On Graduate Pressure: The Door Is Not Closed

Try asking a recent University graduate in their early twenties if they’ve figured out what their purpose in life is and you might be met with a panicked look, heavy breathing, and sudden perspiration. At best, you might get a stammered response full of “maybes” before a swift change of subject. In fact, if you tried asking my fifty-three year old father that, you might get a similar response. The popular answer for a man of his age would be something along the lines of: “my purpose in my life is my children”. But the truth is that most people need a purpose independent of those around them; something that is only theirs. And in a world driven by productivity, this often leads back to job satisfaction.

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Now, I’m no graduate. I’m a long twelve or thirteen months away from my graduation. But according to a lot of people, this summer is when I need to begin preparing myself for that apparently nerve-shredding period of my life where I will leave the so-called ‘comfortable’ bubble of education that has formed not only the past three years, but my entire existence, and enter the working world. For a long time, my sole purpose was to get to University. Now that I’m here, where am I meant to go next? My plans are an odd agglomeration of skills I’ve acquired, pipe dreams from a time before I knew any better, and feasible ideas.

In a climate where young people are paying £9,000 a year to be educated to a degree level, the anxiety of making the wrong decision and invalidating your investment is equally as high. What if I pick the wrong graduate program? What if I decide I want to do a masters when it’s too late? What if I’m unhappy later on? What if I don’t have enough experience to get to where I want to be? What if I have no idea where that is?

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The primary alleviation from this anxiety links back to my aforementioned father. In September of 2015, my dear old dad became a fifty-two year-old undergraduate student at the University of East Anglia. He originally left school aged sixteen and worked as a gas engineer until a work-related accident forced him to stop in his mid-thirties. When my dad walked on to that campus late last year, he wasn’t backtracking, or returning to something familiar, he was starting over.

His desire to find a new purpose has been an underlying current of my entire life, as I was only three months old when he stopped working, but I only noticed it as I got into my late teens. His decisive action was prompted by a single question, the one I frequently think that students looking towards graduation forget to ask themselves: What’s the worst that could happen?

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Say you choose the wrong graduate program. What next? You start over until you find the right path. In fact, don’t fool yourself, you will probably be searching for ‘the right path’ for the rest of your life. A 2015 report by the London School of Business and Finance found that 47% of the UK work force would like to change their careers. Furthermore, a 2014 survey by the New College of Humanities reported that not only did a mere half of all UK students find work in a field related to their degree, but 96% had switched careers by the time they were 24.

While the loosely-named ‘graduate season’, which in fact lasts for several draining months, is frequently presented to those at the centre of it as a Monty Hall-esque probability puzzle in which only one of several doors have the evasive ‘prize’ of purpose behind it, the reality differs enormously. Once you have chosen which door you want opened, there will, in fact, be more on the other side. It might be twenty years before you get to the next door, or it might be three. When my dad first gripped the handle that would lead to his life as an undergraduate student, it was a realisation that this door was never closed, it was simply one that he had never tried to open before.

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(originally published at huffingtonpost.co.uk/blog)

All gifs: giphy.com

Confessions of a Painted Lady – Tattoos and Narcissism.

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Over the past twenty or so years, tattoos and body modification in general have swiftly moved from being the mark of prisoners and seamen to becoming a legitimate fashion statement. Amid the myriad of celebrities whose careers are untouched by their body art are their millions of fans following suit. As a consequence, it appears that everyone has an opinion on tattoos. Whether the tattooed person is vindicated for ruining their job prospects or applauded for their “hip”, “fresh” or “rebellious” look, the judgement falls almost entirely on to the little drawings on their skin. Men are judged most harshly by their partners parents or prospective employers, while women are abhorred for daring to make themselves ‘unappealing’ and asked how they will look in their wedding dress.

Both the dismissal and idolisation of the tattooed folk is, to me, deeply steeped in our society’s vanity complex and obsession with appearance.

While the underlying message of many of the criticisms with which those of funny coloured skin are presented is the accusation that we do not care about our appearance, I would assert that they are not incorrect. In fact, I could not care less. A tattooed person is rarely presented as being ‘normal’ or having the same kind of beauty as the people around them. By placing us outside of the conventions of traditional beauty, society has given us the gift of seeing good looks for what they are: utterly worthless.

That is not to say, of course, that all people with tattoos are unattractive. At least, that is not my personal opinion in the slightest. It just matters less whether you are or not when everyone is telling you that you have ‘ruined yourself’. Because even if you start to believe it, you realise that your heart is still pumping blood in to all your vital organs, your digestive system is still intact – as are your limbs – and you are still a relatively kind, intelligent, well-adjusted human being. All of which will continue to happen regardless of whether you are considered ugly.

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The true sticking point of this is of course the realm of employment, which is often the thinly-veiled concern of many people who would disagree with the idea of inking their skin. And I am not going to say that they’re wrong. There are a fair few employers in the world who wouldn’t be over the moon with hiring someone with “FUCK” and “LIFE” tattooed across their knuckles or a full face tattoo. However, this is another deeply disappointing example of how embedded this narcissism is in our daily lives. A young child can be told that they must work and commit themselves in order to succeed, do exactly that and be turned away from their dream job because of what they look like. I don’t think this entirely man-made consruct is a healthy or productive model to live by and cannot believe that any parent would teach their child this in the interest of ease. After all, anything that can be constructed in society can be equally deconstructed.

Perhaps I am an idiot for maintaining the belief that my attendance and graduation from a top 10 UK University as well as my commitment to hard work and interpersonal skills will somehow override the fact that I have a few large pieces of body art, but I am prepared to be the guinea pig for this model as I am not prepared to sacrifice either my ambitions or my right to be tattooed if I feel like it.

I should think that the obvious response to my complaints about vanity would be the perfectly legitimate questions: why do you get tattoos if you don’t care what you look like? I can only answer this question from my own perspective, as people get tattooed for all kinds of reasons. And my response is quite simply because I can. In a way, I suppose that being a tattooed woman reminds me of the authority I have over my appearance. Too often a person’s appearance is controlled by outside influences, yet being tattooed somehow allows me to distance myself from that entirely and exercise my right to do whatever I want with my body. I feel exactly the same about the way I dress and do my makeup. If I were to quote Coco Chanel “fashion comes and goes, style is forever”, then my tattoos would be my very own ‘style’ and an indefinite statement of my ownership over my appearance.

Of course, someone with no tattoos or even an objection to body art might very well exercise a similar amount of control over their own appearance. Tattoos are quite simply my manner of doing so.

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Vanity is imposed on our society every single day, causing problems well beyond the world of tattoos. Tabloid magazines documenting the ups and downs of each celebrity’s weight fluctation and aging process, the fashion industry, the diet and fitness industries, the cosmetics industry and many more are rightly put in the frame for contributing to the steady rise in eating disorders in both men and women. I can only speak for some young girls, but I grew up convinced that if I looked better, then my life would somehow be better. Yet every effort I made to realise this only made me unhappier and riddled me with anxiety.

At this point in my life, I have concluded that the only way to attain true happiness with the way I look is to accept that it is absolutely worthless. Embracing the complete invalidity of any looks I may or may not possess is easily the most fun way to contend with them. And I would ask anyone who wants me to care about how I will look in my wedding dress to reconsider their definition of marriage.