Doing Nothing and Everything in Your Twenties

The world has changed. If the traditional career path is a box, then we have definitely been forced to think outside of it.
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You know that sense that you've done absolutely nothing with your life so far, and probably won't end up doing anything particularly commendable for the rest of it? What about the feeling that everything you thought you were pretty good at turns out to be irrelevant, as though some administrative-type recently called down from the sky in a bored but official tone, "Painting: Unnecessary! Poetry: Campy! Writing: Come on, no one makes it as a writer! Music: See writing. Grilled Cheeses: Delicious but not very impressive!"

I feel like that a lot. I don't have enough evidence to support the social worthiness of grilled cheese making. I can't prove what I'm giving back to society, or that I'm giving back anything at all. In many ways, I'm one of those quintessential twenty-somethings.

We're driving everyone crazy. We don't fit in. We seem undecided. We can't pick one thing and stick to it.

I don't think anyone ever told me I had to do or be only one thing. Neither of my parents leaned down as I was playing with a doll, a My Little Pony, and a train set, and said, "That's all well and good, kid, but when you grow up you can't be a mom, a horse trainer and a train conductor. You can only be one. And I'd suggest train conductor, because the whistle is really loud." I (like all little girls) did always like the whistle, and the coal car. I don't see nearly enough coal cars these days.

As an unschooler, I was extraordinary. I mean, to the world. The world was impressed that I could function at all. That I could shake people's hands and say, "Nice to meet you!" after having lived in the social desert of space outside of school for my entire childhood. The world was impressed by all of the stuff that I was doing. I was good at so many things simultaneously. It was shocking!

People are surprised by people who are good at more than one thing. But the truth is, absolutely everyone is good at a lot of things. It's practically impossible to only be good at one thing. Because, well, you probably wouldn't survive and also, things are too connected. You'd accidentally get good at something else just because it was related. I was a student who gets B's or A's in most of her classes. Except that I didn't have classes, and the activities I spent time on were mostly ones that fit into the "extracurricular." Kinda like "extraterrestrial." If this word defines everything that you are, then you're probably a freak. The kids who had to sit at a series of desks all day doing "curricular" things mostly didn't have time to get good at a lot of extracurriculars.

I thought being good at a lot of stuff was where it was at. As it turns out, I was terribly misinformed. I hadn't gotten the memo. The one about what success looks like. Real success. Adult success. The kind of success that defines the rest of your life. It doesn't look like working a bunch of part-time jobs while you play in coffee shops with your ukulele. It doesn't look like moving back home with your parents while you get rejected again and again and again from every job you apply to. Or having to blog instead of freelance, because magazines aren't hiring freelancers anymore. Or living with a lot of other people in Brooklyn instead of on your own in Manhattan. It doesn't look like doing a million tiny things instead of one big, recognizable, commendable, impressive thing.

Or does it?

The truth is, I'm surrounded by people my age who are doing all of the things I just mentioned. Of course there are people who got a good job. Or got a job they love doing -- something they always wanted to do. There are the people who seem to know exactly how to reach their goals, and exactly what their goals are. But for every one of them, there are about 10 other people who can't get a job, no matter how hard they try and how qualified they are. They don't want to take a job that they hate, even if they get it. They have adapted to living with a lot of people, or they like their family and are fine with living at home. They are increasingly adept at irony. They are innovative cooks. They build careers on not having careers. They are always busy, somehow, and they're getting truly excellent at the ukulele.

People like this are caught in between. There are two sides at war in their heads. The side that says, "You're not doing anything! Get a real job! Grow up!" and the side that says, "This is what grown up looks like! Get creative!"

The world has changed. I'd like to think that we are getting more creative as a result. If the traditional career path is a box, then we have definitely been forced to think outside of it. Maybe it occurs to a lot of people that they never wanted to get in that box in the first place.

In a way, we're a generation of unschoolers.

But here I am, as someone who grew up believing unhesitatingly in my own ability to be good at the world, caught thrashing in the same trap. Wondering how I will face people without at least a book deal to justify my nontraditional existence.

The other day, I was talking to a woman who was telling me how her 20-something daughter was doing. She was freelancing.

"Very cool," I said.

She leaned in closer and whispered, "She lives at home."

"Oh yeah?" I said. "How's that working out? Does everyone like the arrangement?"

She paused for a moment and then smiled. "Yes. We actually all like it a lot."

"That's perfect, then!"

She looked surprised. She said something about how her husband sometimes said stuff about how he'd gotten a job right out of college, and his own apartment.

"But have you seen how expensive apartments are?" She said. "And who's getting a job?"

"That's exactly right," said someone else, coming over to join the conversation. "I don't know why anyone expects kids to get an apartment right after they graduate. No one can do that."

"And anyway," said the first woman. "We're happy. I like having my daughter there."

Amazingly, we're happy. Or are we? Maybe it's hard to tell. Maybe happiness doesn't look the same anymore. Or maybe it's always looked exactly the same, and we just have to learn to recognize it in places we didn't expect it to crop up.

I never had to be somewhere in the middle of the day as a kid. I never sat in a classroom. And that was just my life. Now, there's something rebellious about not being somewhere in the middle of the day, here in the adult world. There's something subversive about working part time gigs on the weekends, plus every week on Tuesday afternoons, plus whatever other days during the week I'm needed for a certain project. About working all the time on things that don't involve money, or for right now at least. Things that don't count as something cohesive or real or grown up or important. But maybe the subversiveness and the rebellion aren't anything unique. This might be the beginning of an age of some of the best grilled cheeses the world has ever tasted.

This article was cross-posted on Eat the Damn Cake

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