Unconventional Twentysomethings

On choosing an unconventional path

Changes to the global economy are old news by now. The kind of job security and slow-changing market that might have been true for our parents is different for us. Most of today’s young people will not spend our working lives loyally employed by the same company, beginning in an entry-level position and retiring, years later, with an unbroken record of service behind us. Most of us, in fact, will have multiple careers in addition to multiple jobs—we will seek out new niches and apply our skills in various industries and (most likely) in multiple locations.

Maybe that’s a scary reality. Or maybe that’s the equation for an interesting life.

Hiking through an ocatillo forest in the Sonora Desert near Tucson, Arizona.

Broad economic changes impact young people, for good and bad. It used to be that the college-bound high schoolers were expected to go straight from graduation to university, and straight from commencement to their first jobs. But there is an increasing volume of young people who are seeking out a different path through life—whether that be in gap years taken before college, or time off from academics for travel or internships along the way.

In some ways I’m not the ideal person to talk about this—I went straight from high school to college, and my travel and work were all done within the four-year track of my college years. Then I went straight from graduation to a Master’s degree. In some ways, I took the most conventional path imaginable. But in other ways I was creating exciting and unconventional opportunities in that context, making “the path” work for me.

My college trajectory was a deliberate choice.

Delaying the real world

My sophomore year, my mom stumbled across Delaying the Real World: A Twentysomething’s Guide to Seeking Adventure by Colleen Kinder. It was a total revelation. She compiles a huge range of ideas for unconventional, non-corporate lifestyles. She recommends adventures from art camp counseling to working on a cruise ship to guiding snorkeling trips. The specific suggestions were inspiring. But the overall message was one that absolutely lit a fire in me:

What’s the hurry?

I have followed my passions while being strategic about my decisions. I could see in the list ways that these alternate short-term futures could fit with my goals and my growth. Cultural experiences, wilderness skills, and leadership opportunities. These are things that I wanted, and were things I knew would work for me to make me a better person (and, strategically again, I knew could fit with my resume and overall potential futures).

With the changes in the economy, the internet is now crowded with recommendations for internships and volunteering and travel ideas for twentysomethings. And they are worth considering, both after college and while you’re still a student. Work toward goals while asking yourself if you’re really living on a set of deadlines. One of my good friends took a year off of college to join AmeriCorps and get a better sense of his direction in life. Other people I have encountered took time for travel or political causes or even a year of full-time employment to gain in-state residency so as to reduce their tuition.

The idea here is that there might be reason to hurry through college and then into a conventional job. But maybe there isn’t any hurry. Maybe, if balanced by some common sense and overarching goal awareness, it would be better and more beneficial to consider some alternatives.

The point is to recognize choice. Decisions should not be made by default. I chose to continue straight through my college years, and then to head straight into one Master’s degree and then another without stopping. That option has treated me well, and I have no way of knowing what doors may have closed if I had chosen a different path.

Living without regrets means owning the choices we make.

Imagine what you want, or might want, or might not ever get a chance to do again. Imagine yourself in ten years: what impediments to adventure might you have accumulated? Hopefully some good ones, like a settled relationship or even kids or at least pets or a house or something. These are good, grown-up goals. But now you’re young. So a season manning hot air balloons and learning wood carving in New Zealand? If that’s what floats your boat… see what you could make happen.

I'll have more to say on this over the coming months. But here is a fast, first-draft list of what I think you need when you finish college:

  • Awareness of your own skills, passions, and aspirations
  • Critical reasoning, the ability to articulate opinions, and a baseline knowledge of both your chosen field and the span of human knowledge generally
  • Self-confidence
  • A degree
  • Job skills
  • A narrative of your college years
  • A resume that demonstrates what you are capable of

Again, this is just a rough draft. I'm pondering an upcoming blog post to be titled "what is college for?" I've been thinking over this question a lot, and feel like the answer is still not entirely clear in my mind.

The point, of this exercise is to really think what you need when you graduate from college. The degree is only part of it. The job is only part of it.

The most crucial role college played in my life was in bridging the gap between my adolescent self and my adult self. Your college years shape who you actually are and who you will choose to be.

High-ropes course in El Salvador, as part of a retreat for my internship in Honduras, working with Central American professionals dealing with issues of immigration in the region. Plus team-building, like this shaky bridge through the treetops.

An unconventional route will only help you learn more about yourself. It will help you make informed decisions and will challenge you to think critically about everything you know and everything you imagine in the future.

So the next time you're trying to plan out a year, or you're making plans for what to do after graduation, keep an eye on the unconventional routes. How might your college experience be improved by a semester abroad? Or by a semester "off" for some other opportunity?

We are young. I believe strongly that this time is of enormous value.

Conventional or not, own your decisions and your path. Move through life like you're doing it on purpose. Imagine your many possible futures, and pursue what brings you the most joy.

And I'll wish you the very best on your journey.

If you liked this post, please check out "Imagined 'Plan B' Futures," "The Power of Manic Lists," and "Inventing an Internship."

Please leave any comments, questions, or unconventional plans in the comments section!