As college graduates around the country begin to settle in to post-graduate life, realizing the multitude of things that have now changed forever -- the campus they called home, the effortless proximity of so many friends, the ever-ready safety net -- I find myself reflection on the same transition I made four years ago. My parents never told me I had to be the CEO of a company, or a doctor, or a lawyer, to consider myself a success, but somewhere along the line I misconstrued "The world is your oyster" (it's all out there, go get it!) for "The world has to be your oyster" (it's your duty and responsibility to yourself to have it all).
I graduated from Smith College in 2009 full of optimism and conviction: "Diploma, check! Desire to change the world, check! Enthusiasm, double-check!"
Off I went to college; I was a good student, captain of the rowing team, president of the athletic association, and took in all the wonderful opportunities for growth that Smith affords its students. I graduated a self-confident and enterprising young woman. I knew what I wanted, I knew how to ask for it, and I wasn't afraid to take life by the horns in search of self-realization. I was ready, here I come, and watch out!!!
After graduation I moved in to my first apartment, got my first job, and joined a rowing club. Things were good, I thought. "This is what it's like, right? It's hard, and a little uncertain, but it's all worth it, right?!? Right?!!"
But then things started to unravel. Not in a big way, but in lots of little ways.
I was working for 10 hours a day, being taken advantage of and treated badly, and wasn't using my brain. I had bosses who hit on me and I didn't stand up for myself, and took jobs out of anxiety and fear instead of because I wanted them. I made a lot of mistakes, and there were lots of things I (apparently!) hadn't learned in college about how the world works, how to get ahead, and what things would be like after graduation. Despite being prepared in every "textbook" way, I felt completely at sea in the "real world." The rosy, post-graduation optimism had faded, and I began to realize that the promise that I had carried with me my whole life: "You can be whoever you want to be; you can have anything and everything!" was not exactly true. Or at least it's not completely true.
It was still true that I could do or be whatever I wanted, and was true that I could have or achieve whatever I set my mind on. I was equipped with the tools -- intellectually, emotionally, and educationally -- to make success in any environment I was in. What nobody mentioned to me was the heart-wrenching compromises required to achieve success on the level that I expected of myself, and alternately, the adjustment in self-perception and one's ambition required if an achievement-oriented woman decides to measure her success in happiness instead of promotions and professional accolades.
Sure, I could get an 60+ hour-a-week job, work towards a promotion, get the promotion, work while getting my MBA, and expect to "make it big" in business. Or, I could get a job I find inspiring and interesting, make a salary just a few dollars above minimum wage, with no promise of a promotion or real "career" as a next step. And yes, we all have to make our own futures as an amalgamation of our choices and the opportunities that arise, but what sacrifices can we really force ourselves to make and still be whole? And most unsettling of all, perhaps, is that this achievement/self-sacrifice dilemma was one I felt nobody had told me about! Is this some kind of secret "adults" keep from us until we're "old enough" and just forgot to bring up?!?
It's true -- promotions and professional accomplishments do bring happiness, and are very fulfilling. Maybe for some women, who do what they love and love what they do, this is satisfying enough and all the sacrifice is worth it. I -- along with many of my friends -- am still working very hard, for little satisfaction, knowing every day that there is something better out there, but at what cost, and to what end? We're not all going to "Lena Dunham" our way to the top of our prospective fields -- that is, get to be exactly who we are, do what we love, and succeed at it from the start, all while buoying spirits for hundreds of thousands with our quirky honesty. But we sort of have to try, right?
I still haven't figured it out. I'm still looking for a job I love, with people I admire, that I'm great at, that also lets me be invested in my own life and in myself. I don't want to give up seeing my wonderful friends all the time, I don't want to have to quit rowing, I don't want to give up all the things that I love and that make me me that will never have anything to do with my career. I want to be happy. I want to be invested in the world around me, to have wonderful friendships, and eventually a partner and children to whom I can give of myself because I have the personal and emotional resources to be strong both for myself and for others who need me. I don't want to just "survive" my own life, I want to absolutely crush it, and feel like I'm living my life both in the moment and in pursuit of higher goals.
So, how I measure my own success is still very much a work in progress.
I don't know exactly what I want yet, but I do know what I don't want, and I know who I am. And, even though I still feel like a grain of sand in this oyster I live in, I have learned to trust that with enough friction, and chafing, and patience, that there's a chance worth fighting for that I'll find my pearl. There's never a guarantee, and it might not be the perfectly round, symmetrical pearl I had imagined, but if I have learned anything so far, it's that I'm worth fighting for, and I won't back down.
Now, instead of trying to have the whole oyster, I'm just after the pearl.