20-Somethings: Doing Nothing and Everything At the Same Time


You know that sense that you’ve done absolutely nothing with your life so far, and probably won’t end up doing anything particularly commendable for the rest of it? What about the feeling that everything you thought you were pretty good at turns out to be irrelevant, as though some administrative-type recently called down from the sky in a bored but official tone, “Painting: Unnecessary! Poetry: Campy! Writing: Come on, no one makes it as a writer! Music: See writing. Grilled Cheeses: Delicious but not very impressive!”

I feel like that a lot. I don’t have enough evidence to support the social worthiness of grilled cheese making. I can’t prove what I’m giving back to society, or that I’m giving back anything at all. In many ways, I’m one of those quintessential twenty-somethings.

Remember that article in the New York Times about us?

We’re driving everyone crazy. We don’t fit in. We seem undecided. We can’t pick one thing and stick to it.

I don’t think anyone ever told me I had to do or be only one thing. Neither of my parents leaned down as I was playing with a doll, a My Little Pony, and a train set, and said, “That’s all well and good, kid, but when you grow up you can’t be a mom, a horse trainer, and a train conductor. You can only be one. And I’d suggest train conductor, because the whistle is really loud.” I (like all little girls) did always like the whistle, and the coal car, and the contrast between the bulky shape of the freight engine and the sleek lines of the Amtrak engine. I don’t see nearly enough coal cars these days.

(yes! That’s it! That’s just like the one I remember! source)

As an unschooler, I was extraordinary. I mean, to the world. The world was impressed that I could function at all. That I could shake people’s hands and say, “Nice to meet you!” after having lived in the social desert of space outside of school for my entire childhood. It was a little like being one of those feral kids.

(Joking. Though I did play in the woods a lot…) The world was impressed by all of the stuff that I was doing. I was good at so many things simultaneously! It was shocking! I could paint and perform at poetry slams and write fantasy novels and play classical piano and sing and direct Shakespeare plays. It looked like I had a pretty good shot at taking over the world. (Come on- what world leader hasn’t on occasion put on a massive performance of Much Ado About Nothing with all the U.N. delegates? You know, at that barbecue they have…)

People are surprised by people who are good at more than one thing at once. But the truth is, absolutely everyone is good at a lot of things. It’s practically impossible to only be good at one thing. Because, well, you probably wouldn’t survive, and also, things are too connected. You’d accidentally get good at something else, just because it was related. I was like a student who gets B’s or A’s in most of her classes. Except that I didn’t have classes, and the activities I spent time on were mostly ones that fit into the category, developed by formal schooling, called “extracurricular.” Kinda like “extraterrestrial.” If this word defines everything that you are, then you’re probably a freak. The kids who had to sit at a series of desks all day doing “curricular” things mostly didn’t have time to get good at a lot of extracurriculars.

I thought being good at a lot of stuff was where it was at. As it turns out, I was terribly misinformed. I hadn’t gotten the memo. The one about what success looks like. Real success. Adult success. The kind of success that defines the rest of your life. It doesn’t look like working a bunch of part time jobs while you play coffee shops with your ukulele.

(this proves that there’s a sexy photo for absolutely anything you type into the internet. source here)

It doesn’t look like moving back home with your parents while you get rejected again and again and again from every job you apply to. Or having to blog instead of freelance, because magazines aren’t hiring freelancers anymore. Or live with a lot of other people in Brooklyn instead of on your own in Manhattan. It doesn’t look like doing a million tiny things instead of one big, recognizable, commendable, impressive thing.

Or does it?

The truth is, I’m surrounded by people my age who are doing all of the things I just mentioned. Of course there are people who got a good job. Or got a job they love doing something they always wanted to do. There are the people who seem to know exactly how to reach their goals, and exactly what their goals are. But for every one of them, there are about ten other people who can’t get a job, no matter how hard they try and how qualified they are. They don’t want to take a job that they hate, even if they get it. They have adapted to living with a lot of people, or they like their family and are fine with living at home. They are increasingly adept at irony. They are innovative cooks. They build careers on not having careers. They are always busy, somehow, and they’re getting truly excellent at the ukulele.

People like this are caught in between. There are two sides at war in their heads. The side that says, “You’re not doing anything! Get a real job! Grow up!” and the side that says, “This is what grown up looks like! Get creative!”

The world has changed. I’d like to think that we are getting more creative as a result. If the traditional career path is a box, then we have definitely been forced to think outside of it. Maybe it occurs to a lot of people that they never wanted to get in that box in the first place.

In a way, we’re a generation of unschoolers.

But here I am, as someone who grew up believing unhesitatingly in my own ability to be good at the world, caught thrashing in the same trap. Wondering how I will face people without at least a book deal to justify my nontraditional existence.

At synagogue, after services, I was talking to a congregant, who was telling me how her 20-something daughter was doing. She was freelancing.

“Very cool,” I said.

She leaned in closer and whispered, “She lives at home.”

“Oh yeah?” I said. “How’s that working out? Does everyone like the arrangement?”

She paused for a moment and then smiled. “Yes. We actually all like it a lot.”

“That’s perfect, then!”

She looked surprised. She said something about how her husband sometimes said stuff about how he’d gotten a job right out of college, and his own apartment.

“But have you seen how expensive apartments are?” She said. “And who’s getting a job?”

“That’s exactly right,” said someone else, coming over to join the conversation. “I don’t know why anyone expects kids to get an apartment right after they graduate. No one can do that.”

“And anyway,” said the first woman. “We’re happy. I like having my daughter there.”

Amazingly, we’re happy. Or are we? Maybe it’s hard to tell. Maybe happiness doesn’t look the same anymore. Or maybe it’s always looked exactly the same, and we just have to learn to recognize it in places we didn’t expect it to crop up.

I never had to be somewhere in the middle of the day as a kid. I never sat in a classroom. And that was just my life. Now, there’s something rebellious about not being somewhere in the middle of the day, here in the adult world. There’s something subversive about working part time gigs on the weekends, plus every week on Tuesday afternoons, plus whatever other days during the week I’m needed for a certain project. About working all the time on things that don’t involve money, or don’t involve money right now. Things that don’t count as something cohesive or real or grown up or important. But maybe the subversiveness and the rebellion aren’t anything unique. This might be the beginning of an age of some of the best grilled cheeses the world has ever tasted.

* * * * * * *

Un-Roast: Today I love the way I look in really schlumpy clothes. Like sweatpants and a loose teeshirt. And not the sweatpants that say something on the butt. The sweatpants that are from the men’s department and have clearly seen better days. The sweatpants that were checking out the sweatpants that say something on the butt.

P.S. I’m sorry for how many grilled cheeses show up on this blog. They’re just a really important part of my life.

P.P.S. Thanks for the comments on the Days of Awe post. Here’s another nontraditional post about the High Holidays, from Penelope, who fed some chickens in honor of Rosh Hashanah. Speaking of creativity, we Jews are a very creative bunch.

P.P.P. S. Sign up for email updates in the pink box, if you haven’t already. Sign up on Google Reader. Sign up in some way. Because everyone should have more cake.


Kate on September 13th 2010 in being different, homeschooling, life

22 Responses to “20-Somethings: Doing Nothing and Everything At the Same Time”

  1. Katie responded on 13 Sep 2010 at 12:30 pm #

    Kate, you could not have posted this at a more perfect time. I am sitting here like a dweeb, all teary in Starbucks. I am dealing with ALL of this right now…and I do not live at home, but with financial matters the way they are, it’s not NOT a possibility. I am 23, on the brink of 24, and feel so….stuck. Doing a bunch of “little” things instead of one big thing, which I definitely always viewed as the marker of “success” (or at least the road to success), stability, and adulthood. I do well with tasks and goals and a path. In a way I feel so scattered. I am an actor and model, which is very much like being a writer (or in ANY creative field) in that my schedule is varied and I really cannot COUNT on stability. I need to make my own success and put my own value to my work. I’m getting into the fitness industry, i’m freelance blogging, i’m doing some marketing projects….but no structure. I feel like one of those colored sand animals you’d make at summer camp, where all the sand is poured in nice little lines on top of one another to make something beautiful and orderly….except right now, that sand is all jumbled around. The blues are mixing with the pinks and the yellows and the greens and it all just looks like one big mess. No lines. Hopefully, soon, those lines will form into a little hierarchy of colors and shapes and endpoints.

    Anyway…thank you for writing this. Imma link you on Facebook, since this is so spectacular.

    And yes, we Jews are a very creative bunch :) Shana tova!!!

  2. Kate responded on 13 Sep 2010 at 12:36 pm #

    Wow, what a gorgeously worded image, about the sand animals. Someone should pay you a lot of money just to go around writing lines like that! :)

    Shana tovah! And thanks for linking. Always appreciated.

  3. rachel responded on 13 Sep 2010 at 1:08 pm #

    Forgive me, but being able to stay home everyday worrying about one’s level of success sounds like a luxury. So much better than worrying about how to pay the rent, or planning which credit card to use to the pay the phone bill. Better even than having a job and worrying about how it leaves you no time or energy for ‘extracurriculars.’
    Of course I know plenty of 20-somethings who don’t have their own apartments, but most of those living at home with their parents are still working crappy full time jobs to make ends meet, because as much as the economy has kept them from real careers its also threatened their parents’ retirement.

  4. Kate responded on 13 Sep 2010 at 1:16 pm #

    @Yikes! I didn’t say these things are mutually exclusive! You can worry about paying the rent and worry about your level of success simultaneously. “Staying home everyday” takes a lot of different forms, and almost never actually means staying home everyday. And, like I said, a lot of people just can’t get a job, or can’t get a full time job, so that’s not always the obvious alternative.

  5. Cindy responded on 13 Sep 2010 at 1:18 pm #

    i’ve lived the “in the box” life my whole life. I think.
    I think, when I was 20 something I just did what I thought I was supposed to, and it didn’t serve me very well.

    I was home all last week; and I was all over the place and I loved every free, creative AND productive moment of it.

    Now I am back to the box and I want to chew my arm off!

    You’ll figure it all out. One day it will make sense and you will see it all come together. Who determines what makes life meaningful?

    YOU DO!

    great article, thanks

    can you ship me a grilled cheese w pastrami?

  6. rachel responded on 13 Sep 2010 at 1:23 pm #

    “They don’t want to take a job that they hate, even if they get it. “

  7. lk responded on 13 Sep 2010 at 1:44 pm #

    Kate –

    I get the “good at a lot of stuff ” thing. I need more hours in the day to do all of the creative things that I want to. Photography, music, writing… My mom was once told that I had the golden touch – everything I did turned to gold. I think it comes from being an overachiever. :)

    It’s tough to balance that out with my super conservative side that requires me to have a full time job.

    This morning, I was thinking about how I balance all of this out. I could not come up with an answer as to how I could hold down my job, be a single mom, do photography, front a big band and finish my degree all at the same time. Any advice from one girl who is good at a lot of things to another?

    – lk

  8. lk responded on 13 Sep 2010 at 1:48 pm #

    PS — I’m not a 20 something, but I can relate. ;)

    (Writing that me feel old, but it’s completely ok! LOL)

  9. Kate responded on 13 Sep 2010 at 2:11 pm #

    Yes, I wrote that. And yes, that’s true for some people. Not for everyone, though, certainly!

  10. Samantha Angela @ Bikini Birthday responded on 13 Sep 2010 at 3:00 pm #

    re: “They don’t want to take a job that they hate, even if they get it. “

    and why should they? 20 somethings have their entire life ahead of them to earn money and generally have low fiscal responsibility. Why would they settle for a life they would resent? Some things, like good jobs, good apartments, and good spouses are worth waiting for.

  11. zoe responded on 13 Sep 2010 at 5:02 pm #

    the 20-something NYT article was so interesting! i’m glad you brought it up.

    my question is when does “responsibility” actually kick in? when do us 20-somethings enter the “real” world? and you know, what the hell does that mean anyway? i am just about 21 and i feel pretty responsible. i am graduating college this semester. i am holding down a job. i pay for my gas, my car, my groceries, my gas and electric bills (not school, not rent. i have amazing parents). i feel like i am living in the real world. i don’t think a steady job, kids, and a marriage necessarily indicate a person is living in the “real” world anyway. what other world is there? so the 20-somethings are deviating from the standard go to college, get a job, get married, have kids plan. i’m wondering why everyone cares so much about us…

    and just to comment on samantha’s post…”why would they settle for a life they would resent?”…why would anyone settle for a life they would resent if the circumstances didn’t force them into something? (that was a really grammatically incorrect sentence. my apologies!)

  12. San D responded on 13 Sep 2010 at 5:33 pm #

    I believe in backwards planning. I knew I wanted to be a teacher, and had a teaching career of 35 years. I lined everything up in my life, so that I could teach what I loved, and that was art. Within the “box”, I was able to forge a career of love and laughs, that continually changed, from just teaching art to teaching art history and puppetry. And now I’ve retired. And, guess what? Because I taught, and learned SO much along the way so that I could teach my students, I am now taking that knowledge and making art, and being uber creative. I always did art while I taught, but now, with a pension, I can afford to come and go, and eat, and still pay bills. I used to ask this of my students at all times “Where do you see yourself at 60?” Then plan to get there. If you don’t know what that person will be at 60, make sure to have experiences that will take you somewhere, and that you don’t go from a 20 something, to a 60 something still living in the basement. I understand not wanting to work somewhere because you hate it (believe me I did that while trying to get a teaching job). I took some pretty crummy jobs during the 7 years it took to get a teaching job. But guess what? I learned an amazing amount of stuff about myself and on the job that made me a better teacher. I don’t know if it is in our DNA as humans but I do think we have the need to feel productive whether on the farm or in the city, and I think we have the need to feel like we have contributed something to the greater good.

  13. Cindy responded on 13 Sep 2010 at 5:41 pm #

    sometimes you just end up living a life and a job that, say, 20 years later you can’t swallow because it just came your way and it seemed right at the time.

    sometimes you do what you do because you think it’s what you are supposed to do.

    sometimes no one tells you it’s okay to be choosier. Back when you were 20 something and laying down foundations you will rest on for years to come.

    sometimes life doesn’t give you choices…and the ones you have are worse than the ones you are in now….so you stay.

    and you can’t complain because others have it worse.

    things like that

    one thing I know very well, you should love what you do because you will spend an aweful big chunk of your life doing just that. And if you hate it or even don’t like it…sooner or later it becomes a huge burden.


  14. Cecilia responded on 13 Sep 2010 at 9:07 pm #

    Sometimes, and, because I’m a type-A-overachiever-ivy-league-conveyer-belt sort of person it takes a while to get there, but SOMETIMES, I realize that in some ways having to take time off from college because of my raging anorexia was a good thing.

    Medical necessity forced me off of the conveyer belt and gave me time to realize that I had to idea what I liked, what I enjoyed, or who I even was. I tell my therapist about how I wish so much that I was like those “other people,” the magical superheroes that figured out a career path and just followed it. She told me, “but those are often the people who, ten or fifteen years down the line, have the same sort of breakdown that you’re having now.” I suppose the point is, though I am not grateful for the wretched monster in my head that put me in the hospital, I am sort of grateful for the opportunity to have my “midlife crisis” now, when I am young and still have time to sort it out.

    I’m still working on trying to figure out what I want; it becomes difficult, I think, after years of doing what I’m supposed to do, to try to separate out what I actually like to do. And I’m glad I’m not the only one wondering whether I’m a failure before I’ve even started.

  15. Howlin' Hobbit responded on 16 Sep 2010 at 4:01 pm #

    Great post!

    It’s been a long time since I’ve been a 20-something, I don’t have any sort of “traditional” career — and was only in one for about six years out of my life — and I’m careening madly through life, making it up as I go along.

    I am getting pretty good on the ukulele though.

  16. Howlin' Hobbit responded on 16 Sep 2010 at 4:03 pm #

    P.S. a little layer of shredded crab in that grilled cheese is like heaven with toasted bread.

  17. Ana responded on 16 Sep 2010 at 9:23 pm #

    It makes me so happy to see a young, intelligent woman on the internet who doesn’t write LOL after every sentence. There should be more women like you on blogs. You actually talk about important things. You may just be my new favorite person.

  18. Leah responded on 20 Sep 2010 at 1:26 pm #

    Ya! Love this post, my life in a nutshell. Being a motorcycle stuntgirl, chef, photographer, writer doesn’t come with any legitimization except me telling myself it’s good and right and I’m OK. Thanks for the confidence boost.

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