Laying the groundwork
Like most people in my generation, I went to a typical American four-year university, selected for its balance of affordability and offerings, and pursued a practical series of majors. First pre-law, then English (with an eye to teaching it as a second language), and finally history. I would later find out history wasn’t as practical as I thought, but at the time, I was forging a path to several promising careers, from teaching to archiving.
I distinctly remember in my first English class, there was a guy in there that was on his seventh year of undergrad study. It seemed lazy and immature to me that someone would waffle around on a four-year programme long enough to nearly double the duration. I knew I wouldn’t waste time, because I was going to change the world.
Despite changing my major, I completed my degree in four years. When I switched from English to history, I took my accumulated credits in English and turned them into a minor, alongside my minor in French. I collected a handful of certificates and awards for my work, presented at a sociology symposium, and participated in the honors program, which included a semester studying abroad. During the latter half of my undergraduate career, I was also working in a Target stockroom to cover my bills. I felt very grown up and ‘on-track’. I lived on my own, with my first husband, I filed my own taxes and owned my own car, and I was going to get my degree faster than anyone else I knew.
And of course, my mom was very proud of me (albeit a little sceptical of my choice of spouse) for being so independent and accomplishing so much so quickly. Others were also impressed that I’d gotten out on my own so young and not floundered, got myself into trouble or crippling debt (student loans aside, they’re pretty much assumed these days), or dropped out of school.
Where are they now?
If you haven’t read the headline, you might be expecting more aspirational porn. You might expect to hear that I’m a tenured professor, that I’ve got a cushy job scaring students trying to do research in my cavern of archives, or that I’ve got a super Instagrammable family, complete with golden retriever and milquetoast house in the suburbs. But if you did read the headline, which I assume you did rather than just clicking based on it being written by me or because I had a funky image, you know that’s not what’s coming.
Excepting a three-year volunteer stint as head librarian/archivist with Southeastern Railway Museum, I have never worked in my field despite two degrees in history. These days, I’m working a fairly low-level role doing science communications writing, teaching workshops and courses on writing, marketing, and IT subjects, with some freelance writing and editing work on the side. I’m also in the process of compiling my ecopoetry collection, hopefully to be released this year, and writing a novel. I could go into how my personal life stacks up as well, but that’s not really the focus here. Suffice to say I wish I could have a cat. Tell me about your cats in the comments, please.
My real point is that the vast majority of my hobbies (painting, photography, poetry, creative writing) and work (editing, writing, content creation, design) are precisely the sort of fine arts subjects I was told repeatedly not to study because they wouldn’t lead to a job.
What would you do?
I’ve gotten extremely introspective in my early middle age. So I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how I would do things differently. How I would have gone back inside instead of walking away. How I would have never even spoken to him. How I would have taken the train to Newcastle instead of the plane to Atlanta. So many things where I feel I made the wrong choice, so many things I’d change. But if I could redo my undergrad years? They’d look a lot different.
For a long time, I thought I’d go into biology with a medical focus, because I always found it interesting and I think I have the right disposition for it. See, I put off my lab science requirements until my final year of university, because I didn’t want to jeopardise the scholarships and grants I depended on with risky subjects I might not excel at. And in high school, I’d performed poorly in science classes. But I did reasonably well in chemistry, and got an almost perfect grade in biology. I could write an entire additional essay on the ways that for-profit tertiary education prevents students from exploring and experimenting during the one period it’s most possible, but again, not the focus here. If you’d like to see me take a big withering shit all over the US’s education system, let me know in the comments.
These days, I’m not even sure I’d go into medicine, despite the appeal of becoming a surgeon and joining Doctors Without Borders. If I could go back today, I would study nothing but fine arts. Creative writing, studio art, photography, all that so-called ‘useless’ stuff. University is the one point where it’s very easy and affordable to try out new things. Where else would I have had access to a dark room to develop film? Where else would paints, clay, and other materials have been freely available? Where else would I be allowed to focus on exploring my writing craft with no pressure to monetise or have a side-hustle?
And I would have taken my sweet time, staying at university until I’d bled dry all sources of scholarships and grants I could qualify for. After all, why not? I have no interest in climbing the corporate ladder. I don’t aspire to any sort of societally approved dream life. I suspect a lot of this is because of my wanderlust, but whatever the reason, I’m in no hurry anymore. And I wish I’d stopped rushing sooner.
Born in the starting gates
So why do we feel this need to hurry up and get to the part where our lives are perfect and successful?
I’d say it’s because we’re fighting a two-front war. On one side, we have older generations, who love heaping scorn on younger people for not buying a house in their early twenties, or for delaying traditional milestones like marriage and children. On the other, we have social media, with its FOMO and perfectly curated snapshots of people’s lives.
All you have to do is google for ‘why do millennials’ and you’ll get everything I could say about the former. It’s an unending stream of gaslighting and guilt surrounding people’s changing and diverging priorities. There’s also no shortage of articles listing everything you should have achieved by a certain age. It’s a cesspit of myopic privilege I’ve no intention of wading through.
On the other hand, there is, as I mentioned, social media. There’s Facebook, full of virtue signalling and positive images showing only the best bits of each user’s life. For the most part, no one posts about the fight they had with their spouse, or their child’s failures, or even perceived negative changes like gaining weight or having a zit. They post carefully framed images that make them look glamorous, they post a kiss with their spouse, they post their children’s achievements. Twitter isn’t as bad, but then there’s Instagram, probably the worst offender for fake, curated lives.
There’s a growing body of evidence that Instagram has the biggest negative impact on mental health, because we can’t help but compare ourselves to everyone on social media. And there’s the problem. We’re comparing our entire lives to the crème de la crème of their lives.
So what should we do?
Well, ultimately, whatever you want. If you want to climb the corporate ladder, get the corner office, and jockey for promotions, that’s cool and valid, but make sure to take time and think about why you want that. Is it because you genuinely do, or because you’ve been told by everyone that you should strive for that?
Personally, I think way too much emphasis is placed on universal milestones, with no wiggle room for people with different priorities. I try to be unabashedly unambitious, recognise that leisure isn’t laziness, and enjoy a slower, smaller life.