I graduated last week. I walked across the stage, got hooded, shook hands with the president of the university and he asked me the age old question, “what’s next for you?”.
The thing is, I didn’t really have time to explain in 15 seconds that my ‘plans’ are that I’m taking a break from school, going to the beach, enjoying the freedom to embrace unexpected opportunities that come up, researching which grad schools I might apply to, and working to save up for whatever I end up doing.
Failure as Opportunity
I read an article in my last term at school called The Queer Art of Failure by Jack Halberstam and it challenged me to think about failure and not living up to other people’s (or society’s) expectations in a new way. I’m not at all saying that graduating from school is a failure, but I think people often see graduating without a fancy job or clear path for the next 10 years as less than ideal. The Queer Art of Failure suggests that “under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world”.
There are lots of types of failure, there are lots of ways we don’t live up to people’s expectations. Not having a plan right out of schools is just one of those. Another example I think people can relate to is being single on Valentine’s Day. I read Halberstam’s article in February this year and after reflecting on it I realized I could see that day it in a different way, and I was surprised this year that I had one of my best Valentine’s Days yet. I was surprised with roses, showered with love, gifted heart shaped cookies from my favourite bakery, sent chocolate, and spent time with my best friend. I looked at this day and understood that there were more creative ways of “being” on that day, it wasn’t typical or romantic, but I felt really loved by a lot of people.
Whatever pressure you feel and whatever ideals you think you’re failing to live up to, know that that is just one way of being in the world, and not living up to that isn’t a failure. It is an opportunity to be a little more creative with how you experience and see your life. Experiences shouldn’t be defined in black and white as failures or successes: just because you’re not doing someone else’s idea of Plan A doesn’t mean you’re not having worthwhile experiences. Failure gives you the space to embrace alternative opportunities.
I don’t know what your definitions of success might be, I don’t know what failures you struggle with, but I encourage you to think about different perspectives on how you define achievements in your life. Big or small, if it’s waking up early to go for a run, managing to fit in time for self-care, being a supportive friend, celebrating earning a degree, or some other accomplishment. When we drop the expectations of others, we give ourselves more room to live creatively and the chance to redefine success for yourself.
The Glorification of Busy
As a fresh grad without a full time job it has been a real treat to have time for the things I’ve always wanted to do but run out of time for. I’ve been purging my closet and organizing my desk so it’s finally a space to make art, going to the gym (not regularly but still), and reading for pleasure till my eyeballs hurt. But my favourite thing has been connecting with people, being able to say “I’m flexible!” when we plan a coffee date and performing acrobatics to fit myself into their schedule.
As a society we glorify being busy; it seems cool when we say “I’m SO busy” because it sounds important, but sometimes it just doesn’t feel good. For me, busy can feel stressful, exhausting, and scattered, like there is always something to do. It also often means having to say no to things I would love to do and people I want to see because I don’t have the time. Busy isn’t bad but I’ve had so much busy in the past few years that I’m relishing a slower pace.
Often we don’t get to control when our lives get busy, everyone is in a different season of life and they all come with their own challenges and requirements. But when you do get a chance to slow down, even for a day, enjoy it. Don’t fill time just to be busy, stop to smell the roses, and remember that it is okay to not always be doing something.
Why Not Making Plans is a Good Thing
There is a fantastic thing about cancelled plans and things not working out according how you imagined. I don’t always love spontaneity, and generally I thrive on the stability of making plans, but when you happen to have free time there are endless possibilities. Sometimes wonderful unexpected opportunities come your way when you couldn’t have enjoyed them if you were sticking to your plan.
Here are a few examples of what I mean:
- A few weeks ago, it was Friday night and I don’t like being without plans on Friday night. But there I was. I suggested we have family dinner because that would make the night more fun. While at diner my sister in-law’s mom came over and put two front row tickets for the symphony on the kitchen table and said she couldn’t go but she wanted someone else to enjoy them. I ended up going with my mom and having a really fun time. When I woke up that morning I didn’t have plans, and I didn’t scramble to make plans just for the sake of filling time. I let the time be there and put things into it that made the day better.
- I’m working as a research assistant this term for a professor who I really admire and respect. It’s a fun opportunity, a great learning experience, and a privilege to be in a unique position to say yes to jump on board with things when they come along because you’re available.
- I have a few friends who live out of town and have a tendency to tell me when they are in my city that they are around. One of them will sometimes just text and say “What are you doing right now?” and if I’m free we get coffee. It’s not something you can plan for, but I love it when I have space in my day that allow for those kinds of surprises.
This is not to say that plans are bad – I am incredibly excited for my friends that are going to med school, law school, college programs, jumping straight into new jobs to build their careers – the people who are making plans. If you know what you want to do I admire the vivacity people have to go after those things they feel called to. But if you don’t have a clear answer to the question “what’s next for you?”, I think it’s okay to take time and not rush into making plans for the sake of keeping your life busy. No matter what stage of life you’re in, everyday is a chance for you to explore new possibilities, creative ways of being, and to redefine success for yourself.