The Kids Are Not Alright
I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU, but I grew up being told that if I did well in school, participated in a slew of extracurricular activities, volunteered, didn’t “mess around” too much with the opposite sex, didn’t spend all my money on clothes and got into a good college, that I’d be “alright.”
So, I checked off all those things and more on my Path to Success Checklist! and then—life happened.
When sophomore year of college I got sick. Really sick. It would take three years to figure out what was making me sick (spoiler: rotting appendix) but the point is, when LIFE interrupted my plan, suddenly that was it.
Even as I was moaning in agony on a stretcher in the emergency room, I was still dutifully conjugating Russian verbs and sending reassuring emails to my professors, who were alarmed when I suddenly *gasp* missed a class. “I’m sure it’s nothing!” I told them, my lips curled up in a painful grimace, “I’ll be back in no time! Send me assignments, I can still do work. I can still be good. I can still matter. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is going to ruin this for me! Because I worked hard for this so nothing will take it away! Right?”
Well, that’s the thing that no one tells you when they’re filling your young mind with all these bullshit life equations:
HARD WORK = SUCCESS
Sometimes that’s true. On a small scale, mostly. You have to allow for a margin of error, an element of unpredictability. When we start reducing life to a series of concrete mathematical concepts—because it feels better than considering that which is unknown to us about the future — we are really setting ourselves up to fail.
After I began to heal, having lost everything that “mattered” in my life, I decided to just do something, anything to feel like I was rebuilding my life even in a small way.
I took jobs here and there. I moved around a little. I fell in love.
And then, I said to myself: what is the most important thing, from a practical standpoint, right now?
The answer, given my health, was health insurance.
So, I applied for a paper-pushing position in a hospital where I would be given health insurance and 40 hours a week of doing something. Best of all, if I had a flare up of illness, hey, I was just an elevator away from the ER.
I was given this job because someone believed in giving me a chance. I didn’t have a completed college degree, but I would do whatever needed to be done. In this case, what needed to be done was a lot of filing and staple pulling.
So, for 40 hours a week, I pulled staples.
For this I had (slightly) above a minimum wage, health and dental and vision, and the nagging feeling that I had sold my soul to the devil somewhere along the line and this must be some kind of hell.
So, I decided that I was going to work on top of work: while I pulled staples, I perked up. I listened hard. I learned. And when opportunities arose, I asked for them. I asked for more. I did everything I was asked to do, no matter how mundane, and I did it damn well. I didn’t complain (at work anyway) and I respected everyone from the guy who mopped the floors to the CEO of the hospital.
I didn’t act entitled to anything more than what I had, but I made it known that I was eager to learn— and would gladly take an opportunity to do so.
After six months, this was rewarded. I got a promotion. And from there, I just kept climbing up the ladder. And I went back to school on the hospital’s dime. And I started writing on the side for extra money. And soon my writing became part of my job.
And then, it was my job.
My day starts at 5:30 am, I spend a half hour responding to emails, Tweets, other social media interactions. I go get my morning coffee. I get in to my office at the hospital at least a half-hour before the eight hour clock starts, so I can organize paper, really listen (not just half-listen) to voicemails and chat with coworkers. For eight hours, I do some things that I really like and quite a few things that bore me beyond belief. For this, I am paid. Then, I go home and write. For this, I am also paid. I peruse Tumblr to de-stress. I read a few pages of a book. Then, I sleep. Many nights I have to take some kind of sedative to shut my brain down, but eventually, I am dreaming.
I’ve realized, though, that I benefit from that eight hour day of mindless tasks. My most creative ideas pop up when my hands are otherwise engaged and my mind can wander around to new places. Around the 50th staple, I get an idea for a novel I might write someday. By the time I’m home at night or on the weekend mornings when my coffee steams in my hand and the sun rises over the bay, I can crank out two or three solid articles— because for 40 hours I could think about how to craft each phrase while simultaneously flipping through large stacks of paper.
I work in a hospital all day and I write mostly about health and healthcare. I live and breathe my work, and it’s not always fun or interesting or “fulfillment” but my bills get paid — and then some. I have earned the freedom to write. I have some security that I didn’t have when I was on the former path to success. I created my own definition of success, and rapidly achieved it— because I was willing to improvise.
I’m twenty two years old. I have three jobs, a pension plan, health insurance, my own car, a nice apartment in a safe neighborhood, a partner who really gets me, and above all else, the slow by steady return of my health and sanity. I achieved all of this by not doing anything I was told would bring me this kind of success but instead, I just did what made sense to me in the moment . . . and hoped for the best.
That being said, do I have “free time?”
No. Not a lot of it. Do I want any? Not particularly. I worked hard to be able to combine my interests and passion into something that I can earn a living doing, so I have the satisfaction each day of knowing that I can get paid to do things that also feel good to me, and are enjoyable.
I didn’t achieve that by waving around a college degree or a proper resume. I got here by knowing my place, working hard and taking opportunities when they were given to me, holding them in my hands like delicate little eggs that did not guarantee any kind of real protection from cracks.
As Gen Y, we were really done a major disservice in our youth. Being constantly praised and built up to believe that we would all succeed if we did everything on our Checklist for Success!, we emerged expecting everyone to fawn over us when we had a college degree! Why no one prepared us for the far more complicated reality of Real World Living is beyond me; but here we are, struggling while our parents and teachers cluck at our “lost potential.”
We are a generation that grew up being promised we were special, and instead we entered adulthood already feeling we were just disappointments before we’ve even had the chance to really live.
I challenge you to shed the paradigm that you will be successful. Instead, think about what will make it easier for you to do the things that you want to do: if you can spend eight hours a day pulling staples so you don’t have to worry about healthcare and paying your rent, then you can and will find ways to do the things for which you have a firey passion.
If you are truly passionate about something, it will seep out of your pores and demand to be felt by everyone around you. Eventually, it will become part of your day to day routine, even if you think it’s impossible.
Passion always finds a way; but it has its own timeline, and anything you do to try to speed it up is only going to exhaust and frustrate you.
Don’t give up; not just on what you truly want, but also the seemingly useless and boring things that you have to do “just to get by” — everything has potential, every single opportunity is a piece of your puzzle. It’s just a matter of figuring out where it fits — and revealing the picture it creates.
Abby Norman writes and drinks coffee on the coast of Maine. Tweet her @abby__norman. You might like another piece of hers on Medium, Hush, the tale of an introvert trying to live as an extrovert. ღ