One Saturday night a few weeks ago, Daniel and I were in the car on the way to a potluck dinner where several grad students would be present when he asked me:
“Why do you act embarrassed that you’re not in grad school?”
I replied, “Because I am embarrassed. And I’m embarrassed now that my embarrassment was so obvious that you picked up on it.”
Here’s my confession: I’ve been embarrassed that I’m not pursuing grad school since the semester before I received my undergraduate degree.
That was always the expectation, at first from only myself and later from everyone (at least as I perceived it): peers, family, professors, coworkers, friends. I heard them saying, implicitly or aloud:
Leah is the grad school type. Leah is smart and motivated and needs to use her academic talent to better the humanities. Leah is too good to leave academia. Leah’s job as a nanny/framer/barista is obviously temporary – we know she can do better.
But here I am, two years later, not in grad school. And I can’t help feeling like a disappointment to myself and everyone who invested in a dream that may have been more theirs than mine all along. And I have to learn to cope with that. To not be ashamed of myself just because I don’t have a title or prepared statement for that pervasive, incessant question: “What are you doing with your life?”
Do I have to know what I’m doing with my life? Does anyone ever stick to their early-20s response? And if they do, are they satisfied?
I need to work through my feelings of inadequacy. I need to see value in myself as a living human being trying to better myself and be good to others. I need to recognize that I am enough as long as I strive to make life meaningful – by the moment and the hour and the day.
I need others to grant me the space to breathe. I need others to have the self-respect to see themselves as more than their resumes or academic accolades so that they can see me in that light, too.
I’m trying to internalize the truth that I don’t have to – and probably shouldn’t – measure myself by someone else’s standards for success. I’m trying to overcome the pull of the myth that the highest form of human being is the employed scholar. I can be who I want to be, read what I want to read, and discuss in depth what I want to discuss without a piece of paper that tells others I’m an expert, that tells me I have the right to speak. And I can do other things too. And I have the right to respect myself for grand things like my entrepreneurial goals and lowly things like my ability to make a great cappuccino.
And I am not less for the decisions I’ve made or the place I’m in.