The soft sounds of a waterfall murmur behind you as you sit calmly and take deep breaths in and out. The bonsai tree to your left is contorted in beautifully twisted lines and you compare it to your own life; you did anything but follow a straight and conventional path. But none of that matters now—here in this Japanese garden, you are totally and completely at peace.
This Zen-filled lifestyle is one of the scenarios Reed College junior Erika Hurth allows herself to imagine when she’s not faced with external pressures. She discovered that her post-college goals differed depending on whether she was talking to someone or being honest with herself. So she decided to try to figure out what she really wanted.
In this guest post, she describes the challenges of answering the question, “What do you want to do?” and why she’s trying to figure out who she wants to be instead. Read on for some ideas on what you should be asking yourself before you graduate.
Here at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, it’s not uncommon to hear of students taking a semester to “hermit.” By this, we mean it’s okay to devote an entire semester to a corner of the library and to bury oneself in books. Right now is my “hermit time.” At this very moment, my laptop is nestled between a copy of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, the Columbia Anthology of British Poetry, Peter Gay’s edition of the Freud Reader, and Victor Hugo’s Les Contemplations. Say hello to my newest circle of friends.
Part of me feels as if all my fundamental needs are sated by academics. When I’m hungry, I think about the food chain with Darwin. When I’m thirsty, I drink the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. When I want to go outside, I read Wordsworth. And I read Freud when I am… well, let’s not go there…
Something freezes in me, however, when I need to think about the future. When the dreaded question is asked, “So what do you want to do?” I dismiss the inquiry with something like, “Oh, I’ll go into education… or therapy… or social work… or, uh, wherever my heart leads me?” I’ll then proceed to smack myself for the involuntary cliché and obvious discomfort with the question.
But that’s only when someone else asks me that question. When I ask myself, something quite different happens. I suddenly start to imagine; I begin to exist in a realm of potentials. I see myself as an environmental journalist. I see myself in a Japanese garden, studying Zen with a master in Kyoto. I see myself designing a glow-in-the-dark Mini-Putt Palace in Las Vegas. I see myself on episode of SNL dressed as a Conehead. I see myself as a psychotherapist, a backcountry ski patrol officer, a photographer for Outside magazine, a soap-maker, and a wooden flute player.
These are far more interesting professions, so why do I feel uncomfortable professing them to others? The younger version of myself had no problem expressing these desires. I once wrote a letter to my sister explaining my plan to to become an archaeologist so that I could uncover the bones of an ancient elvish tribe that existed in some fictive hell-like underbelly of the North Pole (4th grade was a dark time for me). But something changes when you enter college; the question ceases to be: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Because now, apparently, I am grown up and the process of be-ing has been consumed by the pressure of do-ing.
I hold to the well-established philosophy, however, that we are always in a state of be-ing, or becoming, if you will. The process of who you are deciding to “be” should always guide what you “do” and we should never bend ourselves backwards to go the other way.
What a privilege it is, then, to be a “hermit.” Now I can just be me. Of course, that doesn’t excuse me from making moves towards future aspirations. Taking time to “hermit” merely helps to reaffirm who I am so that I can be sure I am sending my résumé to the right people. So long as I can retain a bit of that child-like imagination which confronts the sounding pressure of do-do-do with a light-hearted reaffirmation of the self, I know that the rest will fall into place.
As of right now, I have my heart set on going East; the place where these theories of becoming and impermanence take their root. Last summer I adventured to the Indonesian archipelago. On the way, I got to experience a 24-hour layover in Japan where I fell in love with the little slice of Tokyo that I meandered.
Recently, I met with Reed College alumna and Content Marketing Manager of AfterCollege, Melissa Suzuno, who encouraged me to apply for teaching jobs through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET). I’ve been meditating on the possibility ever since our meeting. I’m positive that soon, all my hard work in this hermit hole will lead to another step, a step big enough to cross oceans.
Homework time! Feeling stuck every time someone asks, “What do you want to do?” Start rephrasing the question to yourself as “Who do you want to be?” Then do some exploring. Conduct informational interviews. Find out how different people became who they wanted to become. For example, check out what this woman did to find her dream job (hint: it involved a lot of job shadowing and reaching out to strangers). Find what brings meaning into your life.
About the Author: Erika Hurth is a Pacific Northwest transplant and an outdoor enthusiast who enjoys writing, dream-journaling, drawing hobbit homes, getting jiggy to ‘70s funk, and studying philosophy. She is currently a student at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.