Why My First Year Post-Grad was Terrible (And How it's Getting Better)

Photograph by Sydney Cook

Photograph by Sydney Cook

“Most days, I felt like I was in an episode of The Office.”

It’s been almost a year since I graduated college. Aside from being “hard,” I didn’t know what real life as an artist would be like.

I had never considered how significantly my life would change once I finished school. I didn’t think about the $400 student loan payments each month. Didn’t think about my lack of savings in case of an emergency. Or the simple fact that I had no equipment, studio space, or materials to continue my practice. I definitely didn’t think about, acknowledge, or even fully process my fears about the uncertainty of my career. I didn’t have a full-time job in my field set up, I was emerging from college with a load of student debt, and I was terrified of not having anything to look forward to. But the easiest thing to do was shove that fear into a dark corner of my mind where I knew I could ignore it.

As the summer after graduating continued on, my anxieties about “The Future” began to grow. My student loans would go back into repayment soon, and I couldn’t bear to open the mail or get online to see how much it would cost. The photography-related jobs I’d applied to and interviewed for paid significantly less than what I was making at my part-time gig; and I didn’t want to downgrade or sacrifice the money I was making. I didn’t grow up with a lot of money, so I assumed the solution to all of my problems was to make more of it.

And then, like clockwork, two months before I had to start repaying my student loans, I was recommended for a promotion and ended up with a new full-time job. Though the job was completely unrelated to art and I knew I wouldn’t stay at the company forever, the pay was juicy and enticing. Something temporary, but enough to get me started. Money doesn’t buy happiness, but having it sure makes life easier. Money offers security, freedom, and more autonomy. I thought about people I knew who graduated the year before me, and I knew I didn’t want to be working numerous jobs just to get by when I had a degree; I could’ve done that in my hometown.

Photograph by Sydney Cook

Photograph by Sydney Cook

But it was clear that the corporate office life wasn’t for me. It wasn’t when I worked part-time, and it certainly wasn’t when I became a full-time employee. Despite that, I took the promotion, and within a month or two, I dreaded going to work. The drone of my morning commute, the lethargic energy of the office, the pain in my hip flexors from sitting on my ass all day, and the general unrest as the company began to restructure. I liked my coworkers, but the job itself was numbing. And I felt like I was losing touch of my values and goals (I began to wonder if I even had any?) Most days, I felt like I was in an episode of The Office.

Regardless, I continued to convince myself that this job was worth the money, and I just had to stick it out a little longer. My problem was that I had no end date in sight. In my life outside of work -- which was supposed to be dedicated to making photos, applying for grants, attending events, networking -- I was completely exhausted. If I wasn’t at work or commuting to work, it felt like all of my spare time was spent grocery shopping, doing laundry, or other domestic chores. I had no time to be an artist!

When I scrolled through Instagram, I saw the people I graduated with traveling, making new work, going to graduate school, and hanging out with their new friends in the cities they relocated to. Aside from one good friend who decided to stay in Baltimore, it seemed that everyone I knew had moved on to bigger and better things after school.

As winter approached, I retreated into myself. I felt lost about what I was doing with my life. It was depressing, and the social media vacuum told me that nobody else I knew was going through it. But no matter how I looked at it, I couldn’t think of a reality where I could quit my job, live on less money than I was currently making, and somehow end up happy. Even with my corporate job (which did pay well), I still didn’t own a camera or computer to begin viewing or editing my existing photos. I couldn’t afford to rent a studio space, and there aren’t many affordable options in Baltimore to get access to a computer, labs, or darkrooms. I had no idea where to begin when everything I needed seemed so financially unattainable.

A sign from the universe….

One day my boss told me that after ten years he would be leaving the company,  moving down South, and starting a new life. My mind raced with the possibilities now awaiting his future. I’d already begun thinking about my own exit plan, but now here was someone in a similar position who decided to take a stand, and he had even more to lose. I could feel my discontent building and I was becoming miserable, but I couldn’t bring myself to commit to anything. Risking financial security was terrifying; I didn’t have a plan, and didn’t know where to start.

Photography by Sydney Cook

Photography by Sydney Cook

Despite the uncertainties, time continues without missing a beat. Eventually, the holidays rolled around and I flew home to Michigan, which resulted in me having the time to reflect on the first six months of my post-grad life. The only memorable moments I could recall were when I was making photos, which equaled a whopping four times. How was it, that in six months, I only had a handful of moments where I felt like I was living? Amidst my frustration one day, I complained to my best friend about how badly I did not want to return to work, and out of nowhere; I told her I would be quitting my job on March 1st. I had a plan to save money, try to find part time work, and put in my two weeks. Once I said it, I instantly felt relieved, but upon returning to Baltimore I kept the new idea to myself for a while. I didn’t want to jinx it, and part of me felt like I still wasn’t fully committed to following through with the plan.

But I surprised myself and stuck to my plan, aggressively saving every coin I made. I didn’t eat out, stopped buying coffee, and didn’t do anything that wasn’t in the budget I set for myself at the beginning of the month. By early February I was feeling good about the modest savings I’d set aside. I also started a separate savings fund to buy myself a brand new computer; that way I’d have no excuse not to work on my photographs once I had more free time. Maybe I didn’t have a camera, but I could work with the photos I already had.

Speak it into existence, and it shall manifest…...

One day my boss pulled me aside, into our boss’ office. They explained to me that the company was making some changes and that my position would be eliminated as of March 8th. I felt gobsmacked. I’d spoken my commitment into the universe, and here it was talking back to me! I couldn’t believe that I’d been given such a strong sign to do what I needed to do. My last day at work came and went, and I immediately started to feel more positive, excited, and determined to take control of my life.

It’s been 2 months since then. I like to think that I’ve reclaimed my time. It hasn’t been a completely seamless transition, but it hasn’t been the worst time in my life either. I’m trying to embrace the “riding the wave” mentality more often these days. There have been a lot of times where I’ve second-guessed myself and wished I had done the easy thing and just taken another job within my old company, but then the mood passes and I realize that I’m free to do (almost) whatever I want - which is what I wanted all along but couldn’t articulate to myself under the cloud of full time corporate work and money-fueled stress.

How My Time Is Now Spent…...

So I took up a part time job where I make my own hours online, and lately I’ve been working in a frame shop one or two days a week; sometimes filling in the gaps with freelance work. It’s not my dream job, but hey, neither were all the others. I’ve figured out the magic of tracking my expenses and making a budget, which relieves so many of my anxieties about money. Once that’s out of the way, I have more time to invest in myself and my goals while living my life in a meaningful way. A good friend and I just started working on a project we’ve been talking about for years, which is more exciting than I know how to say. I’m applying to artist grants and calls for entry as often as I can afford. I’ve also started making photographs again with a small point-and-shoot camera that I completely forgot I owned. Funnily enough, I always thought of it as a toy camera, but now I see it as a tool.

Looking back, I really needed this emotional rollercoaster of the past year in order to grow. I needed the time and space to reflect on myself, and to feel all of the changes happening in my life. And as much as I wanted to constantly be taking photos, I definitely needed that break from art. Life doesn’t move in a straight line, so I’m trying not to question my instincts as much, and I’m getting better at being uncomfortable and embracing my fears of the unknown. There will be amazing days, and there will be absolutely horrible ones, but anything worth working for is hard.

A Closing Word….

For people about to graduate: Don’t be scared! Know that a lot of things will change, and so will you - but embrace it! Notice those changes as they come, and take time to process how you feel about them. Stay in tune with your emotions, goals, and priorities as you figure out this last year. Take a break, and dedicate time to getting to know yourself again. 

For people going through it: Don’t give up. Nobody told you how difficult this year would be, and no one is going to make it better for you with a magic wand either. Try to identify the cause of your discontent. Is it money? Is it your job or work environment? Is it the fact that you feel creatively stagnant? All of the above? Then make a change! Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results doesn’t make any sense. For you that might mean moving back in with your parents temporarily to save money, getting a new day job, or finding a way to get out of your comfort zone and doing something that excites you. Think about what a day in your ideal life would look like and write it down. Identify those dreams you had before student loan debt smacked you in the face. Break them down into goals, then take individual steps. You have your whole life ahead of you, and you can make the choice to start living now.

Photograph by Sydney Cook

Photograph by Sydney Cook

Originally from Monroe, Michigan, Sydney Cook primarily works in photography to investigate the identities and experiences of marginalized communities, and the tension that often comes with displacement. Her practice is deeply rooted in her experiences growing up as a multiracial minority in the rural midwest. Cook uses the inflamed geopolitical and increasingly divided social environment across the United States as a guide to questioning the formation of identity within isolated communities. Her commitment to this work is driven by her care for the stories, lives, and histories of the people she meets.

In May of 2018, Cook graduated with a BFA in Photography from the Maryland Institute College of Art. She currently lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland.

To learn more about Sydney Cook or to view her work, you can find her at https://www.sydneycook.us/ or on Instagram at @es.cook