I opened my mailbox this afternoon and immediately felt the sense of complete and utter failure wash over me.
Just in case you were wondering, I usually don't have this type of guttural reaction to fetching the mail. Most days, I actually like sifting through the pile of letters, catalogs, and yes, even bills, my postman dumps in my box. Paying a bill makes me feel like a responsible adult; receiving a paycheck makes me feel like I've accomplished an important task; thumbing through the latest Pottery Barn catalog makes me feel connected to pop culture and style, even if my tightfisted ways won't let me indulge myself with a $50 lemonade pitcher or a $100 throw.
But six days a year, I can reliably predict that my mailbox will send me into the depths of depression, forcing me to question not only my career path, but who I am at my very core, the very fiber that makes me me.
Dying to know what it is?
It's my alma mater's alumni magazine.
The Road To College
My road to college began in 1992. That's when an impressionable nine-year-old Elizabeth watched with bated breath as Christian Laettner hit the now-infamous buzzer beater shot against Kentucky, propelling Duke into the Final Four. I was hooked. For the next nine and a half years, I would tell anybody who would listen that I was going to go to Duke.
“Do you know how tough of a school that is to get into?” many would say. Even my high school guidance counselor tried to steer me to the safer shores of in-state schools, but my mind was made up: for me, it was Duke or bust. On December 13th, 1999 (what? You don't remember the exact date when you learned you'd been accepted to college?), I got a hefty packet in the mail from the Duke admissions office — my early application had been accepted. I'd be a member of the Class of 2004.
Dude, Where's My Pre-Med Degree?
I arrived on Duke's Durham, North Carolina campus on my parents' 35th wedding anniversary. I remember this date as well, because I was so nasty to my mother during the move-in process (why was she embarrassing me by fidgeting with my hair in front of all these hot upperclassmen?) that my father later called me up to inform me that she'd cried all the way through their anniversary dinner at the local Waffle House.
The next day, I received my first semester schedule. I had enrolled in a freshman intensive program — which Duke calls a “FOCUS Group” — aimed at aspiring young medical professionals; in fact, I wanted to be a neurologist. As I mentally went through my classes, I noticed I hadn't gotten the Wednesday afternoon chemistry lab I'd signed up for; instead, I'd been reassigned to a Friday evening lab. 4-8pm in a chem lab? Um, no thank you. How was I going to make it home on weekends to visit my high school sweetheart? Without giving it much thought, I dropped the course, promising myself I'd take it in the spring, when I could secure a better time slot.
Well, you know how college goes. I got involved in Greek life, joined a few on-campus performance groups and — voila! — promptly forgot all about my pre-med aspirations. I pushed all my professional goals to the periphery of my consciousness, and instead spent the next four years having fun. I took exactly one life science class the entire time I was at Duke — a phenomenal course called “The Bio-Basics of Psychology” — but earned the rest of my required math and science credits by learning HTML, C++, and Java in the compsci department.
By the time I graduated in May 2004, my original career choice (neurology) was long forgotten. Instead, my liberal arts degree in history (now you know why I'm so good at remembering dates!) pushed me down a near-opposite career path: journalism.
Feeling Like A Failure
I was proud of my choice of career for about the first six years after graduation. After all, from the outside looking in, journalism — specifically broadcast journalism, the field in which I worked — is glamorous. There are the lights, the cameras, the celebrity interviews; there are the juicy scoops, the feeling like you're “in the know,” the behind-the-scenes access. Of course, there are also 60-hour work weeks making $20,000 a year (a typical salary for an entry-level reporter), overnight shifts, and a guarantee that you'll always work either Thanksgiving or Christmas — or, if you're exceptionally unlucky, both.
Searching for something — anything — different, I moved away from journalism and into two new career paths: freelancing and media research. Both used the skills I'd honed in school (both my undergraduate degree from Duke and my graduate degree from Syracuse), but in different ways than my original field. The freelancing gave me a chance to write about what I wanted, when I wanted, while the research allowed me to challenge the analytical portions of my brain.
Somehow, it still wasn't enough. It was around that time when I started avidly reading through the “Alumni news” section of my Duke Alumni magazine. It was there that I saw one of my sorority sisters had launched her own business cleaning infant carseats and baby strollers with environmentally-friendly materials, allowing her to hob-nob with Hollywood celebs like Jessica Alba, Nicole Richie, and Sarah Michelle Gellar. It was in the magazine's pages that I saw that one of my former dormmates had snagged a gig working alongside President Obama, having been dubbed his “Body Man” (whatever that is). It was there that I saw that one of my classmates had not only defeated advanced colon cancer before the age of 30, but had also started a non-profit organization to help others do the same.
My claim to fame in the alumni magazine? Having babies.
Did I Let My Alma Mater Down?
I don't want to discount the birth of my children, or downplay my role in their lives. I'm a history major; I'm well versed in the Cult of Domesticity and the concept of Republican Motherhood (FYI, it has nothing to do with political allegiance), so I know just how crucial the role of mother truly is.
But there are times, especially late at night when I'm trying (unsuccessfully) to fall asleep, when I wonder if I squandered the opportunities my education gave me. I wonder if I set my professional goals too low, or — even more worrisome — whether I really took the time to set any professional goals at all. When I get right down to it, I'm convinced that, rather than chart a course for myself and actively pursue it, I let my career path be pulled by the ebbs and flows of day to day life. I took the path of least resistance. Instead of creating my life, I let it be created for me.
I just celebrated by 30th birthday, so maybe that's why I've been doing some big thinking lately. Monumental thinking, really.
I've been contemplating things I should have thought about years ago: what do I want to do with my life? where do I see myself in 10 years? how am I going to make that vision a reality? I'm still working on my answers. I learned the first time around that jumping to conclusions too quickly can leave you with a half-drawn picture, poorly thought out plans that lack the passion required to reach fulfillment. So now, I'm taking my time. I'm not making rash decisions, claiming that something is a goal just because it sounds good or looks great on paper.
I'm going to find the real me. As Tim Harford, one of my favorite authors, says, “Success always starts with failure.” I guess that means I've got one step down, many more to go.
Do you have any regrets about your career path? How would your professional goals be different if you could turn back the clock?