I’m a Harvard grad who can’t hold a fast-food job

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAY 6, 2009

I have a history of depression and I’m back at my parents’ — but I have an Ivy League film degree!


Dear Cary,

I am a week shy of my 25th birthday, and I am back living in my parents’ home. I have a degree from Harvard and a year of grad school under my belt, but lifelong depression and social phobia have crippled me such that I can’t capitalize on my achievements. There’s never been a problem getting good grades, but I’ve never been good at setting my own goals and following through with them. Only too late have I realized that one has to get good at something (besides passing tests) to be able to make a living. Everybody just assumed that because I was book-smart, I would be life-smart, and nobody pressured me to plan out what I wanted to do with my life.

I’ve also been so sheltered that I can’t give directions to my own home, nor do I keep track of how much money there is in my bank account. Basically, I haven’t had to learn the ins and outs of daily independent living and it’s driving me insane, because I am 25 AND I HAVE A HARVARD DEGREE!

Since I’ve dropped out of graduate school I’ve made some attempts to get a job, but not wholeheartedly. I was fired from a fast-food job a couple of months ago, which has shot my confidence for getting a higher-paying, higher-status job. I’m scared to death of getting one, because I don’t think I’ll put in the effort to do well. I don’t have to worry about paying the bills (my parents take care of it all) so there’s no external motivation to get serious.

Besides my lack of ambition, I have trouble maintaining relationships. Never dated. Friends come in and out of my life, and I either get bored with them or I get so annoyed that they have ambitions and passions that I feel uncomfortable sticking it out. I have no loyalty to anyone and even my family says that I am duplicitous and hard to read.

I spend most of my days sleeping or surfing the Net, away from people, tuned out from the world. Whenever I try to tune back in, I feel self-conscious due to all that I’ve missed out on. This again makes it hard to connect with others — what the hell can I talk about?

I know I’m smart, but I’m lazy, and am nowhere near to approaching my potential. The separation between my ability and my actions is driving me crazy and has brought on suicidal thoughts.

I wouldn’t mind being isolated or having a low-status job if I were independent (not relying on parents). But “settling” for a “McJob” while under their roof seems to be the very example of slacking off because there’s no pressure to do better, and I feel embarrassed doing that.

I know there’s a way out of this — maybe finding a different set of friends; a mentor; making a plan and not caring what other people think of it — but getting out of bed to do it is the trick. I’ve even thought of running away to California (I studied film) but I don’t know how the hell I’d survive.

Thanks for reading.

Stalled

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Dear Stalled,

Now, I know that mental illness can cripple the smartest among us. But I also know that this can be dealt with in many ways. See a doctor or a therapist. It may be that you are one of those people who has what is called Asperger syndrome. If it’s Asperger, there are ways to manage it. If it’s depression, try cognitive therapy. Try anything. You have somehow been managing this all your life, functioning well enough to excel in high school, acquire a Harvard degree and do a year of graduate school. If you are experiencing a particularly difficult bout of it now, then with the help of a doctor or therapist attack it with fearless vigor. Fight these thoughts of helplessness and hopelessness with the facts: If you can graduate from Harvard, you can fill out an application for employment at Lion’s Gate. And if you need certain things in order to function — order, quiet, exercise, diet, then you have the resources to get those things.

Among those resources is courage. If you have come this far, you obviously have courage. Call upon it now.

And know this: It’s as hard to escape your own privilege as it is to escape your own deprivation. Hell, if you hitchhike to California, they’ll probably put a tracking device on you for insurance purposes. So at the risk of consigning you to the kind of chaos and uncertainty that I lived through in my 20s and early 30s, I say, what are you afraid of?

Unless you lack sufficient whiteness, you can hitchhike to California drenched in blood like a serial killer and some nice young person from Brown will give you a film job.

If you lack whiteness, it’s going to be harder. You’ll have to show your Harvard diploma.

When I set out in my 20s I understood very little but I understood this much: Any educated white person in America is privileged, and no one is going to allow us to starve. We can’t even starve if we want to. People keep inviting us to dinner to talk about Robert Lowell.

We can try to starve ourselves but other white people will force-feed us like foie-gras geese. We can’t escape out whiteness even in Tenderloin hotel rooms.

They send their gardeners looking for us.

We’ll be smoking crack on the third floor and hear Spanish in the lobby. “Is that the voice of my mom’s gardener?”

It’s too much for their delicate constitutions to see their educated white children starving. It breaks their hearts. They must control us. They’re like missionaries.

So don’t worry about it. Your parents would rather pay all your bills and have you live at home and stay in your room than see you miss a meal or direct a grade-B zombie flick. Even if you come out here they’ll send you money.

A note to parents: If you have a 25-year-old college graduate living at home, do that person a favor: Next time he or she leaves the house to “meet up with friends,” gather up all his or her stuff, put it in the car with a $100 bill and have a locksmith change the locks on the house. (Chances are you don’t know how to change a lock yourself, right?)

And if you’re 25 and sitting in the bedroom of your parents’ house, hear this: We need you! The planet is melting down. Get out of your goddamned houses and change the world. There’s work to be done.

If you must fear something, fear dying without living.

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