I mentioned yesterday that the future, post college-graduation, is both exciting and frightening. In a lot of ways I suspect that that feeling is not unique to graduation, any graduation, but to any moment where who and what you are is in flux, like it is when you leave a job, work toward a major goal, or even stick to a New Year’s Resolution. So let’s talk about it.
It’s the internet age. We have, at the tips of our fingers, a vast library of successful people and their stories and advice. It’s inspirational to see truly how many amazing humans are alive and doing incredible things right this very moment. It’s also intimidating. Very Intimidating.
We also have easy access to a wide range of friends and family. We don’t actually have to look to celebrities, politicians, and CEO’s to find inspirational people, chances are you know quite a few inspirational individuals in your immediate circle. I don’t know about you, but every time I take a step outside my comfort zone, and especially when that step is also outside the immediate expectations other people have for how to become productive and successful, I think about all those people I admire and immediately start criticizing myself.
“What will they think?”
“What if I disappoint them?”
“I’m not as good as ______, how can I even think to try this?”
“What if I fail?”
That last one is the most potent for me. What if I fail? What happens if my reach toward a goal or a dream or a person I want to be, and don’t make it. Of course, I’m well aware of the advice of many a successful human, J.K. Rowling’s story of failure before her success is particularly salient for me (Her Harvard Commencement Speech can be found Here.). Largely the advice is this: expect failure. Know that it will happen. Know also, that the failure itself is not what is important, but what you do with it.
I have the privilege of having an author I long admired as a facebook friend. We have many mutual acquaintances and friends, but have never met in person. Yet, I have still learned from her something of the crucial nature of persistence. Recently she posted something about sending out a round of panic submissions, something she does every time she realizes she has no short stories, articles, or novels out for publication. In essence, she sends out a round of everything and anything this has ready or close to ready from the writing she has done but not thought ready or worth trying to publish. This, as someone who has dreamt of being an author since grade school, was a familiar story. I’ve read many accounts from the writers I admire and look up to doing similar things, or coming back to old reject projects only to find them more successful than the projects they had more confidence in. What surprised me was learning that the first book of hers I read, the first book she published, was a panic submission. A pulp-fantasy novel about a werewolf radio DJ, it’s not a work of fine literature, but it’s accessible, it’s fun, and it taught me some things about the kind of adult I wanted to be when I picked it up at the tender age of 13. (Kitty and the Midnight Hour by Carrie Vaughn, found Here. The Wild Dead, one of her more recent novels, here. Her website, here) The lesson? Moments of fear and uncertainty, yes, even panic, can be moments of positive momentum and transformation. The trick is taking the reins and not letting the fear stop you.
I hear this over and over. Every author I have ever looked up to has written something about accepting rejection as a part of the process. David Sedaris recommends not having a fall back plan if you don’t want to fall back from your dream. Peter Dinklage, who played Tyrion Lannister on “Game of Thrones” (wow, it’s weird to put that in past tense!) advises people reaching for a dream to “fail better” rather than not failing. (Click here for a speech about how he made it happen)
But, as someone in the middle of taking a giant leap to make my dreams happen, it’s not easy. Even knowing that the fear and the anxiety and the rejection which have defined my thoughts about this next phase in life are normal, doesn’t make it easier to reach.
I’ve talked with some of my friends who have also graduated, some this year, and some in years past, and most of us are dealing with the same fear I am. Some have jobs, outside their field, but enough to put food on the table. Others are struggling to work in their chosen field. Others, like me, are attempting to forge our own paths without picking up a paycheck from somewhere else.
Social media often makes success visible and anxiety and failure invisible. I don’t think that that’s unique to social media, books, newspapers, even face to face interactions all do the same thing. I certainly work to present my best self to the people around me, regardless of how we are interacting. Social media amplifies this. Not only do we see more people putting their best selves forward, but we’re also keenly aware of our own image and presentation. Corporate speak has also adapted to this, talk about your personal ‘brand’ cropping up in increasing numbers of discussions about being successful and moving up inside of corporate ladders. Despite having a lot of control over those presentations, the idea that people can see so much of who I am and what I’m doing is intimidating. Yet it’s also increasingly important to have a social media presence as a professional, particularly as a creative industry professional.
I’m not writing this pretending to have the answers. I don’t. Frankly, I’m in that sink or swim space where failure is not only an option, it’s downright likely. Still. I think there is value in transparency. All those questions I ask myself when I think about my path and the people I care about and look up to, at some point all there will be negative answers to each and every one. And at some point the news will be good. There aren’t grades in life. No one is going to stand up at my funeral and announce whether or not I got an A. Life isn’t even a pass or fail. We all live, we all die. We all make choices and compromises, and none of us know what the path will be.
It’s okay if that is frightening. It frightens me. That fear teaches me. My fear is that I will die without friends or family who love me. Without having written the things I most want to write. Without leaving something sustainable behind for the people who will live after me. Those fears tell me what is most important to me in life. I’m going to try to lean into my fear, let it show me a path to the person I want to be and the life I want to have.
Sound good? You can do it too.