Play Now, Pay Later
Life is hard
Ain’t no escapin’ when the rent comes due
Can’t get to heaven on roller skates
Can’t take a taxicab to Timbuktu.
—buk 3, “Life is Hard”
So you’re ready to graduate from college or university and feel ready to fly off into the wild grey yonder of power suits and fluorescent-lit cubicles? You may just want to hold on a second there! Colleen Kinder might have some different ideas about how you might want to spend the next 30 or 40 years of your life. How does teaching English in Thailand sound? What about taking a road trip down the Pacific Coast? Or what about interning at a wildlife sanctuary? Or, hey, starting your own poetry reading series?
All of these ideas (and more) crop up in her how-to guide to delaying life as you probably know it from your parents perspective, by forgoing a weekly paycheque and benefits for well a different lifestyle altogether. Let me just say this much about her book, Delaying The Real World: the folks who published this tome at Running Press really must like the idea of its readers getting their hands dirty in their quest for the unconventional, as the ink on its cheaply-printed pages easily rubs off at the slightest touch.
But before you get too excited about the possibilities embedded here, hold on. I’m of two minds when it comes to this hitchhiker’s guide to life. Yes, I think that if you’re looking college or university graduation in the eye, and your mind isn’t quite made up about working in a cubicle, then this book is probably going to be a great guide for you—if only as a brainstorming device. It does a fair job of pulling together advice, Web URLs and success stories to help one think about experimenting and trying something new, either in your own backyard or halfway around the world. Its usefulness, of course and however, is equally proportionate to how serious its reader is about make monumental lifestyle changes. Needless to say, Delaying the Real World isn’t for everyone, and it is only really useful as a starting point for ideas and getting started on the path to, well, non-conformity. Assuming that’s what you want.
(That said, as a writer who lives in Canada, I found the book to be annoyingly American-centric. That means a lot of the advice, ideas and websites to go to for further help probably aren’t going to do you a great deal of good if you live outside of Uncle Sam’s grip, particularly when it comes to sections on volunteer opportunities, finding things to do in your own “backyard” or snagging cool entertainment jobs.)
On the flipside of the equation, there’s something broader that Kinder misses the boat on as far as I, a nearly 30-year-old non-conformist-cum-sorta-wannabe-conformist, am concerned. For one, chances are that you’re going to be broke and somewhat lonely if you forgo a corporate lifestyle for planting coffee beans in Columbia, and possibly for a very long time. So before you pack that backpack, please pack that thought into your head and consider the implications of what that means for your future.
I don’t want to sound like a naggy parent, but the author of this book is a 2003 Yale graduate, which suggests to me she has a wealthy upbringing or at least the book-smarts to offset her student loans. Not only that, but she managed to subsidize her own cavorting through Cuba by bagging a $10,000 national scholarship. I know scholarships aren’t easy to win, but having $10,000 to go to Cuba changes the picture a lot more than just dropping everything and going might look at first blush. (And Kinder seems to put a lot of faith in worrying about the consequences of your travel decisions later by offering tales of people who up and left America with little more than $3,000 in their pockets.)
There’s a lot of world that needs changing in one’s own backyard, which is a point that only gets two pages of discussion in this book. A recent article posted on CharityVillage.com, a Canadian non-profit jobseekers website, mentioned that two million people out of a population of more than 31 million people simply stopped volunteering their time to social causes in Canada during the late 1990s. (That’s a lot of mouths going hungry at the local soup kitchen.) Granted, this might change from country to country as a survey recently conducted by Thrivent Financial for Lutherans—a non-profit financial services group in Minneapolis, Minnesota—found nine percent more Americans were volunteering in 2004 than the previous year. So maybe Americans are more in tune on that front, given 9/11, and it didn’t need to really be as pressingly addressed from Kinder’s US-centric perspective. Still, it seems pretty obvious to me that there’s work that needs to be done, and you don’t need to get on a boat or a plane to get a rush of satisfaction helping others.
I have to wonder, too, how much experience Kinder has in doing any of the things she suggests in this book. In her advice to a would-be fiction writer, she notes there are “all kinds” of grants and awards out there. This is true, but in order to get one of these grants, you usually have to have connections—or someone on a jury who’ll easily recognize your work. If you don’t live in a city where you can sleep your way to the top, chances are, you’re not going to make anything remotely like a full-time living from your craft. Granted, there are exceptions to this rule, but making it in such a craft is tough and not as easy as Kinder cracks it up to be.
Kinder also tut-tuts the idea of a selling out, or getting a steady income throughout Delaying. “Most people who get high-paying jobs out of college end up giving up their lives in exchange for money that they have no time to spend,” she writes. A bit later on, she notes in this guide that many people won’t retire until their late 60s anyway, so putting off the future a little bit won’t hurt recent graduates one bit. Well, my maternal grandfather fought in World War II and worked really hard manual labor just about until the very day he died in his late 60s. Not to dismiss any of the things he did, obviously, but he never really got a chance, as far as I know, to really stop and smell the roses. He died metaphorically at the grinder’s wheel, lacking any kind of education that would allow him to get ahead.
I bring him up because my othergrandfather—a former high-school teacher—died of a heart attack at 74 while coming back from a nice, leisurely driving tour of southern Ontario. It was this grandfather who once told me: “You can pay now and play later, or play now and pay later.” I don’t know about the rest of you, but, looking back on the lives of these two men, I have to wonder if he was right after all.
Basically, if I could offer some advice to would-be readers of this book, it would be this: get a day job that pays well upon graduation, and grin and bear the agony for a few years. (And if you can’t find a job, keep looking. One is bound to come along now that the boomers are starting to finally retire.) If you decide to go backpacking across Guatemala at the end of that self-imposed period of time, then you’ve got money and concrete job experience in the bank. Otherwise, by just jumping on a plane and leaving the country once your diploma is in hand, you’re just shooting yourself in the head from having any kind of future.
I’ve watched friends take English teaching jobs in China and Korea, only to come back to North America to chase job leads that went nowhere lacking so-called “real world experience.” I had another friend join a voluntary fire brigade that went across Canada for the purposes of filming material for some kind of promotional documentary. Thing is, I recall he had trouble getting paid in full by the company that sent him out to the boonies. Today, he’s unemployed. Sure, he’s got cool memories and neat experiences to talk about, but memories don’t quite pay the rent.
These empirical experiences aren’t meant to conjure an image that Delaying The Real Word is an uninformative or poorly researched guide. Far from: it’s evident a lot of work and thought went into compiling the book together, and I admire Kinder’s “The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades” mentality and optimism. What I am trying to say, though, is that making big life decisions aren’t something to be taken too lightly.
If you’re actually thinking about delaying your financial future in exchange for a few cool adventures while you’re still young, think back to that saying, “Pay now or pay later.” Don’t be surprised if there’s interest on your payment for working in a French vineyard or what have you that comes in the form of a denied mortgage application or a lost job opportunity later on. Again, that’s not to sound like your parents, but the world looks a lot different the closer you get to 30, and having things like a house and a significant other start to be something that measures your worth in the eyes of society. Maybe you won’t care but maybe you will.
If you choose the latter, well, in a world filled with people in suits holding onto bags of money, you might find the adventure of trying to earn their trust for the piece of stability that the real world offers not as thrilling as you might have thought at 25. So, be careful as you flip through the pages of this book when you go trolling for ideas. It truly is a jungle out there, and, as an almost 30-year-old, trust me when I say that you might not have any idea.