Big changes in life often come with a measure of uncertainty, a blend of cautious optimism and fear of what the future may bring. For college students, the bittersweet finality that graduation from their undergraduate studies represents is certainly one such occasion. After the celebratory speeches and bagpipe songs concluded at my ceremony, I was brimming for quite a while with what I like to call the ‘graduate afterglow’. Pride and wide smiles (and sometimes lays made of dollar bills and candy) abounded.
After a while, though, all of that pomp and circumstance fades, and recent graduates like me are left to face not only the challenges of a world that is still relatively unfamiliar, but the general opinion that our generation will be less successful than the one preceding us.
Now that we have at least temporarily rid ourselves of our student status – one we’ve held for at least 16 years, one that has gotten us many a discount on movie tickets and slices of pizza – what are we to do?
There’s a great big world out there, and sometimes it seems as though I have splashed head first into the job market’s equivalent of the middle of the ocean. This post-undergrad existential crisis can all get kind of overwhelming, but to get through it, just remember…
Taking a piece of advice from one of my favorite books, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (read it, it’s seriously awesome!), don’t panic! With all the negative predictions made about the future success of the Millennial generation1, it can be kind of difficult to follow through with this whole not panicking thing, which makes it all the more important.
Take a step back, breathe, do some meditation, go outside and stop your mind’s endless tumble for just a short moment, and trust me you will feel much more refreshed. The expectations we have of ourselves as young adults, especially as BA-degree holding adults, can crowd our thoughts when we don’t immediately meet them.
Why don’t I have a good paying job yet? Why haven’t I moved out yet? Why haven’t I done X, Y, or Z that others seem to have managed just fine?
Those questions wreak havoc on my nerves if I let them, but I try to step outside of the fear that I will never get to where I want to go, and remind myself that I still have my whole life ahead of me. I remind myself that I still have time to become successful, that I am young, and that landing my dream job, and making dream job amounts of money to buy my dream house won’t happen overnight.
Try to remind yourself of the things you do have going for yourself, the things you have achieved, and make an effort to stay positive about the things you will accomplish, and the goals you are excited to pursue. Sometimes, it’s that positivity that makes all the difference.
Where do you want to go?
Speaking of goals, what are yours? You’ve gotten through those four (or five, or six, or…) years of college to finally get your Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science, and that was a fantastic achievement. Congratulations!
But now what?
After you take your deep, non-panicky breaths, sit down and get out a piece of paper. Now that you are a certifiable adult, you can really choose what way you want to occupy the 24 hours of your day.
Start with your career plans: don’t just put “I want a good paying job,” because for our purposes we’ll just assume that’s a given. But what kind of job do you want? What kind of activities do you want to do? I would love to do research on the political economy of developing countries and delve into the ways a country’s populace interacts with its political institutions. It’s what gets my blood pumping and puts a smile on my face.
What about you? What are you so passionate about that you could see yourself doing for the rest of your life? Write that down.
Now add a bunch of projects, hobbies, and other, not entirely career-related, things. Personally, I love baking pastries. In fact, I love it so much that sometimes I think that I’d like to own a small bakery café. Is it what I went to school for? No. Is it something I have any official experience with? Not yet. But I could.
I play the piano, and would like to volunteer to play at nursing homes and hospices the way I did when I was younger.
I like to write, and would like to eventually publish a novel and some small collections of poetry.
So on my list, I’d write all of this. You do the same, write down everything you have a genuine interest in doing or learning. Do you want to become a professional surfer on the side? Write that down. Do you want to start a nonprofit to combat gentrification and urban poverty? Definitely write that down.
Then, when you are all done with the list, write this at the top: This list is a reminder that I can do many things, but that I don’t have to do everything. It is my choice, because it is my life to live.
Remember that list I told you to make? Okay, take it out. Whenever you start feeling overwhelmed by the sudden realization that you are in fact an educated, full-on adult working at Starbucks (or maybe still looking for work), pull the list out and start doing something on it.
Take a part-time job, learn HTML and CSS coding, volunteer at a soup kitchen over the holidays, learn to play the violin… do something. When in college, it is almost too easy to get involved and to stay active in your community. Posters, Club Rush Week, and academic advisers are always more than happy to point you to the newest on-campus community service organization, job fair and student-run music ensemble. But once graduated, it falls upon us to actively search for social, recreational and community-oriented activities.
I would say, don’t worry about whether you are measuring up to society’s – or your – expectations of who you should be yet. There is time to get where you want to go, and now that you’ve made your list, you’ve already created a roadmap with several clearly marked destinations (some a bit closer than others).
Staying active by working on community-service projects, learning new skills, or joining any number of local organizations will not only make it easier to stay panic-free about the future, but it may also serve as the launching point for a new passion or a new goal.
This final bit of advice is pretty straightforward: Meet new people and stay in touch with old connections. Meeting a friend to talk about international politics over coffee, or doing something as simple as sending a ‘Happy Holidays’ card to my last supervisor, does wonders as far as pulling me out of my post-undergraduate blues.
It is a great way to lift your mood when you are in a slump, not only because you can connect with a familiar face or a new kindred spirit, but also because you are being productive by maintaining a strong and connected network. A healthy social life can also help you out as far as pulling out that list I keep bringing up, because just meeting with someone can open opportunities for growth and new experiences.
Shaking off the lethargy that comes with insecurity surrounding any big change is definitely easier said than done, because it is so easy to fall into comfortable idleness. But just remember, that opportunity and success may be closer than you think.
All you need to do is take a deep breath, figure out where you’d like to go and who you’d like to go with, and jump in.