Thanks to the magic of Netflix, I recently watched an old classic for the first time: Mike Nichols’ 1967 film, The Graduate. While I loaded it into my queue mostly for cultural literacy purposes, I had no idea how much I’d relate to the premise. Without ruining any of the plot, the movie opens just as Dustin Hoffman’s character, Benjamin Braddock, has finished college and returned home to his parents’ house to determine what he’ll do next. And while the clothes and slang are certainly particular to 1967, that horrible, melancholic paralysis symptomatic of a new college grad is a feeling that’s not unique to one generation.
Maybe some people graduate from college, find what they want in life and move on to that next stage – adulthood, the dreaded real world – seamlessly. But I think many of us find ourselves in that post-grad funk that made Benjamin, lounging on a pool raft and hiding behind dark shades, boldly respond to his father’s inquiry about what exactly he was doing (with his day, his life, his future) with: “I would say I’m just drifting.” I know I did.
For me, coming home after college meant not only leaving a place and people I’d grown attached to after what had been the best four years of my life, but it also meant facing life decisions I wasn’t at all ready to confront. Leaving my friends and college life behind felt like the death of something beloved: it was clear that life of leisure, intellect and immature fun was something to which I’d never be able to return. Of course I’d keep in touch with my friends, but that unique existence I’d come to fall in love with – the one where I spent mornings debating Plato and Yeats (insert favorite academic subject here), afternoons at a shelter working with homeless kids (the luxury of time that college provides allowed me to indulge this passion), and nights playing ridiculous drinking games with my best friends, laughing until the wee hours of the morning – was surely over.
I mourned its loss in depressing local dive bars with some old high school friends who were equally distraught and confused. When we ran into our former classmates who wondered what we were up to, we regurgitated our perfunctory, stock answers – those which would spark the least amount of conversation and require the fewest answers on our part: “I’m applying to law schools!”; “I’m looking into sports journalism!”; “My degree is in business so I’m sure that’s where I’ll end up!”
In reality, I had a different plan for myself almost daily: I toyed around with the idea of law school, and even with med school, though I was wildly unqualified for the latter (Yeats and Plato are not on the MCAT). I thought for a while that I’d move to Ireland and become a translator of Irish Gaelic poetry (a marketable vocation if ever there was one), and for a brief period of time, my college friends and I even planned to drive around the country to various campuses, selling tee-shirts at football games (an impressive business model sketched out with a golf pencil over late night burritos). I contemplated moving to one city or another, writing a novel in my parents’ attic, taking a cross-country road trip to ‘find myself’ (a hackneyed concept, but one I was not above pursuing) and starting my own business (pizza, tutoring – you name it, I had a plan to sell it).
Looking back, it’s clear why that first year after college was so miserable: I had no idea who I was or what I wanted out of life, and I was certain that I’d never be as happy as I was as a college student.
Inevitably, after a year or so, I started to figure out what was important to me, and what general direction I wanted to take my career and my life, and I quickly learned that post-college happiness was totally possible. I know now that the formidable real world is not so bad – having a job I love and the independence of true adulthood are things I would never trade for one more dorm dance or beer pong tournament – but telling me not to dread the real world during that year after college would have been like trying to pump someone up for root canal: you know it has to happen, and that you’ll probably be fine in the end, but there’s no denying that for a little while, it’s just plain awful.
Now, I look back on that year with all the fondness of a root canal: I laugh at the way I flinched at difficult moments, I remember the pain and I’m mostly just glad it’s over. Will there ever be a time in my life quite like college? Probably not, but at least now I know that next stage of my life I tried so hard to avoid can be just as fulfilling and as fun. And I think Benjamin Braddock – drifting on his pool raft, shades and all – would be proud.
Mile Squared can be reached at MileSquared@GDPmagazine.com.