Anxiety surrounding the post-graduation unknown

An illustration of college graduates throwing their graduation caps into the air
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As a current senior, the question I get asked most frequently is “So, what are your plans after graduation?”

If asked any other year, I would naturally answer by naming prospective job options or discussing my applications to graduate school. Though, even as a senior this year, my answer hasn’t changed. What has changed is my fear of answering questions about my future.

With the clock ticking down and graduation approaching in a couple of months, I’m so much more fearful of responding to questions about my plans because I’m still uncertain about what I want them to look like. Senior year is typically portrayed as the time where you’re supposed to have the most fun, but all I’ve been feeling is burnt out from all the stress. My anxiety continues to heighten with the sudden realization that I will soon be thrown into the “real world,” where there will no longer be any academic structure or school resources to guide me. This has led me to spend countless days and nights either studying or job searching.

School normalized a routine that someone else would plan for me. I created my schedule by picking classes that had preset specific times that worked well for me. Attending lectures and studying for exams constituted my main responsibilities. Although I still worked a part-time job, attended to my family and planned for my career throughout each year of college, only in my senior year did the true weight of all the impending responsibilities I will soon have to take on hit me.

As I continue to actively seek a full-time, post-graduation job, I also must begin to plan on making wise financial decisions and taking care of my aging parents. It feels as though I face an endless sea of choices, making it easy to feel insecure about what step to take next when faced with numerous responsibilities.

Such worries have also only emphasized my ongoing feeling of imposter syndrome. It didn’t help that I had taken a gap year after my second year at UC Berkeley, leading me to fall one year behind most of my friends. I watched from the sidelines as they all excitedly graduated together and are now acclimated with either graduate school or their new careers. Despite their reassurances along with my own, I still couldn’t help but feel like I was always one step behind.

While they’re all already making progress towards achieving their aspirations, I’m still trying to figure out what mine even are. When comparing myself to my friends and other seniors, I always end up feeling like I come up short. My sense of impostor syndrome tells me that I’m not as qualified, as hard of a worker or as brilliant as them.

With these thoughts, I’ve become confused about what I’m working towards. Is my exhaustion from nonstop studying, extracurricular activities and incessant job searching worth it? Will I even feel happy and fulfilled in the jobs I’m applying for? To address my confusion, I had to take a step back from purely basing my self-worth on just my achievements alone.

If I’m going to break through my burnout, I need to first reevaluate my definition of success. Up to this point, I defined success by career-driven accomplishments and financial freedom and stability. However, my experience with excessive anxiety and burnout taught me that I’ll never be satisfied with myself if I continue to base my self-worth on those things only.

Unfortunately, today’s society and the birth of “hustle culture” have placed immense expectations on us to be productive all the time. Anything that doesn’t contribute to our careers or add to our wealth equates to productivity and is consequently shamed and looked down upon. We can’t seem to rest without feeling left behind, even if it comes at the cost of our physical or mental health.

Yet the truth is that we all need a break from time to time. It’s wrong to require everyone to be high-functioning and able to direct all their time and energy towards work 24/7. We all naturally have different work capacities, therefore we’ll naturally be at different stages of life compared to our peers.

Additionally, rest is just as important. The old saying, “stop and smell the roses,” should be emphasized even more in contrast to the current productivity norms. For myself, who isn’t as high functioning as many of my peers, I’m learning to build a healthy relationship between work and rest. I’ve been reminding myself to smell the roses too, to enjoy the last remnants of my young adulthood and college days before it’s too late.

Contact Emily Lui at [email protected].