on the table. I didn't anticipate being married to a successful engineer; at the time I had to support myself. I got jobs that (barely) paid the rent, but had no mental energy left at the end of my long days. So I wasn't writing.

I went to college knowing I wanted to write and knowing that college, especially one without a creative writing program, wasn't going to help. I used college to study things that interested me, like Linguistics and International Agricultural Development. When I graduated, I expected to find a secretarial job like the one I had during college and make enough money to be self-sufficient so I could write in my spare time.

Things just don't go according to plan. Nearly all the graduates I know discovered this. We expected to be handed not just a diploma but financial independence. And then there were no jobs.

There continue to be no jobs. The few jobs that are out there are child care and grocery stores. Not that there's anything wrong with working at Trader Joe's, but stocking shelves doesn't exactly catapult you toward your dreams.

I quit the grocery store job eventually because I just couldn't take the strain of working there any more. I'm not extroverted enough to be social for 8 hours a day. I couldn't lift boxes and come home ready to sleep 10 hours and wake up at 4am to do it all over again with narry a creative minute to my day. I was killing myself for barely enough money for rent. And that's with a college degree.

I had to rely on my parents off and on. I had a string of wearying and unfulfilling jobs that got me...nowhere. Eventually, of course, this story got better; my husband supported us on his teaching position and told me to take a job I liked. (I think two mental breakdowns in 12 months was a good argument that I wasn't doing what was best for me.) I offered my services as editor and writer, and here I am. Things did get better.

Every college student and graduate needs to know: your plans will fall through. You'll look for jobs and find every job you apply for seems to want someone better than you. Which is just crazy, because you worked hard and put yourself through college for four years. That hard work won't necessarily have the dividends you expected.

The truth is, you will probably have a hard time with life right after graduation. You'll realize you don't know what you want. You graduate all terrified and excited and expecting the adventures of life to whisk you off and offer you too many choices to choose, but instead you might find yourself sitting in a room with no doors. You might not go anywhere.

That's okay. We live in a accomplishment-driven society, and people who graduate from college have swallowed the belief that what you do is what you are. Graduates, your worth isn't relative to whether you can find a job--any job, let alone one worth having. You are good enough. Sometimes you just have to wait.

It sucks when you're 22 and you want to change the world. But college only gave us one view of what that means. Maybe living at home with your parents is the last thing you want, but you can at least do it cheerfully. With all that free time, don't mope, and don't feel that you have to spend every waking hour applying to jobs. I tried that and it doesn't work. Feel free to spend some time doing other stuff. Don't get depressed; be useful. Clean out your parents' garage. Get on a new fitness program or learn to play a new sport. Get crafty and home-make things. Make regular visits to an elderly home or see if there are any nonprofits in your area that are something you might be interested in.

You can still discover who you are, and still have value, without a job.

One day, the right job will want you. For now, you're still an awesome person, you're just in transition. Life is full of the mundane. It's full of mopping floors and commuting and cooking dinner. You spend a significant percentage of your life in the bathroom, for heaven's sake. Deal with it. Make this mundane, not-changing-the-world-yet time worth it.