At around the time you entered pre-school or kindergarten you were probably asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up,”—because, somehow, at the age of five you had enough exposure to the world and its many career fields to have meticulously map out your career-goals.
If you’re like Beyoncé, at the age of five you were able to confidently respond with what you wanted to be and by your 34th you’re able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of your dedicated and tenacious labor.
If you’re like me, at the age of 22 you’re still trying to figure out the answer to that question.
After graduating college with an extensive resume and an even more extensive network you would think I’d be on my way toward that answer right—wrong. Weeks before my graduation I kept being accosted with that question as if the fate of the asker’s life depended on my answer— side-note: it is incredibly rude to ask a graduating senior what their post-graduation plans are. I was just trying to make it to the graduation stage, I hadn’t exactly planned my life further than that moment. But as a sufferer of chronic first-child syndrome I knew I could not just go wherever the wind blew me, in fact, I was always resisting the wind’s persistent urging of me away from the path of logic. I needed a plan. I had spent four years exerting my independence, attempting to establish an identity, there was no way I could go back home. And yet here I sit typing this from my childhood bedroom, which is currently stuffed with all of my college memorabilia. I had packed up that independence and identity and brought it underneath the roof of my beloved mother’s home. But! I was not jobless.
Instead of going for the glossy starter positions with companies I had interned for I decided to join Americorps. It was a decision so out of the blue my own grandmother still needs constant reassurance that I haven’t gone insane. Why would I, a graduate of a well-respected university who worked hard to gain experience and contacts in a particular field, suddenly drop all of those opportunities to become a volunteer? Well, the answer is simple, I wasn’t happy.
I had never truly enjoyed college and I felt like I was sacrificing my emotional well-being for the expectations of others. In Eat Pray Love style I dropped everything and went in search of this so-called Happiness. But in our current economic climate, and with the current interest rate on my looming student loan debt, could I really afford happiness? It was a question I asked after having my first interaction with Sallie Mae post-graduation–let’s just say she’s not as generous when you’re no longer a student. I was comparing my current income to my current debt and happiness did not seem like a wise investment, but in the spirit of Oprah, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and many others I decided to make that risky investment in myself. Now whether or not I’ll have a billion dollar return remains to be seen.
Like Oprah, Bill, and Steve walking away from convention isn’t easy, especially when you live in a capitalistic society where your self-worth is directly correlated to your bank account. I grew up in a family where corporate America was the logical route. My grandmother had taken it, my mother had taken it, I would lead the third generation of women into that life of power-suits and executive moves. I had never truly imagined my life after college anywhere other than behind a desk, anything else just wasn’t logical for me. There was one problem, I began to dread every interview I went to—and I went to a lot. My resume was getting so many call backs that the average graduating senior would have been pleased, but I was physically sick. My body, my spirit, and my mind did not want to put on that blazer and creased pants and discuss why I would be a great candidate for a particular company. I went to each interview and conducted myself professionally, but I would be praying not to get the job. Was I crazy, yes, but my spirit was screaming it didn’t want to be in corporate America and the screams were becoming so deafening that I finally relented and stopped filling out applications. Now, there was another problem, how was I going to support myself financially?
The battle of financial security and emotional well-being isn’t new: for some individuals there is no choice and for others the choices are endless. My need for emotional wellness had gotten so desperate that it eclipsed my drive or my willingness to see opportunities that would continue my avoiding it. I finally sat myself down and posed that same question I’d been hounded with for half my entire life: “what do I want to be when I grow up” and while I can’t answer with the same tunnel-vision as Beyoncé I’ve promised myself to try every option that feels right to me with no goal of arriving at one specific answer. I am not interested in having the definition of my life be summed up in a job-title. I am not romantic nor am I privileged enough to ignore the fact that I need money for basic survival, and I do aspire to have financial security, but I have realized that I cannot compromise my emotional well-being for financial gain. I watched two generations of women work with such tenacity in their specific fields for the majority of their lives. That work-ethic is definitely hereditary as I find myself with the same dedication and ambition the only difference is that I cannot fathom the idea of working at one company for thirty consecutive years. I’ve seen and enjoyed the perks of working for corporate America, but I’ve also witnessed the toll it will take on you, the pressure and the stress, and the micro-aggression, and the isolation—especially when you’re a black woman. I couldn’t find my purpose in any of the companies I had interviewed there. Beyond the financial gain I could not see any other reason for being there and that scared me.
Today I sat in my Americorps training session and my coordinator summarized our job requirement as, “to be happy, to show up with a positive attitude.” It was the most illogical sounding job requirement I had ever heard; work and happiness were not two words I’d ever put in the same sentence and yet here I am at work and happy. Of course the job has just started, so I might be using a different adjective a month from now, but it was such a foreign feeling to wake up and be excited to start my day. I had been so conditioned to dread the work and the school day. I moved around lethargically spending my day counting down the hours until it would finally be over. I couldn’t keep doing that. I couldn’t spend the next thirty years of my life waiting for it to be over. So, I finally submitted to the wind and that Edgar Allan Poe poem and set about my journey on the road less travelled.
Four years ago I did not see myself here. The person I was when I entered college is vastly different from the person I am now that I’ve left. Call me a naive young optimist sheltered under her mother’s roof and away from life’s harsh reality, but I believe our one true job in life is to be happy, to show up with a positive mind.