I’ll never forget the one morning in May of 2013 when I had the ineffable experience of walking across a stage to receive a cardboard folder from a woman whom I had met only once before. Truthfully, it was altogether an anticlimactic and inefficacious experience, like being hysterically drunk and making memories with your closest friends, only to wake up with an atrocious hangover the next morning. According to my friends and family, this was one of the most important mornings of my then 21-year-old life. To me, it was an ironic commencement of what would soon become the dawdle of adulthood.
When I first graduated from college, everyone stormed me with the question of, “So what’s next?” Truthfully, I knew in my mind what it is that I wanted to do, but I had nothing concretely arranged yet. It was like being helplessly suspended over the jaws of reality while trying to hold on to hope as tightly as I could.
I’m frequently reminded of what a commendation it is that I got my college degree so quickly. To put things into perspective, I was only 21-years-old when I signed my first real adult work contract to become a teacher. People often assume that I’m some sort of whiz who had the ability to beat the seemingly impossible feat of finishing college in four years instead of five, which to me seems like a no-brainer, but I also understand that things just aren’t as simple for some people. If I had to be most truthful, though, the only reason I finished so quickly is because I just couldn’t wait to get out of there.
Being in college is like playing house for years. It’s an innocent and convoluted game that seems to never end. The feeble efforts we make in college and the illusory strides we think we are making are mere impressions that are not quite coterminous with the challenges of our real lives that are to come after college, especially for those of us who choose to pursue what some people might call a, “real career.” It’s a place where you can party recklessly on weekdays and show up to exams hungover, get A’s on just a few moments of work, and build relationships with the right people who can scoot you to the front of the line when you need it. It’s also rather exhausting to keep up with all of the titles and accolades we rack up which we’ll immediately forget and dispose of the minute we leave the grounds of the university and embark on the journey of being a contributing member of society. We get to play pretend and imagine that we have it all figured out for just a second, while we guiltily defer any thought of post-graduation plans for next week, a time that never seems to come until you have a diploma in hand and no idea what to do with it.
I didn’t really begin to panic about my future until I had the opportunity of meeting one of my biggest heroes for the first time during my junior year. In a short conversation that I had with him, he joyfully reminded me that everything I was learning in school would immediately become obsolete the minute I exited the university doors and that even if I had gone to a top tier university, no institution is adequately prepared to ready me for the challenges that await me in the real world to begin with. I found it most amusing that he called it the “real world,” as if what I was currently navigating through was a fake one, a substitute for real living.
But this ceased to dishearten me, because somehow we all manage to figure it out. Just when we least expect for anything good to happen, someone throws us an opportunity and out of our insane duty to fear, we take it. It seems like we always have a plan for next month, but as we all know, nothing ever goes according to plan. Perhaps it’s the mere act of organizing and being proactive that becomes so therapeutic to us that we feel better if we just wash our cars, even though we know there’s a storm coming.
I’ve watched peers, former students, and even my own teachers change dramatically in these times that I like to call the “in-betweens.” College, in its own special, tortuous way, is just another in-between. I frequently joke with friends that if I didn’t want to be a teacher I would have skipped out on the whole college charade altogether. I would have just dove right into whatever else it was that I wanted to do, probably one of the crazy ideas I think up in the shower, or the deranged plans that I construct in conversation with my girlfriend. College was yet another in-between for me when I got to pretend that I knew exactly who it was who I wanted to be, only to meet an entirely new version of myself in the years after graduating. Of course, it wasn’t the college experience itself that changed me, it was the month and a half when I was with a degree and unemployed with no plan that truly taught me about life.
Of course, I am no stranger to the fact that being unemployed with a degree is a first-world problem, and that I probably sound like a capricious ass-hole for highlighting on the fact that I was only unemployed for a month and a half before I got my first opportunity that I could take seriously. The point I’m trying to make here, however, is that it wasn’t the degree or the college experience that changed me, it was the time in between it all. It was the fear and the insecurity of not knowing what was to come next, and not knowing what I would do if in fact nothing came at all.
On the day that I am writing this, it is the first official day of summer, and that means that all over the country there are hundreds of thousands of former college students with degrees in hand who are all experiencing what might be the first real in-between in their lives. A good friend of mine just finished spending six months studying for a major professional school test only to figure out that he wants to “do his master’s.” I’m not saying that graduate school is wrong or that we should stray away from higher education in any way, but what I am saying is that everything in our lives is fleeting and everything which we now consider to be stable can easily go just as easily as it came. More importantly, who we are during our in-betweens is where the true test of our lives awaits. Everyone is brilliant and thoughtful in times of security, but what about when we have nothing to grasp on to? What then?
They say that the only two certain occurrences in our lives are death and taxes, but if we really thought about it, in-betweens are equally as certain. After all, at this very moment, you’re already in between two major occurrences in your life. Perhaps you’re in between relationships or you’re in between jobs. You might be in between places to live, with one lease expiring and another soon to begin. Maybe you’re a lucky college student with a degree in hand, but unfortunately no job. The in-betweens are certain to always occur, and how we deal with them is how the quality of our lives will be defined.
If you’re ever gone on a the ride at the amusement park that takes you up really high and unexpectedly drops you at freefall speed, then you already know everything you need to know about life. In-betweens are like those few seconds when the machine stops traveling up and you have fractions of a second to grasp your neighbor’s hand and inhale for the scream that’s about to ensue as you plummet back down to where you started. It’s in those short fractions of a second that define everything. As in life, it’s what we do with the fractions of our lives when we’re in between the rise up and what’s to come after it when we get to decide who we want to be. You are either stuck in a purgatorial period of precariousness and are about to suffer the worst pain of your life, or you get to experience the greatest thrill you’ve ever known.
When I was experiencing my own in between period in the weeks between graduating and finding a job, I had frequent conversations with mentors and close friends. I spent lots of time conversing over strong beverages and reveling in the moment, sometimes embracing the unavoidable reality that I actually didn’t know what was to come next, an experience we can all relate to when we’ve found ourselves saying, “Fuck it.”
It was during these conversations when I noticed a lot about myself. Sometimes, I would shoot down ideas for no apparent reason at all. Other times, I would find myself being overly critical of myself without any rational thinking behind it. I also learned that while I am often the most optimistic person I know, sometimes I can be the most doubtful. Ultimately, after the fourth, fifth, and sixth rounds of drinks, we would start to talk about the things that truly mattered, the things that no one talks about in the office or at dinner parties. These conversations consisted of questioning life and our own purposes, and I reflected deeply on who it was who I wanted to be, not only after the in-between was over, but in the time that was to follow. After all, in-betweens are only temporary, and at some point, we’ll have something else to grab on to.
I had many conversations with many people, conversations that always returned to the question of, “What am I going to do with my life?” While I never really got any answers out of these dialogues, when I think back to these conversations, I find that what I’m most grateful for are not the laughs and the great stories I heard and told, but simply that I even had someone with me to begin with. As it turned out, all of these people who I valued so much during my in-betweens, the people who I chose to make important to me in my most vulnerable days, turned out to be the ones who helped me to find the next thing to hold on to, thus ending my in-between period of uncertainty.
Still today, while my life and plans change faster than I care to admit, it’s not the books and the grades and the GPA that make life make sense, it’s the people who I share my most greatest growing pains with, something I think we’re all afraid to do if we would just be honest with ourselves. I’ve learned more about who I am through watching my girlfriend laugh at my jokes, or through seeing my family’s reaction to my bewildering uncertainty about my post-graduation plans. Sure, I’ve spent countless hours diligently studying investing, networking strategies, or how to plan effectively, but what has shaped me the most is how I got through my most vulnerable in-betweens of not knowing, and instead, just being human with other humans.
Today, while many in-betweens loom about in the near future for me, I can’t help but be eager for all of the many sit downs with friends and mentors that I’ll have, for long nights of beer tabs over conversations about how to solve the world’s greatest problems, or for sometimes saying, “Fuck it.” Ultimately, all opportunities are given to us by people, and only people. All success begins with someone saying, “Okay, let’s try it.” The ironic thing, however, is that while we know that what truly matters most in life is people around us, they are the frequently the first who we turn away from during our in-betweens, probably because we’re too ashamed to admit that we’re experiencing an in-between, despite the fact that they are as universal as death and taxes.
Looking back, I’m going to be forever grateful for turning straight to the people I cared about most when I had no idea what to do with my life. Considering that I’m always going through some sort of in-between at all times of my life, perhaps I should consider making people a bigger part of my life to begin with, not just when I’m vulnerable. Maybe when all is said and done, we can all put down our barriers and openly talk about how we’re all just making it up as we go along. Maybe it’ll be just a little bit easier to be in-between.