University and ‘The Real World’: A Transition Prompting Existential Despair?


Given that many of my friends and I have recently emerged from the cocoon of university and are finding the bright lights of the world to be somewhat blinding and disorienting, I thought it an appropriate time to delve into some of the issues associated with this transition and the greater implications of this period for our lives.

Part One: The What?

University is a ripe breeding ground for exploring oneself and figuring out who we are. The relative sanctuary provided by university facilitates this yet perhaps a consequence is that we come to believe, in our youthful arrogance, that we have life figured out and all of our grandiose plans we simply fall into place in due course.

Then life comes along and kicks us in the ass.

The concoction of personal responsibilities, financial practicalities, and the reality of the working world produce this kickback where we realise that life doesn’t care all that much about us and our plans, and that things don’t just ‘happen’ as envisioned. This produces an existential crisis — at least for some of us. The bubble we once found ourselves in has been burst, and the ‘meaning of life’ becomes a very real and pragmatic question.

From an anecdotal perspective, I find myself frequently oscillating between:

1. Desiring to go all in on life and trying to achieve as much as I can on a material plane — what one might call the conventional route of ‘success’, and on the other hand;

2. Taking the road less travelled, a road which rejects a lot of what society expects (some might term this ‘checking out of society’). The risks and rewards are potentially greater, but there is an element of abdicating our responsibilities associated with such a choice.

I sincerely believe that there is a sweet spot between these two approaches where (please God) bliss resides. I think I know what this sweet spot looks like — unfortunately I cannot yet articulate or even properly conceptualise it.

Part Two: The Why?

I have spoken before about the propagation and infiltration of the compelling narrative in our society of the divine individual. We all — rightly or wrongly — believe that we are uniquely special, separate entities. At least from a biological perspective we actually are. Our genes will never again be replicated in the exact same format as they are now. How wonderful!

Of course, we are speaking from a more philosophical and metaphysical viewpoint. Although I happen to be of the belief that we all possess something unique and offer something intrinsically valuable to this world, deep down though I know that by definition not all 7 billion people on this planet can be ‘extraordinary’, because then nobody would be extraordinary. I have no doubt that the influence of social media will only exacerbate this cultural phenomenon and our obsession with fame and status.

Another problem is that we tend to measure ourselves as against the 1% of individuals in culture and society. We simultaneously expect to have the physique of a bodybuilder, the mind of a professor, the charisma of a great speaker, and the world experiences of a travel blogger. This is not possible. Then when the reality does not match up with our expectations we experience disillusionment, discontent, and despair. We forget that these people have invested the “10,000 hours” into their craft. What’s more — people who are at the extremities of the distribution of talent tend not to be all that functional at life outside of their domain of expertise. Everything in life is a trade-off.

We can’t all be as jacked as Arnie.

Part Three: The Antidote?

I think there might be (at least) two ways to transcend this problem.

i. Acceptance

Acknowledge that being average is the default. We need to become comfortable with the fact that every aspect of our lives does not need to be optimal and mirror Instagram perfection. I certainly struggle with this both because of the high standards I set for myself, and due to the (sometimes) grand self-image I have.

Perhaps we have misconstrued mastery and excellence with being a good person. There is an infinite amount of people in this world living quote unquote “ordinary lives”, who are far from ordinary. Our society just happens to celebrate those of us who have achieved extraordinary feats and who excel in a narrow domain of competence, and who so do in the public eye.

ii. Refusal

Brian you hypocrite, I hear you say, I thought you just said acceptance was the path forward. Accept that failure is the default, but by no means do I endorse settling for this. Acceptance that average is the default is not the same as acceding to being average. We must rage against this reality, and as Dylan Thomas wrote: “do not go gently into that good night”.

Ultimately we must choose one or two narrow areas we wish to master. This can be quite difficult to distil down and is a conundrum in and of itself.

How can we monetise ourselves without money dictating and constraining our career choices?

Part Four: Discipline & Hard Work

Living life abstractly hoping and wishing for things to materialise is a form of cognitive impotence. Nothing simply happens by chance. People generally negate the component of taking action when it comes to achievement. It is useful to remind ourselves that life owes us nothing (take note snowflakes). Things only come to us when we aggressively pursue them.

“Leisure is what you give up in order to have the audacity to build the life that you want” — Gary Vaynerchuck

I think a question we must ask ourselves is: am I really willing to devote essentially my whole life to achieving something extraordinary? If we truly want to be in that top 1%, then we will have to make sacrifices that are not conventionally ‘normal’. The comfortable life isn’t compatible with our esoteric ambitions.

There is a great deal to be said too for the comfortable life. This is a choice we must make. Life is rarely black or white and as such this is not a zero sum question, however we cannot have our cake and eat it at the same time. Sacrifices and priorities always have to be offered up.

To End

I hope I have grasped the internal resistance I suspect many of us are struggling with right now. This is probably a natural and beneficial period in the process of growing up and maturing. I do wonder though if this is what makes or breaks people. I fear that this is the period where people give up on their goals and ambitions because of the practicalities of life. I think most people don’t actively wish for this to happen but if we want to simultaneously maintain our real world responsibilities and also continue to pursue those grand ambitions, then it appears that the hedonistic and comfortable trappings of life may need to be put on hold.

This is a transitionary period in our lives full of challenges and new experiences. Life doesn’t come with a blueprint and therefore this is a journey of trial and error. I just hope that we can have the inner wisdom and courage to choose the right paths when we come upon them. This is the perennial worry.

The Ithaca Diaries