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"In the city of my birth, I had a dream..."
Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans. 
7th-Jul-2009 03:21 pm
I spent several hours talking to two longtime friends last night. Both are female, highly educated, approximately the same age, and devoted to their families (occasionally to their own disadvantage). Furthermore, both are Seriously Stressed Out by financial matters. In other ways, though, they could not be more different.

Friend #1 regaled me with all of the reasons why career X (along with every other conceivable letter of the career alphabet) is not feasible and complained about intractable family members are ruining day-to-day productivity. Despite a serious lack of funds, the only thing Friend #1 seems to be looking forward to is a brief trip abroad in the coming month.

Friend #2, meanwhile, can't wait for a vacation either and is facing down the reality of the economic crisis as it impacts her current situation. She grudgingly informed me that in the absolute worst-case scenario she will need to take out additional loans. However, she is willing to suffer significant day-to-day inconvenience if she can avoid further debt because she knows where she wants to be five years from now.

What strikes me about both friends' situations is that, fundamentally, they are both suffering from a shortage of cash and that the only immediate solution--given the abominable job market--to that shortage is to borrow. But while Friend #2 will do whatever it takes, Friend #1 is allergic to the specter of five-figure debt. Guess which friend is certain to get on with her life?

As we all know, the United States is the debtor nation, and the only semi-reliable way for the average young person to get ahead these days is to board the treadmill of Deep Indebtedness. This does not mean burning the proverbial candle at both ends. The key, to my mind, is to know where you want to end up. As anyone who has ever been to a gym knows, it is possible to outrun a treadmill--provided that you know where you're going and perhaps sweat your @$$ off.

Unfortunately, there are no guarantees, and these days there isn't much in the way of safety net if it turns out you can't hack the life you've chosen. I'm the last person to argue that all you have to do to succeed is to try hard enough. However, if there's one thing I've learned, it's that "can't" is a very flexible category; it's amazing what people are willing to risk or sacrifice when they really, really want something.

If you don't know what you want, you will not correctly assess levels of risk. The first step in life is deciding what you want out of it over the long-term. Only then can you begin to figure out how best to go about it. After all, even failure is better than never having tried...because no failure short of death must necessarily be permanent. Have an end goal in mind, and there will always be alternative routes, workarounds, compromises. Furthermore, other people can help you only if you can communicate your specific needs and desires to them (there are few things more frustrating than trying to help people who don't know what they want), and the ones dearest to you will soon get caught up in the pace that you set. And even if you never get there, at least you will have lived.

As someone who has existed both like Friend #1 and Friend #2 in the past few years, I can assure you that risk can be worth it...even if it doesn't pay off like you expected. There is nothing more awful than having nowhere to go and nothing to do. Sometimes it turns out that the time it takes to get there is as precious as the goal you may never achieve. I've done things, met people, been places now I never would have had I chosen not to gamble on my future. Yes, I'm terribly afraid of what may still come--I'm not sure that fear will ever go away. Life, as they say, is what happens when you're busy making other plans.

In any case, I have the utmost admiration for those like Friend #2--and many other young people I've met over the years--who seize the reins of their lives with both hands and, at no inconsiderable sacrifice, chart a path for themselves. They are the heroes of one of the most unequal and stratified of affluent societies. In some ways, the worst of times, when the pain of inertia is most unbearable, is the best of times to take risks. Worse comes to worst, you have comparatively less to lose.
(Deleted comment)
7th-Jul-2009 09:06 pm (UTC)
We both got through grad school with no debt

"Got through"? Are you finished with that translation thesis you were doing? Can I break out the champagne--and then read it? XD XD XD
(Deleted comment)
7th-Jul-2009 09:25 pm (UTC)
Anyway, I've gotten a ton done this week--apparently going to the hospital was good for me.

Nothing like illness to renew one's commitment to life, eh? >_<

I'm going to be way too intimidated to show you the thesis when I do get done! Gah. I don't want to show it to people who know what they're talking about!

Give me a break! *rolls eyes* If it's good enough to submit for your degree, it's nothing to be ashamed of! You'll be more credentialed than I am, anyway. ^_~

(Oh, and whether or not I know what I'm talking about is very much a matter of opinion these days. Regardless of what I do or don't know, I'm still idealistic enough to believe that academic inquiry should be cumulative and progressive.)

Edited at 2009-07-07 09:30 pm (UTC)
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