Natasha Farwell says feeling directionless after university is perfectly OK!
As I clicked ‘submit’ on my UCAS application in 2019, I assumed I had opened the gate to the promised land of new opportunities. By going down the safe route of academia, I thought I had built the foundations for a secure and fulfilled life. Little did I know this was just the beginning of the perplexity of navigating life ahead of me.
Schools have taught us about the Pythagorean theorem and the poetry of Wordsworth. Yet, learning how to gain interview skills, pay taxes and especially how to adapt to an environment where you are all by yourself becomes a mystifying and daunting challenge, an inevitability which students are undoubtedly nowhere near ready for.
University of Birmingham final year student Mason Enticott thinks that the keenness of students to continue further studies stems from school. “My school pressured students to achieve greatness at university,” he says. Yet has this concept of ‘greatness’ at university blindsided graduates afterwards?
The truth is, university can easily become a solace for teenagers who do not know what they want to do – and realistically, no one can blame us for not knowing at age 19!
And then suddenly the routine of set deadlines, society meetings and living with your best friends is a thing of the past. The only way I can describe the feeling of graduating is an image of a house one has been building since one was little. In this house, you are comforted with the guidance of your parents, teachers, and friends. Although the house may have some cracks and issues, it is secured with a firm foundation and offers safety. This house is the familiar image of your life that you have built for the past couple of decades.
Suddenly, you are at the end of your final year, and the house is knocked down with no warning. You now must now build a new and improved home, one you think should be larger, because students are conditioned to believe that ambition will guide them once they graduate. No wonder this feeling of dread and occasional quarter life crisis are apparent. What once was your home is now a deep void of disorientation as you are expected to thrive in such a lost liminal space.
The UK-based student welfare site Office for Students found that university graduates who did not have a job straight out of university were less happy than their peers. A study by Student Minds surveyed 300 recent graduates and found that 49% felt their mental well-being declined after university.
Yet how is this the case? University students are essentially conditioned by society to believe that a university degree will give them academic advantage over high school graduates. You can imagine the pit of despair for university graduates when this apparent advantage shows no signs of producing any tangible benefits – +£27k in governmental debt, and thrown into a pool of people with the same qualifications as you…
The sole differing attribute might be experience, which can be nearly impossible to acquire whilst having the full-time ‘job’ of being a student and coping with the amount of work university degrees expect (not to mention having to adapt to living away from home).
Only when entering your final year of university, anxious about the near future, do students realise that the proportion of graduate jobs to graduates is disparate. Interviewing skills and a strong CV are what most set you above other graduates, but universities rarely provide guidance for either of these. It is no wonder graduates feel deceived.
Once the music from the graduation ceremony fades and the voices exclaiming ‘congrats on being a grad!’ fade, all that is left for graduates is to find grand success very quickly. The preconception that university graduates will be more successful than high school graduates is internalised rapidly, leaving graduates anxious, aware of the expectations placed on their shoulders, hopeless and demoralised.
For University of Oxford final year student Faith Owolabi “there is also an added stress about what you want to do after, and people asking all the time ‘what are you doing now’, when it should be widely accepted for students to have a chill period after”.
I cannot count the number of times I have felt like running away from the impending gloom I will feel after university. This feeling of directionlessness has often sent my body into a flight or fight mode when I am already feeling extreme burnout from spending endless hours refining my dissertation in the library.
Yet, the moment I realised that being directionless is, in fact, not the most terrible thing imaginable, I found peace in the unknown.
Society’s fixation on ambitious individuals who have drawn up a whole life-plan of success has infected graduate minds and has left us in a state of shock.
However, once I maintained a present mindset, I realised I could fly away to Northern Italy if I wanted to, and there is no shame in doing so! What could feel more nourishing for my mind and body right now than drinking fresh orange juice in the sun and reading books that stimulated me? After all, the endless hours of university work should allow graduates the opportunity to relax, travel and truly find out what they want in life spiritually and mentally instead of relying on rigid societal conventions.
This chasing of meaningfulness has persuaded students that to obtain happiness they must also chase the corporate nine to five job, earn a steady income and become a ‘useful contribution to society’. Yet, this is a complete façade.
Once you have grounded yourself in the present, you recognise that society has imposed an ‘external’ ambition on students, clouding our judgement into believing that this is what we truly want.
In such a context, says Mason Enticott, ‘people are not ushered to be creative. Instead, we must be a part of the workforce, which is not what students want to do all the time’.
There should be more praise for taking up, for instance, crocheting, learning a new song on the guitar, or mastering a new recipe.
The societal dominance of corporate jobs feeds into our capitalist system and stunts people’s creative and cognitive development.
Eckhart Tolle is an influential 21st-century spiritual teacher who has tackled this notion of boring jobs. He suggests completely surrendering oneself to the present, bringing a different state of consciousness and perceiving this state of unknown or perhaps the ‘boring job’ as a background for presence.
Tolle’s philosophy is pertinent in the 21st century; next time you feel yourself in a state of anxiety from this feeling of directionlessness, find presence in perfecting your coffee in the morning, doing some grounding yoga or prayer or spending time with friends.
The little things build the future you truly want, and instead of obsessing over what we do not have as new graduates, we must utilise the building blocks of life to create a present reality that makes us happy. Then, and perhaps only then, will we be able to face the challenge of what lies ahead with some degree of serenity.
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