If you're about to graduate from college, you're probably either jubilant about your impending liberation...or you're waking up at 3a.m., in a cold sweat, wondering if you'll ever get a job, fall in love, be a success and what exactly are you supposed to do with your life. Oh god.
Spoiler alert: I graduated from Wellesley College, in 1996, with a degree in history, and a focus on Russia Area Studies. Clearly, I missed the memo on the benefits of even pretending to be employable. I was naïve enough to major in what interested me, and thank god I did. After graduation, I decided to return to Russia -- where I had spent my junior year of college -- and through a curious chain of events, I ended up working as an assignment editor for NBC News. If I tell you that speaking Russian brought me freedom, it's safe to say that I will go down in history as the first and last human being to ever utter those words with a straight face, but, with apologies to my Russian Jewish ancestors who are spinning in their graves in the Pale of Settlement, it's all true.
I went to Russia to see if I could make a life for myself in a foreign land and language. I went to Russia to conquer my fears and master myself, and that experience taught me things about myself, and the world, that continue to benefit me to this very day. Therefore, as we are about to enter the season of college commencements, here, in my opinion, are the 5 things you should knew before you graduate.
1. It's normal to be terrified.
Roll your eyes and give a wide berth to anyone who tells you that they were never worried, nope, not for a minute when they graduated college, since that person is either a) a sociopath or b) a liar, who never did anything interesting. Of course you're terrified! You're leaving everything you know -- the educational system -- and going out into the wild, blue yonder. You're leaving an organized system for well, you're not sure just yet, right? You're excited, you're nervous, but sometimes, alone in your bed, late at night, you're wondering if you and the cats are going to end up homeless, living under a bridge somewhere.
You're wondering if anyone will ever love you, will you be famous, will you be a failure, can you get a job, and why should anyone hire you? Terrifying. Terrifying and totally normal, so please, come down off that ledge, Kid. Take a break, do some yoga, drink responsibly, watch a stupid movie with your best friend, go for a run, walk a shelter dog and realize that there is no way you could possibly know what will happen in your life. Instead, you'll have to, as Rilke says, live your way into your very own answers and that's the fun part! (Don't give me that look. It really is.)
2. It's normal to have no idea about what to do with your life.
Before you start making grand predictions for your life, allow me to remind you that you're 21. If you're like the rest of us, by the time you're 25 -- if you're doing it right -- you're going to be a vastly different person than the person you are today. When I was 21, I was truly, madly, deeply in love with a certain boy. So in love. Lady-and-the-Tramp in love. Last time I checked, that boy is legally forbidden from entering these U.S., due to his ex-wife reporting him to ICE. Every time I think of that, I cackle with evil glee and want to send that crazy b*tch a bouquet of roses and a white teddy bear with an "I love you this much" sign. So don't worry about your life, worry about the next ten minutes. Enjoy the process. Find things you enjoy doing and focus on doing as much of those activities as possible.
3. Act on your courage, not your fears.
These are your twenties; you're supposed to make mistakes and have crazy adventures. You're NOT supposed to take jobs you hate and make a religion out of your excuses. You'll have time enough for that nonsense when you're older. Look at the bios of the men and women you admire -- they took risks, they did the things that frightened them, they made choices, not excuses. So get started. Join the Peace Corps, teach English in rural China, start a small business, write mystery novels while waiting tables in Glasgow, commit to your singing, create a theater company in the Deep South...whatever, just do it. Because if you don't, if you put your dreams on pause, they'll never happen and regrets are poisonous. Learn from your courage and surprise yourself. Be the best person you can be: it's hard but it's worth it.
4. Ask yourself the important questions.
If you want to create a life in which you attain your highest potential, you're going to have to invest some time in figuring yourself out, so as to get out of your own way. True story: I wasted years dating assholes. When friends, understandably disturbed, would say, "...wait, seriously?" I'd smirk and say, "I like assholes." Oh, for f**k's sake, Carlota, grow up: no one likes assholes, even assholes hate themselves! I'm going to be honest and admit that, at the time, it was "easier" to date men I disliked, because I could avoid getting emotionally attached. I could date and not get my heart broken. And then one day you think, "Is this the best I can do? Do I really want to spend my life being this kind of disgusting coward?" And, as Chekhov says, I "squeezed the slave out of myself." I started the process of being honest with myself, of understanding why I made choices, both good and bad. Therefore, as you get ready to make your way in this crazy world of ours, it'd be great if you started out expecting the best from yourself. It'd be great if you started out believing that your life is worth saving, and commit to knowing and fighting for yourself. Your life is worth saving.
5. Forgive yourself.
You're going -- like the rest of us -- to make some poor choices. You're going to make some horrible mistakes. You're going to break hearts and have your heart broken and get fired, and hurt people you love. Other people will hurt you. People you love will die senselessly. You'll get rejected from jobs because of other people's moronic issues. And that's part of being alive. So instead of hating yourself for not being perfect, do us all a favor, and celebrate yourself for being human. Be nice to yourself. Believe you have something of value to offer the world so that you can allow yourself to succeed.
To experience your fullest potential, you have to believe that you're worth the time and effort. It ain't easy. Oh my god, it's not easy! But the alternative is worse. I knew a 47 year-old woman who had spent the past 12 years working as a hooker. College-educated, smart, beautiful...but she was still destroyed by the emotional neglect of her childhood, she was addicted to her pain and self-pity, so all of her talents went into the trashcan as she spread her legs for a "living." For the past 12 years, the only thing she had committed to was selling her body to men who despised her. Dear god, not only is that heartbreaking but it's boring. Forgive yourself now for your accumulated pain and allow yourself to succeed.
Finally, you know those people in their 70s/80s/90s who are happy and doing what they love? Allow me to remind you that those (brave) souls did not achieve their happiness by making a masturbatory ritual out of their fears and excuses. They didn't find their purpose in feeding their hungry fears and playing Candy Crush all day. They made hard choices and they fought, tooth and nail, for their happiness. They fell on their faces, they lost battles, they were humiliated and they had plenty of bad days, even bad years. They cried in the privacy of their bathrooms, or under the covers, and then they woke up the next morning, grit their teeth and tried again. They determined that their dreams were worth their best.
I hope you make that same choice. I hope you decide that you are worth fighting for. Because I don't even know you, and I think you're pretty great. Congratulations! College is over, now the real fun begins...get to work!