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Dear Bear,

As of a couple months ago, I am a college graduate (yay!). I went to a good school, worked my ass off, and got a good job doing something like doing and am steadily getting better at.

The problem is that most of my friends also worked hard and they did not get jobs. They’re slinging lattes, they were camp counselors for the summer, and they’ve gone home to their parents houses to keep looking for work and other things like that. They’re basically miserable and some of them are miserable and in a ton of debt.

All of a sudden, the people I spent basically every day with for four years all have a something in common that I don’t have. Our group texts and Snapchats are full of all their shitty temp jobs and frustration with parentals and basically my question is this: what the hell am I supposed to say to them? Do I go with “Don’t worry, you’ll find something great!” when I don’t know if they will? I should be happy and excited but mostly I feel kind of… miserable.

It’s about to be winter holidays and I am definitely going to see some of them during the Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year’s month. What in the world do I say? How am I supposed to feel about this?

• • •

Dear Brave Correspondent,

I know you can’t see me through the internet, so I’ll just tell you that I am nodding along as I read your letter, feeling your very valid distress. Getting to the end of a big endeavor, like college, is like a race in a certain way – you see the finish, you ration out your energy, you get over the line without much left in the tank and you count on some rest and then some excitement on the other side to lift you back out of the energy ditch. You all finished, collected your medals (or diplomas, as the case may be) and ate your bananas, but only you got collected and driven home for an ice pack and a long nap. Everyone else you raced with is still kind of milling around, feeling exhausted and crappy about it.

In another way, however, it’s not like a race at all. It’s not remotely true that a fast or successful start predicts a strong finish. I know a number of people who took less-traditional career paths, for all sorts of reasons – because they worked their way through college slowly in order to avoid debt, because they didn’t know for sure what they wanted to do next, because they needed some time off to learn a new language or inhabit a new gender or cross some great landmass on foot or by bicycle or circumnavigate it in a teeny, tiny boat – and went on to work that they feel great about and are very good at. So your friends are not doomed, and – although I agree that you should be able to enjoy this moment – neither are you necessarily Ahead Of The Game forever.

(At least, not for that reason. Privilege is a real thing, and some people are always going to be starting several squares ahead – men ahead of women, white people ahead of all other races, able bodied ahead of people with disabilities, and across the various locations of privilege or disempowerment. I’m sure you did work hard, but if you there’s another way in which you are not like most of your friends besides getting a job right away – if you’re the only dude, or the only white person, or if you’re from a yacht-y background and everyone else is more toy-boat-in-the-tub – there’s a very different conversation to have right now. I don’t get that sense from your unedited letter, but here we are in the land of the public column and other people will extrapolate from this advice, so.)

All of you can be forgiven for thinking so, though. That’s kind of what we’re taught, especially in North America: it’s all a zero-sum game, and in order for one to get ahead another one must necessarily fall behind. That’s not true, though it is true in our current exhausting capitalist experience that most of the rewards for cooperative effort come in the very, very long game. Every process of capitalism seeks to crown a winner and shame the losers – the most money, the most power, the most influence. Every publication lists their top 30 “influencers” or 40 richest people under 40 or the 50 most something-y somethings. We love bests, and we love firsts, and we love “discovering” people and the myth of “overnight success” even though every overnight success story is actually a story of someone grinding unglamorously but diligently away for years or decades, trying and trying and trying and achieving mostly improvement or maybe a bunch of seemingly-disparate skills and talents until, with apparent suddenness but actually more-or-less on schedule, they come to the attention of a public who has never heard of them (best current example: Roxane Gay).

So, what do you tell your friends? Well, for one thing, I think you can encourage them to be like Roxane: to keep working toward their thing, whatever their thing is, regardless of the current circumstances. Do it and keep doing it, make opportunities to do it, recruit your friends to do it with you, spend your free time doing it (move to an incredibly remote place where there’s literally nothing to do all winter BUT that, if need be). But practice, practice, practice.

Another is for them to do as my husband did in a similar situation: seek opportunities that will allow them to build some new skills and network outside their usual. When he found himself a university student unable to afford to continue, he withdrew and set about working toward his goals in life in ways that were non-traditional – settlement work, international teaching, contracts to develop programs, contracts to write grants. It took him rather longer than the traditional four years to finish his degree in this method, but when he finished he was debt-free, had a tremendous resume, and a ton of practical skills ranging from water purification to presenting a budget and its justification. He’s now finishing his PhD, has published three books, and is generally considered not only expert in his field but also an almost-supernaturally effective change-maker (even if he is going to grumble Britishly at me for giving him such lavish praise in public).

The point is, Brave Correspondent, that your friends have gotten a little stuck maybe in the idea of what makes success happen and it isn’t getting a job right out of college, necessarily (though I’m glad you did and that you like it). That’s very valid, there are a TON of pointers to the idea that getting a job immediately is the best way, and some of those probably come from their parents (whom someone might want to encourage to be gracious, because obviously their children are not happy about this either, and grudging acceptance with a side order of scolding is not the same as generosity). The first thing that feels important is that they not come from you. You can enjoy your job, and even talk about enjoying your job, while still interrupting the myth of First is Best. You can talk about their hobbies and interests and passions, whether it’s stalking yard sales for vintage treasures or playing the sousaphone or city cycling or kayaking or whatever. Read up a little ahead of when you might see them, so that you have somewhere to go, conversationally – what do they think about reproduction Bakelite or the bike lanes the city just put in or, uh, whatever’s new in sousaphones? Remind them how much you liked their undergraduate band/work on the literary magazine/guerilla gardening; invite them to come to where you live now and meet someone you know who likes the same thing.

Don’t dismiss or erase their distress or complaint, certainly. But also, don’t join in the message that they’re somehow failing at life. Their feelings are valid; the culture we live in glorifies your achievement and shames their lack of an “achievement.” The key here, Brave Correspondent, is not to join in, but instead to hold open the vistas of another possibility – that they have an opportunity to forge for themselves an excellent path, and that even though this is kind of a long-way-around solution it often offers more flexibility and frankly more fun than more traditional career paths. It’s a balance, but I think you can do it.

love and courage,


Questions submitted will be kept confidential and may be edited for length.

S. Bear Bergman

writer, educator, publisher, storyteller, advice guy

Asking Bear is an advice column written by S. Bear Bergman. Bear is a busybody know-it-all with many opinions who is only too happy for a sanctioned opportunity to tell you what he thinks you ought to be doing (as well as a writer, storyteller, publisher and activist who enjoys telling educational institutions, health care groups, and portions of government what he thinks they ought to be doing).

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