I Need A “Real Job”?
Why A Cookie-Cutter Post Graduate Career Plan Isn't For Me
BY KARI IVERSON
I left college two years ago (with degrees in journalism, global studies and Spanish from the University of Minnesota). If you asked me on graduation day what my dream career might be, I would have told you I wanted to be a television news foreign correspondent. But today, I have a completely different answer. The post-graduate cookie cutter plan isn’t for everyone, and it’s definitely not for me.
Most of my friends and acquaintances jumped onto a career track, full steam ahead. One began working as an intern for one of the largest marketing firms in Chicago; another moved to New York where he’s a digital producer for the People’s Choice Awards. Other friends ended up working in the craft beer industry or for the U.S. Government; some took corporate jobs at home in Minnesota with Cargill or Target.
But as for me, well, I’ve travelled to 13 countries during this same time period. And I’ve worked as a waitress, English teacher, production assistant, freelance writer, blogger, a nanny, and a gardener.
As my peers all began to climb the ladder in their various careers, it became increasingly apparent to me that, in their minds, I was left lingering in the dust of their ambitions. Some told me I had “stalled” and that I needed to find a “real” job, instead of floating wherever the wind took me; others thought I wasn’t going anywhere.
I could have worked as a local news reporter in a small U.S. town, but I turned it down for something I considered more valuable. I knew if I wanted to eventually become some kind of international journalist I needed to learn a third language (I already spoke Spanish after living in Ecuador my junior year of high school and studying abroad in Argentina during college). So, I decided on French. I applied for a visa and booked a one-way flight to France.
When I arrived in the coastal town of Nice, all I could say was, “Hello, my name is Kari,” and “Do you speak English or Spanish?” I decided that the best way to overcome these severe verbal limitations was to enroll in an intensive, month-long language course. In doing so, I remembered that learning a language takes a lot of patience.
I worked odd jobs in exchange for room and board (through an organization called Workaway) as I traveled around France – living everywhere from Paris to a small town in the countryside called Neuilly-en-Donjon. I served apéritifs in a rural bar and restaurant specializing in home-style French food. I spent a few months working in a garden, collecting thyme and harvesting snails while gazing over the Mediterranean Sea. I helped watch children who spoke French faster than an auctioneer – it isn’t so easy to be the one in charge when the kids know more words than you! I even spent a few days living on a sheep farm during my workaway days, where I traded in my Oxfords for a pair of rubber work boots.
Through this work, I learned (or tried to learn) how to cook cow tongue, calf head (cow brain), and on a sweeter note, to make crème brûlée (the secret to the delicious caramel crust, according to the patient and helpful chef who taught me, is sprinkling sugar on top and using a blow torch at the last minute to create a warm crust over the chilled custard). I fed scraps of food to the pigs at a nearby farm, and spent a day packaging eggs at a hen house down the road. With little access or exposure to English during this time, I got a good grasp of the French language, I was introduced to fascinating lifestyles far different from my own, and I obtained innovative communication skills I most definitely would never have learned had I stayed in the U.S.
My own version of “the ladder to success” was forming, rung by cow-tongue rung. And I kept on moving. In Paris, I attended another language school, reveled in the beauty and history of some of the world’s most renowned art museums, and explored the city’s different arrondissements (districts).
It was quite the adventure… but I could still hear the nagging voices from back home. I needed to “grow up” and “settle down” at some point. My future would be dire if I didn’t heed their advice and listen to their warnings, or so the voices seemed to be saying. So, I did what any sane, rational, mature person would do.
I found a new workaway in Roquebrune Cap Martin, in between Monaco and Italy. A former French teacher was looking for help in her garden. Even in paradise the weeds grow tall, so we spent our days pulling 10 years of overgrown weeds off of terraces, rebuilding rock walls, fixing small cabins on the property, and chatting. My French was finally taking off, to the point where I could even walk into a café, sit down, and discuss the front page of the newspaper with the barista.
At the Roquebrune Cap Martin workaway, dozens of other people from around the world passed though. Among those who became my temporary housemates: a modern day philosopher/chess champion from Germany, a writer from Belgium, an artist from England, and a retired bus driver from Paris. I tried playing the chess champ, who had an all-knowing sparkle in his eye as he stared at the board, contemplating his every move. He so badly wanted me to understand the game as he did. I wasn’t good, but he showed me how much chess related to my life at the time. Being flexible is key, explained. A game of chess seldom goes as planned, you have to adjust and find new twists and turns.
I kept a blog and posted photos. The most common feedback from friends was “I hate you! I’m so jealous of your life!” followed almost instantly by, yet again, “When are you coming home?” and, of course, the old standby, “When are you going to find a ‘real’ job?”
This time, I caved. I began the tedious hunt for said “real” job. There was a new twist, however; during my last few months in France I made a friend. My relationship with this Frenchman grew more serious than I originally anticipated and the next thing I knew, we were making plans to find “real” jobs in the same city. The sky was the limit – we were willing to move just about anywhere. I applied for more than 100 gigs, everything from a page position at NBC in New York, to a job as a sports reporter in Nigeria.
I didn’t get any of them. Stillborn yet again in my hunt for something my American critics (a.k.a. family and friends at home) would approve of, I became angry—at both the situation and myself. I’d spent countless hours preparing for the different interviews and I’d flown from Paris to New York and back in my pursuit. (Yes, I’d been able to save up some money for the flights.) Contracts were drawn up for jobs for the both of us in Seoul, South Korea, but they fell through at the last minute. Every time the Frenchman or I had an opportunity somewhere, the open door seemed to slam shut in our faces.
So, I did what any self-respecting up-and-coming serious-minded career gal would do. I looked at the Frenchman and I asked, “Do you still want to go to Southeast Asia?”
We used the rest of our savings and decided to go for it. A week and a half later we arrived in Bangkok.
Yes, I still heard the voices—those voices. I was throwing away years of prime twenty-something ladder-climbing career-making opportunity. But something even louder was drowning them out: I suddenly, somehow didn’t care about their disapproval. When I was applying for a job at a big company that the voices knew the name of, they thought I was finally on the road to (their version of) success. But when I didn’t get the job(s), the voices would again lump me into the failure category. To them, I was becoming a sad, hopeless, lost case.
While I backpacked through Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), and Cambodia with the Frenchman, we were able to network (as they say in the corporate world) with dozens of professionals from Canada, Europe, and Australia. Not in the traditional sense – I haven’t been to a lot of networking events with people wearing suits and nametags, but I’ve had conversations with people on trains, in airports, on buses and in hotels/hostels and small restaurants. My list of contacts is written on random pages of my journal, on napkins, and the backs of bus tickets.
One day, walking around Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand a very tall, grey-haired man began running after us, asking if we spoke English. He was looking for someone who would help in his language class for a few minutes. The kids laughed at my accent – it’s so American, they said. I went over basic conversational phrases and taught them colors. That simple experience gave me the confidence to know I could teach English as a second language someday. I’m working towards my certification now.
I made other connections in the oddest of circumstances; in Myanmar, I was riding an old train and leaning out of the open windows, taking in the landscape with my camera. I turned around to see a family of four blonde-haired, blue-eyed westerners doing the same thing. I took their photo and struck up a conversation with them; it turned out the father is a professional photographer in Canada who said he was willing to help me create a portfolio.
Traveling has taught me how to prioritize what’s important. I’ve learned how to live on a tight budget. I’ve learned about patience – that there’s always something I can’t control. It’s also shown me that I actually don’t want to be a foreign correspondent after all. I love listening to the stories of a diverse assortment of people, and learning about the world through their experiences and points of view, but not in the way it’s done for news networks.
So there you have it. I might be two years out of college now, and I might still have no idea what I want to be when I “grow up,“ but you know what, that’s OK. It’s plenty OK. I simply know that I want to do something creative, that I want to continue exploring the world, that I want to learn a fourth and fifth language. And I want to encourage other people to take a similar leap of faith and follow their own dreams – whether that means hiking the trails of South America for a year or moving to a brand new city, a completely foreign place, and starting from scratch—just because they can.
The postgraduate cookie cutter plan that society has created for us isn’t forced upon us. It’s a choice. And I’ve chosen a whole different kind of cookie.
I’m not sure where I’ll end up next. I’m writing this while I’m back home in Minnesota, waitressing, in order to save up some money for my next big adventure (yes – with the Frenchman, too).
When I do decide to again interview for a “real” job, and I’m asked about what I’ve been doing for the past few years, I’ll talk about all of the people I’ve met, the skills I’ve learned, the adventures I’ve experienced.
So many stories, and so little space on a “real” job resume.
Kari Iverson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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