All my life, I’ve known that I would end up accomplished and successful. I was raised with the idea (common among children born in the 80’s) that I was brilliant, special, could do anything, be whatever I wanted. I had many aspirations: I wanted to be a scientist, an artist, a doctor, a writer.
I did well academically, from elementary school through college, where I graduated magna cum laude with the highest GPA in my major (not saying much, since there were only six of us. But still – I got a fancy medal!). Surely great things were in store for me!
In my last year of high school, inspired by a trip to Kenya and the story of Paul Farmer in Mountains Beyond Mountains, I decided that I wanted to be a doctor, with a focus on inter-cultural medicine and medical anthropology. I went to Lewis and Clark college my freshman year; it was a good fit academically, and I enjoyed my classes. But I was desperately lonely, on account of my alienation from my peers (having already lived on my own and traveled extensively, I felt older than my silly, immature classmates; coupled with my natural loner tendencies and the fact that I took the Greyhound to Seattle every weekend to visit my
emotionally abusive, alcoholic boyfriend, it was a perfect recipe for complete social isolation). So I transferred to Seattle University (decidedly less academically rigorous) to be close to the aforementioned emotionally abusive alcoholic dude.
I didn’t fare much better, socially speaking, in Seattle. I exchanged the ne’er-do-well boyfriend for one who was really nice to me, albeit a terrible match, and spent all my free time with him for the better part of a year. I did some cool things: studied kung fu, conducted original ethnographic research, lived in a lovely house with a garden where I grew food, cooked a lot, and experience a surreal and mind-bending early-twenties love triangle.
I excelled in school, majoring in anthropology and participating in the departmental honors program. Even though I still wanted to be a doctor, I declined to take any pre-med classes, opting instead to study English metaphysical poetry of the 16th century and all the anthropology electives I could get my hands on. I figured I’d just squeeze in organic chemistry and microbiology “later,” after I graduated.
I graduated. And promptly decided that I didn’t want to go to medical school; how could I possibly face another two years of science classes, plus four years of med school and three years of residency?
I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do instead, simply that it would involve acclaim and riches. How could it not? I was, after all, special.
As it turned out, I was unemployed for six months before landing a job as a waitress at a sushi restaurant. Since then, I’ve bounced around between different foodservice jobs, some in the front of the house, some in the kitchen. I’m still working part-time, still barely scraping by, still desperate for anything resembling a living wage and an intellectual challenge.
Don’t get me wrong: I have had amazing experiences that I wouldn’t trade for anything, and lived a full, rich life since I graduated college. Living alone in rural Southwest Colorado, working on a farm, being on the fire department (among other things) were incredible opportunities that have changed me for the better.
The breadth of my experience, though, cannot negate the simple truth: that I have failed to achieve any kind of measurable success. I can barely pay my rent. I haven’t published anything of note. I have no major artistic accomplishments to my name. Yes, yes: I’m young, there’s still time. Yes, money is not the only marker of success. But the life I’m living is a far cry from what I always expected for myself: I should be Dr. Klein by now.
For a long time, this tormented me. Living amidst the artistic and cultural vibrancy of a big city filled with young people making their mark, doing things of note, being cool artists or rich yuppies, made me feel like a total loser. I still feel like a total loser, but lately, it’s stopped bothering me so much.
I’m slowly coming to the realization that maybe I’m not so special. That maybe I don’t have to do anything spectacular just because I’m intelligent. That maybe just getting by, slogging through life until my number’s up, is all I have to do. This thought is strangely comforting, and relieves a lot of pressure. For as much as I know that I have some germ of artistic talent, some measure of intellectual giftedness, I’m severely lacking in drive. Maybe because school was pretty effortless for me. Maybe because I grew up thinking that the world would be handed to me. Maybe because I’m just plain lazy. Whatever the reason, I like to spend time sitting around. Taking walks. Feeling the sun on my skin. Eating. Lying on the floor next to my dog. None of these activities lend themselves to fame and fortune, but the anxiety and guilt that accompanies that knowledge is receding.
The knowledge that I don’t, in fact, have to “do” anything, to “make” something of myself, is very freeing. It’s bittersweet and seems kind of pathetic, but I’m beginning to resign myself to a life mediocrity.