When you’ve just graduated college, when your friends have scattered all over the country to claim mediocre internships, you’ve returned to your childhood bedroom, sleeping with your feet dangling off the end of your twin mattress . . . when, despite your best efforts, you find that you’ve become one of those lay-about millennials you keep hearing about on TV, there is simply nothing worse than the inevitable moment when you run into one of your mom’s well-intentioned friends at a coffee shop, and she asks you that dreaded question:
“So, sweetie, how are things going?”
This is a query you’ve successfully answered from this friend, who is likely named “Deb” or similar, countless times before, but now you can tell from her tight-lipped, clumsily-lined smile, that she’s silently comparing you to her own son, Jarrod—who just so happens to be moving to San-Somewhere on the west coast to work with underprivileged dolphins while somehow also making gobs of money. Nobody likes Jarrod though, so take comfort in that. In these moments, it will take all of your self-control not to grab this woman by her cardigan-clad shoulders and shout “I’M NOT GOOD, DEB! I’M CLEARLY VERY BUSY SQUANDERING MY POTENTIAL, SO WOULD YOU PLEASE, IN THE NAME OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, JUST LET ME FINISH MY BAGEL IN PEACE?!”
Ug, Deb. This lady is the worst, and somehow you’ll encounter her thrice weekly from the day you move back home. The worst part by far is that Deb knows full well that your life is a mess— because she and your mom have brunch on alternate Wednesdays and discuss at length how great Jarrod is, and how lame you are— but that bitch will always ask anyway.
I write to you today, dear friend, to admit that upon receipt of my BA, I boomeranged right back to my childhood home. Yet, I, Abigail Susan Lowe, lived to move out again. With all significant familial relationships in-tact, no less! As someone who is currently fully employed (with benefits and everything), I wish to share with you a message of hope. I have looked the Debs of the world in the face, and said “I’m fine” through gritted teeth, when I obviously meant “I’m dying inside,” but who’s laughing now, DEB, because guess who has two thumbs and a 401K? THIS GUY. And yeah, I can’t afford to pay into it yet, but it’s right there if I ever wanted to start.
Folks, nothing about the last year of my life has gone smoothly. The transition from college student to fully-fledged adult is bleeping hard, and has involved a lot of me crying in my parked car. When I was an undergraduate and imagining my future life, it looked nothing like this. Things I thought were essential to my happiness have been put on hold (and that’s okay), while things I never thought I needed have turned out to be essential. It’s all part of the garbage-disposal experience of being a twenty-something without a clue and a lot of student debt.
I graduated from Grinnell College in 2015— and it is my tendency, when reflecting on that time, to frame this moment in my life as one of unrestrained optimism, because that’s what the college graduate is supposed to feel: full of bright-eyed, childlike wonder or whatever. But in truth I was actually pretty jaded. Not unhappy—college was a great time, full of all the friends and fun those years are supposed to hold, but I did wind up on the precipice of independence with no clue what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go.
…BUT I DID WIND UP ON THE PRECIPICE OF INDEPENDENCE WITH NO CLUE WHAT I WANTED TO DO OR WHERE I WANTED TO GO.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with my alma mater, Grinnell is a small, liberal arts college of 1,500 students, situated in the correspondingly small town of Grinnell, Iowa. Liberal Arts students like myself have a reputation for being pie-in-the-sky idealists—studying literature and poetry in their ivory tower until being forced out into the cold, harsh realities of adult life after graduation. But my experience was somewhat different; if I had to characterize the vibe on my college campus, it would be that of world-weary misanthropes united by a) an unhealthy dependence on black coffee and b) our unofficial slogan: “we are never going to find jobs.” Somehow it felt like the first step was acceptance—if we could all just admit that we were never going to earn gainful employment, then maybe we would all be okay.
So there I was, industriously pursing that noble if foolhardy goal—learning for learning’s sake— and earning a degree that some loon in the registrar’s office let me design for myself. For anyone questioning the wisdom of their English degree, I’d like to introduce you to my bachelor’s degree: Visual and Narrative Identity. Feeling better? I hope so, cause this bad boy was based on my own personal hybrid curriculum, encompassing the incredibly practical, no-nonsense subjects of English, Art History, Studio Art, Creative Writing, Gender/Women’s/Sexuality Studies, and Psychology. (That last one was really just my way of pretending I had some modicum of interest in anything outside the Humanities… spoiler alert: I didn’t.)
I took all kinds of fabulous classes and had a near-perfect complement of brilliant of professors, who changed my life forever and so on and so forth, but, to boil those years down to the essential elements, all you really need to know is that I basically never left the art building. I found my home in Grinnell’s petite powerhouse of an art department around my third year and genuinely never desired to depart. I thought I was gearing up to be a Capital-A ‘Artist.’ I thought I was going to earn my MFA after Grinnell, go even deeper into debt, and then wait for either sudden, explosive success, or, financial ruin and, I supposed, death. It all felt very operatic; would I succeed and become the next Lesley Dill or live out the pathetic remainder of my life in a cardboard box on the side of I-80? Who could say. I felt completely trapped in a dichotomy between being a DREAM-FOLLOWER and a SELLOUT. I’m here to tell you, there are a thousand and one ways to pursue the things that you love while still affording your rent.
I’M HERE TO TELL YOU, THERE ARE A THOUSAND AND ONE WAYS TO PURSUE THE THINGS THAT YOU LOVE WHILE STILL AFFORDING YOUR RENT.
The first step for me was accepting that it really was okay to just get a job. Of course, actually getting one as a newly minted ‘Visual and Narrative Identity’ scholar was another matter entirely. I wish I could tell you that I applied to five jobs a week until the right one said yes. I wish I could tell you that for every ten applications I sent out I got one interview, but I persisted. That each time I was rejected it only made me more determined to success. But the truth is that I was so anxious and miserable at the thought of my predicament, I could barely bring myself to look at my résumé. I was so sure that I was a useless know-nothing that I couldn’t begin to fathom what kind of jobs I should even be applying for.
It was at this point in what I lovingly refer to as my “fallow period” when I stumbled backwards into a stroke of pure luck. Towards the end of last July, a good friend of mine recommended me for a job at my old elementary school, and due to some favorable timing, a healthy dose of nepotism, and a lot of help from my friends and family, I managed to land the job. Was I perhaps the new art teacher? No, that would have made far too much sense. Less than two weeks after I submitted my resume, I was hired as the school’s Marketing and Communications Associate. Obviously because of my extensive marketing background. *cue laugh track*
IT TOOK ME ABOUT SIX WEEKS OF FEELING DISASTROUSLY UNQUALIFIED AND DEPRESSED BEFORE I CALMED DOWN ENOUGH TO REALIZE I ACTUALLY LIKED MY NEW GIG.
It took me about six weeks of feeling disastrously unqualified and depressed before I calmed down enough to realize I actually liked my new gig. This epiphany was facilitated, I think, by the reemergence of my long-buried confidence. I hadn’t spent four years finger-painting at Grinnell, I had spent them writing, and thinking, and creating, and I had, despite my very best intentions, gained some incredibly useful skills along the way. Turns out I didn’t need to know how to be a marketer, I needed to know how to learn how to be a marketer, if that makes sense. Despite all my doubts, my education had prepared me well, if indirectly, to succeed in the real world.
TURNS OUT I DIDN’T NEED TO KNOW HOW TO BE A MARKETER, I NEEDED TO KNOW HOW TO LEARN HOW TO BE A MARKETER.
My job now is essentially a catch-all for the advertising, photography, graphic design, and communication needs of my school. Do I have a graphic design degree? No. Have I taken extensive coursework in photography? No. Do I have a comprehensive knowledge of contemporary marketing strategy? Dear God, not at all. But, as I sometimes must quietly repeat to myself while taking deep, calming breaths, I’m not a project manager at Google, I’m working with a staff of nine administrators at a small, independent elementary school. And, as it turns out, you don’t really need any of the above to do good work. (And the occasional really mediocre work which you hope will soon be forgotten slash forgiven by your magnanimous coworkers.)
So now I have this whole life—including a studio apartment and a long-snooted dog named Luna—that has sprung up like a mushroom over several short months, all facilitated by this job I would never have considered applying for, were it not for an unannounced call from an old friend. And it’s not the life I anticipated, or even the one I necessarily wanted a year ago. In fact, it’s possible I would have been a little cranky at the thought of something so plebian as a 9-5.
SO: WILL YOU ALSO LAND A JOB AT YOUR PRIVATE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL AND LIKE IT A LOT MORE THAN YOU EXPECTED? PROBABLY NOT. BUT YOU DO HAVE PEOPLE WHO LOVE YOU, WHO THINK THE WORLD OF YOUR TALENT AND STYLE, WHO WILL KEEP AN EAR OUT FOR OPPORTUNITIES IN YOUR UNIQUE WHEEL-HOUSE OF SKILLS, AND WHO, MOST IMPORTANTLY, WILL FIB STRATEGICALLY WHEN CALLED BY A POTENTIAL EMPLOYER FOR A REFERENCE.
So when my hypothetical biographer sits down with the Lifetime Network executive to hash out the details of my TV biopic, there will no doubt be an immediate consensus that 2015-2017 are years of my life best told in montage. No one needs to watch this nonsense happen in real time. I certainly wish I could’ve skipped over some of those middle bits to get the part where I don’t hate everyone and everything.
Forget passing your driving test, forget the SATs, forget your first week of college. As my mother once told me, this is the hardest thing you will ever do. But I truly believe that the best is yet to come for both of us.