My name is Catherine, and I went to college.
Phew, that’s hard to write.
I don’t think about my time as an undergraduate much because I’m in denial that it’s over. Denial is my built-in protection against becoming that lip-smacking old woman who can’t get past the good old days. Denial enables me to quash my sappy inclinations and resist having a public freakout in a Five Guys.
This gracefully-executed skirting of the truth came to a screeching halt last weekend when I visited my alma mater’s campus. Here, I realized that denial was no longer an option.
I went to college. Not only that, but I am three years out of college.
That gut-punch of a thought tends to hit me where I least expect it: in the shower, en route to Whole Foods, in the waiting room at the dentist. Holy crap. I did that thing. The thing with the sweatpants and the orientations and the professor crushes. It’s over.
When I visited campus last weekend, it was a blindingly sunny spring day—a day where undergrad-me would have bounded outside with a school logo-bedecked blanket and sent out a “Quad?” group text to friends. But now? Now I feel old and intrusive. It’s a tough pill for a lot of grads to swallow, particularly the sentimental ones like myself.
Even when saps like me begin to accept these harsh realities, they begin spinning off into a new set of concerns. And it’s not the awesome kind of spinoff, like Frasier. It’s a crappy one, and it brings one dreaded question to mind: What do I have to show for myself since I left?
It sure as hell doesn’t feel like much.
Since 2012, sure, I’ve learned a lot about myself. I’ve grown as a person, but I’m not sure where that belongs on my résumé. “Me skills”? I haven’t stuck with jobs or earned promotions. I haven’t earned beaucoup bucks or helped save the world. I haven’t written the Great American Novel. I haven’t been on TV, owned a car, or saved a tree.
If you’re of a mind like my own—i.e., a neurotic mind, existing on a perpetual layer of thin ice—you’re used to these kinds of questions. But a campus visit like this is enough to deliver a few extra blows to the mental jugular. For the past week, my head’s been in a flurry of Why haven’t I done X yet? Why can’t I accomplish what person Y has? And the old classic, author/artist/composer Z created masterpieces A, B, and C by my age!
We 20-somethings probably feel like we’ve earned the right to be hard on ourselves by now. Being adults, we can no longer pin our own shortcomings on professors, parents, or peers. It’s all on us now, and that ushers in whole new levels of self-consciousness.
I know I’m not the only one in this crappy, hole-filled boat of a growth stage. I also know that I’ve plowed through every self-help section in the greater Philadelphia area—and online—to figure out how to navigate these rocky shores. If all these well-adjusted authors are to be believed—and I think they are—contentedness starts with a few simple attitude tweaks:
1. Focus on the haves.
Spend less time honing in on what you haven’t done, or what you’ve failed to do and don’t give these so-called shortcomings the right to dictate your future. What you have accomplished so far deserves just as much attention.
Great way to get started with this: At the end of each day, write down anything you accomplished, no matter how small (“I wrote down my accomplishments” totally counts).
2. It’s not a contest.
Don’t turn other people’s successes into a commentary on your own worth. We’re all dealt different circumstances. Maybe you have unique personal struggles. Maybe you don’t have the monetary means. Maybe you need more time to carve your way through your fears.
None of these are reasons to feel drowned, deflated, or overwhelmed by what peers are accomplishing. The fact that some friend-of-a-friend scored a prestigious job doesn’t mean you won’t find your own successes someday.
Social media has made this mindset almost impossible to avoid, but try to keep in mind that what matters is what is right in front of you. What matters is you.
3. Think short-term.
Temper your expectations, and take things one step at a time. Even the most small-scale successes will boost your confidence, leading you to bigger and better things over time.
While it’s a great thing to have lofty goals, don’t let them devalue the importance of the first few steps. In my case, instead of telling myself “I want to be Tina Fey”—thus paralyzing every creative bone in my body—I’ve started focusing on specific, doable goals: “Publish 1 piece this week.” “Write in your journal tonight.”
These points are hard to accept, and even harder to adopt. But good things take time, and I think we’d all be a little happier if we could keep them in mind. If you’re 24 or 25 and haven’t made it yet—hell, if you’re 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, or older—there’s still time to pick yourself up and blaze a trail.
I recommend a visit to your alma mater if you need a kick in the butt.