I work in an office. I’m working somewhat in my field for my degree. At 26, three years out of college, this is a blessing. Many of my peers are working retail jobs, babysitting, or heading back to school. They’ve been switching it up a lot. I’m lucky to be where I am, even if I might be here out of fear. I struggled with two years of awful, abusive bosses, hungry weeks and long, long work days. My peers have struggled, too. They’re still struggling. I’m still struggling; it’s just that now that I can actually feed myself, my struggles are different.
Working will always be a struggle. Long work days are going to last forever. I have arrested myself to that until retirement. A lot of my activist peers have gone on to work for non-profits and fight the good fight, or have stayed in graduate school working to change academia. I will be eternally envious and it will always make me feel like shit for not pushing further with my activism. It was the fear of failure, my drive to be a journalist, and my disillusionment with large, corporate-like NGOs that kept me from following that path. By graduation, having already worked for a major NGO (where no negativity was allowed), I interviewed for a field manager position with another nonprofit that shall remain unnamed. It was kind of like signing up for the military. They were going to send me somewhere, pay me a small but livable salary, and I had no clue where I’d end up. Realizing how even some NGOs were manipulative, quota-based, hungry and biased, I lost my heart for it.
Instead, I searched for a local job, which led me to work in marketing. As a communications professional I would like to never work in marketing again. In the candy-gloss of customer service 100 percent of the time, the crowds of 20 something’s in their H&M blazers and thick black glasses with rosy cheeks, I felt like I never fit in. I realized this at a networking event at the local press club when I fell on my face attempting to give a speech about why networking for young people is so important. I know why. I just didn’t care. I networked because I was desperate to get out of my awful job situation and so was everyone else but no one wanted to hear me say that. I have always been crass in my attitude and language, and it put people off. I would rather stand outside smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey while I talk smack about politically incorrect assholes than drink wine in manicured nails talking about how amaaaazing it must be to work at Ogilvy PR and pitch stories to the media while we casually ignore the abhorrent and subtle racist comments that the conservative bosses twice our age make.
That might make me a bitter journalist to my core, even if I’m not working in the media full-time. I just will be. That’s who I am. Even as my press releases got picked up and my stories made it into the Denver Post and other various markets, the rush of #winning faded with the thought of… oh God. Have I become what I hate? I’m selling mediocre products to the masses via the original pillar of free speech. I’m contributing to the corruption of the industry I once loved so much. I’m breaking my own heart, here.
As much as I’m willing to shake hands and kiss babies to make the next sale, I want to put hard work in where it matters. I’m still trying to figure out just where that is. To be frank, life after college is fucking hard. And do not tell me “welcome to the real world.” College life was just as hard, it’s just now my life hasn’t been “planned” by mentors or parents or an institution for the next four, six, eight years. It’s me. The struggle is that this is the constant re-realization that capitalism grinds us down into cogs. We are part of a larger profit-making system. As much as I’d wish that my heart would go numb to this pain, and the pain of everyone else working in this same system (most in less fortunate circumstances), it never does. I feel like a raw nerve at times. Every few weeks or months I go through this slump where I get upset about it. Because apparently I forget that capitalism is sucking out my soul. And then I remember again why I positioned myself against it in the first place.
It is destroying us.
I watched my college roommate fume at our broken healthcare system as a care giver for seniors and for cognitively impaired people. After graduating she now works with people who are suffering and are judged based on how much profit can be made on letting them live or die. She went to school to get a degree in English and is now re-enrolled to finish up a social work degree so she can make more than $8.00 an hour doing what she truly loves instead of what she hates. Nurturing. Because she always has been and it’s what she’s good at.
During the past three years I have realized that might just be the magic. Doing what you love. It’s ironic. The first couple years of post-college life I went through this phase of, “alright, they’re throwing me into this system without a choice so I’m going to eat them alive.” I wanted to beat all of the quotas, make all the money and burn my competition to the ground. I wanted to rule empires with my anger that I had to participate, and it gave me the ambition to do heartless work without grief because fuck it. I wanted to #win, right?
I don’t want to accept that anymore. The idea that our constant ambition has to be career success, climbing up a corporate ladder and making more and more money. I don’t care. I want to be comfortable, yes. Don’t get me wrong. I realize the privilege of working in the U.S. and how much access I have to making lots and lots of money.
You know that modern koan, “if money was no object, how would you enjoy spending your life?” The only source I can attribute this to is philosopher Alan Watts. The answer for me of course, is writing. Making my art. If tumblring and arguing about politics on the Internet could be a career, I’d be a millionaire right now.
The magic of doing what you love seems so obvious, but to me it really wasn’t. I committed myself to writing again. I’m still exhausted. I’m wandering in this universe, I have friends who want to take off to the magical Pacific Northwest (full of fairy dust and unicorns and rain and coffee) to go back to school, friends who never went to college who are settling down with babies and buying homes in conservative towns and living their dreams already, and I’m still here hanging out with my cat and my college degree, wondering what comes next. I get so wrapped up in these iron cages as if capitalism is inescapable.
Look, I’m realistic. I’m going to stand in solidarity with anybody who suffers. I will go to the rallies and spread the word and support financially as much as I can, don’t get me wrong. But trying to find solace in this system in the meantime… maybe the way to beat capitalism is to truly do what you love, without letting the money control your life. At least mentally. There will always be instances in which one must compromise to be able to eat. And that’s okay. One of my favorite authors, Octavia Butler, may God rest her beautiful soul, she wrote, and only wrote, for years. And that was all she did. She lived on the advances she got for her novels, meagerly, until she won the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant for $250,000 in 1995. She followed her heart, man. Why am I not doing the same thing?
So that’s my resolve, I guess. Maybe I’m too privileged to realize what it means when I say “Screw the money, I want to do what I love.” But I want to. And I’m willing to do what it takes to be the best at it and trust in the process of development, even if it means compromising and having an imperfect life along the way.
This is how I’m coping with capitalism and finding my way out of this post-college purgatory. Your job is not your life. You should make money so you can live, and that “living,” your hobbies, your real passions, what you invest your time in, it can be your armor against being destroyed by the hunger for more and more. For those of you already doing this, my heart is with you. I’m out of this game. I’m coming home to what I love.
Elle Groves is a freelance reporter, writer and blogger bent on deconstructing diet culture and keeping her life full of food, fitness, family and friends. She is currently writing a novel that spans the rise and fall of a girl’s struggle with eating disorders and her DIY-recovery. Find her on Twitter @ellegrows or contact her at [email protected]