Some people can sit back with a sigh of relief on graduation day, safe in the knowledge that their committee position at the debating society and two internships in Hong Kong have already secured them the trendiest grad job around.
Other people are not like that.
As one of those other people, I hung by my fingernails to my tiny London flat once my course had finished until, jobless and bored stiff, I was collected by my parents after graduation. They whisked me back to the middle of rural nowhere, where I set up camp with my laptop and a notepad and tried to think of what I’d learned over the past three years that might be an employable skill.
And so began the toughest year I’ve had to date. My boyfriend and most of my friends had another year to go until graduation; to me it was imperative that I find a way back to them, I could carry on living the life I’d left behind and simply while away the hours they spent in lectures by working my dream job. But my greatest fear wasn’t loneliness, it was lack of identity. For the past three years I’d put “student” as my occupation and for the past 19 years of my life my raison d’être was to fill my tiny head with knowledge until it grew a little bigger. Now that I’d run out of things to learn, who was I now?
I had no idea whatsoever what I might enjoy, or what I would be good at; I knew what topics I’d enjoyed at university but not what that translated to in the “real world”. Eventually, through trial and error, I discovered a job title for which the descriptions seemed to fit my personality and the benefits and starting salary seemed generous beyond belief. I landed my first interview for the position of “junior recruitment consultant”. Manuela – 1 : Hopelessness – 0. I was on the road to success now, I could learn how to nail an interview and write first class CVs through these fools who thought I wanted to work for them, then use that to my advantage when I finally discovered what I really wanted to do. What could possibly go wrong?
We can fast-forward through a whirlwind of suit shopping with my mum, seven interviews, lots of fake smiling and me signing a dotted line, to 7:55 am at Clapham South tube station. Five full trains later and I’m in, crammed into a vehicle I would happily call the RSPCA for if it were animals rather than commuters sharing the space with me. I’m now a fledgling recruiter and I hate my life.
I wouldn’t want anyone else who’s just graduated to make the same mistake as me: jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. I was petrified of reaching September, the month I’ve always started a new term or school or subject, and finding myself trapped at home, doing absolutely nothing and feeling like I was worth even less. I took the first job I could by lying through my teeth about how much money I wanted to make and ended up in a far worse state than I would have been after a few more months at home.
I was balancing my job with rowing, a boyfriend and friends all still at university, staying “in shape” and job hunting for the mystery career that would be my ticket to happiness. These were all leftovers from my former student life; I couldn’t throw them away as they were my reason for being in London in the first place. Most of my support network still being at university, I had nobody to benchmark against and nobody to pinpoint exactly when “not OK” turned into “really not OK”. I was crying on the tube to and from work, at rowing I was terrified of messing up and consequently my performance plummeted. The only time my boyfriend and I could see each other was the occasional weekday evening and our relationship had started to nose-dive. The only way I could describe what was happening inside my head was “not feeling myself”, because I didn’t, I couldn’t remember what I used to be like at university or what I was supposed to be looking for now.
I hadn’t found a permanent flat, so I didn’t have a GP, let alone the time to go and see one, so it wasn’t until I finally turned to Google that I discovered there was a name for what I was feeling: anxiety. It was a phenomenon I hadn’t experienced before so I pushed the term under the rug for a while and sat on it to see if maybe it would go away. It took me another four months before I booked a doctors appointment, by which time, I’d handed my manager my notice.
A round of leaving drinks and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy later, it’s September again and I’m back in front of my laptop with my notepad. This time, every day I spend here is intentional. I’m in the exact same position that I was in this time last year, but this time around, I’m backing myself. If spending my days in an office, or working in London will make me feel the way I felt, then I’m going to have enough self respect and confidence to turn my back on that lifestyle.
I’m going by trial and error again, but this time trying my hand at freelance writing and online tutoring, trying to make enough to fund a lifestyle where I can spend the majority of my time outdoors. The biggest difference between me now and me then is now I respect myself enough to try to do what makes me happy. This time a year ago I didn’t believe I’d be good enough for a dream job if I did find it, let alone be confident enough to slow down and work out what I really valued.
A job is a job, it will give you money, yes, and something to put on your LinkedIn. But if it’s going to be the thing you rely on to give you value and purpose, I’d urge you to stop for a moment.
You don’t need a title to tell you you’re enough. Do what makes you happy.