Choose Your Own Path: Your Journey is Your Own
A Not-So-Complete Guide to Walking Your Own Path
Going into my 5th year at my university, I’ve felt almost ashamed for how long I’ve been in school. Whenever anyone asks me the dreaded “What are you doing now?” question, I suddenly draw into myself, cast my eyes to the floor, and feel myself shrink to about two inches tall before I can even answer. I constantly look down on myself for not finishing “on time,” alongside many individuals I first entered school with, and tend to explain every detail of my collegiate journey to whomever asks me as a way to justify my position. I’m constantly comparing myself to other my own age that are, by my standards, successful individuals and then put myself down for not being where they are by now.
There’s a socio-normative outlook on life from high school onward that just isn’t the real way of the world. Society expects a high school diploma, a degree in four years and a job immediately after. While this is all great in theory, it’s not realistic. When it comes to education and life milestones, we seem to forget that not everyone is walking on the same path. Some may walk the path I previously outlined. Others may have started a semester later and had a gap year in the middle, like myself. There are some that never went to a college or university after high school, some individuals don’t finish high school, some go to a college or university, but leave before completing their program, but that doesn’t take away the fact that these individuals still work hard and push passionately towards their goals. So then, why am I so ashamed to still be in the same city in the same lecture halls as so many incredibly talented individuals?
I’ve heard before that we are our own harshest critics, and I wholeheartedly agree with this. I’m extremely hard on myself—much harder than anyone would ever be towards me—when it comes to any of my creative endeavors, how I handle relationships, how I perform at work, so on and so forth, and being this way means that when I have a personal goal I miss the mark on, I start shutting down. I fill myself with coulda-shoulda-woulda’s and think “Damn, I could’ve done better.” So, when I begin to reflect on my current state of education and my past, I think of all the opportunities I didn’t take and begin to imagine how different things would be now if I had just stuck to the same path as my peers. And this is exactly the problem. No one, absolutely no one, is on the same path. No. One.
Our culture has become so absorbed with finding the clearest path from Point A to Point B that any deviation from it leads to uncharted territory people don’t know how to talk about nor deal with. Unrealistic expectations are there from the onset. Education has become a game of smoke and mirrors and that has to change. The most common phrase I’ve heard from my sweet and supportive friends that keeps me grounded and reminds myself to focus on me is “Everyone has their own path” (almost immediately followed by “Don’t worry, no one has their shit together.”) For myself, and I’m sure many others, it’s hard to forget about the opinions of others and to not compare my journey to someone else’s. Sure, it’s smart to find mentors or people you look up to to help get you where you want to go, but you also have to remember that their journey is not yours. Their story is not a step-by-step guide to happiness, but rather an opportunity to learn and emulate, test and try and try again, because even if you fail, you learn.
I entered school without any clue as to what I wanted to do, a semester later than those I graduated high school with. Already, I had missed out on the fall experience and, never really being truly close to those individuals, felt a little alone. A few more semesters go by and, fully submerged, I’m forced to take a voluntary year off of school. I had a hard time. I was depressed, couldn’t get to class, failed many of them and lost a few friends in the process. I had built up an idea for myself about what the college experience should be like, how it should go, what I would do, and who I would become, so when I was stripped of that, I felt incapable of doing anything else. I felt that I had failed. I had failed myself and failed to walk the path that was set for me. Near rock bottom, I saw the opportunity to take the next year and make the most out of it. I worked more hours at a local luxury retailer, I landed an internship writing for a publication based out of New York City, and gave everything I did a purpose. Every project, every article, every shift at work was in service to getting me closer to where I wanted and wished to be.
After my year away, I felt more in tune with myself and, after a series of meetings and future planning, I was able to reenter my university. Getting back into school was a big decision—even the Dean I met with said that most people don’t return after being dropped from the university. I knew I wanted more and that a a degree would help me get there. As part of my readmission process, I had to map out the next year in school. I had to choose my major, a backup major, and find a backup to my backup. I had to find exact classes I would take. I had to map it out and get a plan—something I had never done even once in my early years. Despite having a bit more structure and a more attainable end goal since reentering, I’ve still found it hard to get myself to balance and stay prioritized. But I’m here and I will finish. In going through what I did (outlined for you here, albeit still a bit vaguely), I was able to identify for myself my own value, my small goals that can get me to my bigger ones, and surround myself with individuals that inspire me to continue on and keep working.
While I do still think of all the missed opportunities, I also think of all the incredible experiences I have had, shared and created not just for myself, but for others around me that are also struggling to find the way to better days. The number one, most helpful, reassuring antidote for feeling like you’re at rock bottom is to talk to someone about it, because chances are they’ve been there, too. When I talk about tough situations I’m experiencing now with my closest friends, the conversation reframes the situation from being an impossible question to answer into a challenge of how can we help each other help each other. If we can find the courage to share our thoughts and our stories, we’ve immediately done so much in service to ourselves, our wellbeing, and understanding that yes, we have value.
I’ve come a long way since that point in my life and I can say with absolute certainty that it would’ve made a world of difference if I knew others also had gone through it and what they were doing to stay inspired and motivated. (The only person I had do this for me at the time was my Grandfather who, upon learning I had been dropped from my university, said with a smirk and a laugh, “You know, I failed out, too.” That helped.) Going forward, what we need to work on is learning how to not define ourselves by the amount of time we’ve been in a place, but by what we’ve been able to do with that time and what positive changes we’ve been able to make while being there. We also need to learn how to share our experiences with the people that care about us, because whether or not you believe it, you are never alone. That’s a fact.
It's an extremely toxic thing to compare one's own path to that of another, when we can only observe them while walking beside them. We won't know what they've seen and where they have to step next, until we have walked on their path—but even then we won't truly know how they perceive what they've seen along the way. What we can do is travel forward, making goals for ourselves along the way, keeping an arm outstretched in case someone needs a little help, so that by the time we're done—whether it takes four years, five years, six years with a two year break in the middle, or ten years—we've all accomplished more than we originally set out to do.