The Soul Year: Confronting Expectations, Redefining Success, and Laughing in Failure’s Face

Hello everyone! It’s been a hot minute.

I’m intentionally taking a step back from my blog right now, to refocus my life on what’s truly important and what I want this space to look like moving forward.

That being said, I’ve been talking to other young twenty-somethings from around the world over the past few months, and I’ve made some maybe-conclusions (???) about a few things.

For those of you who don’t know, I’m taking a break from college right now, for at least a year. Before I made this decision, I spoke with professors, classmates, friends, family members, and other mentors for guidance. Many cautioned against taking a year (or more) off, warning that I wouldn’t return. That I wouldn’t “reach my potential”. That I wouldn’t be happy.

Ultimately, however, the decision was mine alone, and I knew it was necessary.

Calling this a “gap year” doesn’t really seem right, so I’m opting to call it a soul year. A year (or more) where I can truly listen to my heart, without feeling like everything I do should be resume-worthy, grad-school-application-worthy, or interview-worthy.  Instead, I just want my life to feel worthy. 

Finding a new home can be difficult. It doesn't have to be.

There are so many expectations placed upon us at such a young age. Our lives are essentially laid out for us from birth: SchoolCollegeJobMarriageKidsDeath. With some other stuff in there, maybe.

Instead, I just want my life to feel worthy. 

I thought about taking a year off before I began college. I thought about it again after my freshman year. After my sophomore year of college, I knew I had to just take the leap and do it.

I was drained.

Annoyed.

Tired.

Wrestling with feelings of unworthiness, sadness, and failure.

As someone who always performed well academically, I was incredibly weighed down by expectations of greatness. I placed expectations on myself that were influenced by society and adults I admired, both of which spoke goodness and failure into my life.

I wrestled with questions like Does an accomplishment matter if it isn’t grand enough for my resume? If I can’t write a twenty-page research paper about it with twelve APA sources and six points to prove my argument? and The major I’ve chosen won’t result in a high paycheck…. is there still a point in majoring in it if it’s not impressive? It got to a point where I was constantly comparing my accomplishments to others’. I was deeply unhappy at school, and I felt as though I could never do enough.

I was deeply unhappy at school, and I felt as though I could never do enough.

On the flip side, if I took some time off, it’s statistically unlikely that I would return to school. This meant that I was signing up for a lower salary, less scholarship money when I did return, graduating later than my peers, and being labeled as a “college dropout”.

Both sides seemed dreadfully undesirable.

Eventually, I knew I had to make a decision. I chose by mentally placing myself in both arenas. The first: remaining a full-time social work student, overwhelmed by comparison and questions. The second: working full-time, traveling, and making intentional time for the pursuit of new hobbies and self-development.

The choice became clear.

I am choosing to make this year about personal development. I want to stare the questions, the comparisons, the doubts that constantly plague my mind right in the face. I want to develop new hobbies and invest time in the things I already know I love. I want to learn to let go of both material and emotional baggage. I want to be comfortable in the uncomfortable.

I want to be comfortable in the uncomfortable.

Then came a bigger question: how will I define personal success, if not through academic accomplishments?

My entire life has been categorized and defined by awards, scholarships, roles in theatre, titles in after-school clubs, and report cards. How would I feel successful without such a definitive measurement of it?

I’m still figuring out the answer to this question.

Here’s what I have learned so far, though, and a bit of advice for those who also feel stuck.

We all have expectations, both internal and external.

It’s not wrong to have expectations. I think they’re a good thing, actually. Another word for this is goals, which we all know I’m a huge fan of (hehehe). Before I went to India in August, I made a list of goals for this fall that I wanted to work toward. I refined the list when I returned, and added a list of hobbies I wanted to pursue, some personal development questions I wanted to answer, and a sort of bucket list for these few months.

The key is to recognize when expectations become unhealthy. I expected myself to graduate with a degree in International Studies from the University of Denver in the spring of 2019, and y’all, that is not what happened (PTL, amiright?). When I transferred and was still unhappy, I realized that perhaps it was not solely the school environment that I was uncomfortable with. So, I adjusted my personal expectations, and I’m ignoring societal expectations, for now.

Be gentle with yourself.

I was brokenhearted when I realized by big dream of living in Denver was not going to be realized. I was confused when I transferred and still hated school. I was in love when I traveled, and that’s all I knew. I’ve fallen in love with many more things over the past few months, and I’m still falling.

I think the most jarring thing about this whole process was realizing that the plan I’d made for myself a little over two years ago was so, completely, wholly wrong. And it’s taken me a long, long, long time to come to terms with this. At first, I bullied myself into staying in school, because I felt as though I wouldn’t be successful without a degree. After a while, I learned that having a mean spirit won’t get you anywhere either. Recognize when you are pushing yourself too hard.

Follow your heart.

Fam, I’m not trying to be cliche. At all. But had I stuck with my original plan, I would be dreadfully unhappy.

So, instead, I listened to my heart. I spoke to my soul. I responded to the whispers from the universe. I now work in the customer service industry, which I love. I get to meet new people and have interesting conversations and talk all day at work and honestly, the energy from other people fuels my happiness more than the energy from textbooks.

I am endlessly thankful for the opportunities I am provided every day to improve myself, even if I am uncomfortable and stretched and awkward in the process. There isn’t really a way to do this thing smoothly, is there? (If you know how, hmu pls.)

And finally, the biggest thing I’ve learned: YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

Literally, everyone is comparing their accomplishments to everyone else’s. There are SO. MANY. PEOPLE. who are unhappily running through life at a million-mile-an-hour pace because that’s how we operate here in America.

Breathe.

Love.

Find joy in small moments.

We’re all having this crazy experience of life together, and we need to support each other. Know that there are other paths and opportunities for you, if you allow them to come into your life. Hear this: You will never be alone in any of this. Your heart will not lead you astray–let’s listen in together.

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