November 16, 2013 by Caroline Leland
This is a 680-word column I wrote for the student publication Rival Magazine.
The suburban home is the setting of my greatest fear: the supposed American ideal of the big house at the end of a cul-de-sac, with a dog in the backyard and two kids playing together on the living room floor. Imagining myself there in ten years makes me feel trapped and panicky. And then I imagine commuting to a respectable but monotonous office job, and I cringe even deeper into my seat.
Is life in suburbia an idea that one grows into? Is my dread of a 9 to 5 office job something I need to make myself accept? The more I think about it, the more I convince myself it’s okay to not be dreaming of getting married and having kids and commuting to the office from my nice suburban home. I don’t know how widespread that projected ideal is among my generation, but I know I shouldn’t feel aberrant for wanting something different. I’m not even sure what I want, but I know it’s not this traditional American image of success.
At selective universities like UNC and Duke, it’s easy to get trapped inside a narrow, imposed definition of success. This definition varies by subject of study, but largely I’ve found that it pushes for a high-paying corporate job in a big city. And then, right on top of that, general American culture promotes that image of the brick family home with the white fence.
But what if that’s not what I want? Why am I surrounded by people who seem convinced they know better than me what I need to be “successful”? Why is it so hard for me to commit to pursuing my own ideas of success?
I often struggle with a sense of desperate anxiety over finding the right career path. I once read a story about a man who, while working in the office, accidentally spilled coffee on his desk. His immediate reaction was to automatically hit “control+Z” on his keyboard (the shortcut for “undo”). In that moment, he suddenly realized his life had become so artificial that his subconscious wasn’t distinguishing between the real world and the digital world.
That idea terrifies me. The digital future is a big part of why entering the professional world is scary to me. We’re living more and more in front of lit-up screens. Yet I’m convinced I would wither a little bit every day I spent working in front of a computer.
I don’t want that. Nor do I want the suburban house that comes with two kids and a dog. So where does this leave me? Homeless and unemployed? The career advising I’ve received in college — both from official University sources as well as from many of my high-achieving peers — has given me the impression that if I’m not looking for the “right” things, then I’m doomed to an anonymous life of continuous financial struggle. Which maybe is my fate. But beyond making enough to pay the bills and eat out once in awhile, I know that money won’t buy me happiness. I know what makes me happy: things like intellectual stimulation, creative freedom, spending time outside and forging meaningful connections with the people around me.
I know it’s not a novel thing to defy a perceived norm, but each person doing it knows he or she has to do it deliberately and confidently — and therefore must think it out thoroughly. I also know wanting a corporate job or suburban home is not necessarily a mainstream thing. I am sure plenty of people never feel the pressure of that expectation. But I do believe that model is a pervasive expectation at elite universities like ours, and I don’t think it should be. But I don’t want to imply it’s a bad thing, either. I just hope I can maintain the tenacity to hold onto my own definition of success, reminding myself of the unique combination of factors I need to be happy — and having the foresight to respect that, independent of everything else.