The scene: Year 11 Parents’ Evening. Lights on FRAN, her DAD, and a very enthusiastic HISTORY TEACHER.
HISTORY TEACHER: You shouldn’t worry so much about what you’ll do when you’re older, Fran. You’ve got so much time; just take the subjects that you like, and it’ll all come out in the wash.
FRAN: (unsure about taking History A-Level, and also unsure if this is a genuine comment or part of the sales pitch) Um.
(Side note: I did end up taking History AS, and hated most of it, apart from the cake that we had on Fridays.)
That parents’ evening was the first time I can recall being told ‘You’ve got so much time.’
And for a while, it did seem like my teacher was right. I meandered my way through sixth form split between sciences and the arts, cycling through potential degree subjects weekly without, as she said, too much worrying. Eventually I settled on psychology, not out of some burning desire to become a clinical psychologist and help to solve the world’s problems, but because it seemed like a good middle ground and I was halfway decent at it.
In my first year of university, I told everyone and anyone that I was going to stay on and do a Masters, then a PhD, and become an academic, visions of a life spent working in coffee shops and being surrounded by books swimming in front of me – tantalising, fairly stereotypical, and also wholly unrealistic.
Then I encountered the horror that was second year statistics, and suddenly that didn’t seem like such a good idea.
(Side note #2: I blame my poor performance in second year stats on the lecturer, who was a very lovely woman of German origin who liked cats but who could not a) teach, and b) get a room of 300 people, all of whom hated stats, to listen to her).
My personal tutor, when I told her of my complete one-eighty turn on the subject of what I’d do after my degree, told me not to worry: I still had so much time. As such, I spent second year dithering over courses and jobs and baked a lot of cakes in order to stave off my nerves.
Now, I’m in third year. I’m writing my dissertation, I’ve picked the last undergraduate modules I’ll probably ever do, and I still bake cakes. And it doesn’t feel like we’ve got ‘so much time’ at all. The terrifying plunge into proper adulthood is looming, and some parts of it are already here (like the hour-long conversation I had with npower about our gas bills, repeating every other sentence I said because the connection was terrible, and the fact that the staff in coffee shops have now started to refer to me as a ‘lady’ and not a ‘girl’). I get foreboding emails several times a week from a mailing list about graduate jobs which I almost unsubscribed from but didn’t quite manage it out of fear of missing something crucial.
Some of us are relishing that plunge into adulthood; some of us have had our hearts set on something for years, have not needed ‘so much time’ to figure out our plans and dreams and lives. Some of us are that kid who wanted to be a doctor at age 5 and is now in the midst of medical school.
But some of us aren’t. Some of us have gone through our degrees hearing the phrase ‘you’ve got so much time’ over and over again as we struggle to picture ourselves doing anything at all beyond university, picking our modules and dissertations with crossed fingers that our choices won’t cut us off from anything later on, surrounded by people who seem to know what they’re doing. Some of us spent our grandparents’ golden wedding anniversary party constructing an entirely fake career plan so that when an elderly friend of our grandparents asked us ‘what are your plans for after university?’ we’d have something to say (yes, really).
In a way, I count myself lucky, because now I do have an idea of what I want to do come graduation, and I do have tentative hopes and dreams for the future.
But some days I don’t feel like I have anything at all. I am a plan person – the one who nags everyone in the group chat to set a concrete day and time for the next gathering. I am unafraid to admit that I like to be certain of what lies ahead. Post-university, with its ‘proper adult’ status, seems so horrifically full of uncertainty that some days I don’t like to think of it at all, because I’m too afraid of being lost in a sea of mights and coulds and shoulds, not a single one of them set in stone, and not being able to come back to the present for minutes or even hours, consumed by the intangibility of it all. On those days, if someone tells me ‘you’ve got so much time’ when I voice that uncertainty aloud, I have to suppress the strong desire to throw something.
‘You’ve got so much time’ may be true, but whether it’s true or false is not the issue at hand here: it’s that you don’t feel you have any time. The pressure to have our entire lives planned out, subtle or overt, starts so early on that by twenty-one or twenty-two if you haven’t decided your profession and the number of children you’d like to have you feel somehow not up to scratch.
One of my favourite books is called ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’, and it was written by a lady called Marina Keegan. It’s a collection of essays and short stories, and I burned through the entire thing in less than a day on a cruise ship in the middle of a Norwegian fjord. All of the essays are wonderful, and all are certainly worth reading, but my personal favourite is the titular one; Keegan wrote it days before graduating from Yale, magna cum laude, and in it, she writes ‘We’re so young. We’ve got so much time.’
Marina Keegan died in a car crash, five days after her graduation, at twenty-two.
Reading that essay, knowing what happened to its author, was heart-breaking: so much time, indeed.
Yet in that essay, Marina Keegan also wrote ‘We can still do anything.’ And that’s what I also choose to believe, even on the days when I can’t stand thinking of the future, even on the days when I want to give it all up and become a hermit living in the middle of nowhere/a crazy cat lady/a yoga teacher in India.
That last one is my friend’s: I’m terrible at yoga.
I’m also not that keen on cats, my Dad’s allergic.
But perhaps all of this comes down to the following advice: dither between courses and jobs. Take a gap year without worrying about if you’ll find yourself, or indeed anything at all. Spend time deciding what you want (and what you don’t want) without setting an arbitrary limit on it – you deserve better.
Because honestly, genuinely, and unironically: you can still do anything.
You still have so much time.