I used to wake up in the middle of the night soaking wet in my own stress sweat.
I was 22. I was a recent college grad -- with a degree in English and journalism -- and I would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night screaming.
So, what's next?
What are you going to do after graduation?
Do you have any jobs lined up?
Have you thought about what you want to be when you GROW UP?
Those question were everywhere. Friends, family members, people I'd run into in the fitting room at Forever21, the lady behind the check out counter at CVS and in the middle of getting my eyebrows threaded. Their faces and the delicate, yet creative, way they'd ask that question began crawling forward in my dreams like alligators in the alligator smash game.
I had no idea what to answer.
The ones going to law school -- grad school -- med school -- doing an unpaid internship -- snagging a job at this place or that -- really had no idea what they were actually going to be doing next. They just had an answer that sounded more polite than "umm... i don't know? Will you leave me alone while i stuff handfuls of graduation party cake into my mouth?"
We were just in our early 20s, taking baby steps off the stage at graduation, saying sayonara to 16 years of education -- where we knew what was coming next. Class started at 9:30. Mid terms happened in November. Spring break slapped us across the face in March. You get the point.
It's as if we've been holding someone's hand and dragging them toward this gigantic playground for the last 22 years. Begging them on repeat: can I go now? Can I go now? And then all of a sudden, they let go of our hands and ran, quickly, in the other direction.
All while we're left saying AHHH real monsters! People in three-piece suits! And talking heads demanding that I go get them coffee. But don't they know I got an A on my astronomy final junior year and I graduated with a B.A degree!
Very few people on the playground will care, my friends. You want to know why?
Because behind their wrinkles, their conference calls and their corporate phrases like "let's circle back on that" -- they were once asked that question too.
They once did the electric slide on repeat with a giant question mark on their forehead trying to figure all of this out.
And they did. Or they still are.
So what's next?
When the 187th person asked me that, I decided I couldn't take it anymore. I went home and emptied my savings account and stuffed my clothes into a bag the size of my torso and went off to Europe.
(Here's me eating pizza in Pisa -- avoiding the "what's next?" question)
But after 30 days, my expanding waistline and my empty wallet and my broken camera were like "Umm, Jen, you don't have to go home now and face reality -- but we are."
So I did and people were so thrilled to see me again that they'd ask, "How was Europe?" and before I could even mouth off an answer they'd say "But what's next!?"
To all the new graduates -- here's the truth:
People will ask you that question for quite some time. People are curious. People are just naturally inclined to ask that as a follow-up question to "I just graduated from college!"
But one day, when you have some kind of job title like "assistant manager" or "stock broker" or "digital media associate," they'll stop.
And as soon as they do, you'll hear yourself start.
You'll find yourself reaching your one year mark at your first post-grad job, or about to figure out what state you want to take the bar exam in, or suddenly realizing that while you thought you always wanted to be a fourth grade teacher, you really want to try out being a graphic designer.
And if you don't have an answer -- to them or to yourself -- take a deep breath, laugh a bit, and go spend a little part of each day figuring it out.
Take a yoga class to hear your head.
Enroll in an after-work class.
Go to a meet-up event for a random topic.
Email someone who is super successful doing a job you want to do.
Answers to questions like "what's next?" are constantly changing. But so are you.
That's the beauty of life, or dare I admit it, growing up.
You suddenly realize where you were and what you wanted four years ago is just a spec at the bottom of a crossed off to-do list.
It's kind of cool -- sometimes!
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