How To Become A Grown Up: Part 2

become a grown up

This is part 2 (here’s part 1) of my incredibly long-winded answer to this series of questions:

Dear Sarah Von,
I’m currently in my third year of undergrad and I feel completely unnerved. I’m studying Communication Studies and am second guessing myself. My passions and interests are so varied (education, public advocacy, public health) that I’m feeling pulled in so many directions. Will my degree be enough to land me a job after graduation? Can I survive working at a non-profit that pays approx. $2? How do I find the resources to network and find jobs? Do I have the courage to move? How long should I wait for grad school? What do I want to study in grad school? How do I get the good paying job that fulfills my pay-it-forward needs? Will I ever have the time/money/opportunity/courage to travel/move abroad? How do I get where I really want to go? What do I really want?

Don’t go to graduate school unless you’re really, really sure you want to
Many of us (myself very much included here) go to graduate school when it takes us more than a few years to find a job that we really like. Or maybe the professional world isn’t quite shaping up how we imagined and we were always good at school, so why not go back? Or everybody we know is doing it and, dammit, I’m totally as smart as they are! I want a Master’s!Dude. Here is my incredibly mercenary advice. Do not go to graduate school unless:
a) the school is paying you to go
b) you are really, really, really passionate about the topic you’ll be studying
c) a Master’s is required for the field you work in and you are 100% sure that you want to work in this field for a long, long time

I decided that I wanted to go to graduate school because I love doing ‘programs’ that have a beginning and an end and give me a piece of paper when I’m finished. Also, I thought I’d spend all that time engaging in witty banter in coffee shops with people who wore wool sweaters and scarves. Really? Grad school is really, really hard work, it can be quite expensive and it will completely consume those years of your life.

Now, I’m glad I got my Master’s; it’s made me a better teacher, opened doors for me and I had a great time in New Zealand. That being said, I know approximately a million people with MAs in English Literature who are working at Barnes and Noble and substitute teaching. Or people who could have gotten to the same place in their career simply by spending those two years climbing the ladder and gaining experience rather than spending all that money on an MBA.

I would never discourage someone from expanding their education, just make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.

You don’t need super human amounts of courage. You only need enough courage to take one step
Traveling the world alone, moving to a new city where you don’t know anyone, starting graduate school – these are all scary, scary things. And, sure, they require courage! But luckily for all of us, you don’t need super human amounts of courage. You only need enough courage to take one little step at a time.

If you would have told me in 1998 that I would find the courage to move to New Zealand on my own, where I knew no one, and complete a Master’s degree there, I would have turned around to check if you were talking to the superhero behind me. Because that business sounds terrifying, y’all!

But here’s the thing: you don’t need all of that courage at once.

You need enough courage to check out a copy of The Lonely Planet at your library. Maybe a week later, you can work up the bravery to google “tourist visas + Thailand.” Then you need to find the wherewithal to email your cousin who spent a year teaching in China. See? Totally doable! Don’t think in terms of “I am going to travel the world, alone, for one year.” Think in terms of “I might go look at backpacks at REI.”

You should also know that you are so, so much braver than you think you are.
I have been in ridiculous situations that I now look back on and wonder why I didn’t have a nervous breakdown (what’s up, getting from Santori, Greece to San Remo, Italy on my own, using six different types of transportation!) But you know what? While you’re in the midst of doing said scary thing, you will simply put one foot in front of the other and make it happen because you have no other choice. Weeping on the steps of the San Remo train station at 1 a.m. because there was no one there to meet me wouldn’t have accomplished anything, so I found a cab, found a hotel and then found my group the next morning.

You’ll figure out what you want slowly, one step at a time, after taking several detours
I have worked at a million different jobs – resort social director, receptionist, home health care, PR girl, event planner, newspaper writer. I have had multiple long-term relationships – with a golden boy, a charming punk rocker, a hipster nerd, an outdoorsy adventurer. I’ve lived heaps of places – rural Minnesota, urban Minnesota, uber-urban Asia, out of a backpack, semi-urban New Zealand.

Now, I could easily look at all these jobs and relationships and places as failures – jobs that didn’t fit, men who weren’t right for me, cities that didn’t work. But instead, I try to leave each of these situations thinking that now? I’m one step closer to knowing exactly what I want. Now I know that I need to live somewhere that has a Target. I need a job that doesn’t require sitting in front of the computer for eight hours a day. I need a gentleman friend who can entertain himself and take initiative.

Life is a game of trial and error, right? You probably won’t luck into your dream job/relationship/life on your first try. Try heaps of things! You’d be surprised how far the process of elimination can get you!

You’ll get where you want to go slowly, one step at a time, after taking several detours
Knowing what you want is a huge part of the battle. And now you’ve sussed out that you want to live in a large coastal city, date a successful, outgoing person and work in marketing for non-profit. Congrats! You are officially half way there.

But getting what you want, in any avenue in life, is a slow process. Maybe you’ll find work at a non-profit but it won’t be in marketing. Or maybe you’ll find a marketing job at a giant corporation. Or you’ll find the job you love in a tiny town that does little for you. No situation is perfect, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn something from it and keep working towards something that’s a better fit for you.

It’s difficult when we see people who seem to have it all. But it’s worth remembering that
a) they probably don’t, in fact, have it all
b) if, by some miracle, they do have it all – it’s probably taken them a lot of hard work and time to get it

Any other advice you have for our friend?

P.S. How to be a grown-ass woman about your health, your finances, your friendships, your romantic relationships, your professional life, and your home.

photo by Susen // cc

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  1. TheWreckage

    Finding your blog is like something resembling God looked down at my failure of a year off between highschool and university and decided "Jesus Christ, someone needs to get this girl to actually /do/ something!"
    Posts like these make the next years of my life seem less terrifying. Thank you.

  2. Ella

    I attempted to go overseas for a year alone and work and travel but it was for the wring reason and I ended up coming home after 2 months of not getting anywhere. I was crushed and it took me a really really long time to get over it because I felt like I had failed. I was devastated. Eventually I ended up doing a course where I thought I was going to help others but it ended up that they helped me and I was finally able to move on. I now look back at it and i think what an awesome experience. I lived in a foreign country for two months alone, I saw things that none of my friends or family have ever seen or done, I met people and had an amazing little "holiday". I now know that I am not the super spontaneous person in that I need a general lever of structure, a definite job ect and that for me its best to travel with a friend. I also learned that I can survive -25 degree snowy weather without thinking twice, hehe.

    Finally, I love to travel and can do it successfully on my own, next I will choose to do it with someone else. Your statement of leaving each situation with a feeling of being one step closer to where you want to be is powerful and definitely something I am going to keep in mind.

  3. Chrissy

    I have to agree w/your advice here on all points!.. then again, I bet u learned bits and pieces from others as well as from trial and error…. You are one of the few adults who have grown up… U are exactly what my husband believed the purpose of college is…which is to 'round u out and help u discover yourself '… his words… and most importantly to do what u love and not make money a priority.

  4. Amber

    I don't think there is anything I would have rather read today. I have been feeling like I will never get to accomplish what I want to in life. It is a slow process and I am a very impatient person lol. I am just now learning good things take time. It is good to see that others have experienced the same thing. Thanks for this post 🙂

  5. That Gal Kiki

    Wow. This information and your insight, not to mention gret advice is fantastic. You should really think of writing this all in to a book. Many people would benefit!!!

    I was too busy workin' 'the pole' when I should have been in college. I often wonder where my life would be if I chose curtain #2.

    Great post, girlie!

  6. Jessica Bianculli

    What a great post! I can SO relate to this girl, I graduated from college 2 years ago and was also a communications major. And, it's funny how you think you have everything planned one day and the next day you feel like you are in the middle of an ocean without a life jacket. Your experience so far sounds incredible, and its comforting to know that you don't have to know what you want to be when you grow up you just have to live. Thanks for this!

  7. iris

    P.S. PhD programs in Science/Technology/Engineering/Math pay you to attend- that is, you don't pay tuition, and you're given a decent stipend (typically above $20k in the USA).

    But you should think twice. A PhD program is 5-7 years of your life.

  8. Chelsea

    Sarah, you are awesome! This is just fantastic advice, and very useful for me at this point in my life. I have so many friends not only getting into grad school, but graduating with master's and phds and it's overwhelming and I feel like there's so much pressure!

    But… slowing it down and thinking clearly like, hello! Just because I got rejected from the Harvard of nursing schools does not mean I should try to find something DIFFERENT and EASIER. I don't want an MPH before I become a nurse. I've never wanted to become a teacher until I realized how MUCH EASIER it would be to get into a credential program than to get into nursing school. But if I slow shit down and just relax and figure out what the tiniest next step I need to take to get to my goal… then it is just WAY more manageable.

    All that to say, you are a wise, wise woman and I appreciate this post infinitely!

  9. Sarah Von Bargen

    Ahh, you guys are all such charmers! I'm so glad that I can share some of my lessons-learned-the-hard-way 😉

  10. awangardo

    sad photo 🙁

  11. Tiffany

    These posts were sooooo well said! Though you can't see me, I'm giving you a standing ovation. In my kitchen. Bravo, Ms. Von!

  12. Hope

    I am joining Tiffany in that ovation. Well put, my dear, very well put.

  13. Kelly

    I am so guilty of this thinking: "we were always good at school, so why not go back? Or everybody we know is doing it and, dammit, I'm totally as smart as they are! I want a Master's!" I toy with the idea of getting my master's every now and then. I like school and I kind of feel like a big stupid quitter because I have so far just "settled" for my BA. I have super encouraging people in my life, and parents who have made it clear that they will help me financially if I go back to school within the next few years. But in all reality, it would be pretty fun to dick around in school for a couple more years, but there isn't a job I want where I really need a Master's, so it would be a pointless exercise in acquiring debt.

    Oh and P.S. you should use Avatar for your 3-D movie goal. I personally loved the movie – I know some people who were "meh" about the actual plot but even they said that the 3-D made up for everything.

  14. George

    As someone with a MPhil in History – a very useful and important part of history, and currently job-searching so I can save for travel, I thoroughly commend your advice.

    Do it if you love it, and are committed to it.

  15. theperfumeofcorridors

    A very inspirational post! I completely agree – things which seem like mistakes are not, because everything leads you towards something else, often purely through accident or chance. A change of scenery might be all you need to get a fresh look at things!

  16. kathryn-louisa

    I'm half way through a year of studying abroad and improving my French and Spanish – the idea of a 'year abroad' is still too terrifying to contemplate (even though the sensible side of me knows I'm coping okay!) so I am a big fan of focussing on one small task at a time – today I booked my flights to Spain, tomorrow (or maybe next week) I will start looking for somewhere to live…

    Thank you for your wonderful advice and reassurance!!


  17. Jackie

    I wish I could have read this last semester during my nervous breakdown about switching from pre-med to Chinese. My dad told me "Chinese is the last thing in the world that will get you a job! A million people speak Mandarin and English!" and my mom didn't believe that Chinese translators are in high demand in the FBI until she heard it from someone other than me… but anyways I really felt like a failure, I felt like I was copping out because my classes were getting harder but I truly truly enjoy this field of study and I'm much happier than when I was taking all those crazy hard science classes. I try to believe that if you do what you love, success will follow. Thanks, Sarah.

  18. Young Werther

    Eh? Has this blog shrunk or are my eyes failing me?

    Postgrad studies, difficult one there. Mine didn't matter one iota (Masters generally count for naught downunder), I always believe that relevant job experience is the way to go (it may be as an unpaid intern).

  19. Mak

    I remember having the same discussion with one of our program directors. Here's what she told me:

    "While you're trying to figure it out, people will ask you, 'what are you thinking? what are you doing with your life?' But really, what is anyone doing with their life? They're living it, and so are you.

  20. Amy

    I'd like to add in one more "don't go to grad school unless you're completely sure about it" here. I have a Masters in Public Administration because I thought "I could see myself in non-profits", without actually having worked in a non-profit. I paid about $2300 PER COURSE… and am now very much in debt. Of course after the whole ordeal I realized I want to be a graphic designer, and the temptation is there to get more schooling (fear of not being good enough without credentials).

    I have no idea how I will every pay back all of that money.

  21. Maureen

    Sarah this is a very great post! It makes me thing of an interview I saw with Barack Obama, long before he was our president, and he was talking about how he graduated from Harvard Law and then did the community organizing job. And he said a quote, which I don't have in front of me, but basically was something like, "The value of an education is that it allows you to take more risks." Meaning, of course, that if you get your education, you can travel the world, or work for non-profits, or whatever else you feel like doing, and always have your education to fall back on.
    Very nice post, I am sure I will share it with a few folks still struggling with many of these same questions.

  22. liz

    great post! i can only say: growing up is a journey, not a destination. enjoy the trip.

  23. somewhere else

    Outstanding post, Sarah. Part 2 > part one. I have a question though, which I've been struggling with: how do you know what you want? How do you get to that point? I'm the most indecisive person in the world- I wouldn't say I lack the courage (I'm going skydiving tomorrow, for instance) but what advice have you got for us girlies who have no idea what direction they want to head in?

    Where did you go (literally, or figuratively) to find your passion?

  24. The Naked Redhead

    Dude, ditto on the grad school advice. Grad school is effing expensive, stressful and time consuming. Most people are better off getting specialized certificate work in their area of expertise (plus, 90% of the time, certificates are cheaper). An MBA is fast become a "catch-all" degree, so unless you absolutely need it for your job, or you're going to Harvard, find other alternatives for further education.

    Fo' real. I'm STILL burned out on school.

  25. abigail's treasure

    thank you, its so easy to feel lost at any point in your life. I think you just gave a lot of people a pick-me-up and reminder that sometimes its ok to be lost for a while, we will all find our way again.

  26. Katy

    I'm about to go to college to get a degree in something entirely new for me and I need this post very badly. Thank you!

  27. Ali

    I seriously can't even BEGIN to tell you how much this means to me. And how incredibly timely it is, considering I had a mini breakdown about this exact stuff just last night. So from the bottom of my heart, I thank you for writing this!

  28. Tania

    thank you for this!!!
    i think i love you..
    "you are so much braver than you think"…thank you, i needed to hear that today!

  29. Nahid

    This was great to read – I feel a bit more relieved now that I know I'm not alone in how I feel. I've been beating myself up, calling myself a failure because I'm 22 in my third year of University, with no job, and still with no definite clue on what I want to be nor really what my strengths are. I'm looking at the big picture, or rather, the lives of other people – those who graduate, get a fantastic job right away, have already moved out and are living on their own, have some wonderful relationship with a guy/girl they may one day marry, etc. and I feel so frustrated and depressed that I am nowhere near that. But your article tells me its okay not to be on that type of conveyor belt; it makes me realize that a deep, calming breath (or 10) and baby steps are needed to get to where I want (or something like it) eventually, but to be patient about it.

    Thanks for your article. I really enjoy reading your blog 🙂 All the best

  30. Monica at In Wanderment

    In my early 20s I had many of the same questions as the young writer who asked for advice. I wish I knew someone who could have told me what you wrote here, Sara, because it is so right on.
    The big empty void of possibilities can be daunting when your standing at the foot of what seems to be a mountain. But you figure things out in the climb.

  31. Alicia

    I found this quote "you'll get what/where/who you want slowly, one step at a time, after taking several detours" written on a post-it and chilling in my desk drawer today and actually googled it because I figured it wasn't MY wisdom 🙂 It's popping back up at a perfect time: I just got rejected from grad school after believing it was The Perfect Plan. I'm 6 months into the Best Relationship Ever because I kept refusing to settle for less. I'm lost and scared, but ready for the detours…thank you (belatedly) for this beautiful advice!

  32. Katrina

    such an amazing article, thank you for this!

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