At 23, I am precisely what my 18-year-old self wanted to be in five years. There was a list of essential bullet points I kept mental tabs on and probably filled a few dozen notebooks planning and plotting. First, I wanted to go to an Ivy League university and I wanted to live in New York. Second, I wanted a scruffy boyfriend who was handsome, kind, and yet cool enough for the intimidating indie coffee shop culture I was so enamored with in high school. Third, I wanted to maintain many friends, good, friends, for every occasion. School, lunch, late-night diners, parties, the beach, and traveling across the country.
Here is what I have. I’m a month shy of getting my graduate degree at Columbia University. I live in a 450-sq foot studio walking distance to campus on the edge of Harlem. There is no history of bedbugs or cockroaches in this studio. I’ve been lucky enough to travel to many different cities with many different friends. I even have the boyfriend, and he’s got quite a beard on him.
Last year I was walking around my hometown outside of Philadelphia with said boyfriend. This was before I started graduate school, and all I had behind me was five unpaid internships and a degree fostered by a small fortune of student loans. I was feeling particularly miserable about my lack of career development when a young girl rode by us on her bike and shouted at me, “You have really pretty hair!” I was surprised, not only because I have a notorious habit for waiting at least 10 months between haircuts, but because I realized that to her I maybe looked like a Grown Up.
At 18, or 13, or even younger, I thought I would have a lot more figured out by the time I was 23. On paper, it seems like I should. It seems like I did all the right things to have it figured out by now. And yet, the dumb thing about listening to a vision created by an 18-year-old is that there are realities that come with early adulthood that only an early adult will understand how to deal with. The realities are the obvious ones that come with adulthood, laced with new realities that grow more prevalent in 2013.
One reality my 18-year-old self dismissed was student loans, or at least the perpetual state of financial anxiety. It happens every month: one moment I’ll be studying and the next moment regarding my Con Edison bill with despair.
A different reality is how my Masters degree might not get me any closer to finding a job and supporting myself free of government-borrowed money and my parents’ house. That instead of seeing grad school as an achievement, I struggle not to see it as a sign of failure, a coping mechanism for a struggling career. I love school, and I’m thankful for it, but now I see the flaws in believing it is the immediate path to success, or at least self-sufficiency.
There is also the hardship in keeping the friends I have made, the same ones I used to go out with every Wednesday for no reason at all, the ones who drove me to school every day when when I was 16. Everyone has moved away, or I have moved away from them. There is a disconnect in every mode of communication I sustain with them, conversations fragmented in haphazard text, visits to the cities I once called home more and more sporadic
There are also the particular hardships that come from being in a relationship during your early twenties, and how a relationship that becomes a serious one can make it harder to always have fun.
The truth that escapes five-year plans is that, despite reaching where you hoped you would be, you will not necessarily escape a new set of anxieties and neuroses, goals to achieve, lists to make. Even at the grand old age of 23.
Think of it this way as well. What 23-year-old would listen an 18-year-old on how to live or plan their life? What 28-year-old would listen to a 23-year-old? It is impossible not to maintain some kind of idealistic framework for how my next five years will play out, but I’m not letting myself get hooked on them, start to finish, as the answer for complete satisfaction. Instead of getting caught up in an imagined time line for the next five years, I would rather just live them.