On Feeling Perfectly Inadequate
You'll excuse me if I rant for a minute, right? I think you can spare me that - aside from my months working in Geneva this past summer, I've been caught in this swirling vortex between unemployment, employment, and underemployment. Mostly anyone who's applied for a job in this economy knows the feeling - you pour your soul and energy into every application and then send them off into the void, hoping that some benevolent HR person snatches it up and declares, "Yes! This is the new employee we've been searching for!"
Ugh. Let’s get some real talk in here for just a second. No matter how many times people tell you that it’s hard to get a job, that it takes forever, that you just have to be patient and network and network and network…everyone still kind of assumes that they’ll be the golden child that lands their dream job immediately after graduation. I mean, all the hard work you’ve put in up to this point had to have been worth something, right? Everyone who’s still unemployed is just doing something wrong.
And then when you become that much-feared unemployed young grad, your own logic dictates that you must be doing something horribly, horribly wrong. You must have chosen the wrong major, the wrong grad program, the wrong volunteer opportunities and summer jobs, the wrong mentors. You must have been kicking puppies in your sleep and deeply angering the karma gods on a daily basis. You must be Hitler reincarnated and not realize it (are you a mediocre painter? Are you a vegetarian? Oh dear...)
According to social media, television, movies, my own imagination, it seems like everyone my age falls into one of three categories:
1) They’ve landed a wonderful, stable, modestly-paying job right after graduating and are humbly yet fabulously working their way towards being featured on Forbes’ 30 under 30. We hate these people, call them gunners, but secretly wonder why it didn’t happen to us.
2) They’re “failing” life, but in a carefree, boho, life-defining and equally fabulous way. E.g. they’re hitchhiking around the world, riding elephants and chilling with monks, or working minimum wage while they support their dreams of following their deepest artistic passions. We hate these people too, call them foolish, but secretly want our turn on the damn elephant.
3) They’re just plain failing. They don’t have a job. They live with their parents, or pay their own rent but aren’t sure how long they can keep it up. We don’t talk about these people out of fear of becoming them.
Well, a little bit ago I was complaining to someone whose opinion I value greatly. I was saying that it seems like everyone I meet has a shiny little box that they fit into – e.g. “I’m a student!” or “I work at XYZ!” I don’t have a box, or an elevator-speech about myself. It’s more like, “Well, I’m doing this for now, and I do this occasionally too, but I just moved here so I used to be doing this, but eventually I want to be doing this…”
And she said, “You know, I’ve found that people who front the most typically have the most to hide. You don't need to front. Be honest about not fitting into a box. People who try out multiple boxes are much more interesting, anyway.”
As if the universe were really trying to drive home the point, at church the following Sunday, a campus minister visited our young adult Sunday school class, and the first thing he said was, “When I ask people your age what they do, the most common answer is ‘Umm…’ Navigating the 20s can be hard, because you’re a bunch of ‘ummers’ right now.”
When someone in our age group is doing well, everyone knows about it, talks about it, secretly stalks their Facebook pages in self-pity. But the majority of us are confused, overwhelmed, and mixed up. We eat Oreos with our morning coffee. We spend a lot of time at Target building the perfect work wardrobe for careers we do not have yet. We learn how to file our own taxes but probably called our dads three times crying throughout the process. Even if we have good jobs, happy families, a nice apartment, a lot of us are constantly overwhelmed with feelings of uncertainty, wondering if we are indeed where we should be, if we are doing enough, if we’re doing things “right.”
It’s so much easier to focus on the one thing going wrong for us than on the hundreds of things working in our favor.
I have a graduate degree and about three years experience in the more or less "real" world, but often I feel like just as confused as I did when I first started applying college. I have no clue how to articulate what I want out of life - I still have trouble navigating the controls on my washing machine, for goodness sake. Finding new job and internship opportunities is fun, but can be wretched as well – the waiting game, the attempts to tailor yourself to fit someone’s standards, wondering why you weren’t hired or even interviewed. You start to view yourself as a failure.
So many people focus on the big life change that is starting college. Nobody seems to acknowledge how completely upending the process of leaving college is.
That’s certainly where I’m at right now, but when I take a moment to reflect on the things I have going right I realize how ridiculous that is. Yes, it’s a reality that I could “fail” big at any moment – not get a job, rack up medical expenses, not be able to pay rent, or simply stay stuck in this unfulfilled version of my life. But I have a strong support network. I have amazing, loving parents, friends, and a fiancé. I have skills and education and most importantly, a drive to do well for myself. There is only so much I can really fail. That’s a luxury not many people have, and I need to be 10x more grateful for it than I have been lately.
So now, I’m choosing to embrace three things: honesty, thankfulness, and uncertainty.
I will be honest with my peers in the hopes that they will be honest with me. Guys, there are so many days when I consider just finding two socks – not even matching ones – to be a huge success. I have no clue where I’m going. Being 20something is hard. Can we all admit that openly now?
I will be thankful for the amazing things in my life: my loved ones, my education, my experiences. In the face of being denied a job, internship, running a little short on money, etc., I will refocus on what I do have rather than what I do not have. And I will try to give back as much as I can, through volunteering and donating.
And finally, I will allow my life to be uncertain. I can’t plan everything. I don’t know where or when I will be interning this summer, I don’t know where I will be working or how much I will be making when I return. I have no clue what this time next year will look like. Yes, I will make plans, I will make back-up plans, and I will go after them to the fullest of my abilities. But I will also try to embrace the fact that my life is up in the air right now, and that uncertainty is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can be freeing.
I know, I know, it's all much easier said than done and I'll probably have to re-read my own words several times before internalizing them. But who wants to give it a try with me?