Is grad school the solution to my mid-twenties restlessness?

Grad school is a great idea for some people. If you want to be a nurse, or a middle school principal, or a master fortune cookie writer, grad school is probably the exact right choice. If you know what you want, and grad school is one of those things you need to get there, I truly envy you and all the coffee shop studying you’ll get to do, cozied up in oversized sweaters, frothy drink in hand.

If you’re at all like me, however, unsure what problems you are best suited to solve with your time, will, creativity, and the privilege the world has afforded you — grad school may not actually answer this for you. It’s not supposed to. But I have good news: I recently learned that there are hundreds of other options that will not put you in a decade of debt, and may even get you closer to what you’re really craving.

Grad school was the obvious next step last year when I contemplated quitting my job. I wanted nothing more than time for my brain, space to be creative, and an escape from all that screen time. I wanted to solve problems that actually mattered — especially now that America feels like an ocean liner, captained by man-children billionaires, about to get swallowed into a whirlpool of salty destruction.

And I felt that I wasn’t alone. I could feel the restlessness catching up with a good number of my friends and coworkers as we hit our mid-to-late 20s. We didn’t want to work at Box Box anymore, chugging coffee to motivate ourselves to do things we knew, at their core, just didn’t matter that much. Where all too often, the most intellectually satisfying part of the work day was taking an undetectably quiet poop.

The problem was I didn’t know with 100% certainty what I should be doing instead. I considered my greatest interests in life: writing, feminism, public art spaces, DIY backyard concerts, making soups, and group costumes. I obviously wasn’t going to quit my job to become a writer, or open a feminist costume shop with a bonus soup buffet. Either of these options would be financially unviable, and would almost certainly crash and burn at the exact moment when all my friends were instagramming their MBA diplomas or bridal showers.

So those options were out. But so was continuing to work my way up in the ranks at Box Box — and the stakes felt higher than ever. Perhaps because I’ve had this lifelong fear of becoming an adult. That at some point, without my noticing, I would go from leading an ever-expanding life full of intimate friendships, potlucks, and furnishing our group house with cool stuff we find on the street — to an ever-shrinking, isolated, and routine one, mainly focused on work, money, nuclear family, and shopping online for throw pillows.

I knew it was time to make a change, so I wouldn’t wake up in 10 years surrounded by throw pillows, in a constant state of low-level anxiety.

And then it came to me one day: I should go to grad school. I would get to spend my days writing and thinking about toxic masculinities, or WTF do we do about robots, or other important problems it is unlikely anyone will ever pay me to solve. I wouldn’t let my life become small and adultish just yet. I could once again stomp around a campus, all bright eyed in my bad bitch get-shit-done cowboy boots.

I didn’t know exactly what I wanted out of grad school, or what I would do afterwards. But that didn’t seem important. I longed to return to the comforts of Jstor, microwave ramen, and having someone give me clear goals and tasks. Books! Ideas! Inky pens! Free pizza! Disarmingly earnest open mic nights! Reverting back to a time when I didn’t know 401Ks existed!

So I talked to my professor uncle about it. “I just really want to do something that actually helps people,” I said. More women in politics! Manic consumer culture has alienated us from our own bodies and communities and I want to do something about it! I like how it feels when I get to spend my time thinking and writing about important problems, and I frankly don’t know how else to fit myself into the world!

My uncle patiently drank his Guinness, while I waved my hands around, chugged my beer, and teared up, while burping.

He looked at me for a beat, eyes shining, and then he asked: “See those waitresses over there?” nodding in the direction of a pair of middle aged women, wiping down countertops, chatting. “You’re interested in the experiences of women. You could learn a lot from them.”

He then gently suggested to me that grad school was not the solution to my existential crisis, and that it sounded as though what I actually wanted was something entirely different.

It turns out I didn’t really understand what grad school actually was, so he explained it to me. Grad school is a place where adults who know what they want to do with their lives go to work crazy hard, honing specific skills, so they can go on to better serve our world (or, alternatively, I might add, become an Amazon exec, and further the consolidation of wealth and the death of local economies. Your choice.)

Grad school isn’t supposed to be about open-ended exploration. It isn’t supposed to answer your burning questions about how to fit your heart and brain and human weirdness into a 40 hour/week revenue-generating activity that somehow also is making the world a better place. (This is just a really hard thing to do.)

My uncle then explained to me something I hadn’t considered before: that there are other ways to learn about the world and how to be a person in it that do not cost $100,000. There are actually hundreds of ways to devote time to ideas that matter to you, and excavate still unexplored corners of your identity.

He invited me to consider what it is I actually hungered for, setting aside my fears, my impulse to achieve for the sake of achieving, and the weight of my golden handcuffs — tying me to my San Francisco lifestyle, and the salary needed to maintain it.

I set down my beer heavily on the table. I felt I had been caught in a lie. That I had been revealed as too scared and too practical to truly consider what it was I wanted.

And I wasn’t completely clueless. I knew what it felt like to spend my time in ways that felt fulfilling. I had a long list of things I cared deeply about, of things I wanted to learn or experience before I die. And while I couldn’t be confident that any one of these things would lead to THE thing I’m supposed to do with my life (which had been my excuse for not devoting time to them) — starting in earnest with any one of them is probably more useful than spending $50,000+ for a grad school program I was mostly treating as an escape plan.

So what would my bravest self do?

To begin to answer this question, I started to make a list of things I wanted from my life.

I wanted to take time to write, and understand where my family came from. So I went back to the rural Wisconsin hometown of my great grandparents, and lived for 3 months in my aunt’s abandoned jewelry store, writing and talking to waitresses.

Jewelry store, Princeton, WI

I wanted to take time to work with my hands, and understand where my food came from. So I worked on a coffee farm in the Colombian Andes, stepping into a completely different reality, where most everything we ate came from the farm or a neighboring one, where people had little, shared everything, and spent Friday evening drinking homemade pineapple wine, playing dominos, and listening to rain on the tin roof. But this is a story for another time.

The hardest part of all of this was making that initial choice to quit my job at Box Box, accept that I was too confused to go to grad school, and instead, get in my Toyota Corolla, and drive away — giving myself permission to take this time to figure out how I wanted to be and how I wanted to live.

In case you find yourself in a similar existential bind, but don’t know quite where to start (if not grad school), I’ve put together a list of less-expensive potential ways to address your restlessness or hunger for purpose, beauty, or understanding.

  1. Apprentice yourself. Do you have a craving to learn how to run a community arts space, brew beer, make soap, or reforest indigenous plants? You can do any of these things, for free, all over the world by going on workaway.info. In exchange for working 3 hours a day, you get a free place to stay. For 5 hours a day, you’ll get your meals free, too.
  2. Travel thoughtfully, in your own country or abroad. Stock up on pizza combos and Welch’s fruit snacks and take an American roadtrip, in which you befriend as many old people in diners as possible, or visit as many national parks as you can (like my badass cousin). Or, travel abroad. Backpack through India, drinking all the street chai and tasting all the fruits you’ve never seen before.
  3. Work on a personal project. Do you have a secret dream of taking a couple months to write a short story or make a pinata version of every member of the Executive Cabinet in paper mache? Do it. If you’re worried about how to afford it, see #1 or #8, get a chill part time job, or live with your parents for a stint.
  4. Milk goats / pick kale. Do you long to stop spending 90% of your working day staring at a screen? Beyond that, do you have a primal craving to work with your hands, in the realm of physical reality, specifically with soil and plants and animals? Fuck yeah. You can work on farms all over the world, and get free room and board through www.wwoof.org or workaway.info.
  5. Volunteer. Help a kickass community housing organization, a free women’s clinic, or a hospice provider — in your city or anywhere in the world. Join an activist organization.
  6. Go for a long-ass hike. Live out of a backpack, pick a trail name, and shit in the woods. Check out my friend Adam’s blog about his 5-month hike along the Pacific Crest Trail.
  7. Learn a language. Learning Spanish is maybe my favorite thing I’ve done in the past couple years. And most of that learning I didn’t pay for — you can learn as you volunteer, or by making friends. So many cities have free language exchanges. Hit me up if you want some recommendations (shout out to Casa Nica in Granada, Nicaragua, for being incredible and affordable.)
  8. Find a less expensive — maybe even free — place to live for a stretch. Do you feel like you can’t afford to take time to finally learn more than 3 guitar chords, or volunteer for that rad community center, because you are paying $80 a day just to be alive in New York City? Temporarily move to a less expensive place, or ask your family friends in Pittsburgh if you can crash with them for a while, so you can actually afford to be a human and explore your human interests without paying large sums of money simply to exist.
  9. Take a class. Want to learn more about the things you care about? There’s this cool thing where you can take classes as an adult without actually going to grad school. Take a class on film or environmental science or pottery at your local community college, arts center, or public library.
  10. Get a library card. And fully exploit it for what it’s worth. Go to the poetry reading, or the free tai chi class attended almost exclusively by senior citizens, and get really earnest about it.
  11. Always remember how crazy lucky you are if you have the option of going to grad school, or doing any of the above activities. If there is one thing I’ve learned from traveling and living abroad, it’s that when life gives a large slice of the world tiny, hard lemons, people still make lemonade, enjoy the fuck out of it, share it with their entire neighborhood, and then go dance salsa. For no apparent reason (or more specifically due to a long history of colonial violence), life has given a small handful of us an entire firehose of tangy delicious lemonade. The question is how to wield that firehose with responsibility and gratitude. So instead of spraying it randomly around, shopping online and working on products we don’t really believe the world needs, we might as well try to use it to understand our gifts, the beauty and pain in the world around us, and new ways of thinking and living.

So, if grad school isn’t quite right for you, there are endless other options.

A year and a half ago, many of the above ideas would have struck me as 1) unproductive, like I was somehow copping out of “contributing” to society, 2) financially unviable, or 3) terrifying.

But first consider: what things are we calling “productive” and “contributions”? Consider the vast number of Silicon Valley jobs that are mostly about finding news ways to addict people more deeply to their phones. It just might be the case that the overall thrust of our economy — what we are collectively creating, and where most jobs come from — isn’t about building a world that is more peaceful, fair, human, or happy. So if you don’t see an abundance of jobs that jump out to you as truly aligned with your heart and human weirdness, know that there is absolutely nothing wrong with you. Give yourself permission to try things you care about — even when they don’t fit neatly into a specific career, or the world as we know it.

And consider: if your cravings for exploration and time for ideas are strong enough that you’re considering taking 1–7 years for grad school and spending perhaps $100,000s of dollars, then maybe it isn’t so crazy to invest time (and a comparatively small amount of money) honoring those feelings.

But as to the fear — the best advice I can give you is to consider the fact that you will be a skeleton some day. Skeletons can’t write short stories or go on long hikes. So give yourself permission to follow your own narrative.

I can’t tell you that choosing to do something on the above list, or whatever it is that you are craving, won’t be the hardest, loneliest, cold-sweats-in-your-sleep most terrifying choice you ever make. And I can’t tell you that it will give you answers. You may end up with more questions than answers.

But now more than ever is a time for questions. So get in there.