Welcome to the Rest of Your Life: 3 Lessons from My First Year in the Real World

Move over goblin-mode and gaslighting, the real word of the year is resilience.

It’s one thing when inflation is a coefficient in a model you’re simulating for homework, and another when you’re wondering if almond flour has always been this expensive and concluding that store-bought cookies aren’t that bad. The snowballing grocery bill is one example of the ways life has pulled the red carpet out from under me just as I was mastering my catwalk, leaving me to fall flat on my face and daring me to try again. I’ve lain there on the floor, wishing I didn’t have to try again and preferring to languish in my despair where I could hide from my problems. Unfortunately, my problems knew just where to find me and would hold me in their embrace in our secluded enclave known as Rock Bottom™ where the unread emails pile up along with the takeout boxes, laundry and self-loathing.

Despair not, my dear reader, the real world is not nearly as depressing as I and countless other adults have made it out to seem. Boundless opportunities await you on the other side: should you live in the big city or the countryside, adopt a cat or a turtle, stay in the corporate world or launch your own venture? In the year since I’ve (involuntarily) embarked on this eventful journey (aka the rest of my life), life has handed me an assortment of lemons (that I don’t remember asking for) and today I’ll be serving them in the form three tall, ice-cold glasses of lemonade. Cheers!

Ain’t it fun living in the real world? Ain’t it good, ain’t it good being all alone?

Ain’t it Fun – Paramore

1. Fall down, get up. Fall down again, get up again.

Before you close this tab, this isn’t an article where I preach wishful thinking and tell you to ‘think positive thoughts’ (please don’t insult me like that); riding the wave of negative emotions is a healthy way to deal with an unexpected life event. However, wallowing in a repetitive cycle of negative emotions is an unhealthy way to deal with an unexpected life event and only prolongs the pain you’re feeling. Unnecessarily invoking these negative feelings by asking yourself what could’ve gone differently, repeatedly insisting the other party was wrong or blaming yourself isn’t productive.

It’s not a way to move forward.

Brooding in solitude and hissing at sunlight might be the solution for a Transylvanian vampire but feeding into the misery only served to perpetuate my feelings of despondency. Left unable to walk for 2 months last year due to a severe knee injury, I sank deeper and deeper into this feeling, as well as my couch, cursing my enforced isolation. Days spent grinding my molars to dust out of frustration performing the Sisyphean task of clambering and scooting my way up and down the stairs to the bedroom of my loft turned to weeks of whinging and hopping on one leg but I remained in denial about needing to see a doctor. I’ve had multiple injuries over my amateur athletic career, none as severe as this, but the shame I felt in needing help compounded on the humiliation of taking 30 minutes to get from my couch to my bathroom (a distance of 10 metres). I hoped hiding from the problem by confining myself to the couch (working from home and grocery delivery services being my faithful accomplices in concealing the crime) would magically repair my injured knee, but when I still couldn’t stand on 2 feet after a month had passed, it was time to pack it up and see a physiotherapist.

Every time adversity crosses my path, I’m like a deer in the headlights: aware of the imminent danger but too paralysed by fear to make a move. Wide-eyed and squinting into beams, I often wait until the last second to hop back to safety. This approach amplifies my angst, doing nothing makes me feel like I’m losing control of the situation.
When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
Actively working on rehabilitation allowed me to return to tennis, skiing and most importantly, stair-climbing. Applying to jobs, interviewing and networking is what helped me to land a job after I was laid-off, sulking in bed didn’t. Every minute I spent working towards the goal of walking again or finding a job was a minute I wasn’t plunging into despair. Moping about either situation didn’t change anything, action is what allowed me to move forward. But how do you motivate yourself to act?

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better

Samuel Beckett

2. You are the main character. Believe in yourself to the point you’re delusional

The TikTok girlies are right more often than you think. The ‘Romanticise your life’ and ‘Main Character Energy’ trends have circulated the internet so many times that the words have seemingly lost all meaning. But, on second thought, why wouldn’t you romanticise your life?

At my lowest points, I endeavour to visualise how my setbacks fit into the story of my life. I picture a stranger marvelling at the back page of my prospective autobiography and questioning how I managed to surf the highs and lows of life and still come out on top. Which book would you rather read, the one about the woman who was made redundant at her job and clicked her heels three times and went home with her tail between her legs or the one about the woman who turned an unfortunate dismissal into a transition to a dream job in a dream city?

This year, I was gifted the book ‘Red Shirts’ written by John Scalzi which satirises Star Trek (very much outside of my typical literary locus). The title references ‘redshirts’: sci-fi characters who are killed soon after being introduced on-screen, disposable characters that are inconsequential to the greater storyline, however, their dramatic deaths invoke enough emotion from viewers to keep ratings up (much like Ned Stark in Game of Thrones or Tadashi Hamada in Big Hero 6).
The novel hilariously recounts the story of ensigns aboard a military spaceship notorious for its invariable lethal confrontations where low-ranking officers always perish. Curiously, a select few officers are miraculously spared from fatal encounters with poison, explosives and alien hostiles where they surely should have met their doom. The ensigns suspect that something is afoot and decide to investigate the root cause of this inconceivable good luck. Are they bloodthirsty murderers? Is this Mother Nature culling the weak? Do their guardian angels work around the clock?
Not quite, they are actually the main characters on a sci-fi tv show, a feature that renders them immortal, well, at least while the ratings are still high. Main character energy is a force field impervious to any weapons that may be formed against the heroes. Situations always have to work out for the main character; they should be tested, challenged and pushed to the brink and somehow find a loophole allowing them to escape from sheer danger but under no circumstances can any harm come to them! The characters in ‘Red Shirts’ much like Meredith Grey in ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ or Emily in ‘Emily in Paris’ are destined to have happy endings, if they didn’t then tv would be incredibly depressing.

As the main character in your life, you are destined to have a happy ending.

I strive to be the main character in my own life, because at the end of the day I am directing the action on stage, I am conducting this symphony, I am wielding the pen that crafts the story, rather, MY STORY. I own the narrative so why would I choose to boohoo myself and paint myself as the helpless victim when I can portray every setback as a spring being loaded to launch me into the next great adventure in this saga called my life? Now pick up the pen because it’s time to write your story.

Everything will be alright in the end. If it is not alright then it is not the end.

Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011 movie)

3. This is when you really decide who you’re going to be

Growing up, teachers constantly emphasised that formal education was character building. You discovered whether you are more attuned to the sciences or the arts, sports or theatre, working with your hands or theorising on a blackboard. Indeed, school teaches you a lot about yourself and your interests, but how many of your interests are truly yours when you’re constantly surrounded by your peers? It would be naïve to believe that your interests are not somewhat influenced by the people with whom you spend the most time. Would you still play football 3 times a week without the accessible school pitch and the conveniently scheduled practices that all your best mates attend? Would you put in the additional effort to seek out a local club that requires your own personal investment in membership dues and the 20 minute commute to and from practice? Do you even like football that much or was it just what your friends played after school?

The additional hurdles to participate in your old school hobbies may make you realise that you weren’t that fond of them after all. This is positive, it means you only focus your attention on the things that matter most to you. A year ago, I felt overwhelmed by the abundance of free time on my hands. Gym at 7am, work at 9am, home and dinner by 6pm aaaaaaand 4 more hours of staring at the clock until bedtime? Mindlessly binge-watching tv until bed didn’t sit right with me, it’s why I chose not to buy a tv. Newly financially independent, I was extremely selective of social activities that required cashing out. If I was going to pay to play, you bet it needed to be something I actually cared about.

I played tennis competitively in high school, but keeping up with practices and fitness schedules was too hectic in college for me to continue in that vein. Re-immersing myself into competition 5 years later has reignited my fire, and today it burns brighter than ever. I don’t have to play tennis to pad a college application or prove myself to my peers; as a matter of fact I don’t have to play tennis at all. In a way, it’s a massive ego boost to do something just for me. I’m on court at 6am, at 9pm, on weekends and on holidays but always on my terms. Without feeling pressure to perform, I’m the most confident I’ve been in years, and that’s even after the knee injury that happened on court.

This attitude keeps me grounded and helps me maintain my sense of self: anything I do, it’s because I want to do it. The beauty of adulthood lies in the release from the expectations of other people. There are no more exams to sit for and no more popularity contests. If you’re on your own dime, who can tell you no if you decide to join a rock climbing club? You have the freedom to re-invent yourself as a yoga guru or a budding painter. You don’t have to be the same person you were in college and isn’t that beautiful?

Resources:

  1. Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, Finding Joy – Adam Grant & Sheryl Sandberg
  2. How to Allow Yourself to Really Feel Your Feelings – Oversharing Podcast

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