Our theme for the month of November is “firsts.”

I don’t buy possessions often. Raised in a Dutch-American home with a healthy sense of Protestant work ethic and frugality, I’ve always had a thrifty attitude towards possessions and purchases. Many times, I’ll go shopping, just to spend an hour looking at something, and still not buy it. But a week into the internship that would eventually become my full-time job, I bought a nice bag.

It’s a beautiful object. Heavy, with deep, chestnut brown leather. The strap rests snugly. The shape is both firm and soft, like a living thing. It feels exactly how you would want it to, and it smells exactly how you want it to. But I didn’t absolutely need it.

I had a perfectly fine backpack that I bought several years before. The backpack was well-built and at one point, probably in style, but I bought it because I felt like I needed to. My friends were buying the same sort of bag, so I got it to help me fit in.

In contrast, I bought this new bag because I realized something a week into the job: I was doing something completely new. Many of my previous opportunities had emerged from inertia, just the logical next step of the path I was on. But the very first time in my life, I was doing something that seemed to truly match my interests and my skills.

The bag, while pricey, a little redundant, and perhaps dressier than I needed, represented a choice that I finally felt ready to make: to begin cultivating a life I wanted to live. While I had chosen courses, applied for jobs, joined student organizations, and done a heap of other things, this bag served as a memento of the first time that I had gone out on a limb and done something I wanted to do, not what I felt was the next step or the logical choice.

On paper, I barely qualified for the internship. I had always been so terrified of failure in pursuing something artistic that I had only made slight and quiet forays into creative outlets. Joining the firm and buying the bag—they both felt like risks. I had to risk the fact that I might not be successful in this industry, that I might be out of my league, that I was just posing with my hipster glasses and my new leather bag.

But I felt okay with the risk, because the point was that I chose to take on a role that came with it, just like I chose to buy the bag, even though neither of them made a great deal of sense at first. This choice and sense of ownership showed up not just in the choice to work the job, but also in the way that I worked it. I had to choose where I would draw the line in terms of my availability, how I would react to criticisms, what sort of tasks I would seek out. I had to consciously choose how to interact with my coworkers.  

I’ve recently been speaking with a lot of college students graduating soon, and I keep telling them the same thing, because I wish I had known it myself at that time: when you graduate, you stop living in years and you start living in days. I felt like college was so tied to goals, so much was based on what you would accomplish each year and what courses you would take each semester and there were all these big, predictable moments.

But once I graduated, I realized not every moment builds toward a clear goal. There are no major requirements or course schedules. Days become the same, summers are no longer special. You can’t hold your breath and endure like you did during finals week, because there’s no break that will follow it. And success is different. Passing grades matter more than perfect grades.

You don’t have the same compass, the same sense of timing and trajectory—so you have to choose a direction every single day and hope you’ve chosen right. I think I understood that for the first time when I bought that bag (and started to carry a little hope inside it).

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