Important lessons learned from time outside the classroom

In January 2014 I moved away from home with my boyfriend, my belongings, and my best foot forward. I accepted a job in Ithaca, NY as a medical scribe in the local Emergency Department hoping to get a better look into the inner-workings of Western medicine. Ithaca, NY is a small city nestled on the south shore of Cayuga Lake, the longest of central New York’s Finger Lakes. Ithaca is home to Cornell University, an Ivy League school, as well as Ithaca College. There is no shortage of things to discover in Ithaca with it’s rich college atmosphere and abundance of natural wonders, namely the numerous gorges that carve themselves into the sides of the rolling hills of the town and filter into the lake. The mixture of academic ambiance and lakeside languor make for the perfect settlement for self-professed free spirits and flower children alike. Ithaca just so happened to be the perfect place for me to be in this time of transition. Throughout high school and into college, I had a one track mind and wanted to accomplish my goals in a specific timeline, no matter the cost. After suffering a few setbacks I was forced to slow down and reevaluate my “plan.” Looking back on the last year and a half I’ve learned and grown more than I could ever quantify, and my priorities have definitely shifted for the better. Here is a list of a few important lessons I’ve learned in a mere year and a half spent outside the classroom:

1. It’s okay to take time off.

After graduating college I didn’t have a set plan for what would happen next. I knew I wanted to go to medical school, and that was about all. I didn’t have a ton of experience, only job shadowing here and there. I didn’t have a job lined up after graduation, and I didn’t apply to enroll in school immediately after graduating. In my senior year I was admittedly in denial about graduating. Backed into a corner, I searched endlessly for jobs during the summer following graduation. I finally stumbled upon a medical scribe position. From the description provided, it seemed like an ideal job for someone like me, interested in medicine but with no real experience. So, I applied and landed a job in Ithaca, NY. It was only a 1.5 hour drive from my hometown in PA, and I figured if I completely screwed up I’d at least be near to home. Taking time off from school to figure out what I wanted turned out to be the best thing for me. Before, I’d convinced myself that if I didn’t become a doctor I would be a failure. Having a career meant more to me than anything else. Taking time off forced me to reevaluate my goals and expectations. Nearly sixteen years of nonstop schooling is a lot for anyone. I had become accustomed to formalized education and hadn’t nearly enough time to just be with myself and learn through my own experience. Time away from school allowed me to develop insight into why I felt I needed to have a prestigious career to feel like I mattered. I had time to explore hobbies and interests that I’d pushed aside before to concentrate on school work. Now I realize I’m happiest when my life is balanced. In the end I won’t find fulfillment solely in a career; A prestigious job alone will not bring me happiness.

2. Embrace the uncertainty.

In the first 22 years of my life I required everything laid out for me, always one to plan to the very last minute of my day. When I graduated college, it was the first time in my life where I was unsure of my next step; I had no idea what to do next. I thought I knew what I wanted, but I was wrong. In my time away from formalized education, I learned to embrace the uncertainty of not knowing what was going to happen next. Admittedly at first I was quite apprehensive to the point where I would break down in despair on a regular basis. My life was falling apart, and I was a failure in my mind. After a few months of regularly distressing over my future, I decided that it was time to just let it go. I let go of all expectations I had of myself and just let it be. For the first time, I didn’t think about what would happen next, and I focused on the here and now. Allowing myself to enjoy where I was without feeling the guilt of not having “a plan ” allowed me to look inside myself and discover my true desires. What makes me happy? Who am I really? Who do I want to be? I learned how to like myself without expectations, and I learned to give up control. I embraced the uncertainty of not knowing, and I realized that not knowing what’s going to happen next is what makes life the greatest adventure. Finally, I was embracing going with the flow, and I’m certainly happier for it.

3. You don’t have to maintain the status quo.

In my mind I had to accomplish certain things by a certain timeline in order to be successful. I was constantly fretting that I wasn’t going to hit the life milestones at the right time. Timing was everything to me. Then, I got out into the real world and realized there is no such thing as timing. I worked with people who were working on their second career in medicine. Some of them didn’t even start medical school until their 30’s. One physician even took over a decade to finish his bachelor’s degree! These people took “the path less traveled” in getting where they wanted to go, and it didn’t make them any less capable. Now I know you’re never too old, too young, too anything to start something new.

4. Listen to that little voice in your head.

In college I forced myself to go out to parties that I didn’t want to go to with people I wasn’t necessarily friends with. If I didn’t go out and party like everyone else I would be missing out on an essential part of my youth, I thought. After all, drinking to excess and hating yourself the next morning is all part of the college experience, right? Um, no, it doesn’t have to be. Forcing myself into situations I wasn’t comfortable with only made me feel more hollow and spread thin. As a hardwired introvert I find it very taxing to even be in a loud, crowded room for too long. Every time I engage in small talk I put on a mask and recite lines. It just drains me! I should have listened to the little voice in my head that was telling me to stay in and spend time with the handful of people that were and still are my closest friends. I didn’t have to spread myself so thin to have a fun time. Honestly, the most fun I had in college and out were the times spent with my few closest friends doing nothing in particular. Trust your intuition when things just don’t “feel right.”

5. Do whatever brings you joy.

It took me way too long to figure this out. In the year and a half I’ve been living in Ithaca I’ve had time to do the things that makes me happiest, writing being one of them. With a tough course load in college I never had time to even sit down and journal like I had done on and off throughout my youth. I would write silly little poems and even read, for fun! Ithaca in all its eccentricity was especially a great place for me to rediscover the creative energy that had laid dormant in me for too long. I can recall times in college where I was “too busy” to indulge in my creative side and for that I suffered immensely. In this “time off” I’ve rediscovered what it means to have hobbies and interests. My reading list has expanded to beyond just fiction and writing has taken on a whole new life for me. I’ve taken time to explore things that I was interested in but never had time to do, like meditation and yoga. Cooking, gardening, and painting have become important avenues for expression as well. The seemingly little things are the stuff that makes for a happy existence.

6. Take time to be in nature.

Too often I get caught up in the day-to-day humdrum that I forget to go outside and just enjoy the beauty that surrounds me. Regrettably, I often have to remind myself that I live in a place where people from around the world come to vacation. When I do remind myself to get lost in nature, I tend to soak it all in. It’s immensely refreshing to find a beautiful place to just sit and reconnect with nature. Too often we, as a society, forget that we are inextricably connected with everything that surrounds us, especially the natural world. It’s important to remember to bridge this gap. To quote philosopher and writer Alan Watts, “We do not ‘come into’ this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree.” Remember to simply be once in a while and you’ll thank yourself for it.

Obviously, these are not all the things one learns outside a classroom, but I have found they are some of the most valuable to me. Even though initially I had not planned to take nearly two years away from my formalized education, I am so glad I did because I would not have come to realize these things otherwise. In every experience, good or bad, one must look upon it as a learning opportunity. Even though I’m still unsure about what will happen next, I look forward to the next big adventure and for the next learning opportunity life has to offer!

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