After last week’s column on making better decisions, I received the following letter from a reader I have renamed Daria (fair warning: the next two readers who write in will hereby be renamed Lisa Simpson and Madeleine Albright).

Hello Jen,

Thank you, I am glad you are alive and writing articles to help lost young women like myself. I enjoy reading your Bullish articles and I am hoping you can help me. I feel stuck in an unsatisfying life situation that I don’t belong in, I am taking steps towards improving it, but I am still not there yet. I am generating more money through a summer job, selling my crap, and working at my [local volunteer tutoring center] so I can eventually become a paid tutor on the side.

I am ball-less and failing my future self. I am 25, I have a B.A in psych, I have been living with my mom for the last 3 years, and I feel like I am wasting my youth. I am lucky that my mom lets me live with her, I love and appreciate her, but it is not a mutually beneficial relationship and I need to get away. I feel miserable and I have pushed my friends away because I am embarrassed, and I don’t want to drag them down. I have held a couple of part time jobs that were low paid and irrelevant to my future goals (psych research). Most social/behavioral science research positions require grad degrees. Last year I applied to grad school and was accepted. Now that it is time to start I am hesitant, I have not put a dent in my undergrad loans, I have a degree but no money, no life, and no job prospects. I am afraid that I will earn my grad degree and end up in the same boat older with more debt.

After reading today’s article I defined my values as 1) Being useful/ having fulfilling work 2) Living independently 3) Sustainable access to what I consider luxuries 4) Mutually beneficial relationships 5) Joy. If I go to grad school AND get a job afterwards then I will have #1 and 2, if I don’t get a job I will be at 0. Part of me is screaming go to grad school as it is the only way to start your career and get away from home, the other half is saying don’t do it you still won’t get a job and you’ll be in debt forever. After reading all your articles I KNOW I should figure out how to actually take care of myself, before grad school, but I am still not sure how to go about doing that. I have played it safe my whole life, I am a virgin, I don’t drive, I can’t even ride a bike and I am at my wits’ end.

Thanks Again,

I think there are a lot of things going on here that many young women (also: young women in a recession) have in common.

I first have to remark on, “I am ball-less and failing my future self.” While I empathize, it still made me smile: Bullish readers now have a secret language! Right now, it is a ninja-like language of ambition, spoken by precociously calculating young women who are starting businesses while their peers are traveling from bar to bar like pack animals, but someday, it will be a language casually referenced in the vaunted halls of lady-power, and by “halls,” I mean where male models serve mojitos. But all that is for later! If you’re interested, the “ballsy” column is here (Bullish: When To Make Massive And Ballsy Life Changes For Your Career) and the “being kind to your future self” column is here (Bullish Life: Breaking Free from Terrible Situations).

I am also happy to see that our pleasingly introspective Daria has defined her values. If you want to do that before you read the rest, go here and here.

Now, let’s talk about a few lady-obstacles.

Living with the ‘Rents

Every time I see a headline about the percentage of college graduates who return home to live with their parents, that number goes up: 30%! 45%! 67%! OMG, it’s now eighty-seven percent! If this had been a necessity ten years ago, I cannot even imagine all the sex I wouldn’t have had, and all the cop shows I would have been sucked into watching.

In New York, no one has any space, so those with wealthy parents are often receiving substantial rent subsidies. When I see a 22 year old being moved into my building (that I have worked for all my life) by her parents, I try not to break out in rage-boils. Maybe, I tell myself, she is terminally ill and her parents just want her to be comfortable in her final 12 months of life, which just happen to correspond to her lease term.

In any case, we live in a nation in which the cost of tuition has greatly outpaced inflation and wages. If we lived in Sweden and college were free, I would feel free to go around telling people how lazy they are (okay, maybe not). But our nation has developed an employment system in which people with no money (high school students) have to buy something (a college education) that costs $100,000+ in order to make any money at all (via conventional employment). It’s like if you were starving, and you had to come up with dinner for fifty before you could be allowed a meal plan. So, I get it.

If you are trying to be an adult but it’s kind of hard in your childhood bedroom, you can probably take some simple and practical actions, if your parents are accommodating. You can put all your kid stuff in the attic and do a clean sweep of that room, for one. Maybe you can even “switch” with the guest bedroom, if there is one. Get some fancy, modern kitchen stuff that’s all yours and cook something your parents would never cook.

But more importantly, it’s easy for parents and adult children to fall into old patterns, even if the parents really do want to treat their kids like adults. If you’re an oldest or only child, remember: your parents have no experience being parents to a grownup!

So, I think Daria can redeem her situation and actually fulfill the goal of spending some quality time and having a mutually beneficial relationship with her mom. I’d try to spend as much time out of the house as possible (do your work at the library or something) to avoid those everyday encounters that make you still feel like a kid — but make up for it by making plans to go out for lunch with your mom (I’m assuming she’s a reasonable and nice person who would enjoy her daughter actively making plans to spend time with her). It’s not embarrassing to live with mom if you can re-engineer your relationship to be more like the one two adults who enjoy each other’s company would choose to have.

Debt Terror

Being tens (or tens or tens!) of thousands of dollars in debt is frightening indeed. And it seems that incurring such debt is nearly the only way to be taken seriously — nay, to fulfill a basic requirement towards the goal of being taken seriously. This is not a good system.

For plenty of people, the answer certainly is opting out of the college system. For everyone, the answer to a recession of a lack of ideas is never to go to grad school just to delay action. And dear god if I have to be the millionth person to say it, but you don’t need an MBA to start a business. In fact, an MBA will probably convince you that things can only get done by “teams” working with other teams in large corporations.

For Daria, it does seem as though she has chosen a goal (psych research) that is not possible without a grad degree. Since her number one value is “being useful / having fulfilling work,” going to grad school is a pretty clear-cut choice. If Daria had listed her values in reverse order, then I would strongly suggest that she go find some less expensive source of joy.

Defining your values almost … makes decisions for you. Except that they’re decisions you’ve already made, by having those values in the first place. The process of defining your values and making decisions in harmony with them is simply the process of lining up your outside world with your inner ideal.

And Daria, the fact that it gets you out of mom’s house is also a plus. So, you really only have one problem: worries about employment and money.

Job Terror

A person would be right to be terrified about the prospect of using a grad degree, resume, and pleasant interview outfit to try to get a job these days. These things are useful but not at all sufficient. (See last week’s column on The Grindstone: Bullish: Basing Your Career On A Resume Is Like Competing In A Brothel Lineup).

I’m really glad Daria is thinking about the job hunt now, and not two days before graduation. So, she’s ahead, in a way.

There are two money concerns that Daria needs to pursue simultaneously:
1) Making money now to put a dent in the loans before interest starts accruing, and to have a backup profession or sideline in the future.
2) Doing big (and often scary) things that no one else thinks or bothers to do in order to obtain optimal employment later.

She also, of course, needs to do a very good job in grad school. These, all told, are three huge tasks that need to be pursued in tandem. There will be little time for anything else. Daria will need to spend all of grad school remembering that the bar is much, much higher than her classmates think it is. It is hard to do that when everyone else is lackadaisically studying over pizza and inviting you to movie marathons. A person must have a certain inner conviction.

On a practical level, Daria needs to start meeting mentors, finding out how they got their jobs, and asking them questions about their research. Get a bunch of forty-year-olds rooting for you ASAP. I mean it. You must contact psych researchers and kiss their asses and risk rejection. Go to conferences. Read psych journals. Do what you have to do to get yourself where your peers have not thought to go, and where you can meet these people or intelligently email them. Expect some rejection; it’s fine! Tell yourself that for every ten people you contact, five will ignore you, four will be rude, and one will be really helpful to you. Just accept that. It’s still worth it to put yourself out there.

And, of course, ask someone who knows more about the psych world than I do! My advice here is very general (although sometimes it can be helpful to get some outside-the-box advice from someone not in your field).

As for right now, I’m glad Daria is making some money. She mentions volunteering in order to eventually become a tutor. Anyone with a college degree and some tutoring experience can start charging for tutoring right now. There are many levels of tutors (the $15/hr ones and the $400/hr ones), and no central certifying body. In fact, Daria, when you get to campus, try to advertise your tutoring services as off-campus as you can to get away from the competition from other broke, undercharging grad students. However you advertise, make sure your pitch is more about the parent/kid than it is about you. Also, I like that you have a few different moneymaking things going on so you can later choose only the most profitable ones. (Also, find out whether as a grad student you’re prohibited from other work! Plenty of people do it anyway, but it’s good to know how under-the-table you have to be.)

Of course, I can’t close without mentioning “I have played it safe my whole life, I am a virgin, I don’t drive, I can’t even ride a bike.” Ha! My family still teases me for not being able to whistle or snap my fingers. (Oh no, what if I’m trapped on an island with only a finger-snapping powered life raft?)

I have long said that you can have any kind of personality you want. But I do think that Daria (and a lot of us who’ve gotten the standard young-lady upbringing) should go do something random and ballsy, just as a fortitude-builder. Sign up for a comedy class or go rock climbing or skydiving. Do something you’d never do. (But if you’re a virgin, don’t go having random sex. Sex is ridiculously distracting. Plenty of time for that once you’ve got all this other stuff in order.)

If I can help others solve anything, it’s by cutting down a mess into a problem. I mean that. What looks like an intractable life mess can often be boiled down to a single problem, which can be solved or ameliorated by a series of logical steps. In Daria’s case, its a money problem. Just one problem. A big one, to be sure, but you can take action against a problem once it is defined.

People sometimes freeze up because there is no one good option in which nothing bad happens. Everything is this interconnected web of imperfect choices and undesired side effects. Accept that. If you feel frozen, just say to yourself, “Something bad is going to happen!” It’s cool. It happens to all of us. Now work on picking the choice wherein the good things outweigh the bad things as much as possible, and then let it go. And get started.