One of the scourges of the hyperreal world of the 20-to-30something is the pressure of urgency – the idea that if you’re not moving up the ladder at what you’ve wanted to do since childhood, you are losing the race and destined for failure. The truth of the matter is that you’ll never have the intersection of energy and opportunity as you do in your 20’s, not to mention the implicit goodwill and tolerance for mistakes that youth are afforded, and to exploit them you need to be open to the idea that the best next step isn’t the one you might have imagined.
Like a man of good game, the sharp young adult learns there’s a big place for outcome independence in life – not expecting yesterday’s work to take you anywhere in particular. Oftentimes that leaves you open to opportunities you might not have been looking for.
As a reminder of this spirit, I asked Susan Walsh of the college sex and relationship blog Hooking Up Smart to riff on her own topsy-turvy personal story.
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
When I was preparing to leave college in 1978, I looked ahead and envisioned my life as a sort of purposeful and progressive walk around the Monopoly board. Start small with places on Baltic and Connecticut Avenues, invest in a railroad or two, and eventually snap up prime properties on Boardwalk and Park Place. Feelings of happiness and contentment would grow gradually but without limit, and along the way I would check off all the important items on my life’s To Do list.
As it turned out, the journey was more Candyland than Monopoly. There were random pitfalls and surprises. Sometimes I moved backwards, and other times I jumped ahead. I got lost. Occasionally I got stuck for a while and had to sit tight while everyone else passed me by.
In many ways, I’ve exceeded my dreams and hopes, and I know I made my parents proud. But my trajectory was not predictable; I’ve never really known exactly where I was headed, despite a positive attitude and a strong work ethic. I found that my best laid plans had a way of falling by the wayside, and that other stuff happened instead, mostly beyond my control.
In time I learned to embrace change, as well as the unexpected, because it seemed pretty clear that taking chances, or even just going with the flow nearly always produced an overall improvement in my life. In the end I got to a pretty good place. In fact, if I’d been more focused, more driven to achieve specific objectives, I’d likely have a very different life today, one that I wouldn’t enjoy as much, or find as personally fulfilling.
If you’re between 20 and 30 or so you are the offspring of Baby Boomers, but you’ve had a very different growing-up experience than we did. We were born in an era of unprecedented American prosperity, and were easily able to fulfill our parents’ hopes of realizing the American Dream (if we chose to). Living the Dream meant exceeding your parents’ achievements, which was easier to do a generation ago. My grandmother was a parlor maid in Edith Wharton’s Old New York. My mother dropped out of college after her junior year to marry my father, who was entering the Marine Corps.
I grew up in the era portrayed by Mad Men – a few women professionals were taken seriously, but most were underappreciated and underemployed. My father, who spent his career in corporate sales and marketing, believed I had inherited his talents, and expected me to blaze trails as a woman. While I was growing up he often told me that I could do absolutely anything I set my mind to. He did not want me following in my mother’s footsteps, but in his. I understood that my father loved me and wanted the best for me, and that I was going to have to produce results to meet his expectations.
I was given free rein, but learned quickly that all of my choices were being observed and measured. For example, my college boyfriend was a nice, handsome, athletic, fraternity guy, but he was not very bright. When I broke up with him in my junior year, my father expressed relief that there was no danger of this fellow diluting the family gene pool. The next boyfriend, a tight-jean-wearing singer songwriter with long hair, was even less mourned when he departed. The message was clear: I needed to be a female success story, using my brain and my [father's] extroverted nature to go all the way to the top.
The obvious first hurdle to clear was to get an awesome job out of college. My father had already told me that it was time for me to “buy my own toothpaste.” Moving home was not an option. As a psychology major with no real idea of what I wanted to do, other than make my dad proud, I signed up for some interviews at the career center with various corporations.
From there I began a journey that would twist and turn in ways I could never have predicted. To illustrate, here’s what my twenties looked like, with no fewer than a dozen unexpected, life-altering turns (numbered for your convenience):
1978, Getting a Job
Snagged an interview with AT&T!
As the interview winds down, I know I’ve hit a home run. I eagerly wait to hear about next steps. The next step is to meet the recruiter for a drink that night at the Playboy Club.
What a creep. I decline with as little awkwardness and as much dignity as I can muster and go to my afternoon job, where I tell my professor what’s just happened. He expresses his disgust but says nothing else. Turns out he is close to someone high up at AT&T. The next day I get a call from the offending recruiter, who apologizes and offers me a sweet job.
I take it. (1)
1979-1980, Being a Yuppie
I am assigned a role as Supervisor of a team of computer operators in Data Processing. What a drag! I’m no techie, I’m a humanities type! What can they be thinking? (2)
I dig in, make a bunch of stupid mistakes, learn about computers and how telephone bills are generated. Zzzzzzzzzz.
I am promoted and move to LA for another job in IT, this time as a programmer. (3) I am pleased to be doing well, and pleased to be returning to where I grew up, but the work is mind-numbingly analytical and frustrating for me.
Dating is nowhere. Surfer dudes in bars are not my thing, and guys at work feel off limits, after one rather ill-advised makeout session with a coworker at a colleague’s going away party.
I bitch about my programming job while visiting my parents for the holidays. It’s too quantitative and solitary. Dad says he’ll help pay for an MBA, an effective way of switching careers, but only if I can get into a top 5 program. (4) Ha, fat chance of that!
I begin the tedious process of applying to business school. If I get in, I’m going to work my ass off and do something interesting next time around. I definitely don’t want kids, and don’t see myself with a husband either. (Not that anyone’s asking.) I am woman, hear me roar.
1981, Back to School!
I matriculate at b-school across the country. (5) I do not know a single person in a class of 650. On day one I notice a tall, skinny guy with longish hair and rimless glasses. He is the exact opposite of the LA guys I’m used to seeing. He looks smart and gentle. He is wearing an old oxford shirt. He walks towards me, I smile, he smiles politely and keeps walking to talk to the woman behind me, one of his many acquaintances.
Winter, 1982, Oneitis
Tall, skinny guy (TSG) and I run in the same crowd! Neither of us ever misses MBA Happy Hour on Thursdays. One woman I know confesses she’s had a fling with him, but that he ended it after she locked him in her apartment and refused to let him leave one afternoon. The morning after the Halloween bash, my roommate and I are out for a run when we bump into him walk of shaming, still with his Elvis Costello + red shoes costume on. Preselection is powerful.
I become sort of obsessed with TSG, (6) but he doesn’t seem to notice me. He jokes around like we’re buddies sometimes, but there is absolutely no vibe. It’s clear this crush will never be requited. I have a few flings with foreign students to get over my oneitis, which I later learn did not go unnoticed by TSG, though they were mere blips on the radar for me. Sooooo not worth it, adding to my number with Os in short supply.
March, 1982, Poor Impulse Control
I give a blowout party (Wicked. Party. Come.) with my roommate, and TSG, who knows a ton about music, agrees to select and lend me all the records I’ll need. Later, I go to his apartment to return an armful of LPs. I’m caught completely unaware when TSG kisses me as we are laughing about the party. (7) My stomach flips over about ten times. At one point I say that I’m worried this will get in the way of our friendship – LMR. His face makes it clear – who cares, we’re not that close. I spend the night. Heaven.
A week goes by, no follow up. Cordial chit chat in the dining hall as always, nothing more. I decide I am going to “say what I need to say.” I ambush him in front of the library during midterms and ask for Round 2.
He looks uncomfortable, shifts his weight from foot to foot. “Uhhhh. I don’t think so.”
Heartbreak. I hold it together long enough to get back to my pillow and weep. Once midterms end I decide I need a pity party for one, so I book a room at a B&B in Maine. I go alone, read Wuthering Heights and take long walks. It is a very cathartic experience and I return to school with my head held high, unashamed of my declaration of feeling.
Monday morning I bump into TSG, who says, “Hey, I heard about your trip. How was your sad and lonely weekend?” FML.
July, 1982, A Typed Postcard
Working in NYC for the summer. Lots of interns, lots of socializing, no hooking up. It’s good to be away, distracted from the emotional drama and turmoil of the spring.
I receive a typed postcard (who does that?) from TSG. Recommending new albums and asking how my summer is going. At the end:
“Hey, what do you think of my coming up to visit for a weekend?” (8)
TSG arrives, I’ve planned a picnic on the roof deck. It’s a wonderful two days. I’m all in. Miraculously, so is he.
My father meets TSG during a business trip, and approves.
Becoming a couple is a little weird. People think we’re an odd pair – no one saw it coming. It works, though. There is some awkwardness about our unorthodox start, and each of us feels some jealousy about one another’s previous flings. We figure it out, and make the decision to look for jobs in NY and live together.
He tells me that he has always wanted a daughter named Claire. I am so head over heels for TSG, I want to marry him and have this daughter. Thoughts of being a CEO with no personal ties have flown right out of my head. (9)
Still, I want a brilliant, successful career, and feel certain I can do it all. I take a great job with American Express.
We marry shortly before my 28th birthday.
1986, Winter Gets Colder
TSG and I are growing tired of NYC. We don’t make enough money to live in luxury, and we’re tired of the pace. He wonders whether I’d consider moving to Boston, his prior home. Sure. A week later he has a new job. (10) I’m about to make Director at Amex, and don’t want to leave just yet. We try a commuter marriage, which sucks. I resign and move, glad at least to have the new title on my resume.
I get a job with a consulting firm in Boston working a gazillion hours a week in the Financial Services practice. Unsurprisingly, all my clients are in NYC, so I live on the Shuttle.
Oopsie prego! (11)
1987-1988, But I Don’t Want it All!
Have baby, not Claire. My former schedule is impossible, so I become a subcontractor, working three days/week. Baby is miserable in day care, but we try for a year to make it work. Baby observes me applying mascara one weekend, becomes inconsolable, “Mommy no go job!”
Reluctant at first, I become a SAHM. (12)
Love love love.
If my father objects, he doesn’t say so.
What can you learn from my not very unusual life story?
That some of the best things happen when you’re not expecting them, or even paying attention.
There’s no guarantee, of course, that the changes will be welcome, or the surprises pleasant. But I believe there’s considerable value in change for its own sake. It shakes up our expectations, giving us an opportunity to think about what’s most important. It often means a chance to try new things, and grow. It reminds us that we are not in control, not at all. I’ve found that it’s wonderful to embrace uncertainty. My life has been better for it.
But what should I expect of my own children? As Baby Boomers, we were allowed to tread a path that allowed for considerable meandering and self-discovery. In contrast, Millennials were afforded little downtime – it was one big push to the finish line down the straight and narrow. How much longer can the American Dream deliver advancement beyond our wildest dreams? Should I expect my own children to go to the moon? Or invent a cure for cancer? Don’t laugh – that’s exactly what many of my peers expect of their offspring. The pace of acceleration is not sustainable – the curve is flattening out. As Conan O’Brien just told the graduating class at Dartmouth:
“Today, you have achieved something special, something only 92 percent of Americans your age will ever know: a college diploma. That’s right, with your college diploma you now have a crushing advantage over 8 percent of the workforce.”
I’ve learned that some of the best opportunities for growth and reward come in ways that you cannot plan for or anticipate. If you’re afraid of making some bad decisions, you won’t take the risks that often produce greater rewards. Instead of working toward a specific future destination, focusing on “now” may be a better way of moving forward while maintaining balance in your life.
So loosen up, Millennials. By all means, plan for your future. Future time orientation is highly correlated with achievement. But don’t suffer from myopia – when you see a fork in the road, take it. There’s a very good chance it’s leading somewhere better than you could have imagined. You’ll never know until you leap.