I’ve been struggling with life for a while now. And while I might look back in ten, twenty, or fifty years and understand that life is best experienced as a struggle, that suspicion does little to help me enjoy this tempest. It’s a multifaceted storm, to be sure, with rain coming in from the heart and vicious gales blowing in from my mind, and far too much societal debris swirling around for anyone’s safety. And, as with any conflict that has multiple roots, it’s been difficult to weed out. 

Cut to the interview I heard on NPR this afternoon on my way home from work (which is as much of my existential problem as it is for any [soon-to-be] college graduate my age). Tuning in shortly after the topic of the interview was announced, it took me a few minutes to realize A) what was being discussed, and B) how eerily specific this topic was to my series of life crises. (This is probably because my life crises are quite unoriginal, but that’s beside the point.)

The interviewee was discussing his book on commencement speeches, and what we should really be telling high school and college graduates. He rejects the “shoot for the stars”, “life is going to be rosy and perfect because you’re all special snowflakes” approach in favor of one that is much more helpful (albeit a little less inspirational).

I’ll link to the whole article, which is worth the read, but there is only one point that I really want to mention. When the interviewee brought it up, it was like he was reached through the radio to lift a weight off my back that I never felt until its absence. It cut through all of the confusion in my mind and addressed the one underlying problem that was holding up all of the rest of my anguish:

Don’t try to be great.  

This is, without a doubt, one of the most radical, liberating pieces of advice I’ve ever heard. I would, however alter it a little.

Don’t try to live up to the world’s standards of greatness. Be great in the best way you know how.

I’ve always been pushed (by very well-meaning parents and relatives) to get a high-powered job that makes a “respectable” amount of money. Every time (and if you know me, you know what I mean when I say “EVERY”) I’ve felt a tug toward a new career path, I am invariably asked how much money I could make in that job, and how far I could advance in that field. Usually, those are the first two questions asked. And while you could argue that those questions only come up because my happiness and self-fulfillment is naturally assumed in any career I would pick, the hints of disappointment I’ve heard and seen when I brought up low-paying career fields like education and social work suggest otherwise.

The problem with greatness, or at least how I’ve been taught to understand it, is that it is defined by factors that are in no way guaranteed to make you happy. If “greatness” were measured in the lives you touch, or the joy you feel going to work, then I would strive to be the greatest woman the world has ever known. But greatness instead seems to be measured in the number of employees you manage and the number of zeroes in your bank account.

I know how soul-crushing it is to be told that those are the white rabbits you need to chase, even if they lead you to a place you’d never choose to go on your own. There’s also a special humiliation that complicates the experience when you’ve been led to believe that you have the potential to catch those rabbits, if only you tried. It makes settling for anything else seem like the ultimate failure. 

Oh… well that sounds lovely. But how much does it PAY? And would you be stuck doing that your whole life, or could you get promoted? Well… I’m sure you’ll figure out how to be happy.

You don’t really want to teach. Teachers don’t make ANY money, and the benefits are awful. You’re so smart, why don’t you go into law? You’d be a top-notch lawyer!

Oh… you’re going to grad school? And you have a teaching assistanship? That’s wonderful! How much will it be paying you? Oh. Well, good thing Chad has a job!

Right now, I am a reading tutor with AmeriCorps. As far as jobs go, I’m pretty far down on the white-collar totem pole. After paying for the gas to get to and from work, I bring in about $100 a month (you read that right). I don’t rub elbows with politicians, have lunch with the leading experts in my field, or get sent expensive gifts as rewards for successful business transactions. I get hugs from children and teary thank-you’s from teachers who thought that their students would never read, until they started working with me.

My work right now won’t get me a six-figure bonus at the end of the year, or into the history books, or onto The Daily Show. But I love what I do, and I love being good at it. I’ve had several people tell me I’m a natural teacher, and the joy I feel when I come to work each day for much less than minimum wage definitely has me reevaluating how important that six-figure salary is after all. 

I think my new life motto (or one of them, anyway) might have to be a bastardization of Adam Savage’s famous quote:  

I reject your standards of greatness and substitute my own.