It’s May!! Which means graduation season for probably millions around the country, and many of you heading off to new cities and new jobs. First, congratulations! College is so hard and draining, but you made it!
On top of all the excitement and relief, many of you are probably wondering, what next? What comes after college graduation?
Well, I can’t answer that for you. But I can say this, it will most likely include some twists and turns.
I graduated from college in December 2016, and after a slew of applications, I landed my first “adult” job as a research assistant in March. It paid more than I was expecting to get, and I really liked my boss and office mates.
Everything seemed great, except it meant about 3.5 hours of commuting in traffic every day and I found out the position had nothing to do with research.
Worst, I often had nothing to do. Any self-projects I took on to make my teams work easier was applauded but never implemented. I felt useless. I told my boss I wanted more to do, more set responsibilities and she understood but nothing changed.
After a couple of months, I was deeply unhappy with my life and with myself. I felt like I didn’t have expertise in anything, and I wasn’t gaining any. I had no career goals, a boring social life, and I was gaining weight (20lbs total in 2017) from sitting down for 10+ hours every day. Also, because the DC area is ridiculously expensive, I couldn’t afford to move closer. I was depressed, and it made everything so much harder.
Needless to say, 2017 was rough. After a breakdown around Christmas last year, I knew something had to change. I had to do something. The job was starting to feel like an albatross around my neck and the only positive was that I had money. Which, I’ll pause here to say, is a fucking great perk. But in the end, I was feeling too low for it to mean anything. All I did with it was pay bills (again, GREAT!) and buy clothes, trying desperately, to make myself feel better. Although seeing my larger size had the opposite effect.
I had no purpose and no direction. I had no idea what I was doing.
I didn’t have time for in-person counseling, so I sought therapy online. I was advised self-care and allowing myself indulgences—which I’m notoriously bad at—and leaving the job and situation that was making me so unhappy. Which I thought about, I started applying to other jobs in October of 2017. I got called in for a couple of interviews in January, but by then I had already decided on my little sabbatical. I was going to go visit my family in Africa for a month, take a break, get some advice, write, and try to understand more about myself and the world around me.
It was maybe one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. For one, learned that I am horrible with down time. Once I got back to the U.S. I hated having so much time to myself. I need the structure of a job, but with a little more time for myself. In other words, my next position needs to be much closer to home.
Second, I figured out that no one is all that sure what they’re doing. Very few people have a full life plan with every little thing figured out. I am always so afraid of making the wrong decision, as if leaving a job I hate, or something similar was going to be a death sentence. Deciding to leave meant that for the first time in a long time, I grabbed the reigns and made something happen in my life instead of floating from one situation to the next, no matter how much pain I was in.
I also have a better idea of what purpose is now. I was very naïve coming out of college, I thought getting a job would make everything snap into place and I would be happy. Nope, you have to make things happen and work to keep them happening. That also means dealing with the potentially sucky consequences of your actions, but the other option—not making the decisions in the first place—also sucks.
I stayed at my last position so long because I wasn’t sure I had the right to leave or to want anything more than what I had. Good pay and good coworkers. Especially when I didn’t have much family money to rely on. What more could I want?
Good mental health, it turns out, is what I have a right to want and to reach for. I’m not looking for perfection, I think I will be doing this dance with anxiety and depression for a while. But at the very least, I should not be actively putting myself in distress.
Just to be clear, I am very grateful for my first job. I was miserable every day and it took a toll on me, but I learned a lot about myself and what I want and need in life. Even if I’m not totally clear on what my future will look like or what I’m going to do, I have a much better understanding of the importance of job satisfaction and what the “real world” is really like.
I would say this post is more of a PSA than a warning. Things may not just fall into place with the “right” job. A life takes work beyond the office and I think that’s part of the fun.
Congrats graduates! Get out there and don’t be afraid to change direction if the current path feels wrong.