Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Stigma Of Finding One's Self

"He's taking a year off to find himself." *insert eye roll here*

I think we see this a lot in the media today. When someone claims to be "finding his/herself" it is seen as a.) silly, b.) pretentious or c.) hippy-like. I confess, I used to be that person rolling my eyes. I used to be that person who thought "finding myself" was code for "some a ton of weed" and "be lazy." I was that person because I was a girl who knew EXACTLY what she wanted to do with her life.

I'm not that girl anymore.

At the end of this semester, I am moving to New York City and I am taking a semester (or a year, depending) off from school before applying to transfer. Why? It has nothing to do with being lazy or pretentious or wanting to smoke weed. In fact, it isn't even because college is too stressful (it is stressful, but that has little to do with my decision). It's because I want to find myself.

I know what I want in life. I want to be a writer - and, hey, I got started on that goal early! Woot! Here's the thing though - I don't JUST want to be a writer. I want a day job, too. I want a job that will let me work with people since writing is so solitary. I want a job that will get me out of my apartment and keep me from becoming a recluse. What that job will be? I'm not sure.

I originally wanted to be a literary agent, but some experiences over the past year have shown me that, while I would LOVE to be an agent, I won't have time. Agenting takes up a lot of time, and if I continued to write as much as I do and, maybe, more one day - I won't be able to handle the work load. Others can, but I'm not sure I'm one of them. In fact, I know I'm not one of them.

So now I have to "find myself." And believe me, I'm ready for the eye rolls. I'm also ready for that question.

Why can't you find yourself while you're in school?

I asked myself that, too, but after a long talk with my mother, whom I never thought would support this but she did, I realized that college is expensive and paying for an education in a field I may never use seems silly. I'm no longer going to be a writing major because it is preparing me for a job I already have, and there are so many other thing I'd like to do, like to learn. Picking one while i"m in school, wasting time and money, would hurt me in the long run.

But I didn't mean for this post to be all about me. It's more about our society and this idea of going straight to college after high school. This is a very American thing, I've learned, because in other countries a "gap year" is a really, really common thing. High schoolers often take a year off after high school to figure out what they want, to travel, to work, to "find themselves" in a sense.

That's not the case here. Taking time off has a stigma attached to it. One I used to buy into. But the more I think on it and the more I read, the more I wonder if the gap year would have helped me. I've spent 2 years majoring in something I'm not particularly happy with, two years focusing on a career that, had I thought about it, I would have known wasn't a great option. Two years of time I could have used elsewhere.

I think teenagers today are forced into college a little too early. I think that the social expectations placed on teens are harsh and unrealistic. My God, NONE of my friends know what they are going to do when they graduate, but they keep taking these classes because taking a year off to figure it out would be "stupid." I think our priorities are a little out of order here, and it's something that worries me.

I've come to the conclusion that everyone needs to find themselves. Whether that's at college or studying abroad or volunteering for a summer or just some time off to get things in order and figure out what you want - I think it's okay. I do think - STRONGLY think - that college educations are very important. VERY important. But they are also very expensive, and it is my personal opinion that one should have a good notion of what they want to spend that tuition learning before jumping in.

There is nothing wrong with finding yourself . . . . unless you really do just want to be lazy and smoke weed, in which case that isn't finding yourself at all and this commentary doesn't apply to you.

But I want to hear your thoughts. Does finding oneself have a stigma? Do you think the phrase is used as a cover for other things? How do you feel about the college system here in the US? Share your thoughts! Discussions are always great new ways to learn.


Rachel Bateman said...

I am right with you on this one. Like you, I went to college right out of high school, certain that I didn't need to "find myself" because I knew what I wanted to do and who I was.

Like you, I left that first school after two years (well, three semesters) because I realized that I *didn't* know what I wanted to do and staying in school and paying for classes that may not be beneficial at all was not what I should be doing. So I left and eventually did find what I want in life.

I now tell any high schooler who asks advice about college that I would, if I could go back, take a year first to decide what I really want and where I really want to be. I think a gap year is a great idea.

Wonderful post, Kody.

Liz said...

I think not only does this post also apply to kids just out of college as well, but that there's definitely a negative stigma attached to going on a gap year. Figuring out what you want to do with your life isn't an overnight process, and not something most people get right away. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kody.

K. E. Carson said...

I don't live in the US, so my comments on it may be a little skewed. In Canada, there isn't as much of a stigma attached to taking a year off. But in my family, there is. I was pressured by my mother to go straight to university and after my first year, I hate it. I hate it so much that I'm taking the next two years off to find myself.

A lot of my friends went straight to university after highschool and I'm seeing a lot of people struggling. Not with the work load, but with the pressure. Pick a major. Pick a career. Pick your life now. And a lot of people I know are stepping back and taking the time off, because not only do they not want to waste money on a degree they might not want, but they don't want to be trapped in a career that they're going to hate.

I've heard all my life that college/uni is supposed to be THE BEST TIME OF MY LIFE. (This was told to me by my mother, who loved her college experience, but, funnily enough, didn't graduate.) And I want it to be the best time of my life. I want to have great experiences there. I'm just not ready as a person to be there. And I will be, and I'll go back, hopefully with a better understanding of myself and what I want to do.

Kudos for taking time off. Don't let the stigma stop you. It's ridiculous how fast kids are pushed into university when they have their whole lives ahead of them. Taking a year off will not detrement a person, because it's a small speck of time compared to a lifetime ahead.

Steph said...

I've been fortunate in that I've known what I've wanted to do for awhile, and once I actually got started in it, it turns out I love it and feel absolutely sure it's what I want.

But that's not the case for a lot of people I've met. For example, I was talking to a random guy while waiting in line to get coffee who is now planning to be a teacher. He was probably about my parents' age, and he had spent 20 years in an entirely different profession. He told me that it took him that long to realize what he really wanted to be doing with his life.

Or my friends. I have one friend who switched his major like 5 times (for real) because nothing felt like a good fit for him. He seriously considered just getting a general studies degree, but there's also a stigma attached to that - like, why go to college in the first place? So he just wasted a ton of time in these other majors that he didn't actually like, just because he didn't want that stigma.

I think there is a stigma attached to "finding yourself." I mean, our society is based almost entirely on going to college and getting a degree to get a good job and rake in the big bucks - to the point where just a college degree is often not even enough anymore. It's all about what you "do" for a living, or what material objects you own - where is the sense of self - the real sense of self - in all that?

I'm so glad my parents encouraged me to follow my heart and do what made me happy. Sure, I'm not going to make much money. People sneer at me. I'm constantly having to defend myself to people. But I've also seen the alternative in my dad, who's spent 25+ years in a career that challenges him and makes it possible to support his family and put three kids through college, but also stresses hims out like crazy and often makes him miserable. Given the choice, he'd just be a math teacher.

I talk a lot about taking time to get to know myself and learn how to take care of myself and respect myself. Most people look at me like I'm absolutely insane. So, yeah, I definitely can see where people would sneer at the thought of finding yourself. But I think that's because most people don't even have any sense of what that really means anymore.

Elizabeth Briggs said...

I dropped out of college after failing miserably at it, but went back after 4 years of working full time. The 2nd time around I knew exactly what I wanted and ended up graduating with honors. Sometimes a little time off from school is exactly what a person needs the most.

Maggie said...

"I think teenagers today are forced into college a little too early."

^I agree with that. That's why a lot of people end up changing majors several times and spending five years of college instead of four.

And "finding yourself" is quite important - knowing who you are is crucial to navigating the world. :)

Becca C. said...

I am so, so, so happy to see this post. I feel like you wrote it especially for me. I'm a creative writing major, too, been at the school for two years now, and I will be taking next term off to "find myself," too. I may not even come back.

I'm from Canada, so we don't have exactly the same stigma, but I definitely know what you mean. I used to look down on it, too! But now I'm so disillusioned about university and really, really, really not enjoying it. Skipping the classes I don't like, procrastinating on every single project... I don't want to feel this way but I hate every minute of it.

I'm a writer and I always thought that studying writing in university would be a natural fit. Instead, I'm finding myself stuck in terrible esoteric poetry classes when I'm a YA writer (a genre that gets NO respect in university, btw). It is so far from what I want to learn. I learn soooo much more from just reading blogs and posting on AW.

Unfortunately, my mom doesn't want me to take a few years off... but luckily, I'm the one paying for my education, not her. So it is my decision that counts.

Thank you for posting this!

Brooke said...

I'm so happy you have the courage to do this rather than slog through another two years and majoring in something you don't need. (And Kody's mom, thanks for being supportive--I could have used a parent like you!)

Like the commenter from Canada, there's not a huge stigma attached to taking a gap year in Australia, but there was one in my family. I was burnt out and knew it, but a gap year to work wasn't an option for me, because my father thought I wouldn't have gone at all.

Instead, after three semesters, I crashed and didn't go back. Now I'm 30, married with two kids, and wishing I'd finished my BSc so I could go back to school next year for an MFA in Writing. Had I taken that gap year, I would have been that much closer to knowing what I wanted.

I plan to go back and get a degree in Social Sciences, but probably not until my littles are in school and I have some time to manage school and writing along with parenting.

Danielle said...

I went straight from high school to university, and straight from my first degree into a second, and then I worked at the university. I wasn't away from school until I was 27.

I did figure out what I want to do career-wise while I was there - I want to teach at a university and I want to write. Knowing the type of job I want, though, is different from knowing myself.

I actually won a series of sessions with a life coach earlier this year, and while I initially thought it would just be a lot of touchy-feely-mumbo-jumbo, it made a HUGE difference for me. Now, finally, I'm starting to piece together who I am, not just what I do (or want to do). I'm starting to feel like a whole person now, not just a series of pieces that ended up squished into the same body.

If you can do this for yourself now, by taking time away from what you're 'supposed' to do, then I whole-heartedly support you! The sooner you know yourself, the sooner you can figure out where you're going, and the sooner you can get to a place of a really awesome pile of happy - the happy that comes with an overall contentment with your life, not just a cool thing happening.

Enjoy your time off from school, and get to know yourself!

Shauna said...

Ah, I love this post! I graduated high school last spring, and only a little over a month into the fall semester I realized that I was really unhappy. It wasn't the work, it wasn't too "tough" for me to handle (as a matter of fact I actually got an A on everything I passed in during that short time!), but I really hated it!

I just felt so guilty staying in classes that were costing my parents so much money, when I wasn't 100% sure about where I wanted to go with my life. I know far too many people that have graduated with a degree in one thing, and have had to go back to school for something else, because they figured out what they *really* wanted to do.

My amazing admissions office allowed me to withdraw with my GPA intact, and with the option to come back when I was ready! All my friends thought I was crazy, but it was the best decision I have ever made. I'm happier than I've ever been! I'm almost done with writing my first full-length novel (I've always written, but have never had the time to really give it my full attention due to all of my sports and other high-school whatnots .. I'm still amazed by the fact that you wrote The Duff during your senior year!) AND I've landed a role in a movie! (I've never had time to really go auditioning because of school as well!). Best. Decision. Ever. :)

I still feel funny telling people that I'm not currently enrolled in college, so much so that when I'm asked how school is going, I respond "great!" .. I know I should be honest, but I feel weird trying to explain my motives and life choices with people I'm not close with! I feel like they wouldn't understand and I don't want to be judged. It's as if taking time off from school is taboo. I hate it. :\

emily j. griffin said...

Speaking from the experience of having a BA in Creative Writing, and almost pursuing an MFA in Children's/YA lit, I fully support this notion! Luckily I realized the same thing before starting down a long and expensive road to grad school. I want a trade too-- a non-creative writing, but satisfying trade. Something that fulfills other parts of myself. The kind that are social and visual and not so in my own head.

Rock on.

Samantha Rowan said...

I think taking some time off can be a very good idea for a wide variety of reasons that a lot of people posted about prior to me and whole heartedly agree with that.

That being said, I think you should consider a timeline for when you want to finish school so that your time off is not open-ended. Here's why: a college degree is important in our society and not having one could limit you, if you ever wanted to change careers (I know that is probably unlikely but it's something to consider), go to graduate school or teach. Also, in my experience, it doesn't really matter what your degree is in or where it's from, it just matters that you have it.

Plamena Schmidt said...

Good for you! It took me 4 years of taking science courses at college to figure out what I wanted to do (writing). But I didn't really feel like I had a choice to not go to Uni. And since I was so busy with Uni, I didn't really have time to think about what I wanted, etc.

I wish you success!

Karen Peterson said...

I work at a college and I WISH more of our students would take a year (or more, if they need it) to figure out what they really want out of life.

Education is important, but college isn't for everybody. And it would make such a difference if we could drop the stigma attached to taking time off before committing to any course of action that isn't absolutely what we want.

Marie Rearden said...

Preach it! What I wouldn't give for a time turner, and I'd break the rules, baby. I'd find my eighteen year old self and tell her exactly what's-what.

At twenty eight, I realize I've played it 100% safe, and that's great and awful at the same time.

Enjoy your twenties, your success, your life. And have fun!

Thanks for sharing!

Marie at the Cheetah

Carrie said...

I think more students would benefit from taking a year off and really focusing on finding themselves. I've seen so many of my friends go back to school after graduating college because they've finally realized what they really want to do.
Maybe more job shadowing days in high school?
I went to school thinking I'd get an English degree but unsure what I would do with that. I ended up with a theater degree and work backstage at a theater. A few years ago I thought about going back to school to be a teacher but realized that it would be expensive and that I would encounter the same sort of issue the first couple years a new job field (waiting for a permanent position, uncertainty)
I stayed with my career in theater and it was the best decision I made. I work with creative people and am surrounded by words of great writers and I have my days free to write.

Anonymous said...

Each person is different. I took a semester off to focus on my novel, and ended up focusing on my bartending job. Still, everything happens for a reason, and I came back with the realization that I could only write when I also had a heavy course load to work at, because I can only operate at go go go (OMG, I'm Sheen-ing) or total do-nothing speed. But I have no regrets, because I did, in fact, "find myself."

K. Jackson said...

For me and so many of my friends, leaving college after four years and being abandoned in the world was a huge culture shock. I'm a big believer in figuring out what you love and what makes you happy and going for that, even if it means breaking the "rules" a little bit and mapping out your own timeline.

Have a great adventure now, before you're stuck repaying school loans for the next decade! :-)

Malinda Lo said...

I don't think there's anything wrong with taking a year off from college. Whatever stigma you face now will fade as you move on in your life. But I caution you against believing that you can actually "find yourself" in one year. :) I spent most of my twenties "finding myself" and realizing that yes, I could be a writer. There's no deadline on self-discovery.

There's also no guarantee you will actually get a job that has any relation to your college major, no matter what that major is. Most people I know switch careers several times during their lives, either for economic reasons or because their passions change. This is normal. Things change, including selves.

Just be sure to enjoy the freedom you have at this stage of your life!

clairehennessy said...

Always a good plan to take a bit of time to figure out what you want to do - I think the stigma can often come from a) the sense that it's open-ended and b) like you say, that it'll be spent in some weed-related haze and not really doing anything.

I started college straight out of school, but got very disillusioned my first year and switched into a different course - one with a far less definite career path attached (I mean, I write, but like you I'm a big believer in the day job or even the half-day job to go with that) but one which I really loved being in for four years. So worth it.

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