One year outside the ivory tower

Phil Gengler
2006-05-25 22:28:14

It is with a great sadness that I now look back on my childhood and everything that went along with it. I can remember so clearly having the feeling that, once I grew up, everything was going to be great. I can remember some of the things I promised myself; when I was about 12, I was fascinated with airplanes, and I couldn't wait until I could drive and had a car, so that I could drive to an airport and spend a whole day watching the planes coming and going.

I can also remember some of the foolish plans I used to have; at several points, by best friend and I thought we had it all figured out. One plan was to create a completely new video game console that would be blown the socks of anything on the market at the time (which was systems like Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis). We had fantastic visions for how it would have "totally real" graphics, and we'd even picked out a name, the "Dream Machine". Another of the plans, this one with a couple of other kids from the neighborhood, was that we'd start a business building excessively extravagant and elaborate pools for people. When we were younger, we all thought that we'd make it big playing baseball in the majors.

Jump ahead a few years; I've long since lost touch with the friends I used to have, got through four years of high school, and a year in at college. I'm not the most social person in the world, and I was having trouble making any friends at school. (This was perhaps the biggest reason I joined Alpha Sig — to get to know more people.) The classes for the first year were basically just a waste of time, but it didn't matter, because I was on my own for the first time.

By this point in time, I was completely set on going into programming as a career. (Given how much time I'd spent with computers and computer books up to that point, this was hardly surprising.) Now, the outrageous plans were gone, replaced with the more grounded idea that in a few years, I'd finally be finished with school forever, would settle into a nice software development job, and start to reap the benefits that went along with having a steady source of income and without the tether of school responsibilities.

Jump forward again to right now, just over a year after graduation. It's quite illuminating to see how many of my school-year ambitions have been shattered by cold reality.

For one thing, simply having a degree from a school with a good reputation isn't a ticket to a great job. It wasn't until I started interviewing for a "real" job that I started to realize that there were lots of other people just as qualified or more than I was, and that I wasn't simply going to slide into a great job. I went through interview after interview, until I started to consider the possibility that, come graduation, I wasn't going to have a job lined up. Where I ended up is nothing like what I had come to expect, and not in the good way. So now I'm feeling stuck in a not-as-interesting-as-I-expected job, dealing with a sometimes hellish commute, and making just enough money to cover all my expenses with little left over for savings.

This was probably the first serious disappointment I've had in my life. Through nearly all of school, I can't recall anything that I really wanted but couldn't get. I had no problem taking AP courses in high school, and even when it came to getting into college, I was never really worried about it. I was confident that I was going to be accepted to nearly everywhere I applied (and I was, the unsurprising exception being M.I.T.). I'd always managed to do well enough without having to put in too much effort, and I'd come to expect that this was going to continue.

Another thing I've come to realize is the truth of the adage "the grass is always greener on the other side." Since at least middle school I had felt that school was just a waste of my time, and I was chomping at the bit to get through it all and get out into the working world. I particularly liked the idea that, once five o'clock rolled around, work was over, and once I got home, I wouldn't have to worry about homework, or studying, or turning around and working at a part-time job. I expected that I'd have a lot more free time and the resources to finally start doing all those things I'd wanted but never had the chance.

Now that I'm finally out of school and part of the workforce, I've come face to face with all the downsides of work that I'd either been unaware of or had ignored before. Sure, work ends at 5, and even with the commute, from 6 on I'm free of any other responsibilities, but spending eight hours in the same chair, doing the same thing (or the same nothing) five days a week for nearly a year gets to be quite tedious after a while. With school, while there would be an assignment, project, or test looming that needed work outside of class time, there were nice, refreshing breaks between classes, which is something work doesn't include. With college, there was also a lot more flexibility in whether or not to attend class. For the most part, I could skip a lecture without any negative effects, and I could do this over and over. Try doing that with work, and see how long it is before you're fired. I do miss being able to blow off class to sleep in, or work on some of my personal stuff, or just do nothing at all.

I've also realized that, in spite of my preference for things to be neat, orderly, and arranged, I need to be able to "start over" with things different to keep myself motivated. A semester at school is just a few months long, and when it's over and you come back, the schedule is different. You're doing to different places at different times on different days for different things. Even within a semester, it was never really the case that two consecutive days were exactly the same. Work is roughly equivalent to a long lecture at school; the only thing is that work is every day, and it lasts for eight hours, when in school, in the worst case, the longest lecture was three hours a day, twice a week, during a summer session.

Having a new start is more than just refreshing, though; it gave me a very definite end to look forward to. I could start off a semester with little more than the resentment at still being in school, but by the time the end rolled around, I would be complaining about nearly everything. If I had to go in to each day not knowing when or if things would change, I think I would have gone insane. But again, that's the case with work. It isn't practical to pack up and start a new job every six months or so; even if it was, there's no assurance that I would be able to find a new job at that point. While I'm absolutely certain that I am not going to spend the rest of my life working at my current job, I also don't have any fixed end point to look forward or count down to. It's analogous to a running in a race; after a while, you'll start to get tired, and if you have no idea how far you are from the finish line, you'll want to stop and take a break. If you know that the finish is only a mile away, though, you can find the strength to keep doing, and to push yourself even harder, but it isn't sustainable.

I've also been surprised to discover just how much I came to depend on having friends around. I think of myself as a very independent person (and to some extent, an anti-social one, too) and quite often I'm content to do my own thing instead of going out or hanging around with people. Sometimes, though, I get sick and tired of sitting at my desk doing nothing on the computer, and it was always a nice break to take a trip to get something to eat, or just to sit around playing games or just talking about whatever. There's something about it that isn't captured by doing any of that alone.

So, as you might have gathered, one year on the outside hasn't exactly been good to me, mentally speaking. The bit of stubborn optimism in me can only hope that things turn around in the second.