May 1, 2012

Taking the roads less traveled

Undergraduate careerism should not impede personal exploration.

Four years are not so long as you may think. By now this realization must be hitting the third- and fourth-years with particular force, they whose lives have become moving mosaics of indistinct activity, rushing from fire to fire with a leaky pail, all of it a retrospective blur.

I am a bit older than the average Masters student, weighing in at 27 years young, and the story of my life since my undergraduate days can be summed up as an uninterrupted state of furious liminality. Life is short, says the 27-year-old, without a hint of irony. We have, since old enough to envy, had dangled before us all the great diversity of activities just waiting to be attempted. Music, sports, performance, science, art, fiction, travel, hundreds of distinct cultures and languages, academic disciplines galore—we are in theory offered a palette of options to while away our hours, ideally for pay.

But the steadily mounting pressure to “get serious” and join the grand competition is like a tourniquet on creativity and exploration. Naturally, a question arises: “Well, whose hand is winding that tourniquet?” And in most instances that carry any sort of adult valence, that hand increasingly belongs to you. At any rate, we are taught that we need to have it all: the meaningful career, the active social life, the accomplishments and sundry skills of the fit and focused, and ample time to practice the pursuits that give us pleasure. Yet we seem to be given a choice between near-myopic pursuit of the being-as-career, and sacrificing meaningful careers and social capital to lead better balanced, ostensibly healthier lives.

I tell you true: Unless you plan to take a gap year (or three), you will never again have the time for or access to the breadth and volume of possible pursuits and avenues of academic inquiry you have as an undergraduate. Rigorous as this school is, careers have an even greater tendency to take the driver’s seat in a person’s life, and resisting that pull often comes at the cost of advancement, or of even landing that job to begin with.  Granted, a respected job and a fancy suit are all some people know to expect from their lives, and there are those who have fixed on a delineated conception of what matters to them earlier than most.

For others, though, the gap year is where we live permanently, and worrying about a “career path” is a major cause of anxiety, suggestive of what we are told is our failure to get with the program, our potential “failure to launch.” The logic of career-seeking confines all one’s energies to an illusory single track, and tangential or unrelated pursuits are seen as diversions—certainly not as ends in themselves. For the person who hasn’t defined for herself a path, the journey itself can become the ongoing and dynamic destination. And, as even the most ardent chasers of prestige and position in the contemporary economy seem to be finding out, life is never a straight path, and careers are often insecure.

Take, for instance, my own track to the University of Chicago: 4.5 years as an undergraduate at Urbana-Champaign; majors in chemistry and history, with a minor in East Asian language and culture; two years either teaching English abroad or doing various organic agriculture and sustainability internships; two years working as a machinist using outdated industrial equipment, breathing in carbon graphite by the bucketful; and now, an M.A. program at the U of C in the Social Sciences, of all divisions. My CV, as I am forced to conceal from prospective employers, is a litany of personal exploration, the unifying theme being my obsession to find the “right track,” the perfect fit—not just a career but a raison d’être, all while grappling with total disbelief in the possibility of finding real self-worth, of constructing lasting individual meaning with which to motivate a career.

This endless quest to continually reinvent myself in search of the “best possible life” was, of course, an impossible exercise from its inception. It encapsulates a host of logics that work to separate the pursuer from the pursuit, and abstracts goals well out into the firmament, prompting teleological indecisiveness for fear of making the wrong choice and wasting precious years. Conceiving of success in life as traveling down a very narrow river on the one hand stems from a somewhat fair assessment; for all the talk to the contrary by academic salespeople, it’s a hard, competitive world out there, and we well-rounded types have to compete with people seemingly at peace with pouring every iota of thought and effort into a single, distant goal. If your expectations for yourself are as high as the sky—and we would probably not be here were that not the case—then your sense of what constitutes a worthwhile way to make a living is likely the sort of thing that will take years to develop.

On the other hand, there must be some way to hold up the perpetual carrot, to lead ourselves to “career satisfaction” (how stilted is the language of careerism!) while still pursuing sundry unrelated interests and activities regardless of our age or circumstances. I may be a thoroughly confused 27-year-old with hardly any sense of direction or of what career I’d most enjoy (or least despise), but I learned how to do a front handspring the other day, and that makes me absurdly happy.

Given the job market for heavily indebted college graduates these days, finding a meaningful career may be a long time coming indeed, so attaining joy and meaning at every opportunity becomes less a privileged position and more a necessary condition for maintaining sanity throughout life. Though there may be no clear sense of where it’s all headed, existence is ultimately a collection of finite moments, and career paths no more than mental constructs. It behooves us to enjoy whatever we can, whenever we can—no matter which trail, no matter what length.

Christopher Ivan is a graduate student in the MAPSS program.