The return of the renaissance woman

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Once upon a time, when I was maybe five, I wanted to be archeologist. I hadn’t seen Indiana Jones, but who needs a movie to convince them to play around in the dirt and dig up old stuff?

That was followed by my wish to be a paleontologist (dinosaurs!), then a neuroscientist, then a geneticist, then a journalist. I’ve been all over the map—even as an undergraduate, I studied a rainbow of things like languages, political science, chemistry, and literature, and I’ve worked with code, consulted, edited, and taught.

My story isn’t unique. I know a lot of people around my age whose interests and careers look more like a kaleidoscope than a straight line. It’s made me think—hundreds of years after the fact, are we seeing the returning of the Renaissance Wo(man)?

Leonardo da Vinci, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, and Thomas Jefferson could have designed you a plane, taught you Nahautl, or built you a house, respectively. They were also artists, scientists, poets, and politicians (Sor Juana corresponded with Isaac Newton, which is pretty cool).

Industrial capitalism tends to broadly reward narrow specialization, however, so as factories started to emerge I think a lot of the innate curiosity of the human spirit became unequally distributed. I mean sure, once he became rich Andrew Carnegie had a lot of interests, but did his factory workers?

I wonder if that’s changing. I, and so many of the people I know, understand a little bit about a lot of things. Technology allows us to work more flexibly and also requires a broad, nimble skill set that doesn’t necessarily fit into the clock-in and clock-out mentality of my grandparents and their grandparents.

I believe in continuing to democratize discovery beyond the Andrew Carnegies of the world.

So, I quit my job.

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As the patron saint of perpetual comings and goings, I started getting antsy in DC about six months after I arrived. But it was more than that—I’ve never been able to hold down a job that doesn’t fit into me as a person, as an extension of me instead of just a part of me, as a reflection of what I want to take from and put into the world. I don’t compartmentalize well. I get distracted easily. I’m claustrophobic.

This is kind of frustrating, because I’m also hyper-analytical. I have a strange, probably inbred need for security, and although that doesn’t necessarily include a 401K account, it does encompass a steady paycheck. Also, I’ve seen numbers related to  the millennial underemployment crisis. I read the NYT every morning and sprinkle in a little WSJ to keep me honest. I am very, very grateful for the job I had and the opportunities given to me.

But unfortunately, I just couldn’t continue to hack it—yawning in my dark cubicle at two in the afternoon while pouring over Excel spreadsheets. I mean, I could have kept waking up and getting on the metro every day—like clockwork, it required little to no effort once I got the gears in motion—but I did not see the woman that I’d like to be as I gazed further along that path. I don’t really have a lot of her form down yet . . . she’s vague, and sometimes seems too far away. Nonetheless, I don’t think she inhabits M St NW in DC.

Now let’s be clear. I deeply, profoundly admire friends, acquaintances, and complete strangers that  do those things, that are laboring intensively to build their credibility and their career as parts of all kinds of organizations. I’ll admit that sometimes I’m more than a little jealous of their  endeavours and I wonder why mine has to feel so different. Am I just undisciplined? Unwired? Occasionally, I’m tempted to chalk up my resignation to some moral failure. I do well at something just long enough to decide not to do it.

I don’t know. I think when you’re doing something that doesn’t fit right, the gnawing in your stomach makes it pretty difficult to think of anything else. I want to view myself as brave and self-assured and independent, maybe even defiant, but I’m not there yet. Right now, I’m just a little excited, a little curious, but mostly scared and unsure.

Faith is believing in what we cannot see.

I’ll be traveling for the next couple of months and then hitting that #gradschoollife again, so stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

Why I travel

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There is a part of me, and it’s not a small part, that’s afraid of heat death—you know, the possible fate of the universe in which thermodynamic energy diminishes so much that life is no longer possible. Sometimes, I think it could happen in my head.

Diminishing heat, diminishing energy, diminishing movement, diminishing life.

Staying in one place for too long feeds my monster of entropy. Or atrophy. Kind of like a sore—an abscess—that forms on a sedentary body.

I read somewhere that the quarter-life crisis is caused by a sudden transition from living in the future to living in the here-and-now. Like we’re cruising along a highway with our eyes fixed on distant lights when all it once—out of nowhere—we slam into the concrete of the moment. The desperate quietness of daily routine. And the drunken midnight of what-could-be turns into that sober morning of what-is-right-now.

That analysis resonated with me, but I also reject it (Walt: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes”). Because I think, at its core, asserting that we no longer live in the future kills our right to dream. What are people, anyway, without dreams?

Just a heap of chemical and biological processes.

No, thank you.

Sometimes, when I’m in a car and driving through a torrential storm or on a plane for ten hours straight with a stranger’s baby spitting up in my lap, my happiness is so great that it leaves me breathless. I actually have to close my eyes against the violence of my emotion.

Do you know what I’m talking about? Have you ever felt so tied to the earth, so connected to its strings and its people and the rock of its eons-long heartbeat, that you know—know with a knowing more physical than philosophical—that you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be at that exact second?

Happiness. A trainwreck of happiness concentrated on one pinprick of the universe.

I don’t want to overromanticize “travel.” I don’t want to put an Instagram filter on it or hashtag it or even blog it, really. What I want to talk about is that happiness—that second. That moment of unending yes.

So I’ll probably continue my quarter-life crisis of false starts and panicked stops, throwing the breaks on just because only one road, that particular road of placidity, terrifies me.

No, getting up and moving is not romantic. It’s not a love story at all. It’s something like fear and fascination. The power and the glory.

This is no epic. This is my acknowledgement of  heat death, the unavoidable cooling of all that is and will be, the frantic gesture of life.

 

To the 20-something having an existential crisis in a cubicle

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I know how you feel. I know the devastating disappointment that sometimes knocks your breath out when you least it expect it, how moments of merciless clarity make you almost double over. How you’re slowly wilting under a fluorescent lightbulb without the words you need to name your discontent.

I’m sure we aren’t the first generation to have an existential crisis in our cubicle. We won’t be the last. But what does that matter, really, when you’re pasting numbers into an Excel spreadsheet and painfully aware that you have so much more to give to the world?

This isn’t what we signed up for. And not what we promised ourselves our lives would mean. You’ve probably seen the articles—I know I have. Millennials, they say, are driven by an unprecedented sense of purpose. We need to know that what we do matters.

Usually, these articles sound kind of confused. But we’re not confused. We’re the best educated generation the world has ever seen, and we’re connected with our peers around the globe in a way that our predecessors weren’t. We want to have an impact as borderless as our lives are.

But there you are, making data reports, reporting to managers, choking down talk of company value that sounds like it was ripped right out of Orwell.

I know how you feel, because I am you. Or one of you.

Privileged? Yes. We have jobs (usually), we collect benefits (probably), we have enough to eat and a place to sleep—even if we’re consigning half of our income to student loans and sharing an apartment with four roommates, or living with our families until we’re thirty. That, too, is a privilege. The world of the metropolis moves so fast that the gap between those that are part of it and those that are excluded seems more enormous than ever.

We know this. And that’s why we want to produce change—right? It can feel like a need as integral to our body as thirst or hunger.

Privileged, and yet fall into the trap of seeing ourselves as incredibly limited. We trained for a world that doesn’t seem to exist. We see things in grades and dimensions, but our job applications are still written in black and white.

So I get your existential crisis in your cubicle. I get how you’re lucky enough to have a job but not lucky enough to quit and find a way to feed your hunger for passion. Is this a #firstworldproblem?

Or is this the underutilization of something that really matters?

I don’t know, but I know what it feels like. I know how you tell yourself to be patient, that your time will come. That you (and your parents and your grandparents and maybe even your great-grandparents) have worked so hard to get you here, to this moment, to where you can walk into work every day and walk out.

But patience isn’t always a virtue, and I think they would understand.

Want to change the world? Fight against the temptation to become complacent. Do one thing every day that matters. Infuse yourself into every aspect of what you do. And don’t give up. Don’t give up. Believe, with every molecule of your being, that your incomplacency and discontent are exquisite and rare (they are.)

In the end, the problem isn’t the existential crisis in the cubicle. It’s when you start to become defined by it.

#onwardandupward

 

5 things new D.C. residents know to be true

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I’ve been kind of absent lately—most of that has to do with getting a job and moving to the nation’s capital, which has it’s own je ne sais quoi that makes it different from anywhere else in the country.

For starters, a lot of people living in D.C. aren’t actually from D.C. Here are five things that transplants to D.C. know to be true:

1. What do you do?

This is the immediate opening line at any social gathering, whether it’s Saturday afternoon volleyball or your co-worker’s engagement party.

You’ll meet a lot of people doing cool things. But no, your answer won’t ever feel cool enough.

2. Happy hour isn’t optional

How is it possible for a city to rely so desperately on happy hours? They’re ingrained in this city’s DNA to the point that instead of talking about happy hours, it might make more sense to just refer to the rest of the time as sad hours.

3. The metro makes up the most temperamental relationship in your life

The metro has your high school boyfriend beat. We’re singletracking, we’re not running between Crystal City and King Street, there’s another train on the platfrom, we’re having mechanical failures, the doors won’t close—and now we’re gonna shut down the whole system for an unknown number of months.

Your commute in the morning feels like a game of Russian roulette, with the only certainty being Uber’s surge pricing.

4. Tourists . . . tourists . . . tourists . . .

That stand on the left side of escalators and shove you to get close to the metro door while you’re still approximately two gazillion lightyears from stopping at the platform.

5. ::casually taking selfies with a White House staffer::

Namedropping is a science and an art, and D.C. residents have perfected it on both fronts. It’s always the right time to network—no rest for the weary.

6. Yes, Thomas Jefferson did shave here (I know, I know, but I had to sneak in one more)

History literally smacks you in the face at every corner.  Echoes of power line every street: stately buildings, monuments, and museums.

And somehow, you’ve become a part of that.

Do you live in D.C.? Do you like it? Why or why not? What did I miss?

The gap year: Yea or nay?

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In the United States, young people are told that our career paths should resemble a factory assembly line. A one-size-fits-all conveyor belt carries us through grade school, middle school, and high school before we move over to the college track. Four years later, we’re expected to transition smoothly into the grown-up working world.

It’s easy to see why this formula makes sense on paper: healthy societies depend on strong education leading to good jobs. The only snag? This classically U.S. model of success doesn’t reflect reality.

We should admit that finding gainful employment is rarely so smooth a venture. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 59 percent of first-time, full-time students complete their Bachelor’s degree within six years, never mind what TIME Magazine calls the “myth of the four-year degree” (it reports that in 2012, the four-year graduation rate for Purdue University sat at a mere 42 percent).

Then there are those of us who do manage to finish on time. I graduated from a prestigious private university and will soon complete my Master’s at a well-known public school. However, like the 260,000 college graduates with a Bachelor’s degree or higher that worked minimum wage jobs in 2013, I don’t feel any closer to a particular career than during my first years as an undergrad.

These statistics force us to assess our cookie-cutter “path to success” as a misguided one at best. They also push us toward making proposals to fix that path.

Here’s mine: we need to reconsider what is known as the gap year, or a year taken off from career demands (like school or work) to engage in some other activity – often travel.

In the United States, pursuing a gap year is frowned upon. We interpret “taking some time off” as “taking some time down,” and once you get off the whirlwind ride, they say, it’s hard to get back on again. But despite a general cultural disapproval of gap years, the number of people choosing to take them is on the rise. In 2013, roughly 40,000 people nationwide participated in sabbatical programs (up 20 percent from 2006). This number neglects those that took a personal year without participating in any program at all.

So what is a gap year, really?

Well, it’s hardly an excuse to sit in your parents’ basement for twelve months. One year taken off from school, between jobs, or at any stage along the way should help you build a personal vision of the world and your place in it. By breaking up the career assembly line, a gap year allows you to be intentional about your long-term decisions and goals. Statisticians at Middlebury College have even plotted a correspondence between gap years abroad and higher GPAs/faster graduation times.

The concept of the gap year enjoys wider acceptance in other countries than it does in the United States. In Belgium, for example, employees are entitled to one year of absence from their jobs per lifetime via the Time Credit System, while in Israel, it’s customary for young men and women who have completed their mandatory military service to go backpacking abroad before starting college or launching a career.

Here in the United States, there are countless groups eager to advise those considering the big gap leap. These include the Center for Interim Programs, which names itself the “first and longest-running independent gap-year counseling organization” in the country and offers a database of over 6,000 program opportunities for students, recent graduates, and mid-career and post-career professionals. Other groups, like Habitat for Humanity and World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, make financing a gap year easier by allowing participants to work for room and board.

Before you consider programs and destinations, take the time to understand your potential gap year as a deliberate experience. Virtually limitless options mean that you have to be honest about the big picture you hope to gain. Are you seeking rejuvenation? A sharper understanding of your professional objectives? The opportunity to create meaningful change in the lives of others?

Whether you want to work, volunteer abroad, or just experience new landscapes, acknowledge what you’re hoping to accomplish from the start. I’ve seen gap years include everything from employment on an Arctic cruise ship to volunteering with Ecuadorian non-profits to living for months in the solitude of Patagonia. You are the creator of your own experience, so create it to nourish yourself.

In the end, college admissions officers, graduate selection committees, and professional interviewing panels all seem to agree that gap years – when pursued earnestly – can result in fresher and more focused individuals better prepared to make enduring contributions to their communities. For more than 35 years, according to the U.S. News and World Report, Harvard’s acceptance letters have included the recommendation that students take time off before enrolling.

As the gap year gains its own devotees in the United States, I can’t help but wonder if it will one day become a common feature of an American path to professional and personal fulfillment. After all, if I could give one piece of advice to my 18-year-old, impressionable, ambitious self, it would be this:

Take some time off, girl.


Does a gap year sound right for you? Have you taken one before? What was your experience? If you’re a hiring manager or an admissions counselor, how would a gap year factor into your consideration of offering a position to a particular candidate?