Something Better Than This
My interest in this time of life began as I neared my college graduation. I couldn’t help but notice that practically everyone in my class was uncertain about their future. Except for the calm and happy few who had jobs lined up or were headed to law school, the scene felt like Godzilla had suddenly arrived on our shores. Some people started to panic and were throwing themselves in one direction or another, seeking some plan, any plan, to survive. Some seemed utterly resigned, as if they’d determined that their best days were in the past. Others still were partying a little too maniacally, as if they believed that keeping the college life going would make the enormous threat disappear.
Up until that point, we’d studied, written papers, and taken tests. We’d played sports, protested, partied, eaten lunch together in the cafeteria, and lain out on the vast lawn when it wasn’t raining. We were occupied almost all of the time, but we were focused on getting through school and getting to graduation. Each class had deadlines and tests. Each semester led into the next one, until graduation day itself reached only after a last round of finals and preparation for visiting family. It happened quickly. Suddenly, here we were: finishing nearly two decades of school with very little direction on what to do afterward. Ample attention had been spent on how to get us into college and on sales pitches for which schools to attend, but now we weren’t customers anymore, just a bunch of people in our early twenties being tossed from the academic nest with no instruction other than: Go. Go on. That’s all we have for you.
I felt no clearer about what I was doing with my life than I had in high school. Most of the time when I expressed my existential protestations, they fell on deaf ears. This was just “the way things are,” and I would “figure it out.” I found myself reflecting on one of the last scenes in the beloved rom-com of my youth Say Anything
. When I was a lovesick teenager, the scene that I’d replay over and over was of Lloyd Dobler holding a boombox above his head, like Romeo wooing his Juliet. (Of course, I also listened to the song he was playing, “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel, on repeat.) But as I neared graduation, another scene from that movie started to creep into my consciousness. Diane Court, class valedictorian and Lloyd’s Juliet, delivers a speech to a throng of fellow graduates and parents with whirring video cameras. She says at the end, “I have all the hope and ambition in the world. But when I think about the future, the truth is . . . I am really . . . scared.” That was me in a nutshell. All the ambition in the world, and undeniably, utterly scared.
Three years after graduation, I was working as a project manager at a software start-up in downtown Portland. Between this job and college, I’d tried to devote myself to a career in humanitarian work or social justice. I’d applied to countless nonprofit jobs and had volunteered a couple of times abroad, first at a prison in Bogotá, Colombia, and then on the tsunami-ravaged coastline in Sri Lanka. I’d also worked various part-time, entry-level jobs to pay my bills. And in the early days of both “social entrepreneurship” and social media I’d tried to start a company that would connect young people like myself with opportunities to help communities at home and abroad. (Hence the foray into start-ups and tech.) This project manager gig was my first well-paid, full-time job since graduating, and I was grateful to suddenly have a savings account. But I wasn’t happy. Beyond financial survival, I was no closer to understanding “the point” of what I was doing, nor did I feel like I was living a life destined for me. I had a “good job” and was grateful for that, but I was helping to build an entirely uninspiring tech product seemingly born from the connections of an old boys’ club rather than any genuine vision or need. Most days, I stared out the window at the summer sky from twenty-six floors up wishing that I were on the ground and on my bike instead. I had attempted to create a life for myself that made sense to my insides and also made an impact on the world, but I was failing. This wasn’t what I’d envisioned for my future. This couldn’t be the purpose of all I’d been working toward in so many years of school.
I spent a lot of time journaling back then and wrote about my perpetual sense of disorientation. I wrote about all the wild animals that seem to have some form of navigation built into their instincts. Like how when male wolves leave their pack and venture into the world, they appear to have a sense of direction and purpose. Or how elephants find water, no matter the distance. Turtles find the gulf streams in the ocean and know when and where to lay their eggs on the beach. Monarch butterflies migrate thousands of miles along the same route. But we humans are going it alone, relying completely on plans, goals, strategy, and blind luck to find our way in life. What happened to our instincts? Despite a comfort with logic in school and the world, that kind of intentional planning had never come easily to me when it was applied to my own life. No matter how much I wrote it down or talked it out, I struggled to understand what the right decisions were, and to hear what my body and feelings were telling me. I had the freedom to roam anywhere, but I usually felt more like a miserable tiger trapped in a cage, pacing back and forth—and a little “too” reactive—than a creature wild and free.
After work one evening, I stepped into the white bungalow I shared with roommates, panting and exhausted from a fast bike ride home in the late summer heat. It had been a rough week. There had been layoffs at my office and the best people around me, many of whom I managed, had suddenly lost their jobs. Meanwhile, all of the most loathsome people had been retained, including the predatory chief executive and his little brother, whose lack of skill radiated off of him like a stench. I knew I had no desire to continue in that environment. I was helping to build a product in which I had no faith, now surrounded by people whom I didn’t respect. I was supposed to be filled with the eagerness for life that people expected of someone my age, but I was losing inspiration day by day and losing faith in the life I’d hoped to live. As I began telling my roommates about my day and a conversation with my boss in which he tried to convince me not to quit, I suddenly burst into heaving sobs and collapsed onto the floor. I’d reached my breaking point. I had no idea what I was doing with my life and couldn’t, despite advice, stop thinking about it. I felt nauseous from competing beliefs and looming decisions to make: Quit the stupid tech job; wait for the stock options; go back to multiple part-time jobs; take the opportunity for advancement; gain experience; take time off; grow through the pain.
None of it provided clarity about my eventual goal. I knew I wasn’t interested in having children, and the idea of marriage still felt a long way away. Was my goal, then, to just accumulate wealth and climb the ranks in a company? No matter where I looked, all I saw were dead ends. I couldn’t quiet my mind. I couldn’t find my center. I felt totally overwhelmed, exhausted, and also painfully bored by the emptiness of my concerns. Nothing I was doing was making a dent in a world in perpetual crisis. Nothing I was doing was bringing me a clear sense of joy or purpose. Crying on that wooden floor, I felt crazy and stuck. As a college grad and a twentysomething, I was supposed to be thriving. What was wrong with me?
Despite my lack of clarity on almost every front, I started to see patterns in the suffering, or posturing, around me. From my roommates to friends, dates, former classmates, and co-workers, I was surrounded by people more or less my age who were struggling in similar ways. Some of my peers were having a much harder time than I was. Some were in and out of hospitals with complex diagnoses, and some were even on suicide watch. Many others, though, appeared much more stable than I felt. They didn’t seem regularly on the brink of sabotaging the very foundations of their life because of existential concerns. They didn’t seem plagued by What does it all mean? But they also didn’t seem entirely certain of what they were doing either. Not only had few of us received lessons on how to handle the myriad things in our independent lives—job hunting, budgeting, taxes, dating, sex, boundaries, cooking, cleaning—but it also seemed like we were supposed to be fine and, in many cases, were being told to be fine. Mental health crises, depression, and anxiety seemed sort of hush-hush, while jokes about the supposed shallowness of our generation were on the rise.
Those jokes always struck me as bizarre. Most generations have significant social crises with which to contend, and that helped to shape their worldview. Ours was no different. We were a generation coming of age in the aftermath of 9/11 and the return to endless wars abroad. Climate change increasingly loomed over our future like the most ghoulish apocalypse film ever conceived, and then there were large-scale economic crises to contend with as we attempted to pursue the American Dream. Meanwhile, we were forced to grow accustomed to mass shootings in our schools and our grocery stores, our concerts, movie theaters, and malls.