I have a lot of conversations with my friend Paige about what we call "the big suck." It's a short, not-so-sweet bit of shorthand that we use to refer to the idea that everyone eventually has an incredibly difficult time in their lives that can serve as a catalyst for self-improvement. Often you go through more than one during your incredibly turbulent teens and 20s. For Paige and I both, one big suck was a disastrous first semester of college spent at universities we ultimately transferred out of. Isolated in new places (her in New York City, me in Boone, N.C.), we made few friends and set up self-fulfilling prophecies of loneliness and depression. We each quickly returned home to Chattanooga, knowing a little bit more about self-reliance and a level of endurance usually reserved for Olympic long-distance runners. As Paige put it to me over a glass of wine the other night, "Sometimes you have to realize no situation in your life is actually permanent. You have the power to change it." That's really is one of the most important things a young person can learn.
It is also a lesson that seems to be largely forgotten in the current cultural consciousness. For many in the millennial generation, inundated with messages of self-esteem throughout their childhoods, confidence has come with intractability when it comes to personal growth. Change is hard for everyone, especially when you have been taught that whatever your particular personality, virtues or vices, you are great just the way you are. A lot of the mistakes I've made have been rooted in low self-esteem in my teens and early 20s, and maybe it's because my parents wouldn't let me watch "The Care Bears" when it was on in the late '80s. Instead, I picked up other examples to follow, one in particular that might seem a little antiquated or odd—"Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott. Alcott's tale follows four very different sisters, each with different flaws or "burdens" to overcome. For example, Jo is rash and has a quick temper, while Amy can be conceited and frivolous. The novel follows their struggles to better manage their good and bad qualities as they grow up.
What I love about "Little Women" is the idea that you decide who you become and where that person takes you. You would never catch one of the March sisters quoting that popular Marilyn Monroe line, "If you can't handle me at my worst, than you don't deserve me at my best." Monroe's declaration, frequently bandied about on Facebook and Tumblr memes, is the anthem many young people who are so secure in who they are (even when who they are is actually insecure and unhappy) that they blame other people for their own tendency to be unreasonable, unlikeable or self-sabotaging. Instead of defending their faults to the death, the ladies in "Little Women" readily admit them, while also recognizing they have some really good qualities as well. It's just a matter of spending the energy you could use defending your bad side to help your best self take center stage.
For every breakup with someone who seemed like the one, for every terrible performance review at work, for every nuclear roommate meltdown that rends leases asunder, it will be over eventually. You can even decide the terms by which and when it ends. When you get dumped, you are the one who can view it as the other person's problem and passive-aggressively deride your ex- on Facebook, or you can try to pinpoint your contribution to the end, however small it may be. When you fail on a project at work, you are the one who decides whether you respond with complacency or change your behavior and methods. When your roommate won't stop fussing at you to wash the dishes, you could pack up in the dead of night and leave an empty bedroom behind if you really wanted, or you could grab the dish soap and start scrubbing. It's all up to you.
Until you find yourself held hostage for 10 years in an underground bunker, it's a cop out to say you're really trapped. If your lover doesn't curl your toes, rock the single lifestyle and watch whatever you want on TV. If your job is intolerable, you can try to get transferred within the company, bake your supervisor some cookies, quit or go back to school. If enough living situations go wrong over the years, recognize you may be happier on your own, strap down your budget and spring for your own one-bedroom apartment. There is always an alternative option to the one you are living right now. It might not be an easy alternative, but it's your choice to make. You don't have to wait for a parent or a boss or a significant other to give you permission to change it up. After college, you can't just wait for the next phase of your life to arrive right on schedule, like finals putting an end to an insufferable sociology class. Fewer and fewer people are taking the old formulaic path into adulthood—graduate in May, get married in June. As a culture, we're getting a little better at making up our own rules. That's great—because it's up to you to usher in the future. That's a little scary, and a lot of responsibility, but ultimately, it's incredibly empowering and fulfilling.
This past spring was a big suck for me. I found many aspects of my previous job frustrating, my grandmother died, my apartment was burglarized twice in one month and I found myself unemployed the day after I returned from a vacation. There were moments of despair and plenty of whining to my boyfriend over bourbon gingers. But it wasn't as bad as hard times in years past. I knew it was a big suck, but it didn't always feel like one. By 25, I've learned the quickest way to end a period of frustration and upset is not to stare in horror at the flames engulfing the room but to start looking for either an exit or a hose. Next time you go through a big suck, remember that this too shall pass. While it's passing, honor that whatever is going on is stressful and awful and scary, but also focus on what about the situation can be altered. It won't always feel like you are making progress, but eventually you'll look around and discover that not only has your life improved, but that you are the superhero rock star who made those changes happen.
Meghan O'Dea is a 20-something writer, pop culture critic and social media fanatic. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter if you have questions, comments or stories on being a young adult in the workforce. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.