Living by the Formula
In high school, I loved math. I learned the Quadratic formula to the tune of the Brady Bunch. I memorized Pre-Calculus formulas to eat chocolate dirt cups with gummy worms. I learned formulas, lots and lots of pretty formulas, to determine missing angles in an isosceles triangle and how far Jimmy could shoot a rocket into the air before gravity brought it back down.
It wasn’t until after my college graduation that I realized I lived my life according to a formula, a formula drilled into my head until it became a living, breathing, unquestionable notion:
study hard in school + go to a good college = a good job.
The math was basic addition: a + b = c. Whatever letter you substituted into the equation, it all led to the same answer — a “good job.”
You could break down “c” even further. C = C1 + C2, where C1 = stability and C2 = success, two assumptions you didn’t need in the original formula because they were assumed in a former math proof.
Like many other students, I followed this formula religiously and let it dictate my every move. In high school, that meant running to three different club meetings in a 30-min lunch period (and having friends complain about never seeing me), participating in three sports (one for every athletic season), playing two instruments in the school band (flute and French horn), and taking four AP classes (because APs showed colleges you were serious about learning).
I was superwired on the fast track to success — I was following a formula reinforced by my parents, teachers, and family, and I believed it to be foolproof.
Every hour of studying, every internship, summer camp, volunteer commitment, school project was done because I had — I wanted — to get into a good college, to get a good job. Adding things to my resume became a devout practice. There was nothing I wouldn’t take on to add just one more line, just one more activity, to demonstrate that I was fit for a top-tier college.
And so, when I was accepted to UC Berkeley, that intensity, that persistence to continue to add to my resume, didn’t die — it grew stronger and stronger, cutting more hours from sleep and placing more time into 12 clubs and five academic classes every semester.
I was a machine — automatic, multi-geared, my production streamlined to a T. I was so focused on the external result, this abstract concept of a “good job,” and pushed myself beyond my limits to make it to “C”.
Four years later, standing on the stage of Zellerbach Hall in my customary black cap and gown, I still felt like “wasn’t doing enough,” that “I wasn’t good enough,” that I needed to be more intelligent, well-read, and eloquent, better at logical reasoning and articulating concise arguments, stronger at dancing and foundational moves. The professor who handed me a single piece of paper commemorating my graduation from Cal, smiled with no teeth. It was a lukewarm farewell and a fat boot out of the education system I nursed on, clung too, and thrived in.
I smiled blankly. I was a college graduate with my red tassel now on the right side, and the world loomed before me. I moved out of my apartment that weekend with a single suitcase of clothes and two heavy cardboard boxes of used books. Time was suddenly slow, opportunity seemingly nonexistent, the formula disappearing as if it had never existed.
Then life tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to the next formula: get a job.
That was it. Three words that consumed me from the inside for my first eight months out of college — GET A JOB. This was the next step. Everybody said it was the next step. It was all I knew and clung to — my post-graduate syllabus designed to help me make sense of the world.
A + B = C => D
I forced myself to believe that once I found a job, I’d figure it out. I’d “get” this next stage of life. I’d use it as a stepping stone to figure out what I truly wanted. I just needed a job.
But I couldn’t find one. For eight months, I sent 500 emails, applied to numerous positions, wrote enough personal statements to make myself sick. I studied for the GRE, because, well, if you can’t find a job, you can always go back to school, right?
I moved back in with my parents. I took up yoga to help manage my anxiety. I drank a hell of a lot of milk tea and spent my time in my favorite tea shop and bookstore. I watched my childhood home foreclose on my 23rd birthday, my grandfather take his last breath, my father lose his job, my mother cry over finances, my sister become hospitalized because she didn’t have enough money to pay her rent AND eat.
Life happened. I stood by and watched all of this from the fog-filled distance depression created between me and the world. My ego crumbled. The strong, almost smug, sense that I was entitled to a “good job” because of my studly academic record, and therefore, had the right to secure a “good job” in a prestigious place of government or on a higher rung of the socio-economic level was shot down.
I struggled with self-worth, from being the number one student in my class to being a nobody, a nothing. For all those lines on my resume, I had nothing to show for it in the real world.
Four months into the new year, I finally got my first job. As I typed “substitute teacher” onto my LinkedIn page, I felt absolutely ashamed of myself. The notion that a premier Berkeley college graduate was now, after all this time and effort, a substitute teacher, who both kids and other teachers didn’t take seriously, was the final blow to my ego. A substitute teacher — a position I didn’t even need to be interviewed for — that simply required a college degree and a criminal background check. Within a matter of days, I stood in front of a high school Social Studies classroom in southeast San Diego tasked to take attendance and play a video.
For all that I had seen and done, living in three countries, working for the United Nations, interning as the only high schooler for Congresswoman Susan Davis, building shoes that could walk on water, winning regional public speaking competitions, having a professor call my name in a class of 500 students (definitely a big deal at Berkeley), I had resorted to this.
In my eyes at the time, becoming a substitute teachers put me on the lowest rung of the post-grad social ladder as I watched all my other friends announcing their acceptances into Google, the White House, and Harvard graduate school. I was incredibly disappointed in myself. The formula was not faulty — it was just me.
Looking back, I was an egotistical and privileged prick with a chip on my shoulder throwing a self-pity party.
For all my genuine intention to do good in the world, for all my hard work, for all that my heart and curious mind had to offer, I really thought I had dropped to rock bottom.
But within the first few weeks of substitute teaching, I realized what a terrible person I was for thinking and feeling all of these things. Here was I, able to share with students across my public school district bits of knowledge I picked up in college. The meaning of the term “boosie” or bourgeois. The nonprofit building blue soccer balls out of Cloggs. The nonviolent revolution of Mahatma Gandhi.
So what if I had a college degree? It didn’t make me better than anyone else. I was not entitled to success just because I worked hard in school. Millions of people work hard every single day, some juggling two, three, even four jobs just to support their families. I wasn’t special, nor was I entitled to anything because I graduated with a pretty degree.
In those eight months, when I finally stepped out of the ivory tower, I realized how hard it is to get a job, how much people have to struggle each and every day to make ends meat, and how I’m nobody special — just another person trying to find her place in the world.
Such a humbling experience brought me back to earth and out of my pity party. For years, I was lost in the illusion of academia, where opportunity was bountiful, the road to success was clear, learning was accessible, and critical thinking was the norm.
I now understood another way of living, the real way of living outside of the confines of the education system, and I had to reframe my approach, face the realities of survival, and rebuild myself.
I walked out of the buzzing graduation hall into a new reality: the dearth of opportunity, the challenge of meeting new people, and barriers to job entry (a humanities degree, a marketable “technical” skill set, lack of actual work experience and an established network).
On the one hand, I had to get my shit together to pay back college debt, take on responsibility of shouldering bills, and support myself and my family. On the other hand, I struggled with understanding what I wanted and who I wanted to be.
What was my purpose? How could I continue to learn? How could I continue to cultivate my mind, think critically, and not get caught up in regurgitating the headlines? Where could I find the courage and confidence in myself to be the maker of my own destiny and carve my own path? What made my happy? How could I be fulfilled? How could I balance my work, familial and personal responsibilities?
Did I have to accept the formula society force fed to me?
Did I have to look forward to every weekend and wake up with a grim sense of not wanting to go to work? Was this my fate?
Realism battled with idealism. Practicality fought with philosophy. The desire to live the life I wanted was at odds with society’s well-accepted formula.
To this day, I am still trying to determine the answer to many of those questions, and fighting the formula within myself.
I think it’s fair to say that we all want to be successful. We want to travel the world, save babies and prevent the polar ice caps from melting. We want power and prestige, status and wealth, education and dominance. We don’t want to be left behind, so we constantly look left and right for any opportunity or else settle into the day-to-day mediocracy of our lives. We either give up on our childhood dreams or chase them in the real world.
We continue to follow formulas: the 9–5, marriage, children, the purchase of a car and then a home.
A + B = C => D. D=> E + F + G + H = LIFE.
Do we follow these formulas out of social pressure, because we don’t know what else to do, or because we want to?
In the end, we all die. Life will be a memory, a cast of our accepted series of illusions or a grand architecture that leaves a legacy. At death’s door, the anxiety of hubris will be merely an imprint of a life we could have lived instead of the one we did.
Our greatest tool is CHOICE, so choose wisely, humbly, and create your own formula.