Unfortunately, that’s a statement many millennials are all too used to hearing when they decide that the college degree they paid for with sweat, stress, tears, and debt isn’t going to make them happy for the rest of their lives. I myself heard that judgment (and varying iterations) more times than I bothered to count. And let me tell you, it’s discouraging, especially when your head is already spinning while you turn in circles trying to figure out what the fluck you’re going to do with your life.
When I was a kid, if you had asked me that tired old question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I would have answered, “A landscape architect.” And if you made the mistake of mentioning mowing lawns or trimming rosebushes, I would have brazenly informed you that you didn’t understand what landscape architecture really was. And yes, there is a huge difference between landscape maintenance and landscape architecture. If you don’t know much about the profession, I encourage you to do a little digging. It really is quite extensive and fascinating. Think of it this way: architects design buildings. Landscape architects design everything around and between those buildings. When you’re walking down a sidewalk, it was probably engineered by a landscape architect (they even dictate how far apart the control joints are . . . you know, those lines cutting across the concrete). The scope of work ranges from Versailles to your backyard. Central Park was designed by a landscape architect. So are golf courses, parking lots, land for corporate buildings, urban plazas, rooftop gardens . . . you get the picture. That was what I believed I was destined to do with my life.
I didn’t discover my love of writing (to be honest, I wasn’t a big fan of English classes until an amazing teacher in seventh grade) until high school. Counselors were laying the pressure like granite blocks on our shoulders — you have to pick a school and a major right now and decide how you’re going to spend the rest of your life. My plan was to take over my family’s business. Due to unpleasant circumstances, that goal evaporated, leaving me in panic mode. What to do?
When in doubt, fall back on your original game plan and adapt. At least, that was the logic my mind concocted at the last minute. I would major in landscape architecture and work in that field by day while writing novels by night. And for a little more pizazz on the résumé, I could minor in creative writing. Sounds like a good plan, right?
Halfway through my education, I realized that this career choice was not going to give me a lifetime of happiness. A yearlong internship in an office only made my dilemma clearer; to be a successful landscape architect, you had to be passionate about the profession, and I was not. I give due credit to landscape architects — they truly are incredible. They are studying and shaping our world, investigating greener practices, creating historical landmarks, and working with both form and function to impact how we experience the outside environment, whether you live in the city or the suburbs. But it wasn’t for me.
“So, you wasted thousands of dollar and years of your life on a degree you aren’t planning to use?”
No education is a waste. Let me tell you what I did during those five years at college:
– I met some incredible friends. We are all different skin colors, different ethnicities, even different nationalities (one of them was a foreign exchange student from South Korea). I can only hope the friendships we forged will continue on for a lifetime.
– I left the United States for the first time in my life. I spent three weeks studying abroad in England, and it was an enlightening cultural experience that awakened my wanderlust and desire to travel more.
– I learned new computer programs. Before college, I possessed zero knowledge of Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, AutoCAD, or SketchUp. Photoshop alone elevated my photography hobby to a new level.
– I was introduced to new ways of seeing the built environment, which added to my arsenal of details for writing (for example, cement is an ingredient in concrete; it would be incorrect to say “a cement sidewalk”). Describing scenery suddenly had many more layers. How is the space lit at night? What building materials were used? How can I capture the genus loci of a place?
– I had several creative writing workshops. While I was rather frustrated that every one was constrained to realism (I prefer to explore fantasy, sci-fi, and paranormal elements), I learned so much and was exposed to some truly talented writers who inspired me to push myself. I’m still in touch with some of those students. We keep up-to-date on new writing contests, and it’s always a good idea to network.
– I learned time management. Or at least, the theory of time management.
– I picked up a new hobby — archery. I found it to be meditative, and even joined the archery club.
– I have a degree. I graduated with distinction from a university that’s ranked third in the country for its landscape architecture program. And even though when I walked up those stage steps in my gown to receive my diploma, I already knew that my career was going to deviate as soon as I stepped out those doors, I was proud to wear my gold cords and throw my cap with the crowd.
Now, tell me that was a waste. We millennials are finding ourselves in a difficult position right now. With a naïve mindset of “I can do anything,” we are stepping into a world so fixated on making as much money as possible that happiness is a fool’s dream. It’s our pursuit of balance that sets us apart from earlier generations. We need money, but we need happiness and fulfillment, too.
On my internship, I worked a few days in my firm’s sister office in the heart of Chicago. I had to commute by train and walk several blocks to the office. On my first day, my eyes couldn’t keep still. My head was tilted back to look up at the towering skyscrapers stabbing the sky, and I would pause on the bridge to gaze down at the murky waters below. I peered into store windows, read signs, admired the seemingly seamless flow of pedestrians, bikers, cars, and buses, and smiled but shook my head to decline when a man offered me a newspaper. On my second day, I noticed how different I was from everybody else. No one ever looked up at the sky. No one broke step on the bridge. No one glanced into windows. No one smiled. They just walked, eyes either straight ahead or downcast, coffee clenched in one hand, briefcase in the other. They were trapped in their monotonous routines. As I walked with them, I felt less like a human in a big city and more like a trout trapped in a school of fish following the current. All I could think was, I never want to be like them.
Here’s my advice. If you’re like me, and your life has veered in a different direction than you planned when you selected that major as an eighteen-year-old, don’t despair. You did not waste anything. Be proud of what you accomplished. You have memories and experiences that helped you grow. You met new people and saw new places. We’re young. We have time to make mistakes and make new decisions. We might have no idea where we’re going, but that’s part of the adventure, and even if you do hold that degree, you’re never done learning.