Teetering on the edge of uncertainty: My post-grad manifesto

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With my freshman year roommate, who graduated in three years, on her graduation day in 2016. One year later, it’s my turn to walk across the Cistern. (Photo by Justine Hall)

If I’m going to be completely honest, I’m scared for what comes next. But isn’t everyone? I think we’re supposed to be scared; I think we’re supposed to fully embrace this sense that nothing is quite permanent, especially after we walk across the stage in our white dresses and tuxes. It’s a hard pill to swallow—more akin to a boulder, perhaps. I know all we want is to have this security of knowing what our next step is. Are we going to get that job at the Big 4 accounting firm, or the post-graduate fellowship, or the job at that nonprofit we’ve been interning at for what feels like all of college, or the acceptance letter into the Peace Corps?

I think we tell ourselves that once we have the proof that we’re on to the next step, everything else will be okay, it will all fall into place. At least for a while, I know I thought that. Joan Didion was scarily accurate when she said “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” But it might be a whole lot smarter, if instead of telling ourselves stories, we choose to embrace where we are right now.

In an essay to the class of ‘97 (yes, 1997) published in the Chicago Tribune, Mary Schmich wrote, “Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.” I think I’ll choose the latter. Because I’d rather be constantly changing what I do at 40, still a little unsure, than to find myself sitting in the same cubicle I sat in the day after I graduated from college.

With this in mind, I’ve created a list of four things I want to embrace starting now, as we take this leap into oblivion, into uncertain, choppy waters. I want to remember these feelings when the sunburn from sitting in the Cistern for graduation fades, when my lease on Calhoun Street ends, and when the repetitions of class, professors, friends, group projects, mug nights, newspaper meetings, and habitually sitting at my favorite coffee shop, are nothing more than snapshots of a time in my life.

  1. Embrace the gaps.

I think it’s the easiest, most natural step to get a job upon graduation. Society expects it. But, it’s also what’s expected when we’re 27, 45, and pretty much any age until we’re 75, and even then, there are plenty of 75 year olds who still go to work every day. Instead of scrambling to find our dream job at 22, which odds are, we won’t find right now anyway, why not find a job that pays the bills, but that also isn’t permanent for the next 40 years. Heck, even the next five years. I think we’re still wading in this magical time of uncertainty. I think it’s called youth. And I think we should do everything we can to grip our toes into the sands of youth for as long as we possibly can. I think our first step in enacting this is to take a gap year.

Most people think of a gap year as a period between high school and college, but I’m going to argue that they should be taken after graduating from college. Back when I was still under a haze thinking that I was going directly to grad school after walking across the Cistern, a mentor told me that I should take a year off in between, work a few odd jobs, travel, just do something—anything—other than immediately go to grad school. I sincerely thought she was crazy. Why on earth would I do that, I asked myself, I’ll only lose my momentum, find something else I’m more interested in. And that is exactly why we should embrace the gaps, specifically the gap that comes post-graduation, but even the gaps that will inevitably follow us throughout our lives.

Gaps allow us to find the things we’re interested in, and to develop what we are really interested in. To find out more of whom we are.

I know deciding to embrace the gap isn’t possible for everyone, because there are student loans that have to be paid off, and families that need to be supported and millions of other valid, real world struggles. But if it’s at all possible, I think we should make every effort to take this gap period. Whatever that means to you. If it’s working nights waiting tables so that you can focus on your writing for a while, I say do it. If it means taking a leap and teaching English in Taiwan for a few months, what would you gain if you didn’t do it? Maybe for you it’s taking a road trip across the country instead of hopping on the next flight, using Work Away as a means to travel, or the ultimate jump of joining the Peace Corps. Each of these are something my roommates and some of my closest friends have chosen to do, inspiring me with their boldness and ability to take a chance on the next few months, even years.

For me, I think it means realizing that while I know I want to write for a profession, magazine and freelancing jobs will still be there in a year from now (and yes, I know, there aren’t many) but the feeling of being unmoored won’t be. I’ll never be in this exact state again, where all my loose ends of classes, leases, and jobs will essentially be tied up. I don’t feel a pull to stay in Charleston, as much as I love this city, and I don’t feel the push to return home to California just yet. I don’t have a long-term significant other holding me back or swaying me in any one direction. It feels as if my life is telling me to pack my bags and go somewhere, anywhere, but to do it now, before the tides change.

So I’m doing it—following my own advice and au pairing with a family in Spain for a year. I know it won’t always be easy, and I won’t be paid much but I know it’s what this time in our life is for. To leave our comfort zones at the curb, and try something totally new, knowing that home is still home, and there will still be jobs on Indeed.com whenever we decide to come back—if we decide to come back.

I can’t take credit for this idea. It’s not like I’ve always inherently known that I must embrace the gaps, and the realization did not come easily. It took some of the hardest moments where life shows us that nothing can be planned—no matter how many times it’s written in our planner. It took the motivation and inspiration from the fierce groups of women I have surrounded myself with during my four years of college, from friends, roommates, co-workers, professors, and mentors to fully realize the gravity and importance of embracing the gaps life throws our way.

  1. Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder

E.B. White, author of ‘Charlotte’s Web,’ penned this. No matter where we are in our lives I hope we will be able to slow down enough to always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder. To notice the small things filling our lives with a child-like perspective, like seashells dotting the beach. Imagine what a sad picture that would be—a beach without any shells crowning its shore.

I think the older we get, the harder this becomes. When we were young, just about everything seemed pretty fantastic. The way the leaves on the trees changed colors every season. When the book fair came to school and suddenly there was endless possibility in the world. Even as freshmen in college, unaware of what the next three, four, or five years would bring, but somehow blindly ready to enter them—no looking back.

Imagine what the world would be like if we all adopted this philosophy, if we were always on the lookout for the presence of wonder. It adds a little bit of spontaneity to life, and like any other exercise, the more we do it, the easier it becomes. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote: “The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all. And then stands back to see if we can find them.” We must always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder, because if we’re not, we will never be able to unlock and find the strange jewels buried within ourselves and within others. The pure magic in the world relies on our ability to find the jewels in other people. To keep a perspective of youth like wonder in everything we do. Besides, that’s more fun than holding a pessimistic, negative perspective.

  1. Take all the vacation days you’re allotted

“Travel is not reward for working, it’s education for living,” was written on an inconspicuous sign at a hostel I stayed at in Costa Rica with a school trip over spring break.  The closest attribution I can find for it is the Travel Channel, but I think it’s crucially, vitally essential that we keep this mindset. Always. Because I think so many of us have it backward and think we can’t travel until we’ve established ourselves at a company and accrued the appropriate salary. But by the time we get to that point, what will have happened to all the days we spent getting there? Though, this isn’t entirely our fault.

The US government doesn’t require employers to offer their employees paid time off. Let that sink in. Now, most all companies do offer some sort of paid vacation time, I think it’s important to remember we don’t exactly stack up well with other developed Western countries. Most US citizens receive around 10 days per year (again no government mandate that we receive any paid annual leave). But, the UK requires workers who work five days per week receive 28 days of paid annual leave (this counts public holidays). 28 days. 28 days. If you’re a part time employee in the UK, working the equivalence of three days a week, you’ll receive 16.8 days of annual paid leave. That’s more than the average full-time US employee.

I’m not saying pack your bags now and head to the UK. (If you really want great paid vacation time go somewhere like Iceland or France, where you’ll get 36 days of total paid annual leave.) But what I am arguing is to take those 10 days, every last one, if you get them.

I vow to take every day off I get to explore another corner of the world. To take 10 days and meet new people, find new experiences. Even if that corner of the world is right across the street.

One of my professors told me about a past student who had confided in her that she felt bad taking her vacation days because the student worked at a small company and it would only mean more work for other people in the office. Even when those same co-workers told the student to take those vacation days. She hasn’t taken a singe vacation day in the five years she’s worked with the company. Not a single one. I can’t help but become scared that that person could easily turn into me. This is why I’m taking the time to write this down now. As a promise to myself at a time in my life, that there is nothing more valuable than traveling, whether that means driving to the next town we’ve never been to or catching a flight half way around the world. 

  1. Never stop being a student

I know the words inscribed at the top of Porter’s Lodge in Greek read “Know Thyself” —and that as eager, uncertain freshmen we walked in under the arch to sign the convocation “book” (at least you were supposed to) and as we exit the Cistern on graduation day we will exit under the arch and know ourselves. But I think this is a continuous process, and not something that automatically happens just because we’ve graduated from college and walked under an arch (as nice as that sounds).

And I know most of us are ready to never step foot in Addlestone again, and I’m not saying we should. I don’t think we should stay college students, but life students. Always eager and hungry and curious, never settling for what’s set right in front of us, but continually searching. Searching for where we want to travel next, searching for the presence of wonder, and for the jewels hidden within all of us.

My senior year of high school we read college commencement speeches and I’ve never forgotten Steve Jobs’ address to Stanford’s Class of 2005. You probably know it, where he ends by saying, “stay hungry, stay foolish.” Though, he wasn’t the one to coin the phrase. He took it from the final issue of a magazine called the ‘Whole Earth Catalogue’. Steve Jobs saw it when he was our age, and kept it with him and used it in his address. I’m resurfacing it now.  I hope we never lose the feeling of being a student. I hope we never think we know it all—because no one really does.

Just because we’re graduating doesn’t mean we’re somehow finished with the infinite possibilities stage in our lives. I think it means just the opposite. It means we’re finally through with late-night term papers, readings that were sometimes useless, and going out to bars when we have 8 a.m. exam the next morning. We made our way through that—and the all around awkwardness that is freshman year of college. We must build on those successes and failures, and all those times we really did learn from experience, to craft our own lives now. Remember that feeling when we first stepped onto campus freshman year—a slightly terrifying excitement for the blank slate that was laid before us? We’re standing there again, slightly surer of ourselves, and maybe slightly less awkward.

Marina Keegan wrote The Opposite of Loneliness as a special edition to The Yale Daily News, distributed the week she and the class of 2012 graduated. A week later, she died in a car accident. In this essay she wrote, “What we have to remember is that we can still do anything. We can change our minds. We can start over. Get a post-bac or try writing for the first time. The notion that it’s too late to do anything is comical. It’s hilarious. We’re graduating college. We’re so young. We can’t, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it’s all we have.”

So as we walk across the Cistern clad in white, I hope we embrace the place we’re in right now. Teetering on the edge of uncertainty, but teetering together, a little wiser, still young, and ready to take the jump together.

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