Thursday, December 4, 2014

Welcome to the world of DIY success: Life beyond your degree

In a manner totally unprecedented for undeclared college sophomores, today I questioned what I am doing with my life. While meeting with a teacher about a research paper I had written for a class, my professor, who I respect greatly, asked me what I want to do after graduation.

Ohhhhhh, this question.

I don’t know, not end up homeless or back in my parents’ house? Find a partner who thinks I have an above average sense of humor and butt and maybe settle down? Go to grad school so that even if I do end up homeless and alone people at least have to refer to me as Doctor? I’m cautious in what I ask for from the world, but I’d take any of the above.

Upon telling him that I want to work in public health and hopefully help resolve global healthcare inequality (okay, I’m not actually that cautious), my professor encouraged me and added seriously that I should consider doing something that involves writing “because I’m a great writer.” And that was the onset of my existential crisis.

If you asked me what my dream job is, I’d tell you instantaneously that I would love to write political speeches for the president of the United States while also maintaining a successful side career of food and lifestyle blogging while still finding time to travel the world with my two lovely children who have interesting but not unspellable names. I’d also eventually publish a bestselling non-fiction book about my intriguing life experiences and look fantastic at my book signings with my lovely, photogenic family and still above average butt.

Writing is part of the dream. It always has been. I was the type of kid who kept a journal, wrote really awful song lyrics about my middle school traumas, and secretly enjoyed writing bad poetry about all the life experience I thought I had. I still am that type of kid. For me, writing is something I find solace and freedom in: it connects me to others while also providing me great comfort when I am just by myself. Though I don’t struggle with communicating my feelings verbally, it is in long winding sentences and an abuse of parentheses (not even a little bit apologetic about it) that I find mental clarity.

So today, like so many other days, I have found myself asking why I am not majoring in something that has to do with writing. Why, if I put off writing essays by writing poems (and currently this blog post) instead, do I not just major in creative writing, or English, or journalism?

With the advent of the great and powerful Google, my generation has awkwardly stumbled upon the age of Do It Yourself “DIY” success. More and more frequently we hear stories of people who taught themselves the skills that ended up making them successful, couldn’t survive college but ended up founding the world’s biggest companies, and even young kids who have already googled their way into mastering skills that most people don’t even have the chance to learn until college and are now making more money than many of my twenty-something, employed colleagues. The path to success is no longer as simple as fulfilling your major requirements: it is a DIY conglomeration of google searches, good luck, and some innate talent. And more so than for most things I can think of, for writing this holds particularly true.

The best writers are not the ones who are best at writing. As I unfortunately learned while writing essays on books I hadn’t read in high school, the best prose is not what we reward writers for, but rather the best ideas. The books we cherish, the ones we fall in love with and dog-ear the pages of so aggressively that the friends we pass them onto wonder what’s wrong with us, are not simply the ones written the most eloquently, but the ones that use good enough writing to convey better than good enough thoughts. Writers today are not made in writing classrooms, they are created in the random, marvelous, and sometimes horrifying world we live in.

As I often do when I’m feeling discouraged or stressed about my future, I read Marina Keegan’s “The Opposite of Loneliness,” one of my favorite pieces of writing, and was reminded that the essays, articles, and books that speak to me are the ones that help me understand myself and the world around me, not the ones that tell me things I already know in sing-songy, perfectly punctuated language. Good writers aren’t good because they know how to use commas, they’re good because they see questions that they must answer, and they live lives that give them something to say.

I want something to say. Even if I end up alone on an inflatable mattress, thirty years from now I want to be so amazed, outraged, or inspired by the things I’ve observed and learned that I have no choice but to write about them. I want to be able to tell people how I helped others understand that the opportunity for wellbeing is a fundamental human right and how I helped shrink inequality in healthcare access, or maybe that I didn’t and that it’s still up to others to do what I couldn’t. I want to be able to write about the people I met who inspired me to keep going and the experiences I had that made me think I couldn’t go further. I want to care about something so much and be so involved in something that not writing is not an option, even though I will never have learned how to do it “correctly.”

Today, during a crisis that I will not be the last college kid to have, I remembered that college is about acquiring experiences and interests, not just degrees. I’m going to sit through boring statistics and applied math classes for the next two years and diligently work my way through public health school so that I can pursue something that gets me so excited it keeps me up at night. I’m going to be a public health worker because I’ll have the skills and experiences that allow me to make a difference in the world of healthcare.

But I will be a writer because I will continue to write. Because when I have questions about the world, I can’t rest until those questions have answers, and until I have written out those answers. I’ll be a writer because the most used app on my iphone is the notes app because I spend half my time writing down things I think sound clever. I’m going to be a writer because even though I’m not making the decision to pursue a writing degree, I’m making the decision to pursue a life I’m excited about living. Someday I hope I will have lived the type of life that’s worth sharing with others, but until then, my anxious college self will be pursuing a quantitative degree and amateur blogging my way to happiness.

There are many ways to DIY yourself to success. For writers, for engineers, and for everyone, the unknowns and the uncertainties are not problems, they’re part of the process. Have faith in the path you’re on, and pursue a good life, not a good degree. Wherever we’re going and whatever our path looks like, we’ll get there when we get there. In the meantime all we can do is just keep our heads down, work hard, and not forget to love the life we’re living.

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