Looking back on my hard work in school, during my job search, and at my first job, has taught me that the reasons you work hard are just as important as actually working hard. I always told myself that hard work would create success, but this set me up for a huge shock as I entered the real world. I thought earning a high salary with a fancy job meant I was successful, that my hard work had paid off, literally. I quickly realized that this notion of “success” not only lacked personal happiness in its definition, but was also rooted in lofty expectations for the future, often times leaving me disappointed. It wasn’t until I was miserable at my first job that I came to re-define success. To re-define my reasons for working hard. And most importantly, to re-define myself.
In August of my junior year, I began my job search because I was en route to graduate a year early. Very few of my friends could relate to me, which made the experience isolating. I was doing company research, filling out applications, going to interviews, and worst of all, getting rejected often. The experience was so unpleasant that I actually wrote a bitter poem titled, “Tell Me About Yourself.” I was bombarded with negative feedback; not only rejected by companies I was applying to (because heads up—the job market is tough right now), but also by people who did not understand my decision to leave college.
College is glorified as the best years of your life (don’t get me wrong, it is crazy fun) but it’s also a time of high stress with minimal support. It’s easy to feel lonely. I was hardly excited to pay money to be given work that no longer satisfied me. I was craving to learn more, to do more, and I was being criticized for my ambition. I understood the backlash from people—I was unsettling their understanding of college as a 4-year commitment, as a place you never want to leave. My friend’s dad boasted that he spent an extra two years in college to party and rarely attended his classes. Was he encouraging me to do the same with my time, with my money? It puzzled me.
So here’s another one of my life lessons: Adults sometimes have it wrong. And when they do have it wrong, it’s okay to “listen, smile, agree, and then do whatever the f*ck you were gonna do anyway.” At least that’s how Robert Downey Jr. phrased it. I had hoped that entering my 20s (an adult decade finally!) meant standards for behavior would be higher and emotional capacities would widen. But mostly, I’ve found that adults are just larger, older looking children. It’s heartbreaking.
Once I landed a job in April, I was ecstatic because I won my war; I was given reprieve from what felt like a bloody job search battlefield. To graduate college in three years, be employed when I graduated with a high-paying job, in a field I was interested in—it’s definitely something I dreamed of. Everything I had worked hard for had paid off, and I was so grateful. Three weeks after graduation, I started my first day of work. And within two weeks, I had endured something I never expected to in the workplace.
I figured for the first week I’d be reasonably nervous at a new job, but I imagined that eventually I’d be calm, maybe excited to be there. Instead, I started to fear what I expected when I went into work, the raw certainty of what I would experience each day. It taught me what a good actress I can be in tough situations. My bosses had no idea I was depressed. I knew what would make me happy: Never walking into that office again. But so often in life we can’t do what we want. I told myself I was being weak, that I needed to start getting used to the real world. Ironically, this is the exact same part of the summer when Paramore’s song “Ain’t it Fun” began playing on the radio endlessly, exclaiming that the real world is dark, and lonely. Not an ideal song to listen to in my predicament.
In a normal stress situation, I’d be poised enough to come home, say hi, and then go to my room and cry alone. But I was so fragile that one day I just walked into the house sobbing. It was mortifying to reveal my inability to cope with a stressful work environment. I was blaming myself constantly. If I was a highly successful student, why shouldn’t I be successful as an employee? Were they not translatable?
Luckily, living at home allowed my parents to witness my depression first hand, and they were the first to mention quitting, which was something I deemed out of question. After all, I had worked for months just trying to get a job. And I was being paid well, which I fully understood was a miracle in this economy especially at my age. My parents jumped back and forth with their advice, which further rattled my emotions. Whatever advice they gave me, I’d be in despair over the realization that there was no good way out.
The idea of quitting was unbearable because I’d literally be a quitter. And yet the thought of staying made my vision of the future crumble into unhappy pieces. I would come home from work and hide my work shoes because looking at them gave me a pit in my stomach; it reminded me of a place that I hated. To be at the point where looking at an object can make you cry—that’s when it hit me that this wasn’t just dissatisfaction with my work or the stress of a life change, it was something bigger. What was happening within me was jarring.
With my parent’s help, I turned the situation around. I fed myself positive thoughts—that this was not a personal failure. I learned that sometimes quitting does not mean giving up, but that it takes courage to follow through with such bold action. I found joy in taking control of my happiness, in putting it back in my soul.
The night I decided to quit was the worst and best night. What I remember most clearly was physically feeling my haze of unhappiness lift off of me. I felt lighter, I could physically see more clearly, and my thoughts were running wild with ideas of what I could do next. Instead of looking at the future dimly, I was excited. The word I kept thinking was, “free.”
Informing people of my decision to quit required resilience, as well. It’s so easy to fear what people will think. As I explained to people my reasons for quitting, people had a hard time understanding that it only took a month for me to reach a level of emotional depravity that I needed to quit for my well-being. Yes, only a month. I could see all kinds of thoughts traipsing over their faces.
Sometimes, I could tell people were immediately judging me, not with their words, but in a glimmer of an eyebrow rising, or worst of all, with the cruel flicker of a smile in their relishing of my seeming defeat. They instantly made up their mind, and to them, I was a quitter, lazy, spoiled even. Whether their opinions were true or not was not my immediate concern, rather I was disturbed to realize we live in a society where being open and honest about one’s experiences is not usually rewarded with sincere listening, not even respected with an effort to understand. From this, I learned the importance of self-reliance. You have to be your own encouragement because sometimes other people find it more convenient to try to knock you down.
My work ethic has not changed since graduating. What has changed is that I’m no longer working hard to meet a glamorous, distant end-goal. Instead, I’m working hard to find satisfaction with myself and with my work everyday, without many expectations for how it will pay off. I’ve learned to be careful what my happiness is dependent on, and to accept that life is always a work in progress.
In the next year, I hope to complete my first novel, which is something I’ve always dreamed of doing. Instead of staying up late and telling my sisters character and plot ideas, I can actually sit down and write. In addition to writing, I work at my parents’ small business part-time. One of my sacrifices in quitting my job has been accepting that I have to live at home. While in some ways my decision to quit has limited me, I constantly remind myself what a fantastic opportunity is in front of me. I have passions and time to pursue them.
Often, people say, “So I bet you regret leaving college early!” or “The real world was harder than you thought!” But no, I do not regret my decision. My goal was to embark on new terrain, to be exposed to things I wasn’t previously from the shelter of being a student. And that has happened multiple times since graduating. Learning is fascinating to me, even if it’s messy and complicated. What I’m learning now is a new kind of knowledge and I’m very thankful for it.
Kasia recently moved back to her hometown in Chicago after graduating from University of Wisconsin-Madison. She majored in Economics and English—partly because she’s multi-talented, and partly because she’s multi-can’t-choose-her-career. Her two older sisters both like to call her a hippie. She would protest and tell them she’s not, but her love of all things natural, her obsession with yoga, and her long wavy hair all say otherwise. Her place of peace is either her home or the library, and she recently started to dabble with the idea of minimalism. If you find jibberish typed on her laptop, it’s probably her new mini goldendoodle (named Rémy) who likes to climb onto her laptop while she’s working—Rémy might be trying to become a writer like her mommy. Ultimately, she’d like to finish writing a novel in the next year, all while exploring the elusive concepts of “adult” and “real world.”
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I was in this exact place after college. I was offered an awesome internship paying an amazing salary, and one month in, I knew I would never make it. Even though I was offered a job at the end of the internship, I knew I would regret it for the rest of my life if I took it. What made the decision even harder were the huge student loans I had. But life is too short to be unhappy. It was the first time in my life that I realized no amount of money would bring happiness.
I had to deal with a lot of dirty looks from people who thought I wasn’t “trying” hard enough and that I was a quitter and ungrateful, but my mom stood behind me, saying there would always be other jobs and that I didn’t have to figure my life out today. I love her so much for that.
Now, one year later, I have a good, entry-level job in my field where the stress levels are manageable and I’m learning new things every day. I’m happy. I’m not making what I would have if I had stuck with the first company, but I’m also not having mental breakdowns on my lunch breaks, crying to my family and friends.
The real world is really hard, but ultimately, you have to do what’s best for you. You’re the one living your life, and as long as you pay your bills, I say do whatever the heck you want!
This article was beautiful to read. Though I am male, every point you brought up resonated with me, a 20-something, newly-graduated adult entering the working world. Thanks for the wonderful perspective
I loved this piece tremendously, and was hoping to get in touch with you so we could speak further? Send me an email!