Life sure hasn’t gone the way I planned. That’s an understatement. I thought things would be different. As a kid, I used to think that life got easier as you got older. Now here I am pushing 40 and boy was I wrong about that. The older I get, things seem to get more complicated and every decision I have to make feels like the weight of the world.
Being a grown up is hard.
I am now at an age that feels absolutely geriatric, 55. Ahead lies a diminishing number of years on this earth, and physical decline. Cool! If I don’t have a few back-up plans (what if I get really sick? what if my husband dies?), I’m toast.
I’m writing this post sitting in a hotel room in Washington, D.C. I came by train from New York on Sunday to compete Monday for a fellowship that, if I win, offers $20,000 for six months to research an issue of interest to me. There are 14 finalists and they’ll pick maybe six.
I have to plan on not winning. Not to be negative, but realistic.
I have so many other ideas I can barely keep track of them all: writing (and I hope selling) two more non-fiction book proposals; three assignments from The New York Times and another which I hope will send me on my next trip; a conference I hope to create next fall; rustling up people to donate their talent for a fund-raiser; planning travel for 2013…
My point is that “planning” your life is truly a fool’s errand, no matter how comforting it appears. You can aim for goals, and likely hit many, if not most. But some you are going to miss.
If you do not grasp this reality, young, you may face a life of tremendous frustration and bitterness.
Some dreams will be snatched out of your grasp. Some people will disappoint you and betray you and lie to you and disappear. Some things are just shitty luck: infertility and/or miscarriage; accidents; disability or chronic illness. You still have to deal!
Here are some of the twists and turns my life took after I chose to leave my hometown of Toronto, age 30:
— Took a newspaper job in Montreal. Hated it! The winter was brutally long, cold and snowy. The crime rate was crazy, and frightening. The paper’s management were…not what I wanted.
— Moved to a small town in New Hampshire to follow the man I planned to marry, an American. I tried harder than I have ever tried in my entire life to make friends, and it proved impossible. He was doing medical training, so he was either gone, exhausted or emotionally withdrawn.
— Moved to New York City to make it as a journalist. I was promised a month’s try-out, paid, at Newsweek International. When I called to confirm my start date (after we had moved to NY and bought an apartment and he had changed training programs) they said “Oh, we have an internal candidate. We don’t need you.” I insisted and still did not get the job.
And that’s only the first five years!
My life since 1989 has included a two-year marriage to the doctor; three recessions, four orthopedic surgeries since 2000, losing a few staff jobs, three days in the hospital with pneumonia, dating a convicted criminal…and writing two terrific books, finding a lovely new husband and enjoying my new left hip.
None of this was planned.
Sure, I had some hopes: good journalism jobs (check); get married (check, check); write a book (check, check). So I’m happy with this. But so many things have blown up in my face, metaphorically speaking, along the way as well.
If you are not ready — emotionally, physically and financially — to adapt to whatever life throws at you, you’ll waste a lot of time when things go south in a fog of cognitive dissonance, moaning “What happened?” instead of packing your parachute.
So, unless you majored in computer science or engineering (congrats if you did), you may have just entered one of the worst job markets in history. Awesome!
I’ve been seeing a lot of hand-wringing, despairing blog posts lately from frustrated fresh grads wondering if or when they’ll ever find a job, let alone a job that matters to them, let alone relevant to anything they studied. Plus all the other grads, two or three years out, who still can’t find a job that makes them feel that all the costs of college were worth it.
Here’s a great article with a lot of common sense suggestions, once you do land a job, no matter how menial. It’s from the U.S. edition of Glamour, a women’s magazine, but the savvy therein is unisex...
And here’s a funny, smart blog post by a young British female journalist about the need to “fake it until you make it.”
Here are my 12 tips to help you cope:
By all accounts, your generation has been cooed at/over since birth, almost without interruption, with a chorus of “Good job!” The second you’re not accomplishing something or winning an award or polishing your resume, (and getting lots of attention for it all), you feel ill at ease, possibly useless. Praise is so sweet…and yet, often, so meaningless.
Take an hour every day unplugged from all forms of technology
Savor it. Your best ideas will come to you alone, in silence and probably while in the natural world. Do not tether yourself to Facebook or Tumblr clutching for some sort of emotional blankie.
Read challenging, smart material. Every day
It’s easy to think “Thank God. I’m done!” No more papers, tests, exams, finals. Just because you’ve snagged your diploma doesn’t mean it’s time to turn your brain off. Veg for a while, but make a point of reaching for some smart, tough work. If you’re an art history major, are you up on the (latest) banking scandal ? Do you know what Libor is? Read the business section of the Wall Street Journal and/or New York Times, the Financial Times if you’re really ambitious. If you’re an economics or political science major, take the time to read history, arts and literature. Throughout your life, and not just to get or keep a job, you need to keep broadening your horizons and stay sharp!
People tend to hire and promote people with insatiable curiosity and the ability to quickly analyze and sift through complex data.
Run, bike, walk the dog til s/he is exhausted. Climb a mountain, or several. Mow the lawn — without an electric mower. Stress and frustration mount exponentially if you don’t release them; hard physical exertion will calm and soothe you. During the absolutely worst six weeks of my life, (I was 19 and alone, both my parents far away traveling and unreachable), I went to the gym every single day and worked out. I ended up with something like 8 percent body fat, Olympian style. It was free and gave me a place to go, a purpose, a routine, a uniform — and wicked muscles.
Find an activity or hobby you love so much you can’t wait to do it every day
Make it something physical, tactile, sensual, practical. If at all possible, make it outdoors, social and an activity that produces something visible, useful and/or beautiful. It’s deeply satisfying and will keep your confidence up.
Spend time around people much older and/or much younger than you are
Visit your grandparents or a nearby nursing home. Do it face to face. Read to someone whose eyesight is failing. Anyone over 40 has already survived three recessions since they graduated — so they get it. And they’re OK. Anyone who lived through the Depression really gets it; perspective is useful. Hang out with your younger siblings or cousins, if you have any. Play is good. Get far away from your peers on a regular basis — they’re probably either equally whiny and miserable or happily employed which will make you even more miserable.
A dream deferred is not a dream necessarily permanently denied
The economy is somewhat on the mend. I see it in my own freelance business, which was in the tank 18 months ago. So you can’t, right now, have the job/income/life you want and think you have earned and are so certain you deserve. Take a number! Stay cool and focus on things that can make you happy in the meantime. Keep taking baby steps toward your goal, even if it means working without pay for a while. If nothing is making you happy, get a grip. Or get help.
Whenever someone gives you a chance to work for/with them, be amazing
It’s “only” retail or dog-walking or baby-sitting or waitressing or whatever…Rock it! I’ve spent the past month working with a fresh grad from the Midwest who is smart, brave, organized and follows up and through on everything I ask her to do as my assistant. (She’s getting busier with her internship — if you want to help me out, paid, email me. I’d prefer someone in Canada or the U.S. who understands how American business works. You must be ethical, a very quick learner and 200% reliable.)
Find a community and show up regularly
It might be a faith-based community or a softball team or your local yarn-bombers. You need to be around fun, funny, happy people face to face who’ll keep your spirits up and remind you that work is not the only thing in the world. One of the toughest parts of graduating is leaving the home you created for yourself at school — friends, frats/sororities, clubs, dorms, campus groups, maybe even a few favorite professors. The comforting routines are gone. An unstructured life is fairly terrifying, especially if you’re not terribly self-disciplined.
Many of the people you hope will hire, mentor, network with, refer or promote you are people who have likely already weathered a whole lot more than you have yet. They may have survived serious illness, the loss of loved ones, being fired from one or several jobs with all the financial and emotional stress that entails. Professionals do not vent at work and certainly never to their bosses. We don’t want to hear how tough things are. We know.
Travel, as far, often and cheaply as possible
Even if it’s only within a 10 or 20 mile radius of your home, you’ll learn something new if you’re open to it. Take a notebook and camera and be observant. If you can possibly find a way to flee the borders of the United States, preferably alone and cheaply, do so. Get a passport, and use it! You’ll quickly learn a great deal about how other people think and behave, and why. We all live and work in a global economy. You need to get that on a fundamental level to thrive in the 21st century.
Make a good-looking business card for yourself
“But I don’t have a job!” Yes, you do — job-hunter. Your card, which is simple, clean and elegant, will have your full name, your home and cell numbers (if you have both), your email address and your website(s) that show your work. Every time you leave home, carry your cards with you so you can use them whenever you meet a potential job lead. This alone will make you stand out from the sweaty, desperate pack.
I’m amazed more grads don’t know what this is, but it’s the best way to find out if you even really want to work in a particular kind of job or industry. I decided, in my mid-30s, to leave journalism and become an interior designer, but before I even enrolled in school, (which cost plenty), I went out and interviewed three women who had worked in the field for many years. I learned a great deal, and a few things that surprised me.
People are generally happy to help if: 1) you do your homework first so you have intelligent questions to ask them; 2) you take no more than 20 minutes; 3) you send a hand-written thank you note on good quality paper through the mail the next day; 4) you do not ask them for a job! The point is simply to learn, but very often, if you leave a fantastic impression, you’ve opened a door for future contact. Things to ask might include: Why did you choose this field? What do you enjoy most/least? What’s a typical day/week/month? What are the three most essential skills to succeed in your field/industry? What’s the worst deal-breaker you typically see when you meet a job applicant? What has surprised you the most about working in this field? If you were to start again tomorrow, would you still choose it?