I was one semester away from graduating with a BA in Continental Philosophy when I asked one of my professors, “What can I do with a philosophy degree after I graduate?” The same question had been put to me several times throughout college- I never knew the answer. My professor told me this:
a. Apply to graduate school and become a professional academic.
b. Apply to law school and become a lawyer.
It’s been two years since graduation, and I can say now that there’s a fourth option:
But I didn’t know that then. I thought I only had three choices. None of them I desired. But to choose, I used the same technique they taught me during elementary school while training for a standardized test: process of elimination.
[read the following at the tempo of a scared child on Adderall]
I can cross off (b) Law School because I don’t want to be a lawyer. (c) Flounder seems like a terrible choice but I’m unsure about (a) Grad School. Here’s what I’ll do, I’ll fill in (c) lightly, for now, with the understanding that I can always change it to (a) later in the test.
That was my plan, to flounder until things became clear. It wasn’t a plan so much as a state of confusion. I felt devastated. That’s a strong word- devastated- and perhaps unjustified considering that a college education is a blessing not a curse. But it might help for me to relay the special meaning ‘devastated’ has.
Its mother is the Latin “uastus,” which means vast. But not vast like a beautiful mountain, vast like a terrible desert. A waste-land. Think of how a German would say that word “vaste-land” and you begin to hear the similarity between vast and waste, immensity and nothingness. It’s no coincidence the Grand Canyon’s called grand, even though it’s essentially empty space. “Vast” has a lot of cousins: vapid, vain, vacuum, void. All of them mean the same thing: empty, not full, un-full-filled.
That’s how I felt after graduating: unfulfilled, devastated that everything from kindergarten to college was a waste of time, because all that education gave me three hollow choices,
1. Become a professor
2. Become a lawyer
I didn’t attend my graduation ceremony. The ceremony is supposed to function in our culture as a rite of passage between childhood and adulthood. I could tell you I didn’t attend because I thought the system a sham and was protesting. But the truth is I grabbed answer (C) by the balls and committed to serious floundering.
Drinking, drugs, isolation. Reckless behavior now understood as suicidal. My devastation manifested itself in a full embrace of floundering. I sunk lower and lower. After being found passed out by my family one morning, in between a raging bon fire and the edge of a lake, totally unresponsive, I buckled down and got my shit together.
No, I didn’t. I ran away, and in college-educated-fashion, called it a Walk About. That noble venture ended with me broke, destitute, moving back into my parent’s house like the Prodigal Son. A child once again, humbled, I finally began working on a fourth option.
I got a job as a barista, allowing me some independence. I dealt with my addiction to drugs and alcohol. For a while I felt like I was floundering, because I was just another Humanities major punching the clock, wasting time. But in the past six months I’ve come to a place where I truly believe that I am flourishing. It crystallized the other day when a practical stranger asked me to housesit his cats. That was it, my true graduation ceremony! The public has recognized me as a responsible, useful and trusty-worthy adult.
Recently, I ran into that old college professor at the coffee shop I work at. He asked if I was in graduate school. No, I told him. Then what are you doing, he asked, a look of confusion on his face. Well, I said, I’m working here. I could have told him everything else, that I’m cultivating many hobbies, connecting to my neighborhood, growing in relationships, running a blog, hosting an open mic, maintaining sobriety and chasing serenity, but I said and (d) flourishing.
I’m not ungrateful for all my time spent in education. But I’ve learned something critical in the last two years, and that is that managing your life is dependent on feeling that you’re not wasting your time, wasting your life, or wasting your day. And nobody can tell you how to do it — or what that looks like.
But I have one hint. It’s a Jewish word, mitzvah, and it means “worthy deed.” Guess what. It doesn’t need to be vast.