It’s that time of year, when the notes of “Pomp and Circumstance” begin to drift heavily down the long aisles of auditoriums and outdoor courtyards. Buds have already come out and flowered and died, and untold thousands of college graduates are sweating, limp-haired and nervous, under mortarboard caps. It’s a time of staggering amounts of beer and cheaply frosted “Congratulations!” cakes, bittersweet goodbyes, and, for more than a few of us, a feeling of impending doom.
As the ivy-clad gates swing shut behind us, and we step out on our uncertain paths forward, many of us are daunted by a seemingly unending series of questions: What do I want? How do I find my way? What am I supposed to do? Grim statistics and patronizing statements follow us around, but are less than helpful.
For those of you who are feeling unnerved — or even terrified — about your impending walk down the aisle, here are a few words of advice. Granted, I’m only a year out of college, but a year’s worth of conversations with fellow terrified graduates, not to mention a good number of confident and accomplished ones, have given me a certain measure of perspective that I wish I’d had during my initial post-college terrors. I hope these thoughts can help you get through this time, too.
1. Life doesn’t have a set schedule.
A lot of your friends might have won the figurative jackpot, and figured out something awesome to do for the upcoming year. Whether it’s a fellowship, a graduate program, or something more permanent, it’s tempting to feel that if you haven’t locked down the upcoming months in the same way, there’s something wrong with you.
Try to remember that life doesn’t follow a set schedule; there’s no ironbound law that demands you have to have your future sewn up before you get your degree, or even immediately afterwards. While it’s definitely hard to shrug off incessant questions or disparaging comments with just bravura and a smile, remember that the only one who can tell you what you “should” be doing right now is yourself. While some of us have heavier burdens than others — student loans have become so pressing as to become a subject of national legislation, we are thankfully out of the era of debtor’s prison, and the future, while uncertain, is ripe with possibility. So if your plans are hazier than you’d like, or if the ones you have are not the ones you would have hoped for four years ago, don’t despair. Don’t judge yourself by the metric of anyone else’s success, or anyone else’s doubt of you. Remember that life is long, and you have a lot ahead of you.
2. It's okay if you haven't figured out exactly what your passions are yet.
On a similar note, it’s even easier to freak out if you feel like you’re not even sure which direction you want to head. While you may have acquired some skills in college, it’s not necessarily easy or even possible to connect obscure and disparate fields of study with real-world career tracks. My advice for finding yourself in a flurry of doubt about which path to take? Engage yourself with something productive. It’s easy to get paralyzed by not wanting to “lock yourself in” before you’ve figured out exactly which direction you want to take. But the skills, experiences, and relationships you will create if you throw yourself into something wholeheartedly will undoubtedly give you clues about where you want to head. Engaging with something — whether it’s volunteer work, temping, or a job that might be in a different field than you’d hoped for — will also give you a sense of purpose that might quell this residual anxiety. But the best part about taking the initial step towards choosing a path? See No. 1. Life is long, it doesn’t follow a set schedule, and if you find yourself dissatisfied with what you’ve chosen, there is plenty of time for change.
3. The world is different than it was for our parents, but that doesn’t mean it’s worse.
This pretty much speaks for itself, but it also speaks to Nos 1. and 2.
A lot of my friends have spoken about conflict they’ve had with their parents and people of their parents’ generation. For better and for worse, a lot of things have changed since our parents were kids; unfortunately, broad support for social changes like marriage quality have come along with a burden of economic uncertainty, a more difficult environment to graduate into than our parents might understand. But as hard as these times might be, the world is also more filled with opportunities for individual creativity — and group initiatives — than ever before. We’re global, connected, and full of fire about changing the world. So don’t let whatever disappointment or discouragement your parents might feel derail you. Instead, take a cue from youth over the past forty years, and use the generation gap to fuel your desire to make the world the place you want it to be — instead of the troubled place we’ve inherited.
4. Don’t give up and become jaded and cynical.
This is more or less the recurring chorus of this list, but I think it’s worth pointing out all on its own. Scores of articles have condemned millennials for being selfish, cynical, and apathetic towards the world at large. But despite these generalizations, you don’t have to be. If you give up, if you let yourself be overwhelmed by long odds and uncertain passions — and let fear make you detach from your future and the world it will be in, that’s unfair both to the world and to yourself. Try to remember, even when things get hard, that you are already making the world a better place with the kindness, generosity, and wit you give to the people around you; you have inherent worth and value. And therefore, you owe yourself, your country, and your friends a chance to use the passions, skills, and experiences you have already — and cultivate them into something more.
5. You are now in the driver’s seat of your own life. Enjoy it.
Finally, I want to point out that as scary as this transition is — it’s also phenomenally exciting. For the first time since you were 5 or 6, you are no longer a student. And accordingly, the path before you is no longer marked and set by other people. There’s no class sequence to follow, or even a set list of courses to choose from. From now on, you are the boss of your own life — and an infinite panoply of paths is before you. Of course, that could be the thing that’s precipitated the feelings of anxiety or purposelessness you might be feeling now. But on the other hand, it’s the most exciting thing imaginable. Right now, you are young, footloose, and you’re in charge. In your adult life, you make the rules. Life has just become a Choose Your Own Adventure: turn the page, and you could be riding a dinosaur (OK, maybe not) or piloting a submarine (possible) or driving, just for the hell of it, to Fort Worth, Texas (I heard it’s really hot there in the summer though). Try to put your doubts aside, and revel in it. The world is yours! Now make it a better place.