When I graduated from high school in 2008, the U.S. was plummeting into a financial collapse that tanked the rest of the world’s economy as well. By the time I graduated from college in 2012, the descriptions of most entry-level positions began, “Must have at least five years of relevant experience.” And no one really had any advice about what to do with the massive, overwhelming problem that was and is student debt.
In 2021, as graduates face not only economic hardship but also the pandemics of poverty, racism and COVID-19, good advice is equally hard to find. The past year has taught them that stability is the illusion, while change and upheaval are the norm. Facing an uncertain future means figuring out how to navigate big changes.
In Letter to a Young Female Physician: Notes From a Medical Life, author Suzanne Koven explores her own personal crises and growth, weaving them within the story of her practice as an internist, or doctor of internal medicine. Koven discusses her struggles with image, identity, sexuality and weight and sees these things as inextricably tied to her desire to be someone important: a doctor. Yet, what Koven discovers is that despite succeeding and becoming a doctor, she failed to overcome the impostor syndrome that plagued her even before she held others’ lives in her hands.
In this way, Koven’s story speaks to the impostor in all of us. Koven writes that “even the most blameless patient, the victim of an accident or a random illness in no way related to anything that person did and in no way preventable by them, feels shame.” We’re all victims of senseless suffering—an economic collapse, a pandemic. These shared traumas reveal our shame; but Koven advises us not to ignore or try to defeat it but rather to allow it to shape us into better, more empathetic people.
By contrast, Your Turn: How to Be an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims falls into the more traditional, practical advice category. With frank, straightforward counsel and to-do list chapter titles, Your Turn gives advice that all of us—adults, young adults and children—need to hear.
Citing the work of bestselling psychology researchers and writers like Lori Gottlieb and Brené Brown, Lythcott-Haims’ book advises young people to take chances and find what makes them happy, rather than following a prescribed path to success. Perhaps the most moving passages are the “don’t just take it from me” stories collected from various friends, acquaintances and pen pals. In a world that feels so isolating, reading these deeply intimate stories reminds us why we long to live in community with one another and how doing so truly helps us survive and thrive.
The greatest takeaway from both of these books isn’t the advice they provide but their acknowledgement that we all need each other. Alone, we’re more susceptible to our own shame and self-doubt. Yet here we are, longing not for some sort of undefinable success but simply to be in each other’s presence again. To be sure, many obstacles still stand in the way of our ideal lives; for example, no one envisions a pandemic as the perfect start to adulthood. But sharing our stories is the first step forward, as these tender, inspiring books make clear.