Real-World Real Talk for the Class of 2016

Thursday, May 19, 2016

So you’ve graduated, or you’re nearing graduation, and everywhere you turn, people are warning you about that post-grad “real world”… whatever that even actually is.  It seems mysterious and almost mythical, doesn’t it?  All you really know about it is that it’s allegedly really hard.  You’ll have to do things like start cooking all your own meals rather than relying on meal plans, and you’ll no longer be able to settle underneath the comfort of that beloved syllabus and the order it provides your chaotic life.  You’ll have to make an active effort to socialize with people you won’t naturally see on campus between classes anymore, and you’ll have to do grown-up things like clean your house and make a real budget.  And while there are a LOT of blog posts and web articles out there instructing you on the proper way to "adult," and I'm sure there’s a part of you that’s most definitely psyched to be escaping homework’s ruthless clutches for the first time in 16 years, I also know that right now, facing the multiple demands of adulthood probably also makes you feel like you’re staring down all three of Cerberus’ heads, frozen in fear and wondering... Where do I even begin???

Well, for starters, take a deep breath.  Realize that this is a rite of passage endured by many, and you might be confused and terrified, but you will get through it.  Promise.  I know I’m no expert on adulthood just yet (I’ve only really been here for a year myself), but I do know that as someone who’s duking it out in the arena of “real life,” I’m at least sort of qualified to share my experiences with you, to tell you what it’s like out here, and to share what can loosely be considered my adulthood street savvy.  If you’re looking for straight-up peer advice, I’m here to offer it to you.  So, without further ado, I share some lessons I’ve learned as a post-graduate that I hope will add some much-needed perspective to that addled, “future is looming and I don’t know what to do” brain of yours right now.

When in doubt, the best thing you can do is… something.

That sounds like a terribly vague and pretty unhelpful piece of advice, doesn’t it?  Sorry about that.

What I mean is that there are going to be times in post-grad life, especially in that initial period when you’re wondering where you should move and and what career to pursue, when you’ll probably feel pretty lost.  Anything is possible is an empowering maxim when you’re a kid who dreams of becoming an astronaut or a movie star, but as a twentysomething, this can feel overwhelming.  

Anything doesn’t help narrow down the field of choice at all.  And when you’re leaving such a rigidly structured world as college, with its syllabi and papers and tests to rely on for order, knowing anything is possible is actually pretty terrifying.  When anything is available to us, how do we decide what to do?  And moreover, how do we know the decision we’re making is the “right” one?  

Here’s what I’ve gleaned in the last year while endlessly pondering this question.  It’s kind of a secret that no one ever really tells you about adulthood, so listen carefully:

There are no “right” or “wrong” choices.  There are only choices; what makes them “good” or “bad” is how we use them to grow… or not.

Okay, so on a moral level, there are definitely choices we’d unquestionably consider “right” and “wrong.”  But that’s not what I’m talking about here.  I’m talking about all the times we pick one thing and then torture ourselves by wondering if it would have been better to pick something else.  So in order to protect ourselves from feeling pelted with regret and a fear that we’re missing out on a “better” option, we sometimes don’t make any choice at all (Meg Jay, Ph.D., does a fantastic job of describing this in her book, The Defining Decade, which you should definitely read if you haven’t yet — it is a major roadmap for this period of life). 

I spent a lot of time after moving to Colorado wondering if I should have gone to New York instead, just to try it.  After all, that’s where the bulk of jobs in the publishing industry are, and isn’t that what I said I wanted to do?  Did I make the wrong choice in choosing to live with my sister?

I don’t think so.  I made the choice that made the most sense to me at the moment when I had to decide.  Has it been harder to find a full-time job and create a sense of community for myself than it might have been if I’d moved to New York with my fellow Denver Publishing Institute grads and sought a career there?  

Maybe... and maybe not.  I don’t know for sure what my life would have been like if I’d made a different choice.  But who’s to say that if I’d gone to New York, I wouldn’t be wishing I were here instead?  Or encountering some other kind of roadblock?

My point is this: 

Life is always going to have some problems.  No matter where you are or what you’re doing, there’s going to be something you wish were different.  So when you're looking at that wide world of possibility and thinking of where to start after you flip that tassel, choose the option that makes the most sense for you right now, and be at peace knowing that you can always change your mind later if it’s not working out.  But give it an honest try first.  Practice cultivating a healthy sense of gratitude for where you are, bloom where you’re planted, and know that you have the capacity to make the best of any situation.

But the first thing you have to do is pick one.  

Overcome your instant gratification addiction.

As a recovering instant gratification addict myself, I know that this is really hard.  It’s not that we’re selfish or entitled, it’s just that our entire schooling careers have trained us to expect relatively instant results.  The paper you spent two weeks writing will (usually) be returned to you in another two weeks, at most.  And don’t pretend you’ve never asked a professor, “When are we getting our tests back?” in the very next class period.  In our academic lives, we never had to wait that long for anything.

Be prepared to do some serious waiting in adulthood.  For me, the waiting game has come in the form of finding a full-time job.  This doesn’t mean I haven’t been working my little behind off to get a full-time job; I’ve hustled to set up informational interviews, trolled company websites for openings, and been interviewed for maybe five or six positions I’ve really wanted.  And just because my efforts haven’t exactly been as fruitful as I’d like them to be up to this point doesn’t mean I haven’t been making any progress at all.  “Slow and steady” seems to be the name of the game in adulthood, and if it’s difficult to quantify the work you’re doing without a neat little grade to slap on it, don’t let that discourage you or make you feel that you’re not doing any work at all.  I guarantee you will have to wait for something in adulthood, but that does not make you a failure!  Know that you’re making progress in your own time.  Speaking of…

Do not compare yourself to others.

This one’s a biggie.  And I feel like something of a hypocrite here because I definitely do not have this one mastered.  I don’t have any of these tips mastered, really.  I’m just doing my best to make progress on them.  

But seriously.  I compare myself to other people constantly, and with Facebook and Instagram there to slap everybody’s business right in our faces, it’s hard not to.  

Please stop this, friends.  For one thing, social media is an illusion.  A facade.  It’s not real life.  It’s what people want you to believe their real lives look like, so they pick the best parts of it to put on display.  What social media doesn’t show are the struggles they’re facing — and believe you me, they are facing challenges; rainbows don’t come without at least a little bit of rain. 

Also remember that everyone is achieving their own version of success at their own rate.  Your success isn’t supposed to look like anyone else’s, and that’s okay.  I know the comparison bug bites hardest when we see other people doing the things we’d like most to be doing, too.  But trust me on this one: as long as you are actively pursuing your dreams with baby steps that mean something to you, their journeys are irrelevant.  You’re exactly where you need to be.  I don’t have any hard evidence here to prove this, or any stories of my own, really, to show how I’m triumphing over this.  I'm still struggling with this.  Knowing that I’m in the right place for me right now is something I just have to take on faith, and on God’s promise that “[He] know[s] well the plans [He] has for [me]” (Jeremiah 29:11, NAB).   

I can say, however, that a good antidote for comparisonitis is keeping a list of all of the tiny wins you’ve experienced on your way to achieving your dreams.  Get out a piece of paper, right now.  Do it.  Write down all of the little victories you’ve accomplished recently, those things that feel like milestones because maybe they’re things you didn’t think you could do (I would imagine that, given the enormity of the accomplishment of college graduation, that will probably fall somewhere on there, though this is definitely a big win, in my opinion ;]).  Keep this list somewhere you can refer to it when envy rears its ugly head, and add to it frequently.  Remind yourself of all the good you’re doing, ‘cause there’s a lot of it. 


Congratulations and good luck, Class of 2016!  The real world’s got nothing on you.    

A Lesson in Messy Living from the Impressionists

Monday, May 16, 2016

I do love a good underdog story.

At a time when realism was most prized in the art world, the Impressionists rebelled against the norm and boldly committed to creating their own movement. I can only imagine how established members of the art community must have shaken their heads and rolled their eyes at Monet, Renoir, and all the rest, while whispering among themselves things like, “Such a shame… So much talent, wasted,” or “They’ll never learn, will they?” or even, “I can’t believe they think this is art!”

To which I’m sure the Impressionists just shrugged their shoulders and said something to the effect of (in appropriate, turn-of-the-twentieth-century jargon, of course), “That’s cool, bro.  Thanks for sharing.  And I’m sorry you feel that way.  But I’m still gonna do my thing.”

And who's laughing now?  

I have to say I’m really grateful they responded to adversity the way they did.  We’d have been robbed of so much beauty if they’d succumbed to the pressure from the popular kids.  And so I guess you could say the first lesson they’ve taught me is that I shouldn’t let fear of judgment keep me from doing what I know I was put here on this earth to achieve.  There might be some people who reject me for it, but the truth is that the world would be missing something vital if I weren’t myself.  The same is true for you.

And maybe another reason I like them so much is this:

Have you ever noticed how messy some of the Impressionists’ paintings look?  Though each of them is governed by a unifying vision, so that you can definitely tell what it’s depicting when you admire it from afar, stand up close to the canvas, really scrutinize it, and you’ll see something different.  You’ll see haphazard brush strokes, irreverently juxtaposed color combinations, and no deliberate use anywhere of black or white.  Where these colors seem to occur, they’ve sprung organically from others, the result being works of art infused from corner to corner with color and radiance.  

When I visited the Art Institute during my travels to Chicago this past weekend, a woman admiring these paintings with her husband said it best: they were luminous.  

Luminous.  Yes.  All you have to do is look at some of these photos I took in the exhibit to understand:

Claude Monet, Vétheuil
Camille Pissarro, Haymaking at √Čragny
Claude Monet, Bordighera

Close-up of Monet's Water Lily Pond
Claude Monet, Water Lily Pond
When I consider how the messiness of the Impressionists’ works might be something of a guide to how our own lives should be lived, I want to go deeper than concluding that their paintings are a metaphor for how our own flaws can make something beautiful of us.  Because the way I see it, we’re made to do more than passively accept our flaws. 

If we want to live truly luminous lives, we have to actively use our flaws and stumbles to light up the world.  We have to make our wounds the instruments with which we write powerful new narratives that will change our own stories, and those of others.  

As an example, I’ll tell you about my sister Lizzy.  

In the spring of 2014, she was hospitalized and diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune disease that could have permanently crippled her self-esteem and happiness had she submitted to the feelings of weakness and fear it wrought.

But two years later, she’s used her illness to leverage her health and wellness (she’s run three half marathons, battled her way through BeachBody’s 21 Day Fix, and continues to make choices that make her feel strong and confident) and encourages others to become their best selves in similar ways, and she uses her story to support others suffering from the same condition.  She’s the happiest I’ve ever seen her, and she’s lit from within by an unmistakeable glow.  Just like the Impressionists who used those messy strokes to create shimmering works of art, Lizzy used her “flaw” to shine in an extraordinary way.     

And this is what the Impressionists have taught me.  Like the Bible verse that reminds me that “[God’s] strength is sufficient for us, for power is made perfect in weakness,” (2 Corinthians 12:9, NAB), I’m reminded that those things others perceive to be “wrong” with us, the weaknesses and struggles you and I face, can become the very place from which we engage and inspire the world.   

Am I Successful Enough?

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Can I be real with you for a second?

Okay, cool.  Thanks.

The truth is, I don't consider myself a particularly successful person.

Most days, my successes consist of relatively minor things: I pry myself out from under my warm covers, which often feels like a victory in itself.  I shore up the resolve to work out for thirty minutes.  I mix some prepackaged instant oatmeal with some boiling water, a sliced banana, and a pinch of cinnamon, and marvel at my skills in providing for myself.  Maybe I churn out a new blog post, pick up some groceries, or drop off some donations at Goodwill.  I go to work for a few hours.

None of these feel like particularly earth-shattering accomplishments.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you might remember that struggling to accept I’m where I’m meant to be is a subject I’ve broached before. 

Because I'll log in to Facebook or scroll through my Instagram feed, where I’m greeted with status updates and photos from people I went to high school and college with, people who have cozy 9-to-5 office jobs, a comfortable salary, an engagement ring – people for whom everything seems to be coming together.  And I look around at my tiny, ordinary life, a life that aspires to be so much more, and I can’t shake the shame and embarrassment of feeling like I should be more successful already. 

There’s a little contrary voice in my head that pipes up in the quiet moments when I don’t want to hear it.  Right now, it’s whispering this quote by Mother Teresa: “God has not called me to be successful.  He has called me to be faithful.”

Those are really, really hard words to swallow.  Because if I’m being completely honest, I want success!  I want the six-figure salary, a career doing work I’m passionate about, vacation homes in Hawaii and London, a husband and a family, a crew of girlfriends to accompany me to happy hour at luxe wine and cheese bars.  I want a deliriously happy existence, the kind of life that’s been lived with utter joy and to the fullest extent.  Of course I do.  Who wouldn’t? 

But that is the kind of success that speaks of selfishness and personal glory.  And I’m pretty sure that on my dying day, when I’m standing before those pearly gates in Heaven, and Peter is asking me to justify my entrance (I imagine this to be something like that dreaded interview question, “Why should we hire you?”), the things I did for myself in the way of achieving personal success will count for little against how I served others. 

So.  That is what I need to remind myself of.

That it’s not wrong to want certain things for myself, to have goals and dreams and visions for the future.  I just tend to forget in the pursuit of these that my life should be guided by what I can give to my fellow humans.  That my mission in this world should be primarily shaped by how I can love and serve the greatest amount of people.  That I shouldn’t leave this earth without having somehow made it better not just for me, but for others, too.

And sometimes that means substituting faithfulness for success.

It means humbling myself to the ordinary, everyday work available to me right now, to myriad opportunities to love and serve and give of myself to others in seemingly minor ways.  From these small acts of faithfulness might indeed spring the success I yearn for in the future, but even if it doesn’t come, that will be okay. 

And... wouldn't a faithful life, one marked by love and light, still be considered successful in its own right?