Spring Cleaning, Graduation Edition: June 5, 2012

It was a privilege to return this past weekend for Reunions and to get to stick around for the Class Day and Commencement ceremonies and celebrate my dear friend Lucy with her entire Aussie family. Making it out of the "Orange Bubble" (or, as I now like to call it, "the [Orange and] Black Hole") is no small feat, and I was moved to tears as I heard the new Princeton president deliver two touching speeches and saw the graduates gracefully walk through the gates this morning.

Two years ago, I was in their shoes (and cap and gown, as it were), and I was a wreck. But 6 consecutive near-sleepless nights, mostly spent mildly intoxicated and chasing an emotionally unfulfilling hookup, were just the icing on the cake.

As I sat in my seat, I was miserable. It didn't matter that I was leaving Princeton with a 3.7 and highest honors. It didn't matter that I'd earned 5 minors--a number that is practically unheard of. It didn't matter that my painstakingly-worked thesis had won a prize that came with a formidable check. Sandwiched between two of my favorite people from college and with friends and family showing up to see me reach this milestone, I wasn't brimming with joy on graduation day. All I could think about was how I felt like the world's most secret and epic failure.

Why? Because despite all those accomplishments, I was graduating without a job. And I thought that was the end of the world.

As someone who planned everything obsessively and constantly strove to control the outcomes, graduating without a job was not part of the "Happily Ever After" I'd imagined for myself. After years of struggling through my college experience, at Princeton, no less, I felt entitled to the prestigious jobs that I saw many of my classmates getting. When I didn't get hired by an elite bank or consulting firm or even Teach For America out of college, I took that to mean that I was worthless. I took that to mean that my years of learning foreign languages and broadening my perspective of the world through comparative literature made me unmarketable.

When I got rejected from HBS's 2+2 program, dinged after first-round interviews with Bain and McKinsey, and received nary an interview at a bank save for Barclays, I cursed myself for not having remained an electrical engineer. These schools and firms that managed to snag engineers from the Facebooks and Googles of the world seemed to like how engineers thought and what they were able to contribute. While I considered myself an unconventional thinker with a unique energy and perspective to offer when solving problems, my rejection made me believe that the way I thought and the way I was was more than "not good enough"--it was undesirable.

Now I am grateful for those rejections and all that has happened since. But here is what I wish I had known then, or rather what I wish I were willing to believe then:

The first thing I wish I'd known is that the majority of those kids who got the prestigious jobs I so desperately wanted would be feeling disenchanted, depressed, and lacking purpose within the year. Their salaries and bonuses would be little, compared with the numbers of hours they'd work. Their mental and physical health would suffer, along with their social lives. The glamour would fade.

I also wish I'd understood that I was already enough. I didn't need to keep striving to be (or feel as if I was) better than other people. I didn't have to keep doing and achieving more to earn my space on the planet. There was a reason I was put here and I could trust in that.

Above all, I wish I had more faith that everything would work out. There was something better in store for me that I could hardly plan for when I moped my way out the Fitzrandolph Gates on June 5, 2012. The story I now get to write about the past two years is far more compelling that the one I would have imagined for myself two years out.

I didn't know, after a year of job rejections, including six months interviewing with HBS and three failed faculty matches, that within the month I would finally get hired by a professor whose work would get me to travel back to China--something I longed to do upon graduation. I also didn't know that going back to China would make me terribly sick and I would have to seriously reconsider my career course and ambitions.

I didn't know that two months after graduating, I would get slapped with a medical diagnosis that would force me to transform my entire lifestyle--and to sever my burgeoning ties to Boston beer culture. And I didn't know just how much those changes to recover my health would bring me toward discovering my purpose.

I didn't know that I'd go on a yoga retreat and find the inspiration and determination to start a business.

I didn't know that I'd find the courage to apply to MBA programs again after being rejected my senior year. And I certainly didn't know that I'd eventually get into the program that was perfect for me.

Even if someone had told me it was going to be okay, given my state of mind, I probably wouldn't have believed them anyway. When I was depressed at graduation, I thought it was because I didn't have a job or an 'in' at a graduate school, but now I know it was because I was afraid of not having what those things represented: certainty. Two years later, I get the gift of understanding that my life would--and will--unfold on its own terms, and that there's beauty in the mystery. So long as I can continue to trust in that fact, especially in the moments of sorrow and uncertainty, I'm setting myself for a wild, unfathomable life, and an truly incredible story.


My hat's off to you, class of 2014. Congratulations!