Companies & Industries

The Reunion as Yardstick


It's five years after graduation. So how do I measure up?

In September the thought of my five-year college reunion, to be held in mid-October, was making me nervous. I wasn't quite certain why. I was excited for the chance to see longtime friends and catch up with old acquaintances. But I also had a deep, unshakable sense of uneasiness. I initially attributed this to some of the usual reasons. What had I accomplished since graduation? Did I stack up? To some extent, we all want to come back to an event such as a reunion as the perfected versions of ourselves.

Perhaps this is related to the pressure one feels basically to save the world—while paying off student loans—by the age of 30 after spending a jaw-dropping amount of money to receive a top-notch liberal arts education. After all, you have to get a good return on your investment, and work is the one consistent marker by which we could all measure ourselves against each other (well, that and physical appearance).

I realized, though, that I wasn't necessarily self-conscious based on what I had or hadn't accomplished in my early career, but because of my total lack of certainty about what lay ahead and how it all would fit into the bigger picture of my life. It turned out I was hardly the only person feeling unsettled and discontented, a realization that surprised, and admittedly comforted, me a little. As I caught up with numerous old friends and casual acquaintances, one consistent theme ran through our discussions. Many of my schoolmates were in the midst of similar transitions, even those who had been unequivocally successful in their post-graduation endeavors.

Deep-Seated Restlessness

Whether I was speaking with a rising corporate star at a Hollywood studio or even an Olympic athlete, no one seemed to be particularly boastful or self-satisfied about their accomplishments. Part of this was undoubtedly their own humility (a bit of a braggart myself, this trait always impresses me), but I think it was also symptomatic of a more overarching restlessness many of us were experiencing. Whether it was feeling one had hit a ceiling at one's current employer or wrestling with the decision to go to graduate school before it was too late, many people found themselves at important junctures…and often facing scary unknowns.

But in many cases, my own included, transitions weren't related just to career, but to lifestyle as well. My friend Liz, who was suffering from a cold (and was therefore extremely, well, sober all weekend) made the following observation: Everyone pretty much reverted back to the old college versions of themselves during reunion. And I suppose I realized, for myself at least, this state of being wasn't just a onetime weekend-long digression. I was, in some ways, stuck in a prolonged college-age existence.

I don't know how else to put it: My fifth-year reunion sort of made me want to grow up. I mean, really grow up. Not necessarily in terms of my career, but in terms of the nomadic, apartment-switching existence I've been living since graduation, complemented by a social scene that has remained, in many ways, quite similar to college. (One classmate remarked that she was amazed at how few of our classmates were married—fewer than a quarter, in her estimation—compared with her high-school friends in Texas, noting that this unquenchable drive to succeed could be one of the reasons.)

Finding a Balance

As someone who has spent much of her mid-20s with an almost single-minded focus on career ambitions herself, I could relate to these sentiments. It's not that I necessarily suddenly felt the need to "settle down" or change my lifestyle completely. But I suppose I wanted to restore some balance and put some real thought and time into those other areas of my life as well.

We all have our own timelines, our own unique paths to maturity. But those paths, particularly in certain environments, can become artificially stunted. In New York City, it's particularly easy to fall back on forming tenuous and shallow connections rather than seeking out and nurturing real relationships. I suppose it's just easier to squeeze those into our busy schedules. In a way, it's really just a form of laziness.

This is a lot to come away with after a whirlwind reunion weekend, although it's understandable that this type of event would serve as a measuring stick of sorts. In my own case, I realized that the measuring stick I actually cared about was very different from the one I'd imagined. It didn't come from being particularly successful in one area of life but in achieving balance in all facets. Apparently this is a kind of happiness for which many of us are still searching.

Gerdes is a staff editor for BusinessWeek in New York.

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