As one of my friends described her graduation last week, she began to tailspin about how successful all of her classmates seemed. One had beat the odds by leaving her Indian reservation and becoming the first in her family to get a college degree. Another had started a charter school. Yet another was working with the White House already. In comparison, my friend reasoned, she had done little worth mentioning. She was getting her Ph.D. from Harvard.
I teased her that she had Harvard dysmorphic disorder. Whereas with body dysmorphic disorder, a person sees herself as fat no matter how thin she gets, it was as if my friend saw herself as unaccomplished no matter how many accolades and degrees she acquired. It was such an extreme example of how all perceptions of success are so relative, of how even gaining entry into the most rarified of spaces can still leave one feeling unworthy.
Alain de Botton famously dubbed this "status anxiety" which he defined as "A worry? that we are failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society and that we may as a result be stripped of our dignity and respect; a worry that we are currently occupying too modest a rung or are about to fall to a lower one." As the last mortarboards fly through the air and come tumbling down to the earth, I'm thinking a lot about all those graduates. It's going to be a crash-landing for more than a few of them.
For starters, it's a tough time to embark on a "real world" phase of life. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are five job seekers for every opening right about now. That's not good news for the 2.4 million students who put blood, sweat, and tears into the chance to stick a B.A. or A.A. on their resumes. According to the College Board's latest figures, 65 percent of bachelor's degree recipients graduate with educational debt, and half of those students owe at least $20,000. The abundance of unpaid internships out there are little solace for this crowd.
But what weighs even more heavily on some of these gowned shoulders, it turns out, is not debt but anticipation. For this generation -- often either pumped up by self-esteem education and helicopter parents, or laden with the impossible weight of being "the first" and succeeding for the whole family -- expectations can be preposterously high. What does success really mean to a young American lucky enough to go to school but unlucky enough to be graduating at this economic moment?
It can't necessarily mean a lucrative job, because there simply aren't a lot of them to choose from. It can't be predicated on a cool office environment or hip co-workers -- a few new grads might squeeze their way onto the Google campus, but the majority missed out on the heady ping-pong-table-in-the-office days of the dot com boom. It's an infinitely tricky thing to figure out what might actually feel like fulfillment at 21-years-old.
I graduated almost ten years ago now, but I can vividly remember the strange paradox of being convinced of my own greatness and, simultaneously, sensing that I was just a clever imposter. I could taste my own potential, but I was also numbed by crushing bureaucracies, and what appeared to be never-ending ladders to climb, hoops to jump through, and asses to kiss. I was hungry as hell for a little bit of power, for a little bit of proof that I wouldn't just end up like all the other bitter 30-somethings talking about how young and idealistic they'd once been. I wanted to pay my rent, sure, but more than that, I wanted to matter.
It turns out that to matter, one is far better off surrounding oneself with smart, innovative people than actually trying too hard to be one. As Rachel Maddow put it in her commencement speech to the Smith College Class of 2010: "I would like to offer the hypothesis on this beautiful graduation day that personal triumphs are overrated." That's great news at a time when personal triumph is made even more out-of-reach and collaborating are made even more attractive by economic hardship.
In this light, today's graduates are not actually so unlucky. They are compelled to be scrappy, to depend on one another, to stick to their own invented definitions of success (what other kinds are there, really?). Like their great grandmothers and grandfathers, they are being made hardy for the long haul, accustomed to tectonic shifts in economy, environment, technology, culture. "There's only change," Meryl Streep told the Barnard College Class of 2010, "and then resistance to it, and then more change."
How right she is. Now that I've hit 30, I can proudly say that I haven't lost my idealism, nor picked up much bitterness, but I have endured the unexpected. My triumphs have tasted pretty damn sweet, but it is the loss and the change that have made me stronger, wiser, more empathic. Cornel West asks, "Yes it's failure, but how good a failure?"
Even Harvard degrees can't shelter you from the storms of recession or the erosion of expectations. In those struggles, it is your friendships, your guts and integrity, your humility and patience, that get you through. For new graduates, baptism in real world resilience might be just the thing.