NOT A DELAY BUT A DETOUR
WASHINGTONPOST.COM - April 19, 2007
FOUR YEARS AGO, standing on the brink of college graduation, I felt more dread than joy.
Sure, I would toss my cap in the air like everyone else, but only to slow what I was certain would come next: As soon as that cap hit the grass, the dorm door would lock with a click, health insurance would vanish and sinister skyscrapers would assemble around me, heralding my exit from collegiate Eden and entrance to the Real World.
My understanding of adult life may have been as crude as a cartoon, but I did know one thing about this "real world": I couldn't join. Not yet. How could I pen myself up in a cubicle when the world was so huge, so foreign, so prime for roving? I sent resumes everywhere from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Johannesburg, ready to seize any offer that came back. A few did, but the "unpaid" theme was problematic. So I waited and waited -- and bought a black cap.
Finally, just weeks before graduation, a fellowship grant came through. I packed two suitcases and moved to Havana. It was in this seize-the-day spirit that I wrote "Delaying the Real World" (Running Press, 2005), compiling the stories of cruise ship dancers, Peace Corps volunteers and ski bums -- all told, more than 100 young adventurers who represented a gutsy generational trend.
While it was easy to track down peers willing to share tales and tips, editing them down was not. People who make unconventional choices tend to rave about the road less traveled. I know; the book's editor begged me to cut my use of exclamation points by a third.
Now, at the ripe old age of 25, I'm curious what has become of Delaying's poster children. Did the unbeaten path feed them straight onto the corporate superhighway? Was the Peace Corps guy -- gulp -- in a cubicle? The park ranger -- gasp -- pushing a stroller in suburbia? To find out, I dug up some e-mail addresses and awaited a barrage of replies. To make sure I got a full mouthful from the original cast, I posed a question that cuts straight to the heart of all life decisions: "Any regrets?"
The grad school folks replied soonest. "You caught me at a perfect moment," gushed one guy I hadn't heard from since he was researching and motorcycling in Taiwan. "I was just searching for a procrastination vehicle." Now earning a Ph.D. in Sociology and Economics, the motorcycle guy now drives a car with four wheels, but continues to study the migration issues that first intrigued him in Asia.
The bird guy sent a similar update, though his arrived via Manitoba, Canada. I gawked at the word "Winnipeg," thinking "frigid." But it made sense. This was the bird guy, after all: the college grad who moved to West Africa to track grey-necked rockfowls and adopt a chimpanzee. Naturally he'd end up studying the effects of global warming on sea birds -- even if it meant hauling his belongings to Canada.
As the grad school replies poured in from labs and libraries across the country, I found myself muttering the same thing: "Of course you are." How fitting that the ESL teacher in rural China would study human rights theory. And what else would the Peace Boat crew member drop anchor for but an International Relations program?
I heard the loudest "of course" when I considered why none of these twentysomethings rushed into the real world four years ago. They had uncommon -- if not quirky -- curiosities. While it takes a while to find a field of study (not to mention a graduate program) to match, it takes even longer to make yourself the perfect match. If you're a bird man, you need a year in Equatorial New Guinea, binoculars, and a lucky sighting of picathartes oreas.
Next, I heard from people with actual jobs -- card-carrying members of the real world. Or so I thought, though few of their jobs sounded like labor. The former whitewater rafting guide boasted of his sales manager post at a kayaking company: "Between skiing, biking, and kayaking, I probably have some kind of helmet on most days of the year."
The guy who taught in Greece confessed that he now held a desk job -- as assistant editor at a glossy travel magazine. The girl who herded goats on farm in France? Yes, she'd finally come home to find work -- at the French Alliance in Manhattan.
And lest I think it was all fun and games for these chronic adventurers, the photographer e-mailed. After working on a photo project in China for a year, he finally landed a job. Now a war photographer, he covers Iraq and Afghanistan stories for major U.S. newspapers.
I had yet to hear from Cubicle Central, but I was convinced that some of the book's poster children had grown up -- all the way. Sure enough, a BlackBerry memo blipped in, then another, requesting patience. They were swamped; today was insane; this week a total nightmare. The same folks who'd written me lyric essays from Bangkok internet cafes were now shooting back "AWAY FROM MY DESK!" alerts from nearby cities. When my Vail ski-bum wrote from Capitol Hill to request an extension, I knew it was true. The real world had recruited directly from my anti-cubicle team.
But it's more complicated than a two-team game -- sellouts versus Peter Pans -- and I know from experience. When my expat year in Cuba ended, the decisions that awaited me back home were infinite and loaded. As hard as I try to keep my passions at the center in my career, I make daily concessions. To write, I teach. To travel, I take side jobs. To pursue an art that pays novices in nickels, I've moved from New York to Eastern Iowa. There's pride in "doing what I love," but fatigue in weighing that love against practical matters at every turn.
That is precisely why I stand by the spirit of the book I wrote fresh out of college, eyes wide and luggage light. The best time to do what you love is immediately -- as soon as adult life presents the chance, before it diminishes the likelihood that you will. If the original Delaying cast is proof of anything, it's that what first looks like a departure from "real" work is often the beginning of a more appetizing career.
So to answer my own question: No, I have no regrets. If I made any error, it was in how I phrased my book's title: A "delay" assumes a temporary fix -- that six or 12 months of indulging your passion will be plenty. Instead, my "delay" spoiled me. After being my own boss, I couldn't work for The Man if I tried: I'd end up hiding in an office bathroom stall, scribbling down poems.
Like many fellow delayers, once I found work I cared about, I had to redraw my conception of "the real world." Once I did, it ceased to look like a cartoon.
Of all of the veteran adventurers I e-mailed, none had regrets to speak of. One, the bird man, did have some mature, mid-twenties wisdom to offer. "We were young and stupid and frankly, lucky to survive," he wrote from Manitoba. "But I think that was the best way."