“And I submit that this is what the real, no-shit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.” –David Foster Wallace, This Is Water
If that quote doesn’t scare you a little bit, we are not alike. As I prepare to graduate from college along with around 1.5 million other Bachelor’s degree recipients this year, the anxiety is real. It is palpable in many conversations I’ve had with friends over the past few weeks, which have veiled an undercurrent of worry (For starters, will I ever see this person again?). From flat out denial (“I’m not even thinking about it.”) to moments of realization (“Wait, we have to make work friends?”) to unadulterated grief (“This means the end of classes. And that is so sad!!”), the range of emotions is extensive.
However, even though I do not currently have a job, my fears don’t include finding one. They also don’t include my preparedness for the job market, in which I am extremely confident. And I am unfathomably lucky in the fact that those fears don’t include paying off a mountain of debt either–thank you Mom and Dad. They don’t even have to do with staying in touch with friends, because I know I’ll make the effort to see and talk to the people I care about.
And my fears have absolutely nothing in common with these words I have actually heard fellow students say: “The best years of my life are over, it’s all downhill after this.” If your university gives you the best four years of your entire life, it has failed in its mission. So with confidence that the best is still to come and the recognition that it’s still scary, here are my personal fears as a soon-to-be graduate. Maybe other members of that 1.5 million will feel the same.
Fear #1: Not living up to my own expectations
As someone who has, for the most part, been successful thus far, I am often plagued by anxiety about achieving something important, about the odd business of “mattering” to the world in some substantial way. My parents have continually told me that this is a ridiculous notion, but even in their consolation is the implication that success is imminent: “Stop stressing about that, you’re going to be successful in whatever you do.” Yes, I think, but what if I’m not successful enough? What if my achievements aren’t big enough, or don’t happen fast enough?What if I don’t do enough with the thousands and thousands of dollars you’ve poured into my education?
Advice: Of course, this is a ridiculous notion, because mattering to the world at large is a ridiculous and unachievable goal. Among other things, Virginia Woolf taught me that “the very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare.” What is meaningful is the attempt. Certainly some contributions to society seem bigger or more important than others, but ultimately worrying about whether you’ll make one is a waste of time. The theme of “mattering” is present in all of John Green’s books as well, with the ultimate conclusion that “What matters to you defines your mattering.” The people you love, the work you feel passionately about, your one-to-one interactions on a daily basis—that is how you become important to your world.
As a liberal arts major, much of my education has revolved around reading and discussing the Great Books in small classes, surrounded by the smartest and most thoughtful people I have ever met. This is what I have been most grateful for in my four years of college, and undoubtedly what I will miss the most. In addition, being at a university where learning, investigating, training, and contemplating are all active goals across all majors, the conversations we have here that span disciplines are some of the most exciting. Chatting with friends that are engineering and physics and math majors, in the middle of the night, over cheesy bread, about questions of personal identity and the universe and theology and gene therapy probably isn’t going to be a part of my everyday life as I move home and find work in one specific industry.
Advice: No one says they can’t be! People remain interesting and interested, even outside of a university setting (duh, Kelsey). For this one I turn to Epictetus, the master of knowing what you can and cannot control, in The Art of Living: “Don’t just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents.” We used the training weights, but they aren’t worth anything if we don’t take them out into the world, continue those conversations, and keep making learning an ostensible goal of our lives.
Fear #3: A job with no definite end point.
This is an interesting fear of mine that I don’t often acknowledge–and I’m sure other grads don’t either. It is painfully obvious that although most of my jobs and internships have been publishing-related, I have thoroughly enjoyed trying different things and jumping from one project to the next. With a new slate of classes every four months, and 10-week internships or summer jobs in between, college can foster a sort of schizophrenic way of thinking. The thought of accepting one job that will last for an indefinite period—while mostly exciting—can be a little bit frightening. If you don’t like a class, the endpoint is visible. If you don’t like some aspect of your job…well you’re just going to have to find a solution yourself.
Advice: Doing one job doesn’t necessarily mean doing one thing. In fact, the luxury of being a college graduate is that there is a good chance your job is not as monotonous as it very well could be. But even in the latter case, we can strive to live with a purposefulness that is best explained by Henry David Thoreau in Walden:
“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”
What are some of your biggest fears about graduating, especially the ones no one talks about?
Photo: Thinkstock; The Fashion Poet