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twentysomethingSURVIVING AND THRIVING IN THE REAL WORLD
By MARGARET FEINBERG
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2007 Margaret Feinberg
All right reserved.
Chapter Onerude awakenings: grappling with adult life
I don't know what I was thinking. Really, I don't. I thought all those people who got up, got dressed, and drove to work every day really liked what they did. I thought that if nine to five was good enough for them, then it would be good enough for me. I thought my boss would be like my high-school teachers who winked when I missed a day of class. I thought I would make enough money to pay all my bills no matter how much I spent. I thought a lot of things ... that just weren't true.
Shortly after graduation and my grandmother's funeral, I headed for my first real job. Well, sort of. It was actually a summer internship with a Florida-based publication. The first few days were exciting. I met tons of new people and familiarized myself with the building's layout, especially the small employee kitchen and refrigerator. I immediately made friends with my boss and the coworkers located closest to me. I even had my own cubicle. It was so exciting and new!
I began by organizing my desk and office supplies. Within the first few days, I bought little knickknacks and began decorating my cubicle with photos and conversation starters. I recorded my first greeting on the company's voice-mail system. The process took somewhere between two and three dozen times as I got the "Hello, you've reached the voice mail of ..." just right. I found a bagel restaurant nearby where I could grab a cup of coffee on my way to work and swing by for a quick lunch in the afternoon. I stocked up on healthy snacks like carrot sticks and granola bars for the afternoon lull in energy. I even had a water bottle. I was ambitious and had everyone (or at least myself) convinced I could do a great job. It was a glorious experience, at least for the first week.
Halfway through the second week, it occurred to me that this wasn't just for fun. Going to work wasn't like spending two weeks at summer camp or a few months abroad, where you could come home afterward. No, the workplace was for keeps, and I would have to keep on working for the rest of my life.
The rest of my life.
Those daunting words hung over my head, and my perception of my work environment suddenly changed. Finding a new Scripto pen in the supply station or connecting with a coworker next to the water cooler lost its wonder. I began to notice my pleasant drive to work in the morning was actually a thirty-five-minute, bumper-to-bumper commute. My cubicle was small. My work was endless. And as nice as all my fellow employees were, their main purpose each day was to get work done, not socialize.
I couldn't believe no one had told me that work was really another four-letter word for jail. You have to do your time, eight hours a day, five days a week, fifty weeks a year, with only two weeks off for good behavior. I was deeply jealous of all my college friends who had opted for graduate school. They would be in five-figure (if not six-figure) debt when they got out, but at least they managed to postpone the inevitable prison sentence for a few more years.
I thought my situation was unique until I began asking around and discovered almost everyone had been caught off guard in one way or another. Just to make sure it wasn't just me or a few other coworkers, I called some other recent graduates. At first, they put up the usual front. Everything was going great; they loved their new jobs; they couldn't imagine doing anything else. However, when I pressed a little deeper, they admitted they were struggling, too. The office environment wasn't nearly as fun as college life.
We were all missing our midnight trips to the minimarket for Pop-Tarts, canned cheese, and Wheat Thins. I called a few friends who had accepted positions as youth pastors and worship leaders. They were going through the eye-opening experience of full-time ministry. One friend told me he liked working for the church-except for all the people.
I called a friend who was in the military. After whining about boot camp for forty minutes, he let me know the horrifying truth: The government was not going to let him out of his four-year commitment. He had signed up, and they were going to keep him.
Finally, I called the few friends who had chosen to throw caution to the wind and head to Colorado and Utah to lead wilderness adventure trips, teach skiing, and guide whitewater rafting expeditions. All of them were having the time of their lives. They may have been a month or two behind on those student loan payments, but they were convinced it was well worth the cost (and interest penalties). Jealous and slightly intrigued, I called back a few months later. They admitted that this fun-filled, worry-free lifestyle couldn't last forever-not if they ever wanted to break out of the living-on-Cupa-Soup-and-cans-of-tuna-with-seven-other-roommates lifestyle. I realized that they would be living my life soon enough. I guess I should have warned them.
CAUGHT BY SURPRISE
No one ever told me that the real world is full of surprises. Maybe everyone assumed I already knew. It wasn't until I graduated and faced a life full of limitless possibilities that I realized how preplanned my life had been up to that point. Some of the planning can be attributed to the local board of education, but most can be attributed to my parents, who thought it best to make sure their child was educated. Looking back, I realize my life was pretty much planned, and I didn't have a lot to say about it.
I don't remember much before the age of five, except for a few preschool classes and beloved baby-sitters. I remember the day I forgot to wear underwear to kindergarten. Fortunately, I was wearing a long dress that day. But I felt as if every other kindergartner knew. I burst out crying, and it took the teacher nearly half an hour of coaxing for me to confess my little secret. I had to call my mom, and she brought me a pair. After that slightly scarring event, my public education was pretty uneventful.
There weren't too many choices or responsibilities; Mom and Dad took care of the vast majority of them. I went from teacher to teacher and grade to grade until graduation. You probably followed the same progression, unless of course you were brilliant and skipped a grade, or you were a real genius and figured out how to stay in the system for an extra year.
You've probably noticed by now that the current education system has a progression that repeats itself. In each of the segments-elementary, junior high, and high school-you enter the school as the runt of the litter and then grow mentally, physically, and socially until you're the big kid. You may be the runt in kindergarten, but you rule the roost by the end of elementary school. Then disaster strikes, and you're the runt all over again when you enter junior high. This is really obvious in high school, when classes of short, vocally high-pitched, pimply-faced kids enter their first year and emerge four years later the size of an NFL lineman with Barry White's voice or with the physique of a New York City fashion model. This same progression of pipsqueak to king of the hill continues into college and then into the real world, when what we thought would be a great job turns out to be just another runt position with a different title.
Unless you count the runt cycle and a few home economics classes, not a lot of training is given to us for living in the real world. It seems like most school systems and parents think college will provide all of that education. After all, you are away from your parents' rules and structure, living on your own for the first time. But you're still in a bubble of sorts, padded by dorm rooms, cafeteria food, and professors who hopefully want to teach you something first and get recognized in their field second. And the schoolwork? Did you really think an anthropology or political science class would help you earn a big paycheck right after graduation? I was a religion major, and it didn't help me much in covering my first rent check.
"It seems like that first year out of school there's a huge reality check," says Ashley, a 26-year-old graduate of the University of Colorado. "No matter where my friends went-whether they were teaching third grade, working with an advertising agency, or in ministry-across the board, everyone was really struggling."
Ashley says one of the biggest things that happen upon graduation is that you're stripped of all the titles you've had. "You used to be able to say, 'I'm a student or I'm a psychology major, or I'm on a sporting team,' but when you graduate, you have to figure out who you are in the bigger scheme of things. Trying to figure out who you are and what to do in a stage of life that doesn't seem to have much guidance is really hard. I think I learned as much that first year out of college as I did in the four years of college."
No wonder the transition into the working world is so bumpy. No wonder there are so many surprises. No wonder we have been struggling to get our lives settled. For the most part, we're ill-prepared for the realities of adult life. My entrance into the real world, and especially into the work force, was a rude awakening. I had worked jobs before-everything from paper-pushing to pushing plates-but these jobs were always for extra cash. I never had to make sure the amount of my paychecks was actually bigger than the amount of my bills, because Mom and Dad were always paying the heating and gas bills, stocking the refrigerator, and filling up the tank whenever I wasn't driving the car. I was smart enough to know these things didn't just magically happen, but I didn't comprehend what it would be like to make them happen myself. Most things managed to catch me off guard, but I've managed to sift through the rather long list and identify the top ten. Who knows? Maybe they'll find a spot on The Late Show with David Letterman one day.
1. You Have to Work
I knew that one day I would have to work-everyone has to work. I didn't know that I would have to work every day until I had built up enough of this substance called retirement money to never work again. And all the while I was trying to build up a retirement reservoir, the little demands of life would be eating away at my goal of not having to work.
Thomas, a 26-year-old graduate of the University of Alaska, says the hardest part of transitioning to the real world for him was having to work all the time. "I can't be lazy like I could at home," he says. "Now I have to buy my own shoes, not to mention my wife's and kids'."
Do you remember the days when a note from a parent was enough to excuse you from class? In school, you enjoyed the benefits of a summer vacation: three full months of fun and sun, an easy job, and lots of potential dates. In the real world, my bosses weren't satisfied with a note from Mom or the explanation that I really needed a day to relax. They wanted me at work every day, for the entire day. After checking with a doctor, I discovered all the illnesses that make it impossible to sit at a desk and work are too embarrassing to submit to an employer.
For a while, the teaching profession, with its promise of summers off, sounded great, but my fear of being trapped in a classroom with two dozen junior high kids made me reconsider. The military, with its retirement plan, sounded interesting, too, until I learned that boot camp isn't optional. The idea of marrying someone for money sounded okay, until I realized if I did that, I probably would never be able to live with myself morally. Somehow I also managed to overcome the temptation to sell everything I owned to a pawnshop, buy a stack of lottery tickets, and pray for the jackpot.
2. Entry-Level Jobs Aren't Always Fun
Before graduating, my biggest challenge was landing a job, but little did I know an even bigger challenge was waiting: the entry-level (a.k.a. runt) position.
Those graduating from school find themselves in the great Catch-22 of the working world-to get a job, you need experience, but to get experience, you need a job. The result is that most graduates find themselves in an entry-level position, on the lowest rung of the working-world ladder. These positions tend to be ... well, let's just be honest: the bottom of the food chain. To make us feel a little better, bosses trick us with glorified titles. We may be able to fool some people by telling them we're an administrative assistant when we are a secretary, a retail consultant when we are a salesclerk, or an information specialist when we're doing data entry eight hours a day, but we can't fool ourselves.
Listening to all the statistics about the job market these days, I am grateful just to have a job. But how many times can you restock supplies, replace the toner cartridge, and staple, staple, staple without wondering, Is this all there is? Is this what four years of college gets you? And shouldn't the highlight of my day be bigger than a trip out of the office to the copy shop?
Gillian, a 24-year-old library cataloger, describes her transition to the real world as "pretty bumpy." After graduation, she was dating someone, and neither of them had a clear idea of the career path they wanted to follow. Gillian says she was happy doing the college thing-classes, hanging out with friends, enjoying a relaxed schedule-but was looking forward to not having to study when the reality of the nine to five of life hit her between the eyes.
"I couldn't fathom how anyone could work eight hours a day," she recalls. "When were you supposed to get anything done? When could you meet for lunch with friends or go running or just sit at a coffee shop and read? I was definitely unprepared for the time commitment a full-time job required. In some ways, I was very immature and unknowing about the real world and didn't want to get into the daily grind."
Entry-level jobs will forever remain humbling. That's how they're designed. They remind you of what you really don't want to be doing for the rest of your life and help you decide to work hard, do a good job, and progress to the next job level as quickly as possible. The good news is that despite whatever you're feeling, entry-level jobs really don't last forever, and after a little while your responsibilities and pay will increase, even if you don't get the corner office and a reserved parking space. Entry-level jobs are a much-needed reminder that you are not what you do. Your value and worth reside elsewhere. And, hopefully, the experience reminds you to treat the next person who does your job a little better.
3. Moving Up in the World Takes Lots of Hard Work
They say it over and over again: You have to pay your dues just like everyone else. I have listened to this statement for several years now and have finally concluded no one ever tells you how much those dues will cost. No one ever tells you when those dues will finally end. No one ever tells you who is actually getting paid all those dues.
I knew I would have to pay my dues, but I never knew I'd have to pay them for so long. I assumed I'd be given "the big break" documented in so many of VH1's "Behind the Music" and Biography Channel stories. I honestly believed that someday someone would come along and help me see something in myself that I didn't know was there. Doors would fly open, my purpose would be clear, and all my dues would be paid in full.
Instead of being a hopeless romantic, I was a hopeless optimist, or at least partially delusional. It only took a few rounds of "Could you deliver this file to so-and-so?" to wake up and discover that the big break wasn't necessarily around the next corner, and I needed to brace myself for the long haul.
Over the last few years, I've discovered that life isn't about one big break. It's about a series of little breaks, or opportunities, that God entrusts to us. They come at odd times, usually unexpected, and rarely without increased responsibilities. You have to pay your dues. You have to pay a lot of them. And in the end, the difference between those who make it and those who don't is simple: You have to decide to never give up.
Excerpted from twentysomething by MARGARET FEINBERG Copyright © 2007 by Margaret Feinberg. Excerpted by permission.
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