Burnout Story #1: The Post-College Glow

Back in December I posted a review for one an Audible Original, a short interview-style listen called “The Burnout Generation”. Aside from being an interesting listen, this short had me reflecting on the various points in my life I’ve hit burnout, particularly post-college and as an adult.

So I’d like to follow up on some of those ideas and tell my first burnout story: the year or so after I finished undergrad.

The Winding Road Home

College ended in May 2010 with a tentative but hopeful whisper for me, because by the time my senior year rolled around, I had found a solid rhythm of being a reasonably independent pseudo-adult.

Obviously, I was living off of student loans, but I had a good part-time job, great friends, my own apartment, and a lifestyle that I enjoyed. I really wasn’t ready to leave Morgantown or West Virginia, the place I had called home for four years.

But, I left. My final drive home, four-door compact car packed to the brim with boxes and bags, was a long one. I crossed the state border into western Maryland and took a detour down a road I thought would lead me generally eastward towards Hagerstown. I ended up on some farm road in the middle of Garrett County, MD, but it was a nice drive anyway.

I plotted my way east and north and eventually found I-68 again. I took that detour because I wasn’t ready to be in Maryland again, even though I had a pack of friends who had gone to in-state schools waiting for my return.

Black Hole Job

After a month of hanging out and enjoying summer, I stopped being lazy and found a part-time job as a server at a local tavern/bar/restaurant. I hated that job, and my first few months there were miserable. Somehow, I ended up making a couple friends and finding my rhythm in a work environment wholly different from the one I had come from in Morgantown. But that summer was not fun.

I worked mostly weekday lunches on the patio, where it was 90 degrees with 90% humidity most days, and customers had the gall to complain that the ice in their waters melted too fast.

I eventually found my footing, right around early autumn, and started hanging out with a group of cool people I worked with. We drank a lot after work.

I also commiserated with most of my other friends, and one in particular, who worked at a now-defunct corporate bookstore. We hung out every Sunday night after work, at the houses we grew up in, just a short walk from each other.

My girlfriend at the time (now my wife) lived about 90 minutes away in southeastern PA. She worked as a fry cook in a beer store/sandwich shop during this summer, and we found a pretty good rhythm driving to each other’s parents’ houses to stay for a couple of nights.

Still, a somewhat-long-distance relationship was less than ideal, considering we had spent our last semester in college all but living together. I think we leaned on each other a lot, though, mutually complaining about our shitty jobs, having fun with friends, and traveling as much as we could.

The Dreaded “Real Job”

She found a great job as a lab tech in her hometown that autumn, which was amazing. It just made hanging out more difficult. We were basically limited to weekends.

Meanwhile, I was applying for jobs and being all too picky about it. I had majored in history and graduated summa cum laude, but I didn’t have any internships, fellowships, or fieldwork under my belt. I was disheartened to realize that my degree alone wasn’t enough to get a full-time job in the fields I was interested in: archivist, writer, researcher, analyst.

A word on the post-college job market, because I can already hear the remarks. Why didn’t you major in something useful?!

Because I grew up in the 90’s, when every kid was told they could be whatever they wanted if they just set their minds to it and wished hard enough!

Except none of us were told that the qualitative value of a college degree had depreciated, while the quantitative debt it would put us in had increased exponentially.

I didn’t know what I was supposed to get out of a liberal arts degree. And sure, maybe I could have a done a little more research and really planned out my career trajectory from ages 18 through 23 and beyond…

But how many 18-year-old’s are actually motivated and mature enough to make that kind of decision?

I loved college, and I excelled in that environment. The campus life, the papers, the reading, the exams — that was invigorating to me.

But I’m not sure how much of that work actually prepared me for life beyond college.

The Other Option

So, I worked at the restaurant through autumn and decided I needed to go back to school for my Master’s. That’s what most of the jobs I was applying for required, and I wanted to be back in academia.

I kept my restaurant job for another eight months until September 2011, when I left my home, my somewhat-long-distance girlfriend, and my country for southwestern England.


That first year out of undergrad was fun. Stressful at times, but I think I made more friends during that period of my life than any other, and it’s not even close. I’m only in touch with a few of those people now, but early-twenty-somethings seem to have a way with making friends with everybody. It’s like a shared adventure of figuring out who you are, and who the hell all these other people are all at once.

I don’t begrudge anyone else that I worked at a shitty restaurant for a year. But I definitely have had that creeping thought of… if only I knew then what I knew now!

If only I knew then that an internship in public history, even if unpaid and not in a field I wanted to work permanently, would have been an excellent first step in my career as a historian or analyst or researcher.

My wife and I have had this conversation numerous times about our son. We don’t want to force him to go to college at 18. Teenagers should not be trusted to make sound decisions that will impact them for the rest of their lives. Paying $100k for a degree you don’t want or understand the actual value of is not a decision to be rushed.

So if Nugget wants to take a gap year, or just work for a bit, or play in a fuckin’ band for a while, we’re going to try to be open to that. As long as he’s being responsible and starting to build his own savings.

If he’s ready to go to college at 18 with a degree chosen and a career path in mind — and the determination to pursue it — that’s great, too! We just want to have that conversation with him and not force him into a decision he’s not ready to accept responsibility for.

I suppose that’s it for this story. It’s interesting — I’ve thought about this time in my life a lot and reflected on it in different ways. I used to regret the many paths not taken towards a viable career right out of college. Now, I only care about helping my son choose the right path when the time comes for him.

Steve D

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