August 9, 2015 by Caroline Leland
“The Real World”
I’ve always hated when people refer to life after college as “the real world.” Was college not real? I suppose some people coast through college by achieving the bare minimum to be considered “successful” — that is, eligible for employment in a mediocre 9-to-5 contributing incrementally towards some generic product or service with dubious impact on anyone’s well-being (from the overpaid CEO to the underpaid janitor to the mind-numbing dullness of every employee’s monotonous life).
To me, that’s a terrifying nightmare. A kind of soul-dying against which I will rage, rage until the sun sets on my life.
Much of what I did in college was low-consequence practice for higher-consequence responsibilities that I face now that I’ve graduated. But lower consequences doesn’t mean less real. The work I did for The Daily Tar Heel was some of the highest-consequence undertaking I think I’ll ever perform, unless I have the luck of reporting for a newspaper with an even bigger audience in my future. Yes, being a student gives you special permission to make mistakes in most peoples’ eyes. But I still took very seriously the duty I carried as a representative of every organization with which I was affiliated at UNC.
A month into life “in the real world,” my four years of college still feel so much more real to me than I can ever imagine full-time work feeling.
And yet I’m here, and this is my life now, and somehow I’ve got to make the most of it. I vehemently defy the cloying clawing quicksand of routine, that subtle sink into “your normal, hardworking, quietly desperate species of American.”* That will never be me, even if it’s an uphill battle the entire way.
Right now I have a job that requires me to sit on my computer for 50+ hours per week — something I never thought I could endure. But the work is engaging and challenging. I’m learning all kinds of skills and processes at a nearly overwhelming rate. The salary is generous, and I can work from anywhere in the world. So I’m making small sacrifices for major advantages. And it’s all worthwhile as long as I’m able to keep the balance of priorities in my life — feeling productive, constant learning, maintaining physical and mental health, engaging with people who challenge and inspire me, opportunity for exploration, and room for spontaneity.
For now, I think I can sustain at least a tenuous balance of all those things — the list of requisites to my happiness. I feel like I’m driving blindly into a foreign universe, but even “Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay”** — so with a sort of apprehensive excitement, I steel myself to stay deliberate and optimistic. Because what is “real,” anyway? I work, therefore I am?
*David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again
**Dylan Thomas, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”