When I tell someone that I’m graduating a semester early, I know exactly how that person will react to the news: 1) Express shock that I’m leaving early 2) Say some obligatory phrase of congratulations 3) Ask me what I’m going to do with my spare semester, plus with the rest of my life 4) Try to arrange some food date — that never happened freshman year and sure as hell isn’t going to happen now — to say goodbye. And while this routine type of exchange has become all but second nature to me, it’s that third question, “So, what are you going to do next?” that always gets me.
You see, as of the time of writing this, I’m in this weird limbo state, where I know what I want to do career-wise, but the process of making it a reality is complicated and far from easy. To make a long story short: I want to work in television as a writer; I have to move to New York to be a competitive applicant; again, I have no job, and New York is super expensive. Do you see my problem? I don’t have a “return offer” from a notable Wall Street bank or a medical school acceptance on the horizon. Television doesn’t work that way. It functions on a rare combination of instantaneous, fickle luck, talent and connections. All I know for certain is that I have a cardboard box with my name on it that I know all of my possessions and my body can fit in snugly if worse comes to worst.
It seriously takes a leap of faith to be in an industry with the uncertainty factor of unemployment lasting, for some of my friends already fighting the good fight, a little over a year. That is terrifying to me, and I’m going to willingly live it soon enough. Imagine articulating this whole internal dialogue of anxiety to friend after acquaintance after professor after parent who asks me question number three. (Seniors pursuing a career in the arts, you’ll soon know my pain in five months’ time unless you’ve somehow snagged a job post-grad already. In that case, give me your contacts — in exchange, I’ll endorse you on LinkedIn for some skill I have no idea if you’re qualified for. Or better yet, let me bum on your couch until forever.)
If I’m being quite honest with you, what makes me truly anxious about question three isn’t my personal situation of being unemployed — I’m willing to do whatever it takes to make it, even if I fail trying. Instead, it’s not getting that instantaneous reward of impressing people and myself with my secure future plans and then enduring that consequential, low-key judgement when they learn about my limbo. “You’ll find something, I guess. That’s so cool,” they’ll say, but their face reveals a different sentiment.
Getting a job in something with a recognizable name or reputation gets those impressed “Oh”s. Uncertainty is for some reason shameful, and every sap-sorry or snooty “Oh”s I’ve received is a dagger to the heart and feeds into perpetuating my own self-doubts: “What if I’m not good enough? Am I truly wasting my life?”
At this point in the conversation, I’m internally crying for 40 days and 40 nights and externally posting a feigned smile. But then, I have to remind myself of a very crucial question: Why should I try to impress people who I likely will never see again, let alone go on a final food-date hoorah with? I think the nature of being a writer is being desperate for approval and appreciation by others; “Your work inspired me. I totally relate. I love the way you write.” And so, similarly for me, I realize in these cursory post-grad conversations that what I’m truly afraid of is the failure to obtain that immediate acceptance. Luckily, I have a Duke education that’s helped me deal with that all too much.
Having been here at Duke for four years has inoculated me to the disease of crippling failure, especially sharing a classroom with peers who are naturally more gifted than I’ll ever be. Be it the very first week of school when I was rejected from both student comedy groups; when I received deafening silence and pained facial expressions from my peers during and at the end of a table read of my work because it sucked; when I was told by a professor that “nobody should try that hard to understand anything you write”; or, on a less serious note, when I’d dance at Shooters. (Seriously, a friend of mine, an animal lover, said my dancing hurt her eyes so much, and she’s seen actual wounded gazelles on her DukeEngage trip that have moved more gracefully than I dance.)
My early work was abysmal. But I got better. I’ve gained confidence in my abilities, to the point where I’ve decided to forfeit the cash value of my biology degree and sign myself up for constant struggle and uncertainty in a fickle industry. For a chance at doing something I know I’ll love. And I may be biased, but that, to me, is nobler than getting into a profession where your heart is not in the work but in the path to financial security. I know too many friends that are beginning this new chapter of their lives like this.
Viola Davis, upon winning her first Academy Award said, “I became an artist — and thank God I did — because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.”
This is why I hope to succeed. We are in the profession of celebrating the stories of struggle, lost love, humor in darkness throughout all aspects of the human condition across time. There’s this long, internal battle within myself to strike a balance between perfection and being expressively creative — these two forces are constantly at odds with one another, but are both so necessary for art, for life — so that I have a coveted voice, a style and perspective to funnel my career through. But I’m 21 and lived a middle class life and went to Duke. So my voice is nascent. But the advice I’ve been given is to fake it until you make it because one day you’ll find your voice. One day, you’ll find a way to both make a living to survive and also embrace your art like its messy muse, life.
You cannot expect things at Duke, in your career, in your personal life to be perfect or as expected. We do not go into this career path expecting overwhelming success, fame, riches or social approval; we do it because we have to quench our muses. That is the fight you must fight, not just alone, but with beautiful people in your life who will love and support you along the way. And the best way to cope, I’ve found from talking to alumni in the industry, is to learn to be okay with that and not give a s--- about what anyone else thinks. If you may not be where you want to be, the smaller successes in life, the relationships you’ve made, the people you’ve helped and the work you have produced will be your reward of a life well lived. It’s not going to be perfect, but you have to be okay with that. You just have to.
And with that, goodbye Duke. I will miss every bit of you. And thank you for the thrill of it all.
Dillon Fernando is a Trinity senior, Recess culture editor and former Recess editor.
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