Lessons From the Adult World*

This month marked one year since I graduated from college. My thoughts about it daily shift between relief that I survived my first year out, excitement that I can claim a longer amount of real-world experience, and questioning everything I thought I knew because my life isn’t actually figured out yet. Then I sigh, realizing I’m still so young, and remind myself that I have a lot of time to sort out my life.

But am I still allowed to complain about post-grad life after a full year has passed? Or do I have to shut up and make room for the newly graduated? Is there a term for post-post grad? Or do I get lumped into the general “adult life” category until retirement? These questions seem silly, but they indicate a truth most post-grads can relate to: there are no clear protocols for life after school.

(* Note on calling it the “Adult World”: Part of me knows that I was an adult before I graduated college, and that for people who start a trade or don’t go to college they are part of the adult world much sooner. In my book, you are officially part of the adult world when you have to get some kind of renters insurance, figure out how to do taxes, or live outside of the normal structure you spent the first 16-22 years of your life in. I have simply taken to calling my time after college as the “adult world” because it is a different level of adulthood than you experience in college and there is also no better term for it. Which brings me back to my point – what the heck do you call this time of life?)

Three months ago I wrote a post about the 5 Things I’ve Learned About Post-Grad, but since then I’ve reflected and found a few things I’d like to add. I may be young, but I also have a hunch that these are lessons we learn repeatedly during our lives, regardless of our age or how long we have been out of college. This contributes to the possibility that the adult world is an extended period of constant fluctuation between thinking you have things figured out and realizing you were wrong. Feel free to correct me or give me your insights. I need them.
rocky paths

Sometimes adult life feels like a trail that takes you down fallen trees and rock slide remnants. Good news: the things “in your way” can also be used to help you get down, as long as you are willing to take a different path.

So here are the things I think I know right now:

1. You can’t be successful at everything

In Alain de Botton’s TED talk “A kinder, gentler philosophy of success” he explains how the meritocracy of western culture makes us feel like its our fault if we are failing. He points out the difference between how someone who wasn’t considered successful used to be called an “unfortunate,” but now they are just a “loser.” At some point in history, our perspectives shifted from believing that people who were less well off had received a bad fortune in life to believing that it is their fault.

The point is, we’ve lost sight of the fact that success isn’t always a matter of how hard you try. I can try as hard as I want, but I will never be able to swim as fast as Michael Phelps simply because my body isn’t freakishly built like his.

I have plenty of gifts, but there are also areas where I don’t excel, and we incorrectly define those as “weaknesses.” We spend a lot of time focusing on our weaknesses and how to fix them, but not enough time focusing on our strengths and how to develop them.

If you aren’t good at something, failure will happen. If you are good at something, failure will still happen. It’s not that you didn’t try hard enough, but it does mean you have to try again. And trying again is how we eventually find our way to success.

2. Time is fluid and you can control it

A friend recently visited me in Seattle and we spent hours talking about what our futures might hold. When we were in college together, these conversations were always framed as summer plans and semester plans. Our world existed in chunks of three to six months.

Now, over brunch, we ate and drank coffee for longer than a normal class period used to be. We discussed plans that spanned three or five years. It didn’t seem unusual, because that is how time works in the adult world. Three years becomes the equivalent of what three months used to mean, and three months is now like three brief hours. Being in one place for three years used to seem like an eternity, and now it is considered a short stint or adventure.

I marvel at the way I used to agonize about how far away graduation was or how long it would be till I visited home again. I spent a lot of time worrying about my time, and that is how I lost time itself. 

If time is relative, we are in control of the way we perceive it. At the beginning of this year I worked at a job I hated for three months, so it felt like forever. Now I am in a job I love and I can imagine staying here for three years or more. The only things that changed were the situation and my attitude. You can always change your attitude, even if the situation is beyond your control.

Time itself is also fluid enough for you to control, based on how much attention you want to give it. If I decide a day is barely any time at all, it will pass faster than before. And if I decide ten minutes is agonizingly long, it will be. In the wise words of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — “You can survive anything for ten seconds, and then you just start over again.”

3. Half of life happens when you show up

In college I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what my “calling” was. The problem: I did this while watching a lot of Netflix. And unless my calling is to watch t.v. all day, I’m not going to find it on the couch.

Lucky for me, I was not the type of person to miss class unless seriously ill. Turns out, the very fact that I was willing to show up to class said something about what my calling is. I love learning new things and sharing them with others. This doesn’t mean I’m called to teach a bunch of rowdy children (because trust me, I’m not patient enough), but it does mean I’m called to work in a place that challenges me to learn new things and be creative about how I can share them.

Our “callings” in life change frequently. You could be the lucky one who finds the perfect job and works there forty years. Or you could be like the rest of us and switch jobs more often than you see the dentist. What remains constant is the essence and foundation of your calling.

I know I will spend my life learning new things to share with whoever will listen. I also know that this can happen in a lot of different jobs, and I won’t find the right ones by sitting on the couch stressing over the specifics while I wonder why Don Draper can’t get his act together.

More often than not, you just need to show up, give it a try, and risk the failure that will lead you to success. The same principle works for making new friends, exploring new hobbies, and building any sort of meaning in our lives.

Elizabeth Gilbert discusses this same principle in her TED Talk “Your Elusive Creative Genius.” The common response to both failure and great success is “What next?” or “How can you possibly move forward after that?” This can spiral you into a deep depression, or it can motivate you to try something new.

But here is the important part: don’t torture yourself over what the next new thing is and how you will come up with the brilliant idea that will make your life complete. You can’t force success without creating a crabby pet project that is just as stressed as you are. All you can do is show up, embrace the times when your calling is clear and the times when it isn’t. Keep the essence of what you are searching for in mind, and eventually you find it.

As Gilbert says:
“Don’t be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be… “Olé!” to you, nonetheless, just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.”

So here I am, showing up to life in the undefined adult world. Stay tuned.

What lessons did you learn after college?

How is the “adult world” different from every period of life before it?

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