Most of us think that upon graduating college (or high school, or whatever), we stop “graduating into things.” We went from pre-k to Kindergarten, from there to elementary, middle and high school, and possibly to college. After that we thought “we are DONE with oversized gowns and caps we aren't allowed to decorate!” And we were right. Kind of.
Even though the formalities and rituals of graduation end, though when they end is different for everyone, it's important that we don't view this as the end of moving forward. We have to continue to move up, not just over, but on to bigger and better things. I’m 23 and, as of right now, I'm done graduating. I'd like to get my masters in English one day, but I'd also like to be out of debt someday, so I say my prayers to Bernie Sanders every night like a good #BernieBro in the hopes that both can happen. Whether I get another degree or not, does that really mean I am finished reaching milestones? Am I supposed to function as if I'm in the final stage of my life? Cue mental “nononono!!!!”
As literally all of you know, I’m from a small town. It’s not a place that inspires much change. It’s a place where, for many people, you do graduate high school and that’s it. Or maybe you do go to college, then possibly start a family, but you pretty much stay rooted where you are. I’m not dragging it by any means- it’s a nice place. I do see a lot of contentment, though, where upon reaching a certain “level” of life, people stop. And it’s fine. They’re living their lives. But for me, that doesn’t work. Maybe it's my youth, but I don't want to feel that way- that I'm living how I'm going to be living when I'm 80.
To reach a milestone, a lot of work has to be put in. In high school most of us got by with minimal effort. It was easy. Graduating from the 12th grade is a milestone simply because we've made it into one. Sure, some people work hard, but for the average kid, it’s not that much work. College gets harder. You’re more responsible for your successes and failures, and it is a lot of work. Most of us make it. It’s an exciting time, and then it’s over. Then we have a choice: to keep working to reach milestones that we set for ourselves, each one harder than the one before, or to stop. To stop living and to just exist.
Do we do what past generations have done, and seek the American Dream? Or do we go out and create the dream ourselves? It’s a scary choice, because it’s a defining choice. It’s a conscious decision we have to make every day and we can never, ever stop making it. It's a choice that requires your constant attention, like a kid you somehow got roped into babysitting who will not. stop. crying. You tend to it, or else.
Courtney E. Martin has an amazing Ted Talk about how the American dream has transformed, and how more and more people are seeking more than a white picket fence. This isn’t to say that a white picket fence is bad, but that the idea of fencing yourself off from the world is losing its luster. When you’re on an island, when you separate yourself, it grows increasingly difficult to see new opportunities on the horizon.
People use the phrase “when opportunity comes knocking” all the time, but rarely does it ever happen that way. All of the writers, all of the photographers, and even all of the teachers who inspire me to be better don’t inspire me because opportunity found them. They inspire me because they immersed themselves in self-betterment. They saw what they wanted, and they are taking it! There’s no way they could do this behind a fence, and neither can you or I. In order to continue graduating on to new and better things, we have to have goals, and we have to be willing to do what it takes to achieve them. We have to visualize, prioritize, and pursue our dreams before they ever enter into the realm of reality.
I don’t believe that life is ever meant to plateau. People generally don’t climb one mountain and decide that they’ve had enough mountain climbing for one lifetime. There is always another mountain to climb. Even if it isn’t higher or more difficult than your previous accomplishments, I promise you you will discover new things about yourself on every trail. If you decide not to climb, you'll probably feel more comfortable, maybe find a group of like minded people, but I promise you this: there's nothing like the view from the top. Seeing a new opportunity and fighting for it, that's what life is about. For the sake of purpose, keep going.
A polaroid of me, scraggly and youthful in Juneau, Alaska. 2013. Climbing mountains and taking names a few days after dislocating my shoulder (for the second time).