So here’s the deal:
I’m married, and living with someone who is incredibly smart and hard working. He has so many mad skills that he doesn’t even need to submit applications to get a job. By comparison I have a degree in something I realized (after 4 years) isn’t really my thing and definitely doesn’t do much good in the area where Partner and I currently live. I feel dim, drab, and generally useless by comparison (despite Partner’s instance that this isn’t the case at all).
I’ve spent the past year working (part time and unpaid) while hammering out a couple of novels. Partner says I should follow my dreams and not ‘settle’ for a job in something that is beneath my college-educated-self. He’s perfectly happy supporting me, and capable of doing so.
Looking ahead now I’m torn between two reactions.
The first is a bit of a knee-jerk and goes something like:
HELL NO. I will not sit idly by and become your housewife* and make sandwiches while you work and do cool things with your life. I will go out and make waves and waves of money**
* I’m sure there are people who are perfectly happy as housewives (more power to them), but it’s never been a word I wanted to use when describing my future
**I don’t actually want waves of money, but it seems like a good way to prove to myself and others that I’m not dependent
The second reaction goes something like:
The world out there is terrifying. I like it in my apartment, and I like writing and playing video games and if I could just pretend I’m a kid with no responsibilities for the rest of my life that would be great, k-thanks-bye.
(okay, so maybe they’re both knee-jerk reactions)
Am I totally crazy to be stressing out about all this? It seems moronic to feel miserable choosing between what most people would see as a multitude of positive options. My brain has convinced me that I don’t deserve to live happily without getting a real (grownup) job like the rest of the world. At the same time I don’t feel like I would be happy working a job I seriously dislike. (Especially when I don’t need the money that bad and really someone else probably needs it more and I’m just taking it away from them and they would do better at the job anyways **hyperventilate**).
I’m terrified that no matter what I do I will end up looking like a worthless failure in comparison to all the successful, awesome people around me.
Should I stop being a good-for-nothing-leeching-bum and just get a job? Should I dedicate my time to getting published, even if it means depending heavily on others?
Dependent and Unemployed
Dear Dependent & Unemployed:
I (and you, and your Partner) really need your Jerkbrain to shut the fuck up and accept the love and support that is allowing you to finish novels (plural!). We also need you to spend the amount of time necessary to polish an promote your books and maybe get them published (!), and to stop seeing a supportive partner who wants you to pursue your dreams to the fullest as a problem.
[GIANT SOAPBOX]: I also need everyone to stop seeing certain jobs as “beneath” them, like, forever. Do you (not just LW, you = everyone) need a job? Will this job put food on your table? Then cool, do the job for as long as it works for you. Buy yourself some stability and an income and some pride in your work and some new professional connections or maybe even friends. Then, if there’s something else you’d like to be doing, look around for that thing. When I first moved to Chicago I temped a lot and took a lot of bullshit from my parents about how I was “wasting” my skills and my college education by doing work that was “beneath me.” Temping meant that despite the bad economy (small recession of 2000-2002) I was clean, safe, climate-controlled, fed, and housed. Plus it meant I was working only 8 hours/day and had time to exercise, cook good food, spend time with friends, go to therapy, and start pursuing artistic dreams like writing and working on people’s film shoots instead of being locked into 70+ hour workweeks like I had been in my more career-focused job in the past. Temping (vs. finding a “real” job) meant that I could start to heal my own depression and establish myself in a new city, and if people wanted to pay me for my spread-sheet wrangling or phone-answering skills instead of my nuanced knowledge of Eastern European affairs or the intersection of religion, politics, and pop culture that I studied undergrad, that was just fine with me (once I plowed through the giant pile of parental disapproval and shame and second-guessing myself, that is). Temping (+ a period of going easy on myself about career stuff and OMG ACHIEVEMENT for a year or two) meant my hair stopped falling out in clumps from stress and I had time to figure out what I actually wanted to do with my life.
Pro-tip: If you feel like the work is beneath you, people can tell that when you apply for the job and they don’t like it.
Pro-tip for parents of young people just entering job market: The economy sucks now and shit is different from when you were just starting out. Your kids’ generation is going to totally reinvent the world, but first they have to acquire some economic stability and power. Be patient and withhold judgment. They really are doing the best they can with what they have.
Pro-tip #3: Most people with Liberal Arts-ish degrees don’t use their degrees directly in the work they do, especially not the work they do early in their careers. The skills you use in early white-collar-type gigs are things like: Budgeting, project management, scheduling, writing reports, emails & memos, being able to run (&/or contribute to) a meeting, data management (from straight-up data entry to managing + presenting data), some web content writing &/or management, being an assistant (get the coffee, take the meeting notes, unfuck the photocopier, call around for vendor quotes, keep the files, order the supplies). You’re more likely to learn those skills in non-classroom activities like running a student group (theater companies/arts groups prepare you for corporate life like NOTHING ELSE, I swear), waiting tables, doing work-study jobs and internships, etc. than you are in class.
The idea behind a liberal arts (& sciences) education is that learning writing skills, the ability to construct and evaluate an argument, an understanding of logic, a habit of reading and critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, the ability to apply knowledge of one subject to another subject, an aptitude for analysis and understanding statistics, the ability to meet deadlines, the ability to evaluate theories against real world realities, the ability to trace an idea through history + a working knowledge OF history, etc. will serve you well in almost any field and will become more and more useful as you advance and grow. At its best this kind of education is a beautiful exercise in becoming a confident learner who is self-aware and also aware of how much you don’t know. “Majoring” in a subject allows you to delve deeply into one field of study, but the idea is that you’ll be able to apply the process you used there to anything and everything else you find interesting.
Most of the time people don’t pay you to know a lot about Soviet Jazz (for an example of an obscure thing I know kind of a lot about from undergrad). Most of the time people don’t even ask you what your college major was, and unless you’re applying to grad school or a certain very specialized type of job no one will ever care about your GPA. Does that mean your education was “wasted” in terms of preparing you for a career? My opinion is that I didn’t need to major in “database software” or “unfucking a spreadsheet that’s been royally fucked by too many people twatting about in it” to understand how to do those things, and I’m personally glad I spent four years exploring intellectual passions and reading great books and learning to construct & deconstruct arguments before I had to do boring stuff in exchange for money.
I recently came across the following quote in a comment to a news article, and I lurve it:
“Let me make this clear to you: Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life — save only this — that if you work hard and intelligently, you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole purpose of education.” -Attributed to John Alexander Smith, Professor of Moral Philosophy, Oxford University.
I think there is absolutely room for debate about how much or what kind of higher education is “needed” for certain careers, especially given the high amount of debt that people are taking on to go to college vs. the way that libraries & the web & collaboration are massively democratizing education and allowing autodidacts to shine. I think that there is a giant case to be made that a liberal arts education is a class marker and having a BA or a BS is a way of “proving” to employers that you “deserve” to have a white-collar, upper-middle-class-aspirational sort of job because you Fit In in a way that has little or nothing to do with actual skills used in said job, and I think it’s worth dismantling that a bit in the name of counteracting poverty and racism and helping disadvantaged folks truly have a leg up in our society. As a counterpoint, I reject all rhetoric about reforming primary and secondary education that talks about “workers” rather than “humans” or “citizens,” and I don’t think that poor students should be receiving education only in practical job-getting topics. I think it’s disgusting to treat art and literature and history and music and scientific exploration as luxuries that only certain children in certain zip codes get to learn about.
For someone who is taking on massive debt because they want to invest directly in improving their economic lot in life, I realize that my privileged arguments about education-for-education’s-sake /there-are-no-guarantees aren’t terribly compelling when you really, really need that investment to pay off sooner rather than later. I think that higher education will undergo major changes (and parts of it will totally die off to be replaced by something new) in my lifetime and that skepticism about its value to you depending on what you want to do with your life is extremely healthy. But I really need to slay the dragon that “I majored in x thing but I’m not doing a job that directly uses x so somehow I have failed at/been failed by education.” If you’re lucky enough to acquire that higher education, it will be something that you use over your whole life in a way that is not measured (or measurable) by the job(s) you get immediately after college.
Also, can I just say, while we’re ranting? Not everyone knows what they want out of the rest of their lives when they’re 18 years old and choosing a college major. It’s not a binding contract with WHO YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO BE IN THE FUTURE. It’s normal to change direction and focus as you grow and learn. The value of a liberal arts (which includes social sciences, math & science and is the most recognizable kind of “well-rounded” university education in the US) is that it DOESN’T prepare you for one specialized career. A lot of careers today’s new grads will be doing 5, 10, 20 years from now haven’t even been invented yet.
LW, you sound awesome and productive (novels! plural!) and also kind of depressed. Please go talk to a therapist about why you don’t feel like you deserve support from your partner in pursuit of your dreams, why your partner’s career success is due to “smarts & hard work” but why you feel that yours is dumb and lazy (again, novels! plural!), and why your brain is confusing Awesome Luck with A Problem. I don’t want to dismiss your problems – there is an actual giant problem in that your brain is being a big jerk to you in a way that I personally recognize quite well – but you do NOT have to feel like this. It is not normal, it is not anything you’re causing, it is not your fault.
- Seek out a therapist. Something’s going on with your brain.
- Since you don’t need a job, maybe look around for some volunteer work in your area. I think you could benefit from some contact with the outside world, from flexing your skills, and from feeling useful in some way. You need something that’s just yours and doesn’t come through or because of partner. That’s totally understandable and doable.
- Ask yourself “If I were serious about becoming a published novelist, what would I do next?” Make a list.
- Do the stuff on the list.
- Thank your partner in big ways (graciously accepting support and help) and small cool ways (awesome dinner, kisses, kind words, small acts of marital appreciation, taking good care of your mental health).
- When your shit gets published, come tell us about it so we can rejoice in your deserved success.
Much love to you,