Andrea, 23, remembers college as one long, steady stream of study, class, study, study, study, exam, sleep, eat, class, study, study, study, get drunk, eat. Now that she has been away from the academic world for a year and a half, she describes the reality of her life as work, eat, sleep, work, date, work, eat, sleep, work, work, work. “While that may sound like a joke, it’s basically true,” Andrea says. “I like to consider the first description more productive. At least now I make money for having no life. At college I had to pay for it.” Andrea is a copy editor at a daily newspaper in northeastern Pennsylvania. Along with many other young people fresh out of college, she has found that, like her years in school, the real world isn’t all it is cracked up to be.
As with most of us, long hours and low wages are a reality she can’t quite accept. For Andrea and a large number of other twenty-somethings in America today, “Reality Bites” is not just the title of a movie–it’s a fact of life. Disillusion has sent many a weaker person back to the sheltering arms of graduate school. But what about those who have decided to tough it out? Is there any hope for the future? Will we hate our jobs and our lives forever? Are there benefits to being shit on by shitty bosses at a shit job until we find out what it is we really want to do with our lives? As pathetic as it might sound, Andrea thinks so. “(At least) now there are brief glimpses of time when I DO have a life, free and clear,” she said. “Time all to myself, with no paper due, no exam to worry about, and best of all, I now have money and a car and independence to do what I choose. Penn State, to me, was a jail inhabited by dress-alike, drunk inmates. I don’t consider the ability to get pie-eyed on a weeknight true freedom.”
Marla, a 27-year-old registered nurse currently living in Baltimore, Md., isn’t so quick to agree about the merits of mediocrity after college. “I graduated with my B.S.N. in May of ’92 and got what was considered to be a ‘good’ job,” she says. “However, after a year or so, when the ‘newness’ of being a R.N. wore off,
I found myself bored and, for the most part, miserable.” In an attempt to sort out what she regarded as a pathetic existence, Marla began taking aptitude tests in the spring of 1993 to see what “THEY” suggested she do with her life. Ironically, “THEY” all said she should be a nurse. After reviewing what the scores said, “I decided that maybe I wasn’t REALLY burned out, that maybe I just needed a new perspective, a fresh new outlook, per se,” Marla said. “So I packed up everything, hugged and kissed my entire family good-bye and left my home of Louisiana for the grandeur of Colorado and the ‘big-city life’ of Denver.”
Andrea and Marla have both taken two common paths down the road of life after school: Andrea by waiting for something better to come along, and Marla by trying desperately to claw her way out of an unfulfilling position–and failing. Howard Sambol, author of “Career Crafting” and a San Francisco Bay-area career counselor, says such confusing patterns are typical of people in their 20s to 40s in America. According to Sambol, a shift happens in our late teens or early 20s where we literally wake up one morning and are deemed adults who are expected to make adult decisions. But, after years of being told what to do by parents, teachers and other well-meaning “grownups,” we don’t really know how to think–at least not for ourselves.
“This is what causes the disillusionment we see so much (in young people),” Sambol says. It is also what leads people to panic and end up making choices for the future based on expediency more than desire.
Like Andrea and Marla, we are all apt to take a job just because it is there. This opens the door for one of two things to occur, Sambol says. As might happen in Andrea’s case, people who have fallen into a bad job may end up staying there until they find they have climbed the corporate ladder too high to risk coming back down. Or, like Marla, they may hop around from job to job for years until the disappointment becomes too much to bear and they look around desperately at ways to change their lives. “After having lived and worked (in Denver) for 2 1/2 years, I discovered what I truly needed wasn’t a new place to live, but a new career. But what?!?! The choices are overwhelming!” Marla said. Today, Marla is a “traveling nurse,” which means that she goes around the country for 3- to 6-month contracts helping out hospitals where staffing is a problem. She says she took this route to “see the country” while she tries to figure out what she wants to do with her life. “I’m enjoying this current contract in Baltimore, but am miserable– most of the time–taking care of patients. And more important, I STILL haven’t decided what career to change to,” she says. Marla took the aggressive approach to her life–taking drastic steps to try to chase away discontent. Andrea’s was more passive, laying low until she gets it all sorted out. Which way is better? That’s up to the individual to decide. But both roads, apparently, lead back to the same place: unhappiness and growing disillusionment. Sambol says it doesn’t have to be that way. According to him, the solution is as easy as rehabilitating our ability to know ourselves and appreciate the dreams and desires that years of living to make others happy have forced to become buried deep inside. “We live this intense existence, then 40 years go by and we find we haven’t lived, we’ve existed,” he says. Still, there are ways to prevent this from happening while we are young. Sambol calls the approach “career crafting” and says happiness at work is as simple as cultivating knowledge about ourselves. Crucial to this process is clarifying our own values and then finding people of like mind to help us through the rough spots. Sambol calls it “coaching” and says it breaks down into four levels of support: emotional, structural, networking and strategic. Essentially, we must teach ourselves how to think, and the whole learning process will be a great deal easier if we don’t try to go it alone.
Emotional support, Sambol says, is as simple as finding a core of friends to listen to you and talk through your anxieties. Structural support involves having someone to hold you to your commitments and promises. According to Sambol, this step is essential to helping us become disciplined individuals ready for the real challenges our new lives will throw our way. Networking helps us build relationships, and strategic support helps us keep our eyes on the big picture–the ominous future so many of us have shied away from until this time.
Whether we take Sambol’s approach or formulate one of our own, true contentedness is not going to come without some effort. Happiness is not too much to ask, but it has to be earned, not given.