“Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?” ~Mary Oliver
I was always the child with armfuls of books and big dreams. I wanted to be a writer. When the limit at the local library was six books, I borrowed all six, and then talked my sister into letting me borrow some of her weekly ration.
While I had many friends, most lived several minutes away, and public transportation wasn’t available. When I couldn’t arrange a sleepover, my sibling and my books were ever at the ready to play school.
My parents were not academics, but they heartily encouraged my own goals, which always included a clear objective: college. Step-by-step, from AP English courses, SAT preparation, catalogue perusing, and campus visits to placement testing, that long-held goal became a reality.
My life burgeoned with canvas backpacks of Brit lit, philosophy, and cultural anthropology texts; club meetings; and hours hunkered in the campus newspaper office, ordering pizza at 10pm and pulling all-nighters with fellow staff writers to make morning deadlines.
While I knew upon graduation that I would ultimately go back to school for a masters, first I’d chip away at student loans and work first jobs for the resume notches. As one year post-graduation stretched into four, then five, the time had arrived for my return to backpacks, midnight study sessions, and heady discussions unraveling literary criticism.
So I brushed up with a borrowed GRE workbook, made campus visits, and applied to my favorite. I was going back to school!
Grad school proved to be an extension of my childhood dream—hanging out at the university watering-hole discussing line edits and narrative structure, and drafting my thesis manuscript before the hopes of agent shopping.
This time, I had become that writer with not one diploma but now two for my wall! Never mind that I had little practical notion of what followed, beyond another day and a student loan.
The years since walking across that stage to the cheers of fellow literary friends and family have proven a challenge intellectually and spiritually. There have been times I’ve felt unmoored.
How, I’ve frequently wondered, can I make this life worthwhile without the focus of school, where I’ve always fit in best? What will motivate me now—workaday Mondays and my five-figure debt balance? Hardly.
How can I lead a life of fulfillment again when many days feel without a center or a greater purpose?
Maybe you can relate to feeling a loss of purpose, and it doesn’t have to be the end of school. It might be that you’ve just lost a job, or your children might have just left home for college and you’re unsure how to proceed with your newfound empty nest. Or maybe you’ve earned the promotion you’ve worked toward for years, and keep wondering how you’re going to top that success.
If you’re also starting over, remember:
1. Resist the urge to idealize where you were.
How easy to recall the pinnacles of school years, when I didn’t have the annoying reality of the 6am alarm or the discomfort of writing friends living a thousand miles away.
If I am completely honest with myself, though, those years weren’t so stable either. With breakups, mid-terms, and the RA who locked up the kitchen for three weeks because someone had taken another student’s yogurt from the refrigerator and wouldn’t fess, there was ample discord and struggle in the process of earning both degrees.
Just because you enjoyed your past, that doesn’t mean it will definitely top your future. If you resist the urge to idealize what you had before, it will be easier to focus on where you are now.
2. Remember that you are more than the sum of your accomplishments.
I now have two advanced degrees, but I am so much more than that. The degrees represent past efforts, but education can’t determine whether I choose to uplift a neighbor’s day by dropping by to visit or make a friend’s daughter smile while teaching her to play Chute and Ladders. Matters of kindness are up to me each moment.
When you’re not guided by a clear professional purpose, it’s immensely helpful to remember we are all so much more than what we produce.
3. You don’t need an extensive plan. You just need to take a step.
More than once, I considered going back to get a PhD. Ultimately, though, the prospect of another four years and more student loans made me concede that while it may be possible, it’s not exactly the right fit for me at this time. But what is next?
Beyond continuing to write, much of my future is inscrutable, even in my mid-thirties. What my degree dream really provided all those years was a false feeling of surety.
Did the scheduling, reading assignments, and syllabuses really spell out control? In reality there is no person, place, event, or schedule that will guarantee prolonged fulfillment.
So focus on the step you’re taking. Don’t worry about having it all figured out.
4. Remember that you are still growing.
What I’ve missed the most about grad school, besides the regular community of academic, literary companionship, is the comfort of a seemingly clear finish line. When days were dull or hard, I could always anticipate what it’d feel like to walk across that stage, to publish the manuscript I’d been workshopping so diligently for two years.
What I’ve found most troubling and difficult since school is the feeling of doing the same thing (working, paying bills, a bit of cleaning, a bit of cooking and laundry, then sleep and the same cycle all over again), without forward momentum.
On down days, I’ve reminded myself that I am still moving forward, even if it may not always feel like it. I’ve also learned that making tiny changes—trying a new recipe, taking different streets on my daily ride—can center me and focus my thought patterns. Moods, like life circumstances, are transitory.
Even if doesn’t always feel that way, we are continually learning and growing.
5. Believe that each moment leads to the best possible outcome.
“You’ll remember these days all your life. Better enjoy them now,” my paternal grandfather was fond of warning. While there’s much joy in the energetic first blush of youth’s accomplishment, there is an equal truth in savoring each moment—right here, right now.
For this moment, I can value the knowledge I carry with me and use it in service of any jobs, communications, and acquaintances in my everyday life. For this moment, I can celebrate having strong legs to pedal my bicycle, healthy lungs to breathe during my morning meditation, a clear, curious mind to seek new books in subjects I savor, from fiction to spirituality and behavioral sciences.
Who knows what awaits—overcoming illnesses, starting to write the next novel, perhaps the challenge of marriage or the adventure of an adopted child, even a new job in a field I haven’t yet considered.
Until then, I don’t want to waste this day, this hour, even this minute feeling bereft that my purpose has already been met. It hasn’t yet.
And neither has yours.