growing up is a nightmare

taxes, vacuums, and becoming a real adult

David Brooks had written another think piece disparaging Millennials, and I was having a nightmare. Or, more accurately, David Brooks had written a think piece disparaging Millennials in my nightmare, a fact that I became aware of by checking my dream email and receiving, from my grandmother, a supportive soliloquy in which she said “at least you’re in the New York Times!”

Brooks had apparently written a column about the disintegrating state of journalism. The uninformed, he claimed, had taken over the Internet, posting willy-nilly on topics of their fascination—all without the training to back their arguments up. Prime suspects were undergraduates, especially those at elite institutions, who, enthralled with their own desires to one day say something meaningful, sought publication as another bullet point on their already laden resumes. Brooks had called me out by name, citing one of my summer publications in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, in which I argue that Saudi Arabia’s legitimate need for alternative energy could be a main driver for their desire to build a nuclear energy program. It’s not as difficult as it sounds, but then again, who am I to talk about the fate of the world? I woke up in a sweat, panicking about whether I would need to issue a formal apology for having the gall to play academic on so public a forum as the Internet.

The Bulletin article is real—and aside from the existential terror the dream created, I’m quite excited about it (even “nerding out,” as my sister noted)—but, thankfully, David Brooks has no idea who I am. It’s highly unlikely he’s read anything I’ve ever published, let alone that he has an interest in writing about it. (But David, if you are reading this, hello, and please do mention me someday. Just not yet.) Fortunately, I don’t have to apologize for the piece, yet still I have a nagging feeling that maybe the anxiety in my dream was well-founded: that maybe I just don’t know enough yet, that maybe I am still a child masquerading as an adult, a student acting the part of an intellectual.

The dream awakened a fear that has since colored my thoughts on my thesis, my graduate school applications, my job search: that perhaps I don’t have any idea what I’m talking about. All the anxiety, I think, boils down to one thing: the fear that, despite all the years of schooling, there’s still something missing. And I would venture to bet that I am not alone. To those who are fretting about how soon May feels: how are we supposed to know when we have finished learning, when we are prepared for the real world?

As I enter my senior year, I realize how young I am, how young my friends seem, how I still feel sometimes like I’ve been thrust back into that anxious first week of freshman year, and somehow never got any older. And maybe I haven’t. I had to Google how to put air in a car tire. I still need recipes for nearly everything I cook. I sometimes put off laundry until the last sock or leave chores on to-do lists for weeks. I still call my mom when I’m sick. I have never done my own taxes. I was amazed recently at the price of vacuum cleaners.

And yet in a few short months, I’ll be on my own, part of the large class of “adults” contributing in some real way to the knowledge and economy of the world. And even if no one is calling me out on it—yet—I don’t feel ready.

I guess that’s what the rest of this year is for. I still have some time to be a kid, to be confused, to read op-eds with indignation at their antipathy for Millennials, rather than with sympathetic distaste for whatever generation comes afterwards. To learn how to do my own taxes. But I think what I will really learn this year, when I look hard enough, is that there is always much more to learn, that it is exceedingly rare to feel as though one is ever fully qualified and completely prepared for everything on one’s plate. So here’s to the rest of my senior year, and to the rest of your time at Brown, too. Let’s learn some things together—but let’s leave a little left to be learned.