What do you even do? Just … nothing … all day?
There’s a hint of delight, then envy. Before I can say anything, the moment evaporates, leaving a combination of bewilderment and disdain – but mostly the latter.
Interactions like these were the essence of my spring quarter. I graduated early, but stuck around Evanston because I wasn’t ready to leave just yet. Whenever a friend or acquaintance learned I wasn’t taking classes, the reaction was uniform. At first, it seemed like a perfectly reasonable question, so I offered my straightforward answer: Instead of going to class, I worked a couple part-time jobs, volunteered and went running along the lake every day. I filled my time.
Oh good, they would say.
After hearing, What do you do all day? for the zillionth time, though, I saw the problem. The issue wasn’t the asker or even the question itself, but the cultural attitude that loaded it with so much perplexity and disapproval. If you don’t go here anymore, shouldn’t you start your real job? What are you even doing with your life? Nobody said it aloud, but that’s what many of them were thinking.
My school-less spring quarter, then, became a disturbing Northwestern litmus test. More clearly than ever, I saw our deep aversion to the concept of “nothing” – all the puzzled stares, tilted heads and raised eyebrows when people wondered what the heck I was still doing at Northwestern when I no longer had Northwestern to keep me busy.
I’m not really uncovering anything new. It’s no secret that the culture here is to always be doing something, anything that jacks up our resumes, decorates our email signatures, manufactures job interview fodder. Lead things (whatever that means). Subsist on little sleep. Do everything and win at it. Explicitly or not, that’s what we tell each other and how we measure ourselves.
It’s a culture that makes Career Services emails with the subject, “Don’t have a summer internship yet?” and workshops in April titled “last minute internship search” (read: get your shit together) seem perfectly normal. A culture in which people say this and this out loud.
It is the Wildcat way, and it’s twisted. While there’s nothing wrong with career goals and wanting a return on that enormous four year investment, our obsession with preparing for the job market, for our lives to start as “real people,” makes us forget – this is the real world. We are real people.
The real world. Stop waiting for it. In a few years, no one, including yourself, is going to be impressed by the number of exec boards you sat on or how many millimeters of white space you reserved for your Google Calendar. So break that toxic tradition. Go an entire day without saying the word “internship.” Forget trying to use busyness to as a way assess your own and others’ worth. Quit something. Once in a while, sit around, stare at the ceiling and day dream. And be OK with it afterward, without freaking out about the time you spent being “unproductive” to your future. Look up from your phone to ask someone how they’re doing – and I mean really, genuinely doing, not how their cover letters are going, which meeting they’re off to or how much sleep they got the night before – then truly listen to the response.
It’s easier said than done, especially for someone who hasn’t belonged to a student group or taken a midterm in more than three months. Looking back, I don’t regret any of the activities I joined, (most) classes I took or the time spent with the people I met along the way. But I wish I had been better, just once in a while, at doing nothing. Too often, I forgot to take a moment, breathe and just live. I hope you will take the time to do that for yourself.
Chrissy served as Print Managing Editor, Print Creative Director, Print Senior Editor, Print Senior Design Editor, News Assistant and Marketing Director for North by Northwestern.