Advice for a Confused 23-Year-Old

Life in my early twenties has been confusing, intimidating, often overwhelming and altogether fantastic. Leaving the structure of school has given me freedom to travel and broaden my perspective, and yet I’ve had to abandon the guiding compass that has informed my actions for so long. In this new chapter of my life, I’ve found myself oscillating between feelings of empowerment and aimlessness.

I’ve spent many of my vacation days at home thinking about advice that I’ve received on how to cope with the latter. Talking with my parents and role models about my goals and insecurities has helped me to formularize a set of guiding life principles going forward. I won’t go as far as to say that I’ve had any sort of revelation – none of the advice that I’ll include here was new to me – rather, that keeping this advice in mind helps me rationalize my worrying and go forward with confidence.dI came to my Dad one night after dinner with a litany of burning, cliche’d questions about life: what should I do; how do I ensure that I’ll be successful; how do I stop worrying about it all so much? He laughed and reminded me that I’m a worrier by nature. I’d heard this before and it had always seemed slightly patronizing, as if these questions that I’d wrestled with throughout my adult life were inconsequential. He assured me that they weren’t, but that my tendency to fret about them is nothing new or alarming. He reminded me of the times I used to worry about essays, exams, erg scores, relationships etc. – how often I had come to him with similar consternation. The feeling of worry has been a constant throughout my life, this is just the latest iteration. Accepting that this part of my nature is important, we agreed, because it familiarizes it; I’ve dealt with worry before, and will certainly deal with it again. With this in mind, I can keep myself from worrying about how much I worry.

His next piece of advice: Take some of the pressure off of myself to have everything figured out. These worries, he reminded me, are common among all people and not unique to me. Writers, artists, philosophers have been wrestling with issues of identity and purpose for generations – I fell in love with the Romantic Poets in college, in large part, because I could relate to them. Keats confronted many of the questions that I have today when he was in his early-twenties writing poetry; it’s likely the reason that he’s still relevant today. I’m comforted by the fact that no one has it figured out. As my Dad joked: there’s no detached voice of Truth that exclaims “That’s right!” or “That’s wrong!” whenever we do something. I have to lower my expectations, then, and resign myself to being just another person confronting age-old questions that will likely never be resolved. All I can do is trust my instincts and try to glean wisdom from those who came before me.

In response to my question of how to be successful, my parents asked me how I would define “success,” and what I thought were the important things in life. Throughout my blog posts, I’ve too often described success through a narrow, materialistic lens: I’ve fretfully compared myself to friends with “real jobs,” as though their titles and paychecks meant that they had  their lives more figured out than I did. That may be one way to view success, if I consider jobs and money to be the important things to strive for. If I instead prioritize adventure and new experiences, however, then I would consider myself more successful than a lot of my friends . I have to remember that there are many ways to define success, and many paths to achieve it; and, to be honest, I wouldn’t trade House of Trestles for any amount of money.

My dad and I agree, however, on a single goal that could allow us to be successful in life; it’s based on a quote by E.B. White, who famously said, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world.” If I could somehow find a way to do both, then in my mind I will have achieved success. Going forward I resolve to weigh significant life decisions on a scale of enjoyment and improvement, and chart the “right” path by seeking a balance between the two.

The next piece of advice comes from a meeting that I had with the president of Hamilton College, David Wippman, last Spring before graduation. I was worrying aloud to him about not having a job lined up, and he offered me some wisdom from his own career trajectory:

Trust in Serendipity.

He told me that throughout his life he’d occupied a myriad of different jobs including taxi driver, lawyer, professor, director within the U.S. National Security Council,  dean and now college president; his circuitous path, he explained, was less the result of careful planning and more to do with chance and having an open mind. For example, he told me that his illustrious career in international law started when a lawyer in his D.C. firm unexpectedly asked him to help represent a developing nation in litigation – something that he had no prior experience doing. Even more unexpected, I’m sure, was his first transition from taxi driver to lawyer – I’ll have to remember to ask him about that story.

Granted, David Wippman is an exceptionally intelligent man with ivy league credentials who likely could have succeeded in many fields; however, he still attributes his life achievements to serendipity. He worked diligently in school and in his jobs to keep options open and he embraced new opportunities when they came – it wasn’t according to plan.

I think that President Wippman’s advice is some of the best I’ve ever gotten. It relieves the pressure of feeling like I have to have to have a specific plan, encourages me to expect the unexpected, and stresses the importance of hard work and open-mindedness. Furthermore, it gives me a goal that feels manageable: do my best, actively seek new people and opportunities, pursue new experiences and trust that things are going to work out. When I keep this in mind, the future doesn’t seem so overwhelming.

I remember discussing all of these things with my dad that one night after dinner, and afterwards feeling like I had unloaded an emotional weight from my shoulders. I’d confronted my worries, devised ways to cope with them, and established some concrete goals for the future. Lying in bed feeling happier and more confident than I had for months, I was reminded of one of my current favorite authors, Haruki Murakami: if I was a character in one of his books, I think he would describe my feelings as a blockage inside of me loosening, or perhaps a dry well filling with water: his descriptions have always struck me as bizarre yet relatable.

I have no doubt that my mind will continue to revert back to feelings of aimlessness and worry – it’s part of the cycle. As I get older, if I’m lucky, I’ll worry about new things, like marriage, kids, mortgages, retirement etc. I’m ready for it, though, because I know that these pieces of advice are not specific to this time in my life. I’d like to think that these conversations will provide me with comfort and confidence at 50 in the same way that they have at 23. I’ll be sure to check back in 27 years.

In accordance with the rules that I laid out in my first ever blog post, here’s a picture of my family and me back in Buffalo for the holidays.

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