My first job out of college was on Capitol Hill, working on the staff of a member of Congress. I lived alone on the Hill and walked to work every day. There was no internet in 1987, of course, and no cable TV then, surprisingly, on the Hill. I didn’t have much money and didn’t socialize much. Dinner was often finger food from whatever Congressional reception was on my boss’s schedule for the night. My family was far away. I had friends, but it was a very introspective, often delightfully solitary, relatively distraction-free time in my life.
My primary pastime when I wasn’t working was reading. I spent whatever I could on acquiring books, mostly biographies and history. As I was beginning my adult life with audacious dreams of greatness I wanted to be instructed by the examples of the lives of great men and women. I particularly remember reading Plutarch’s Lives and biographies of U.S. presidents. A fun Friday night for me was browsing the shelves of a bookstore.
It wasn’t exactly a monk-like existence, but I often wondered if I shouldn’t have been more social and had more fun. Looking back on it, though, I realize it was a great way to begin forming my identity and learning to think for myself and being intentional about who I wanted to be. I wasn’t molded by peers or social expectations or distracted by frivolities. That alone time was worthwhile. Much of who I am now and the way I think was formed in those years as a bachelor with books.
I was reminded of this time in my life by a post on Brain Pickings. The author Florence King gives her advice to young people on getting started in their adult lives, and it sounds a lot like what I did:
Put yourself on cruise control and go into limbo for a year. I’m not talking about a neo-grand tour; don’t bop around Europe, you’ll just get in trouble. Nor am I talking about what your parents’ generation called “dropping out.” I mean forget about success for a while, get yourself an ordinary job, an ordinary place to live, and live without worrying about what Americans call, in uppercase, the Future.
Go somewhere different, but stay away from big cities. If you’re from a place you call “godforsaken,” go to a small city in another part of the country…
Get a dead-end job — they’re plentiful now because nobody wants them. Tell your employer the truth: that you’ll be around only a year or so, but promise to work hard. Keep your promise. Little triumphs are the pennies of self-esteem. If you do well in such a job and make yourself indispensable to somebody, you will realize Robert E. Lee’s farewell words to his men after the surrender at Appomattox: “You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from a knowledge of duty faithfully performed.”
Live alone, even at a financial sacrifice. If you have a roommate, the whole college uproar will just start all over again…
Read, read, read. When you don’t have to worry about passing exams on them, subjects you studied in school suddenly become interesting…
What I am recommending is traditionally called “finding yourself.” The difference is, there is no bohemian excess here, none of the “experiencing everything” that comprises nostalgia de la boúe. It’s productive, constructive goofing-off.
This was close to my experience of being on my own for the first time. I was in a big city but was not particularly living a big city life. I was alone, far from family and old friends, and I used that time to read and think and start figuring out what was important to me. I didn’t have a “dead-end” job. It was intense, yet fun, and I learned what it meant to do good work and to be part of a team. But it didn’t end up being the field I would devote my career to.
I remember about that time discovering the work of Joseph Campbell, the great expert on mythology and comparative religion. His influence continues to resonate with me. He told of a similar period early in his career during the Great Depression when he couldn’t land an academic job. He ended up living in an isolated place for a few years, and all he did was read. Campbell credits that quiet time in his life for the success he ultimately found in his work life.
I know what it’s like to be 22 and eager to make your mark, to prove you’ve “arrived” and are bound for something big. Our connected and distracting world today only makes this impulse more irresistable and more burdensome. But understanding that it’s the long game that’s more meaningful is so reassuring. Attempt to peak at age 60 rather than, say, 27, and you’ll likely be more awesome at 27 than you would have been playing the short game, trying to succeed fast.
Take the time to ease your way into your adult life, to ponder and reflect and get to know who you are and who you want to be outside of the expectations of your family and the influence of your friends. There’s no hurry, people. The future is arriving fast enough.