The reality of finishing classes has not set in yet — right now, I’m just catching up on the basics. I felt like I had barely returned home before people were asking about my next step.
I know people mean well when they say, “Congratulations! Now what are you doing?” But at first, my reaction was to have a mini existential crisis as soon as I was out of their sight. Now that I’ve finished classes, the question has cropped up more persistently than the fuzz on Chia Pets.
Slowly, I’ve learned to embrace it. The best thing to do in these situations is to wait for them to cave, to ride out that pregnant pause — and that’s when the truth comes spilling out.
I’m treating this time as my own pause. It’s a little uncomfortable, a little awkward — but this time is forcing me to think about what I really want out of life. It’s not a bad thing to have no clue what you want to do for the rest of your life at 21 — it’s a blessing in disguise.
I’ve realized there are three truths about the dreaded question:
1. The question is more about them, not about you.
People care about your future. They may be asking because they’re concerned, or because they’re curious, or even because they see a little bit of themselves in you. I found it’s rare that people want to make you uncomfortable — but there’s just something about the question that can send you straight to your insecurities about your life. Try not to let this happen! I’ve taken to comparing this to asking people questions during an interview — sometimes, you can get a really interesting answer. Sometimes that interesting answer is one of the most fascinating parts of your day — you have the chance to be super interesting, using just your words, hopes and dreams! Maybe later, you change your mind, or maybe life gets in the way, and they may never come to fruition, but there’s no harm in dreaming big and telling people about them. Who knows — maybe they’ll be inspired, too.
2. There is no wrong answer.
Maybe you’re off to grad school. Maybe you’ve landed your dream job. Maybe you’re working at a fast food joint. Or maybe the highlight of your day is watching cat videos to break up the monotony of job hunting while you crash in your childhood bedroom. No matter what, you’ve already accomplished something great by graduating from college. Take a moment to celebrate your successes. As long as you’re moving forward (personally or professionally), it’s hard to go wrong. If you have no idea what you’re doing in your career, mentioning your family, traveling, or volunteer work are all ways for the other person to understand your focus during this transient phase in your life. If the other person doesn’t appear to understand or approve — that’s okay. They don’t have to live your life, and as a (fairly) independent 20-something, only you need to live with your choices.
3. Smile and make a polite exit if this conversation is clearly going nowhere pleasant.
For all my hope for the future and dreamy life plans, sometimes you just have to deal with a legitimate grouch. “I appreciate hearing your thoughts on XYZ” and “I’ll keep that in mind, but it’s not possible right now,” are great blanket statements to appease someone who is convinced their suggestions are golden and your way is totally wrong. Childhood buddy thinks the economy sucks for your major and you should go into another field? I appreciate your thoughts. Your neighbor says that since he went back to school, you should too? Awesome — it’s not possible right now, but I’ll keep that in mind and thanks for sharing. The future is scary, and people just want to feel included in your life, even if they have no part in it. It’s okay to smile and revisit your life plan alone, preferably with Netflix and pajama pants, because even if you have to embrace a (more) adult lifestyle now, you can at least do it in comfort.