Five Years Later

by Hank Leukart | 6/10/06 5:00am

Four years ago, a year after walking across the Dartmouth commencement stage, I wrote an essay for The Dartmouth titled "One Year Later," in which I wrote about spending my post-grad summer with a girlfriend at Dartmouth without any classes to worry about, getting trapped in Europe on Sept. 11, 2001, the differing directions friends go after graduation, and how thinking you have your life figured out as an undergraduate is a big mistake. Now, in the series' second essay, I'm looking back at the five years since I graduated.

Like most of us, I separated people into two groups growing up: kids and adults. When I became a teenager at 13, I identified with the kids group, and when I graduated from high school at 18, I still identified with the kids. After graduating from Dartmouth at 22, I knew I still wasn't an adult. Now, I'm 27 years old. That may sound ancient to members of the class of 2006, but I still feel like I just graduated. Not that I have done nothing for the past five years -- far from it. I've helped build an orphanage in Mexico, explored the Galapagos Islands, scuba dived in Honduras, walked the beaches of Normandy, and jungle-trekked in Thailand. I've even designed major portions of two Microsoft software products -- but I don't feel much older.

When will I become an adult? It still seems a long way off to me.

I'm not the only one. At last count, of my 20 closest friends from college, four have finished law school, four are working on medical school, and four are in miscellaneous grad schools (biology, physics, English, and public health). It's clear that the most popular way to avoid working for a living (one of adulthood's hallmarks) is to attend grad school. Of the remaining eight, one is a journalist, one works for a television show, two work in technical jobs, and two work for non-profits. The remaining two have mostly spent their time traveling around the world, depending on parents and odd-jobs to get by. Only five of the 20 are married and none have children.

These statistics may say more about me than anything else -- I seem to gravitate toward academics and iconoclasts and shy away from investment bankers and consultants (and do I hate married people?) -- but for the most part, my sample suggests that, as a group, we are more interested in knowing things than we are in working and in falling in love.

What does it mean to be an adult? The adults I remember from my childhood pursued careers, owned houses, were married, and raised children. By that metric, I'm half of an adult. Could that be right? Am I really half of an adult? I don't feel like it. What about my friends who have become doctors? I've never met a doctor that I thought wasn't an adult (except maybe J.D. on NBC's Scrubs). Are there magic shortcuts (like medical school) that propel people to immediate adulthood? What about the friends I mentioned who are still spending their time skiing or gallivanting through Europe? Are they destined to be children forever?

As a child, I used to think that I had grown up too fast -- I always identified with the older kids. Now, it feels like I didn't grow up fast enough.

Then again, "growing up" may be overrated. Not all of us with fledgling careers seem particularly excited about them, and I've fielded (what I estimate is) more than my share of my-relationship-isn't-working phone calls. Part of becoming an adult is gaining a humility and understanding that no one has his life completely worked out. Even more importantly, that intangible point at which our life paths are supposed to become clear doesn't exist. I have a friend who spent his life until college graduation trying to become a doctor only to realize that he didn't really want to be one all that much. Conversely, another friend majored in French and only later discovered, while working on an HIV research project in Cambodia, that she wanted to go to medical school.

I know it sounds scary. There's something frightening about knowing, for sure, that you can never be sure of anything -- no plans you make, no passions you have, and no paths you plot are set in stone.

Yes, it's hard to move ahead when you're unsure of where you're going. But I wouldn't have it any other way.

If there's one wonderful thing about the post-college years, it's the feeling of having the liberty to do whatever I want with my life. I have the freedom to pick a new job, a new grad school, a new city, and an entirely new life in the blink of an eye. Many in our parents' generation pursued a single career, but more than any other, our generation has the freedom to live multiple lives. I haven't taken full-advantage of that freedom yet, but it's comforting to know it exists.

If becoming an adult means losing all of that, I'm not sure I'm ready.

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