I’m embarrassed that I went to an elite college and failed to do anything with my degree

A reader writes:

I studied Humanities at an elite college (think Ivy League, but in Europe) which is very prestigious and has a lot of famous alumni (scientists, politicians, etc.). The thing is, I didn’t do much with this. I battled depression during my stay there, and although it didn’t affect my grades, I didn’t know what to do with my life and struggle for some years. I did internships in Communications, had a four-year bad first job experience and I am now a communications manager in a mid-size family business in the tech industry. I am six years into my career.

I generally don’t hide my college (it’s on my CV and my LinkedIn) but I don’t broadcast it. When I mentioned it in previous jobs, people were surprised and just said, “But what are you doing here then?” which was painful and embarassing for me. I know I didn’t live up to my potential. I really don’t want to have to somehow justifiy or explain it.

Now it happened again. During a conversation with a colleague, it just came organically, and I had to face a 10-minute inquiry about my college and what happened to me.

This colleague is kind of a gossip (she revealed the pregnancy of another colleague a few months ago) and now I am worried about people seeing my differently and asking me questions about it. I told her, “It was a long time ago, and it is really not a big deal” but I don’t really know how to handle this information potentially circulating in the company and answering questions about it.

Am I worried for nothing? Should I just answer the questions? I know it might not seem like a big deal but I can’t help but worrying about this.

I think you’re more worried than you need to be. Lots of people don’t “live up to their full potential” professionally, whatever that even means. And it’s actually pretty messed up that we tend to measure success based only on professional achievements and not on all the other things that bring people joy and meaning in life.

I suspect that people who seem surprised are just momentarily surprised because it’s unusual enough to be impressive, but aren’t thinking about it a whole lot after that (beyond perhaps adjusting their impression of you to, “Oh, Jane is really smart!”). It’s unlikely that anyone is walking around thinking, “Wow, Jane is a real failure.” (And if they are, they’re ridiculous and their opinion doesn’t matter anyway. And if not attaining magnificent heights equals failing, then the vast majority of people have failed. It’s silly.)

If you get asked about it again and you seem like you feel awkward and embarrassed about it, it’ll make it weirder than it should be. But if you’re just matter-of-fact about it, people will take their cues from you. If you get another “what are you doing here?” question, you can just say, “Managing communications! I like it.” Also fine: “It’s really not a big deal! Lots of my classmates have very normal jobs.” Or really, any breezy reply. You’re not really being called up to give an accounting beyond that, and it doesn’t have to be a big deal if you don’t signal that it feels like one.

{ 337 comments… read them below }

  1. ICanRelateToThis*

    OP, I can relate to this so much. I also had “high potential” that I sometimes feel like I didn’t live up to for similar reasons. I’m not the best at dealing with how it makes me feel either, but you’re not alone, and our job doesn’t determine whether or not we are fulfilling our potential as human beings.

    If anyone has advice on dealing with this, I’ve love to hear it!

    1. animaniactoo*

      I wrote something below addressing some of that as someone who had a report card from the 2nd grade on that said “has high potential but does not apply herself”. And made it in to the super-smart schools and then decided not to go to them (I recognized back then that the stress of achieving in that kind of environment would have been very very bad for me and I was already emotionally kind of messed up). I’ve struggled with it too, but have finally come to a perspective that gives me peace about it.

      1. Ellex*

        I was one of those “gifted”, “highly intelligent” kids. Everyone assumed I’d go to some elite college or university (which I couldn’t afford). The thing is, I hated school. Everyone said I’d love college. I didn’t. If anything, I grew to hate it more for not being what everyone promised it would be.

        I dropped out of college. I have a job, not a career. There are plenty of decisions in my life that I regret, but not having a college diploma or a high-flying “career” has never been on that list.

        1. Temperance*

          Same! I think being a gifted kid actually was pretty stifling for me, in some ways. School was super easy for me for years, up until it wasn’t, and then I had no study skills because I had never needed them.

          1. Gatomon*

            Hi, you just summed up my life. If something requires more than attending the class and pretending to pay attention, doing the homework and having a quick review 10 minutes before the test, I am screwed. I’ve had to change majors twice because of it.

          2. Peachywithasideofkeen*

            I relate to this so much! I was pulled out for gifted classes starting in kindergarten. My whole life I was told “you can do anything!” but it took me awhile to realize I am the kind of person that works to live, not lives to work. Looking at my fellow gifted classmates, yes there are a couple doctors and lawyers and other prestigious careers. But there are also people with completely average careers. I went to a great private liberal arts college and ended up going back to school for something completely different and really had to learn how to study because I never really had to before.

            1. gmg22*

              I could have pretty much written this comment, too. The thing that I still feel grumpy about, 35 years later, is that in my (small, rural) school they told themselves the lie that “gifted” also automatically meant “self-directed,” which meant in practice that I spent second grade in a multigraded classroom left alone to do (or in my case dawdle around and not do) folders full of “advanced” worksheets while the teacher lavished all the attention on the first-graders. I didn’t need worksheets — I needed support to develop good work HABITS. Support I didn’t get because everyone assumed that I could skate by on smarts. Which I did, more or less, but that only got me to the point where I have spent my adult life feeling like I haven’t quite lived up to my potential, in no small part because I never feel like I can apply myself the way I want to. (Yes, I’m pretty sure undiagnosed ADD is at the root of this problem too.)

              1. Specialk9*

                Yeah that is a crappy educational experience.

                Have you ever considered how to get those skills as an adult? It sounds like the lack of them is quite negative for you.

                I know that there are classes for adults on pragmatics and social skills, so I’m wondering if there is something similar for study skills. Anyone here know?

                1. LadyofLasers*

                  I was diagnosed with add in adulthood not that long ago, and I was somehow able to get through a higher degree while undiagnosed through sheer grit and some unhealthy coping mechanisms. I’ve been doing a lot of research the past few months on how to acquire these skills in later life.

                  To some degree you have to parent yourself and relearn how to do things. There are a lot of good books and blogs out there, but there are also specialized ADHD life coaches that help ADHD adults develop the structure and skills they need to navigate. I’ve been seriously thinking of joining a coaching group myself, but it does cost money. :/

                2. Jaydee*

                  LadyofLasers, there are also a bunch of good ADHD podcasts and podcasts by various coaches (ADHD coaches and other genres of coaching). Very helpful and free. I’m sure 1:1 or group coaching would be more helpful, but check out ADHD Experts Podcast by Additude magazine, ADHD Support Talk Radio, and Taking Control: the ADHD Podcast.

                3. aebhel*

                  There are a lot of good resources out there for adults with ADHD, and I expect they’d probably be good even for someone who doesn’t have it if they struggle with self-regulation and good work habits. That might be a place to start.

              2. Thursday Next*

                The thing is, very few teachers are trained (even now) in gifted education, and most schools, even the ones that have FT gifted classes, take an acceleration approach, rather than follow a curriculum that encourages students to dig deeper into the material and find more complex ideas to engage with. So the approach your school took is all too common.

              3. Been There, Done That*

                I don’t know if you’re still checking replies at this late time, but I can absolutely relate to your experience, minus the ADD part, and it still makes me want to chew tinfoil. All kids need guidance and encouragement. If you ever read “Among Schoolchildren” by Tracy Kidder–he spent a year observing an elementary school class. Some of the book is told from the teacher’s point of view, and there was a bit in it about a really bright kid that made me absolutely furious–the teacher is glad the girl can essentially teach herself so it frees up the teacher to give more time and attention to the less capable kids.

                And frankly, I’ve noticed employers don’t always want “the best and the brightest,” no matter what they say on their Careers webpage. My own boss is much more like to come down on the ones who really are the smartest ones in the room. Eventually they leave for greener pastures or she finds a way to dump them. I’ve watched it about 4 times now.

          3. Jaydee*

            I loved school, and in many ways being identified as gifted early opened up opportunities I otherwise wouldn’t have had. But it also created some problems that I’m still untangling decades later (strong fixed mindset in areas relating to intelligence, general self confidence calibration issues, habits and patterns that served me well in school but maybe less so in the working world, etc.). I remember my dad always being impressed at how good my study skills were, and me telling him they were actually terrible, but ai was smart enough to get by. He saw me getting good grades and assumed I had it all figured out better than he did when he was in school. But I really didn’t.

            1. Not Australian*

              I loved learning – mainly things like English, history and art – but hated school. (I was bullied.) My parents flatly refused to allow me to go on to further education, so I just stopped working in my final year and got a job as soon as I could. I made up for it years later by getting a decent BA, but that was too late in my working career for it to be anything but a trophy (and a silent F*** You to my parents.)

              I think the only thing you owe yourself, your parents, your teachers or anyone else, is to be the best *you* you can be – and by that I mean the happiest. If that means you have a degree and end up cleaning out drains for a living, that’s fine.

              My son flunked out of Uni because his maths weren’t up to standard; spent several years working as a hospital porter, and is now teaching IT. At the same time, he became an excellent and supportive husband and father. Frankly I would rather see him being a good person than earning a huge amount of money, and I’m very glad that he didn’t take any notice of other people’s expectations and did what was right for him at the time.

          4. whacky*

            Oooooohhhhh that was me too.

            And similar to @Ellex, I fucking hated college. Hated it. I got my degree but have never had a ‘career’ – I’ve been stumbling/bumbling about through jobs for 25 years.

            I feel badly that others have gone through this too, but at the same time it’s a bit of a relief to hear I’m not a lone freak.

          5. RNL*

            Holy moly, yes. I got all the way through law school being very lazy, and boy has it been a rough road to learn how to actually work. I say as I comment on a blog at my desk while ignoring the briefs I need to review before my appellate hearing tomorrow morning.

          6. Quickbeam*

            I blew through my first college degree program without much effort or study. 10 years later when I wanted to get my nursing degree I learned the hard way. I’d never had much scholastic discipline but learned it fast faced with pharmacology and real live patients.

          7. Miss Pantalones en Fuego*

            Ding ding ding!

            I ended up with three degrees but they were all painful, tooth pulling processes that took years longer than they should have because I have never developed good study skills.

            1. Michaela Westen*

              This is what I wanted to avoid. The stress would have killed me, and I wouldn’t have had any fun studying all the time.

          8. Not Yet Looking*

            Same here. I’ve avoided my (gifted) school reunions for almost 30 years because I have a job instead of a career, also I had ended up dropping out of college and finishing an associates degree to not lose the credits, and I’m only now going back to finish a bachelor’s, not because I need it but because I hate that I never got it.

            1. Anon Anona*

              Hello, Great comment. Similar position and seeking thoughts for my friend. Was it difficult deciding what to major in the second time around? did you stay with the same thing? In my friend’s situation it wouldn’t be possible. He was considering an adult continuing program with business as the main option.

              1. Not Yet Looking*

                I did end up staying with basically the same thing. I started out in 89 going into computer programming, and found out that I really hated it, large programs are a lot less fun than small ones. I spend a couple years changing majors, and finally got an AS in Business (effectively Marketing & Management, technically a General Transfer degree) because it was, frankly, the fastest and easiest degree to achieve with the classes I already had. It took a couple decades of trying to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up, to decide that I didn’t want to grow up and I didn’t have anything I really wanted to do.

                I’ve ended up in an Accounts Receivable / Member Services position, and my company ended up merging with another company that offered tuition reimbursement, though not a lot. Then, a friend’s friend introduced me to Western Governor’s University, which conveniently doesn’t cost a lot, and I decided that I might as well use the reimbursement and WGU’s affordability to turn my AS into a BS Accounting, which conveniently fits the work I’m already doing. I’m not looking to actually do anything with it, but it’ll be nice to have if I ever need a fallback, no one’s position is ever truly as secure as we hope.

          9. Michaela Westen*

            Yes, I didn’t learn to study till college. When I was growing up they were “dumbing down” the curriculum so average children could excel. I was bored.

    2. galatea*

      This letter really resonates with me as well — I was “gifted” and “talented” and so on, and then I got midway through college and came within spitting distance of flunking out, thanks to a combination of an abusive family of origin and burgeoning mental health problems. Even now, a decade out of school, I still feel behind in so many ways — I didn’t live up to my academic potential, I feel stunted emotionally due to abusive family + starting dating a good 10 years after most of my peers due to internalized homophobia, I go through days where I can’t bring myself to leave my apartment because I’m too sad, etc.

      There’s a couple of things that have helped for me — the first is reminding myself that I’m not the only one. There’s plenty of people who graduated from, say, Harvard who have gone on to great things; there are more who went on to perfectly reasonable, average things. Extraordinary outliers are extraordinary outliers; there are far more of us who are doing perfectly fine.

      Second, I’ve done a lot of work to reset my meter of what is “good enough”. I used to get punished for not bringing home top grades, and used to get into this mindset that not being the best at something means it’s not worth trying at all. Now, I’ve picked up several hobbies that I enjoy immensely, but I’m objectively mediocre/not great at; I’ll never be on Olympic athlete, for example, but I enjoy weightlifting all the same, and practicing doing something without needing the validation of being The Best has been really helpful.

      Third, I’ve focused on the things outside of this very strict sense of success — I have good friends, I have hobbies and passions, I am generally a relatively decent person (at least, I hope). None of these things have anything to do with my academic successes or failures, but they matter too.

      Finally, it sounds cheesy, but I’ve let myself mourn the person I wished I could be? Mental and physical illness constrain my life in certain ways — not just in the sense that I’ll always have to work around certain limitations, but also in how much they hamstrung me before I got them under control. Obviously I can’t actually know — for all I know, this alt-Galatea is desperately unhappy and hates their life — but it’s hard not to think that, if only things had been different, I’d be so much more successful and happy and wealthy and fulfilled. And it really is a loss to realize that that person isn’t an option, I’ll never be magically transported into a world where I’m sane and healthy and wealthy. Having a chance to actually be sad about it, even if it sounds egotistical or ridiculous, helped me not beat myself up over “failing” to be that way.

      …Also an absolute boatload of therapy. So ymmv on all of this.

      1. galatea*

        …And after that monster comment I still have more to say.

        The other thing too — it’s never too late? And sometimes that nebulous “it” is defined as success (Vera Wang designed her first dress at 40!), and sometimes it’s social (people come out of the closet in their 20s, 30s, 60s, 70s!), and sometimes it’s just knowing what you want at all (people make career switches ALL THE TIME!). You have time! You don’t HAVE to even know what you want, much less already be there!

        1. DouDouPaille*

          Galatea – it might be helpful to know that those who aren’t hamstrung by mental illness and awful families of origin STILL often don’t “live up to their potential” (whatever that means). It’s a false narrative that early intelligence + top-tier schools = high-profile career/money/happiness. I was one of those “gifted” kids who was pushed all my life into special programs, elite sports, and Ivy League universities, etc, but when I graduated college I just wanted to nothing to do with all that pressure to achieve anymore. I realized that I was not interested in being a captain of industry, or founding a charity, or writing a bestseller, or whatever it seemed all my peers were doing. I just wanted to travel a bit, have some cats, enjoy a few hobbies, work at a job that pays the bills, and keep my intellect sharp by reading a good book every few weeks. My shy, introverted nature and desire for a quiet, balanced life does not really lend itself to great feats of achievement.

          I have made peace with the failure to “live up to expectations” by first not comparing myself to others in my graduating class (and reminding myself that the REALLY high achievers are outliers), and second, by remembering that those expectations were what OTHERS had for me, not what I had for myself.

          Like another commenter said, mourn the person you thought you would be, then start finding and celebrating the person you really are! I am now, at almost age 50, quite content to be a mid-level worker bee in a mid-size company in middle America. I try not to tell people where I went to college, lest they trot out lame comments like “what are you doing in this department? You should be president of this company with that degree!” (I think to myself, you could not pay me enough to deal with all the stress, political backstabbing and time constraints that come with that role…)

          1. Julia*

            I think it’s different when you made that choice yourself, vs. having the choice made for you by health issues, financial background, family stuff etc.

      2. J.B.*

        Thanks for that comment, I’m glad you’ve gotten to a good place for you. Self knowledge and the work of therapy can be a great thing

      3. Anonym*

        I am trying to process the part on mourning who you could have been. I will be thinking about this for a long time. Thanks so much for sharing.

      4. beancurdmulch*

        galatea, I feel like we have been on similar journeys the last decade.

        Teachers told me I was destined for greatness, then in college I eked my way through, almost failing out due to mental health problems and a learning disability that wasn’t diagnosed until I was over 5 years out of college.

        Thank you so much for bringing up the point of mourning your old goals and who you wish you could be but acknowledge you’re not. I find it helpful to think about two separate selves: one of who I wish I could be in an ideal world, and a second self of who I actually think I can be given my current life circumstances and state of health. Separating those has saved me beating myself up so much for unrealistic expectations of myself.

      5. sheworkshardforthemoney*

        You could be describing my life. I finally got my diploma at age 42 from a prestigious school. It took a long, circuitous route thanks to mental health and family issues. Even now I’m still not living up to my “potential” but I’ve given myself a pass on having the classic fill in the dots path that many people follow. But I still sometimes look back and mourn the wasted potential.

      6. ICanRelateToThis*

        > Extraordinary outliers are extraordinary outliers; there are far more of us who are doing perfectly fine.

        I like this, thank you! I’m actually much happier with it all than my comment sounds looking back on it, but it is something I struggle with sometimes. It’s nice to remember that who knows, might’ve turned out the same either way. And either way, here we are :) And I also like that Vera Wang designed her first dress at 40, there’s always time to move where we want to in life!

    3. Snark*

      Yep. I went to a decent private college and directly into a really highly ranked PhD program at a state university, fully anticipating and anticipated to enter academia and do brilliant research forever. Eight years after graduating, I’m managing natural and cultural resources and doing environmental planning. It’s great, it’s good work and it’s actually tangible. But I still sometimes look back on how I was totally going to lead the search for life on Mars and I get a little wistful.

      1. Annoyed*

        Yup. “Gifted, tskented, soooo mych potential…”

        Two master’s and a doctorate, one from an Ivy. I run an export business. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

        If I was going to change the world…it would have happened already. At the end of the day this is much less stressful.

      2. The New Wanderer*

        Me too, except I took a year to work my dream job before going into that PhD program.

        Currently unemployed, probably at least in part because I’m “overqualified” for everything I’m applying to, and I hate feeling that I’m missing out on all the awesome work I thought I was meant to be doing. But I’m learning some cool stuff in my free time for a possible career shift, and I’m content with that for now.

      3. buttercup*

        Hahaha – In freshman year of college, I kept telling everyone I was pre-Med because I wanted to go on to get a PhD in pharmocology so I could research cancer medicine. I would do so with stars in my eyes, envisioning myself winning a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for finding the Cure for Cancer once and for all and going down in science textbook history. Fast forward to today, I get grossed out by blood and realize I actually care more about environmental policy than biology. I also would rather be a normal person who comes home at 5 and then goes on dates and stuff rather than spend all my nights in a lab. I’m also not really that ambitious, if we are being completely honest.

    4. Cheryl Blossom*

      Count me in as someone else who has struggled with not feeling like I’ve lived up to my potential. I went to a well-respected private college (debt free) and later attempted to get an MBA before dropping out of the MBA program. People in my family still ask me when I’m going to go back and finish my mba, but I hated everything about it. I’m never going back.

      My job right now isn’t what I went to school for. It’s nor glamorous. It’s actually a lot of admin work. But it’s also something I’m really good at and really enjoy.

      1. Cheryl Blossom*

        Came back to add: my current job doesn’t even require a college degree. I think I might be the only one of my coworkers with a 4 year degree, which makes me feel a little over educated!

          1. Al*

            Same. And when I apply to a new job that looks exciting and I see the requirements are something far below a Master’s I usually stop and abandon the application. I don’t know if this is a good thing because I don’t want to stay in sales forever but I wouldn’t know what to say when they ask me why I’m wasting my time when I have a Master’s.

            1. Specialk9*

              Interesting. I just posted a job without the college requirement, because I have met very smart people without, and really dumb people with.

              1. Al*

                This actually makes me feel better. It seems what a lot of us are feeling is that our degrees are an indicator of where we should be in our careers, when a lot of the time it doesn’t work out like that.

                1. pope suburban*

                  I struggle with this a lot. School was always easy for me, and I loved college (I had some problems at home that made me give up on myself by middle school, leading to a lot of teachers giving me the “Why aren’t you applying yourself?” talk, but I was over the worst of it by college). I’ve also only had one job- a paid internship right out of college- that required that. Which would probably be a lot easier to deal with if the jobs I hadn’t ended up doing to pay the bills weren’t all repetitive, non-analytical, client-facing jobs. I’ve taught myself to do that kind of thing, but it’s still a grind ten years in, it’s not rewarding in any dimension, I don’t like it, and I really hoped I’d have a job that required thinking about things by now (I do my tasks on autopilot, which is not as low-intensity as it sounds). Sometimes it makes my education feel like a joke or a waste, even though I know it’s not. Knowing that it’s not just me, and that my feelings aren’t somehow wrong or bad, is helping me today.

        1. sheworkshardforthemoney*

          Same here, I never mention my degree because then I’m singled out as either a undiscovered genius or a Forrest Gump. I just want to go a good job and go home and work on my crafts.

    5. Silver Radicand*

      I also went to school got a master’s degree in the sciences before deciding I didn’t want to work in that field. I now manage a valet location and sometimes it feels like I’ve wasted my potential but I’ve had to realize that I really am happier here, AND I bring a perspective to the table that many of my peers don’t.

    6. Lissa*

      Man. I can relate too, and so can a huge number of my friends, and also many commenters here and elsewhere. It makes me wonder what percentage of kids identified as “gifted” actually did “live up to their potential” in the traditional sense, and how useful …everything around that really is. I just feel like the “gifted young person did not grow up to be as successful as everyone expected” thing is such a common narrative. Even correcting for things like definitions of success. ugh!

      1. Specialk9*

        I know I’m late on this (busy day!) but I read an amazing book that really helped me untangle the classism and sheer bullshirt that underlies this whole gifted / white collar narrative. “Shop Class as Soul Craft”, written by a philosopher PhD who left a DC think tank to be a motorcycle mechanic – and found it far more intellectually challenging. It’s well worth reading.

        1. Lissa*

          That sounds fascinating! I just keep thinking…like, this cannot be a coincidence how many people I know were marked as gifted/smart really early, got into advanced classes etc, and ended up struggling intensely with mental health, stress, etc. and hitting a wall either in university or soon after.

          I would really love to see some kind of study done that shows if these programs/labeling actually do help children succeed. I mean clearly there still are some people out there who are doing extremely well – did they all go to those programs too? I have nothing but anecdotes…

        2. MM*

          So glad you mentioned the classism. “Do What You Love” messed up a generation of wealthy and middle class kids, but on top of that it both ignores people in blue collar and service jobs (let’s be honest, in none of those exhortations was “what you love” ever inclusive of elder care, janitorial work, etc) and inherently implies that their work is a waste. I mean, in a different economic system it might make genuine sense for everyone, but in ours? Nope. Nonsense. And it leaves people with completely unrealistic standards for themselves and others.

          1. ICanRelateToThis*

            I feel like this is part of my problem – what I love is not to work! But the notion that I have “wasted potential” and ought to be off doing some high paying job gets to me at times.

        3. ICanRelateToThis*

          I just bought that, thanks for the tip! The hard part is I actually believe all this stuff already, it’s just still in my head. I really want to just have a cozy life.

      2. aebhel*

        I would guess very few, especially considering how high the expectations are for some gifted kids. I got out with a lot less damage than some I know just because my parents didn’t really care if I was ambitious as long as I was happy and self-sufficient, but I’ve seen a lot of ‘gifted’ kids end up with a real identity crisis when it turned out that they couldn’t just coast on their intellect into effortless success. Intelligence on its own is a lot less useful that people generally seem to think; there are a lot of things that go into being incredibly successful, not the least of which is a hell of a lot of luck.

    7. Jaydee*

      Ugh. I LOATHE the idea of someone “not living up to their potential.” It’s not even accurate! First, potential is kind of a hypothetical, future concept. A ball at the top of a hill has potential energy. That potential energy will roughly determine how fast and how far the ball will roll down the hill. But how fast and how far the ball *actually* moves will depend on all sorts of factors: any forces acting on the ball to cause it to move, friction and wind resistance, obstacles in its path, etc.

      The same goes for humans. Saying someone has “potential” is just a way of saying we see certain things that suggest how far and how fast that person will go in life. But there are so many more outside forces that act on that person than act on a ball on a hill. Some things might make the path smoother and others might make the path rougher. But also, unlike the ball, the person has free will. They can make choices along the way that affect their path.

      Second, potential is usually determined by someone else – what do parents, teachers, coaches, bosses think is the best path for that person to take? But the person may have different values and priorities. They may choose a different path, with different terrain, different obstacles, etc. So if I say I’m “not living up to my potential,” by whose standards is that measured? Why does attending a prestigious college or choosing a certain career path reflect “living up to potential” more than attending a less prestigious college or choosing a different career path?

      Third, potential exists at all times. The ball has more potential energy at the top of the hill than at the bottom. But at any given point on its journey, its potential energy may be more or less than at any other point, depending on its position and the forces acting on it. Same with people. A person stuck in a dead-end job may have less potential than they did on their first day in that job. But the day they give notice to move to a different job, their potential may go way up. A person with a poorly treated medical condition may feel like they have less potential until they get that condition under better control. And some things may be opportunities to one person and obstacles to another. Someone who is very work-oriented might struggle with family caregiving responsibilities and feel that those are limiting their ability to live up to their potential. On the other hand, someone who is very family-oriented might find caregiving responsibilities fulfilling but find that financial pressures to work stifle their ability to live up to their potential. Neither one is right or wrong. Neither has more potential or is doing a better job of “living up to” their potential. They just have different values, priorities, and preferences.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Great post here. I hope you read it over again, OP.

        I totally agree that potential is subjective and it fluctuates.

        Additionally we attach it to what another does for a living professionally. This carves away entire groups of people. AND it devalues many types of work that are not recognized monetarily. It basically says, “how big your paycheck is equals how well your filling your potential.” And that is so wrong on so many levels. not the least of which is that it assumes we have only one potential in life: To hold down a job.

        No, we have many potentials and we hold multiple potentials concurrently. For example a person could be an excellent accountant by day and a superb portrait painter at home. This is a person who is working with their potentials in finance and art. Another person could be a computer geek for a paycheck and a trainer for service dogs in their off hours. People are complex, with more than one strong ability.

        Tell ’em you don’t use up all of your potential at work. You have other potentials and they kick in when you go home.

    8. Phoenix Programmer*

      The thing is lots of people have only one vision for talented and intelligent people – super rich genius inventor or ultimate philanthropist. The thing is – there are more gifted people than opportunities in this realm!

      I am also that gifted person who is constantly asked “What are you doing here?

      It’s hard not to quip back – living my life the way I want!

      When you are talented and intelligent, especially at a variety of things, it can be tough not to play the “what if” game. The way I look at it is that I am happy now. I love my husband, enjoy my job, and make enough to live a comfortable middle class life style. Why does it matter if I could potentially be a multi-millionaire pharmacist, or a docter, or scientist? I did not want to do that and here I am. Living a happy life. Whats wrong with that?

      I also find solace that I found work I am passionate about that includes intellectual challenges as well as helps people.

      I say find what makes you happy and rock it. When people ask you that question smike amd throw all the great things about your job at them.

      1. Phoenix Programmer*

        I will also add that my husband is smart, talented, went to a great college and is a stay at home spouse. He gets this a lot too but we could not be happier with the set up.

        1. Specialk9*

          My guy friend is in the same boat, and he gets a lot of the same kind of ‘but really you’re a failure, right?’ questions. My SAHM female friends do not get those same questions. It’s pretty ugly policing of gender norms, and contempt for traditionally female work.

      2. Kit-Kat*

        I’m a doctor and I agree with this. I don’t think anyone should go into medicine unless they’re truly interested. It’s a lot of work and LONG amount of training. I didn’t choose this career because I’m smart although I definitely had people growing up expect me to do something like be a doctor. Rather, I’m super nerdy about medicine! However I’m also making career choices so that I have more time for hobbies/life outside my job because for me sustaining an intense academic career is too much and there are other things I’m passionate about.

        I agree with a commenter above about law school in terms of coasting through school but then having to learn how to work. By coasting I mean I made passing grades and wasn’t the top of my med school class because I decided that was better for my mental health. Could I have been, idk maybe but it wasn’t worth it.

  2. Cookie Monster*

    OP I can SO relate. I went to a super elite music school. then I decided I didn’t want to be poor and took a job that paid me rather than trying to slowly get something sustainable in music and also battled with some mental health issues post college. I have had some cringe inducing interviews where I have to justify how it is that I ended up not working in music and even 25 years later have not gotten jobs because, despite an MBA in my now current field and 20 years in my industry, there has been the assumption that as soon as “music job” pops up, that I’ll move on. I struggle with similar discomfort and embarrassment even though I am proud of both my degree and my current profession. I’ll be curious to see what others have to say on this topic.

    1. Tired*

      There are either two reactions to learning I have a degree in music performance: “That’s so cool, tell me more!” or “What are you doing in this industry, then?” Which is hilarious to me because most of the professional musicians I know have a day job so they actually make money. Humans are strange.

      1. Cafe au Lait*

        Work at a Music school. (Nationally recognized). Number 1 complaint: they don’t teach students how to get day jobs to pay the bills while pursuing a music career.

        :::steps off soapbox.:::

        1. Tired*

          That always drove me INSANE in undergrad. It’s a fact that the overwhelming number of musicians CANNOT make a living off of being a musician. Let’s just be real about it.

      2. Astrid*

        I’m a harpist with a J.D. I’ve found that it’s a great way to ease into interviews – I always know that the first question is going to be about my B.M. It’s fun to talk about some of my ritzier gigs, famous tippers, etc. I used it to support myself through undergrad and law school, so I don’t see any shame in not using my degree now.

        Unlike Cookie Monster, I’ve never had anyone assume that I would go back to it as a profession. I usually explain that the reason I got my J.D. is because there’s only one harp in an orchestra and you hold onto the position until you shuffle off this mortal coil. The only problem I’ve had is fending off other musically-inclined attorneys – no, I do not want to play with the partner’s early music ensemble or the bar association choir…

    2. Catwoman*

      Same story for me, except insert Art History degree. My options after my MA were either move to a big city and work basically for free while trying to pay back student loans or try to find *something* not utterly soul-crushing that pays a living wage in the mid-size city close to my hometown. I went for the latter and sometimes feel sad about not working at an art museum like I dreamed about, but I know I now have more skills to enter that field at a much higher salary if I decide to and I actually really enjoy working in higher education. I think I’ll always have a chip on my shoulder about this, but I try not to dwell on it.

    3. (not so) Starving Artist*

      I hear you. Music/theater/ art is really tough to stay in. I have a Theater degree- from a pretty good school for theater too. Yet, I’m the only person in my graduating class that is still “in the business” because I happen to work at a theater. But I’m not on the performance/production side so I still don’t feel like I’m ACTUALLY using my degree.

    4. Phoenix Programmer*

      Same here only mine was a science degree. For interviews I recommend saying “You know, I loved studying (field) but once I started working in it discovered it’s not for me. I love (current industry) because a b c and this role is perfect because of my interest and experience in d.”

      I’ve never felt that I missed a job because of this but yes – if you studied an interesting field you have to explain yourself the rest of your life if you don’t work in it.

  3. Lil Fidget*

    I think this is something you have complicated feelings about (“I know I didn’t live up to my potential”) and you’re projecting this onto other people, which is making you feel like these normal conversations are very weird and fraught. I’m guessing the conversation likely wasn’t actually that pointed – lots of people would chat about anything unusual (“oh, you grew up in Canada? Oh, your parents were rock stars?”) until you brought the energy that it was. I totally this with issues I’m sensitive about, but really … it’s all about me, not them. If anybody actually did say something as stupid as, “gee, I guess you didn’t live up to your potential, huh” that would be very weird of THEM, and all you’d need to say was “wow, that’s kind of an unkind and thoughtless remark.”

    1. CM*

      Yes, exactly. It’s like when someone asks about relationship status or children and you’re like “GAH, STOP JUDGING ME” even though their intentions may be totally innocent.

      Just laugh when you’re asked that, or say, “I know, right?” and change the subject.

      Or say, “I like it here!”

      Or answer a question you would rather answer, like, “I moved here because I wanted to be closer to my family.”

    2. The New Wanderer*

      Getting grilled by a colleague certainly doesn’t help with the impression that other people care as much as you do, but since that colleague was also described as a gossip, the OP should definitely take that person as an extreme case, not as the norm! What the colleague did was annoying – 10 minutes on “why didn’t you do more?” is 9 min 30 seconds too long after “where’d you go to college?” – but not representative.

      OP, you may have mixed feelings about whether you Should Do More, but that’s your own call to make. You don’t have to share anything beyond the name of the school, much less answer questions from anyone who suggests you didn’t do enough. It’s rude of anyone to frame a question like that.

  4. Quake Johnson*

    You are FAR from alone OP. Hundreds of people feel this way. I say as long as you can pay your bills and you’re not absolutely entirely miserable then you’ve done just fine.

  5. Namelesscommentator*

    The good news is that nobody cares! I also went to a college that is surprising given my SES and chosen career. People say “huh” and then ask where I went to college a week later when we’re making small talk again. Sometimes I get a little defensive and add a “I was one of the few who got aid!” Or something, but I’m trying to move away from that, because it’s not something I should be ashamed or defensive about having spent money on.

    If this lady tries to gossip about it, she will look like the crazy one.

      1. Temperance*

        Sure, but like, as an adult, you get to decide the course of your life. My family honestly doesn’t understand my job (which is fine!) and the prestige level.

        Think about all of the letters received here where someone’s parent gives amazingly shitty advice or tries to apply for jobs in secret.

      2. Rainy*

        And they can use that caring to pound sand. :)

        But we’re talking about coworkers, who are likely to do one of two things: either they will remember it as a fun factoid (OP went to X university!) or they will utterly fail to remember it, because, say it with me, no one really cares.

        1. CMart*

          Exactly — of course family members, or former classmates or teachers or whoever, might have ideas in their head about your “potential” and whether or not you’re living up to it, but colleagues and people you’ve just met at a cocktail hour very likely aren’t projecting all that onto you.

          I had a much lower key version of this while I was bartending (see: having a degree + a larger vocabulary than your average bowling alley bartender) where my managers or customers would find out about the degree and ask me what the hell I was doing bartending. It was never with an air of “ugh, you’ve clearly let yourself and everyone down” and always with the tone of “wow–a real live smart person! Here, amongst fruit flies and disinfectant shoe spray! Cool!”

          I feel the same way about my coworkers (finance/accounting) who have more prestigious backgrounds than I do. “Cool! If someone who went to Ivy is happy to work here then I surely can be happy here too!”

          The only people who would think poorly of you (outside of family) are jerks, and as always: who cares what jerks think?

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      The good news is that 90% of people don’t care. I work in a horrifically academically snobby field, and, within the industry, OP’s fears would be well-founded. I had a career paralegal from an Ivy League school apply and was asked repeatedly what was “wrong with him” that he had chose to be a paralegal rather than an attorney.

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      The good news is that 90% of people don’t care. I work in a horrifically academically snobby field, and, within the industry, OP’s fears would be well-founded. I had a career paralegal from an Ivy League school apply and was asked repeatedly what was “wrong with him” that he had chosen to be a paralegal rather than an attorney.

    3. Chaordic One*

      The cynic in me thinks that I am providing a service to snobby people by giving them someone to look down their noses at and condescend to.

  6. Monty and Millie's Mom*

    I have a bachelor’s degree and I don’t think I’ve ever held a job that requires it. I’m not sorry I completed it, and it probably helps that I have an actual degree, but every job I’ve had hasn’t required it. Which is good, because without even more education, my particular degree is pretty worthless. All this to say, yeah, I think it’s pretty common. My college roommate, in fact, is also in a field where she isn’t using her degree.

    1. DecorativeCacti*

      That is so, so common. I’ve been job hunting for a year, and I can count on one hand the postings that specified an area of study versus just asking for a degree. (It’s incredibly frustrating to someone like me who didn’t go to college because there are a million jobs that I CAN do but they won’t hire me without a degree!)

      1. Monty and Millie's Mom*

        I’m sorry! I feel like the fact that I HAVE a degree is a benefit, but I also vividly remember the middle of my last semester in college when I had a breakdown when I realized this was NOT what I wanted to do with my life! Good luck in your search, I hope you find something fantastic soon!

  7. animaniactoo*

    LW, there’s a guy downstairs in our samples department (furniture construction primarily) who has a degree from MIT. For the level of sampling we do on-site, there is absolutely no need for anyone who is that educated.

    If you ask him why, he’ll tell you “I like what I do here.”

    That’s it. He enjoys his job, and the conditions under which he gets to do it. So mostly, it’s just a cool fact about him.

    On another note: There’s living up to you “brain” potential, and then there’s living up to your life/emotional/happiness potential. I’m not living up to my “brain” potential either, and I’ve struggled with that some – but I realized there are trade-offs and the only person those trade-offs have to work for is me and they don’t mean I’m a failure. I contribute my brain potential in random snippets in other areas and that’s fine. It does not have to be the defining fact of my life, and if doing so would make me unhappy it should NOT be. Because we all deserve to be happy (or at the very least, stable and content) regardless of what gifts we’ve been given and how we choose to use them. The brain potential is only one of those gifts. Only one of them.

    1. Your Weird Uncle*

      That reminds me of when I used to work at an academic library a few years ago – there was the main office in the city center and then a satellite office on the other side of town, and the library ran a shuttle van between offices that operated every fifteen minutes or half hour or so. The chief driver was a former CEO (or similar) who just decided he’d rather drive a van. If you were to ask him about it, he’d tell you that he liked his job and he was glad not to have to make any decisions – the worst thing that would happen to him all day was bad traffic.

    2. Bigintodogs*

      Great point about brain potential and what makes us happy. I got a Master’s in a technical field and work in it (actually looking for a new job because I’m not doing what I want in this one), but a lot of times I think about how I would like to be a Park Ranger or something that’s out in nature.

      1. NoMoreFirstTimeCommenter*

        I agree. I haven’t been able to live up to my brain potential – I did extremely well in high school and quite well in university too, so I know I have the brains, but most of my life after that I’ve been doing other things than what I studied. And it’s OK! I love my major and loved studying it, but jobs in the field are hard to find and the ones that exist aren’t often so well suited for my personality. I enjoy routine and structure, jobs with clear goals and rules, and often thrive doing things that are “below” my brain potential.

    3. EPLawyer*

      This is the only response “I like it here.” Presuming you do. Or just simply “working.” If anyone continues to inquire, then its time to transfer the awkward to them. You do not owe any one explanations about your life. Anyone going on and on about YOUR life choices has the problem, not you. So just shut it down. “I’m done talking about my personal life, now about that TPS report?”

    4. CMart*

      And if I had to guess, when he’s asked “why are you working here?” it’s because the question is “why is someone so impressive choosing to work at this lowly joint?” and not “what mistakes have you clearly made that you obviously can’t do anything else?”

      Those types of inquiries (“you went to X? what are you doing here?”) are almost always disparaging the workplace and elevating the highly credentialed person, not the other way around.

      1. Amber T*

        “And if I had to guess, when he’s asked “why are you working here?” it’s because the question is “why is someone so impressive choosing to work at this lowly joint?” and not “what mistakes have you clearly made that you obviously can’t do anything else?”

        That is super helpful to remember actually.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          I had one place where I could not mention my degree because the very next thing would be, “What are you doing in this S-hole?” Going home at night and having a LIFE.

    5. Archaeopteryx*

      And I’d also keep in mind that you can live up to your Brain Potential without having a prestigious / intellectual career. You got a top-notch education which hopefully inspired a lifelong thirst for learning and curiosity about the world. You’re not letting your brain down just because of what you’re currently being paid to do. I have struggled with similar feelings, currently working in healthcare practice management and not “using” my humanities degree or high GPA, but had to realize that no knowledge is ever wasted, and you can be a smart person even if you resume doesn’t make that obvious. Plus, there’s always room to find a new path if you do start to feel the urge!

    6. Bobbin Ufgood*

      I love this brain potential vs. life potential comment! Like so many others here I am also a lifelong “high potential” “gifted” achiever. Many family members pressured me and continue to pressure me to go ivy league/equivalent at all layers of my schooling/career. However, I’ve mostly made choices based on my personal comfort and my spouse/children/immediate family comfort/preference. I still get disapproval from some family, and I also have a lot of personal guilt for not stretching myself outside of my comfort zone. All of you here have given me a lot of solace about making my choices for my own personal reasons and not just what would make my extended family happy or give me an impressive resume.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Some times I think these questions nag at us because it’s more about our own doubts than other people’s comments.

        It wise to find a peaceful place about it all. I used goals. I was working at that crappy job where I could not mention my degree. Privately, I had a list of four major goals. I stuck to my list like glue. Slowly but surely I hit each goal on my list. I did it quietly with little discussion. For those who were not really paying attention or underestimating me, they were surprised to look up years later and realize I had totally changed my life. I just kept moving from one goal to the next. Here’s the key, I did not do this for THEM, I did it for me because these are the goals I wanted in life. It’s very comforting, OP, to set life goals and keep working toward them. It takes away the sting of other people’s judgyness, because we know on the inside that we are on track for what we want and we are “doing Just Fine, Thanks for asking.”

  8. TCO*

    I feel this way sometimes, too, having grown up knowing that I’m really smart and talented and yet sometimes ending up in jobs where I don’t feel like I’m living up to the expectations I have for myself or that other people have for “smart and talented” types. I try to remind myself that an “impressive” career (whatever that even is) isn’t everything, and that the qualities more important to me are those I nurture my personal life: kindness, hard work, trusting relationships, community service. It’s less about what I’m good at in an academic or hard-skills sense, and more about my personal character.

    1. LibraryMan*

      Yep. Been there, failed to do that. I was part of a high-achieving group in high school that got a boat load of National Merit Scholarships. And then … I went to community college. I got so many “But … you could have done X instead!” responses.

      Looking back, I connected the dots and realized what I’ve been driving for all along. My comeback? “I have a 25 year, stable marriage. My wife and I had four children, and love them so much that we decided to adopt a special needs infant last year. I AM a success – at the things I care about. Your definition of success isn’t one of them.”

      My reply is a little rude, but I think that forcing their standards on me is as well. And I sleep much better at night once I realized what my values really were.

      1. Specialk9*

        If I heard that, it might smart a little in the moment, but I’d hear your voice over and over in my head for years, and likely shift some thinking as a result. Powerful stuff, that.

    2. VictorianCowgirl*

      I relate to this so much, and also want to add that now that I’ve come around to using more of my smarts for work, I find I’m so drained mentally that my interests and hobbies are suffering. When I was working at less cerebral employment, I was much happier because I wasn’t too tired to pack for a camping trip or volunteer at the ASPCA and I felt so much more fulfilled. Really struggling with that now.

    3. Kes*

      Yeah, I think a lot of it is internalized – what we expect from ourselves, and what we think society expects of us or of people like us. My friends and family are very supportive, but I sometimes feel bad because I used to be one of the smart kids (in school, and to a slightly lesser extent in university) and now not only have I not founded a startup or anything (which I’ve always been okay with), but in my job I don’t feel that people think I’m one of the standouts or rockstars or anything. It can be hard to remind myself that a) I don’t need to be *the best* and b) I need to set my own standards for where I want to be and focus on just make sure I’m living up to that

  9. Amber Rose*

    It happens. I got a degree because it was… something to do? Like, I just always figured that’s what you did after high school. I wasn’t really interested in anything so I took some advice and went into Geography. I have done F-all with it though. I do paperwork in cubicle hell for a living.

    I think it’s pretty unfair to expect teenagers to know what they wanna do with their lives just because they know how to study and get good grades. If I could go back, I’d take a totally different route, but I have the benefit of another decade of experience. :/

    1. Bea*

      And we expect them to know what they want to do “forever” at 19, without having any practical experience inside the working world. They visit the doctors office for their illnesses, hey that looks like a great job, lets save some lives…sigh.

      None of my friends use their degrees. End scene.

    2. Monty and Millie's Mom*

      Yes, it’s pretty unfair to ask a teenager to know what they are going to want to do with the rest of their lives. I’ve NEVER known! Some people know, some people know and then pivot a little bit, but the vast majority are just guessing! My husband is a youth pastor and I’ve had a few conversations with the kids about this – one kid in particular is a senior this year and he’s finally decided what he’s leaning toward, but has said numerous times that he can’t be expected to know at this point. He’s not wrong! I’m 41 and still don’t know what I want to do with my life!

    3. M from NY*

      You CAN go back. Even if it’s part time. You CAN turn 35 or 40 knowing you have 20 years to dive into new career with all the benefits you can earn or you can turn 40 doing what you are doing wondering what if? You can’t go back in time but as long as you are breathing you can find a way to move in another direction. Don’t think of it as trying to make up time but stopping the autopilot and deciding which alternate road will move you towards your goal.

      1. Bea*

        You can…in theory. But be honest, it’s absurdly hard for someone at 35 to go to school part time unless it’s for a graduate program.

        I’ve been there. I’ve looked. I can’t keep a 9-5 40hr position and easily slip into a college student role. I have bills and responsibilities you don’t have as a teenager.

        I’ve seen it happen though. And I’ve seen those people not break into their new career set for all the same reasons a great 20 something grad faces.

        It’s a difficult tough world with a lot of possible paths but none are guaranteed and should be viewed appropriately.

        1. sigh*

          It can be done if you want to though. Both my husband and I are back in school. I’m 37 he’s 35, online courses are a blessing! My grandmother didn’t start upper level until she was 40.

        2. nonegiven*

          My son graduated from MIT at 34 and he’s not using his major, either, but he’s making bank at what he does.

      2. Amber Rose*

        There are things I can do with what I have, and I’m slowly working on it. I more meant that if I could go back in time, I’d have not gone tens of thousands of dollars into debt for a degree I didn’t give a crap about, and instead gotten treatment for the anxiety which has crippled my progress in life until pretty recently. And then taken the degree I would have liked most.

        1. Specialk9*

          The people I know with geography degrees got trained in GIS mapping to predict flooding and storm surges that could impact buildings and transportation infrastructure.

          Sometimes getting trained in a somewhat niche tool or software that people use a lot is better for the career than getting a degree.

          Eg Sharepoint, PowerBI, Archer…

      3. GS*

        I went back and now, at 37, am in my first year in a completely different career (though the same career a high school career aptitude test recommended, go figure). Unlike in high school where I got straight As, I did grade triage this last time around– I aimed for 70% and got it, and spent the rest of time on my mental and physical health. I got a lot of “why aren’t you living up to your potential?” from my instructors: I was smart, engaged, and didn’t do any work after I hit my 70% target. I now own a house, live in a community I love, and I have a very good chance of paying down the student loans it took to go back in only a couple years. My job is not prestigious but it serves my needs. So you can go back. To tie it to the original post: in a lot of situations people will question whether what you’re doing is a good choice since it’s not what they imagine they want in your shoes. They’re probably using you to gauge their own choices at the same time that you’re interpreting them as judging yours.

    4. Amber T*

      Yeah, going to college was never not an option for me (or the majority of my high school). One friend took a gap year to work/volunteer/explore her life/figure things out and that was SCANDALOUS. I mean, what would hiring managers say when they were hiring a 23 year old for their “first” job out of college instead of a 22 year old?? (Nothing because that didn’t matter at all, and she ended up having more real world experience than a lot of us anyway).

      Also, I’m older than 18-19 by a decade and I still don’t know what I would wanna do with my life! I studied business management because that would get me a job of some sort and had a second major that I genuinely loved and enjoyed (but had no desire to continue with it post-undergrad, which was pretty much pure academics). People make careers out of what I’m doing but honestly, I don’t have much of an interest moving up the food chain. I’m okay with that.

  10. ragazza*

    Can so identify with this. I went to a top American university and coworkers at my so-so company are often surprised to find this out. That’s what anxiety and crippling self-doubt will do to you. But it is important to remember that not everyone is going to be a star, and more importantly, being successful in such a narrowly defined way is not necessarily going to make you happy. Figure out what makes you happy, even if it’s toiling away at some ho-hum job and doing what you like in your spare time.

  11. Kitty*

    There is no right way to go after graduating from a prestigious university. I chose to work part time and pursue other interests (passions) after graduating from a highly respected university. My life, my choice.

  12. Lexi Kate*

    It’s your story quit telling it like it’s a tragedy. Either deflect with humor ha ha I wish I had known $100k ago that I don’t like humanities, or just say the field wasn’t what you wanted to do everyday for the rest of your life. The humor is better for the gossips, and don’t give details keep it short and sweet, your not paying anyone to write your memoirs they don’t need to know much.

    1. Lexi Kate*

      For reference the humor works i’m On the opposite end where all of my colleagues have Ivy League degrees (not all in our field) and I am a state school grad from a poorer state.

        1. PersonalJeebus*

          When I was growing up “gifted and talented” with stellar test scores, everyone thought I would go to an elite university and become someone “successful.” I ended up not even trying to get into prestigious universities, for the most part; I applied to only one Little Ivy–and I didn’t get in. I wouldn’t have gone there anyway. I chose a state school where I could get a full ride and be near my high school sweetheart.

          Years later I moved to NYC to get a masters and work in book publishing, and all my parents’ friends back in suburbia thought that was *so* impressive. But I didn’t make a grand name for myself in publishing (although I did well enough by my own standards), and now I don’t even live in NYC anymore. I also am nowhere near finishing that book I’ve been promising to write for the last decade. But hey, I’m respected in my job, and life is good.

          Sorry, Mom’s friends!

      1. Specialk9*

        I read an interesting study that said that it was better for smart kids to go to state school, because (if an academic major) they ended up publishing more and having stronger relationships with professors and mentors than just being part of the very smart pack at an Ivy.

        1. PersonalJeebus*

          That’s a good point. At my state school, I was a relatively big fish and formed strong relationships with mentors and other bright students. At a top-tier school, I might have gone unnoticed or even been considered mediocre.

    2. KX*

      Exactly. Claim it! I say that I have “squandered” all my potential instead of saying I failed to live up to it. Squandered is an action verb that suggests I have a good story to tell. An aura of mystery and all that. Or whatever. But you can control the tone.

  13. Putting Out Fires, Esq.*

    I went to elite schools for undergraduate and graduate, the type that tend to send grads to either fancy big law firms or prestigious federal work, and I’m doing something…not those things. Generally people are just commenting on how rare it is to meet anyone with my background, albeit in an awkward way, and I usually just make a comment about how I found my true passion and really enjoy what I do, just to stave off my own feelings of discomfort.

    To quote princess diaries who said they were quoting Eleanor Roosevelt but I haven’t verified that: no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.

    1. Temperance*

      Because I am a super awkward weirdo, I have actually responded to someone with an elite background on more than one occasion by saying “you fancy”. Oops.

      1. Lil Fidget*

        I think this is actually good point. Someone awkwardly following up on OP’s reveal is probably more worried about putting their foot in their mouths / saying something stupid -later, they’re kicking themselves for blurting out some dump rejoinder to try to keep the conversation. I bet you, Temperance, aren’t secretly thinking “gee, coworker really failed to live up to their potential JUDGE JUDGE JUDGE.” … You were just making conversation, and if you hit a slightly sour note it has more to do with you than them.

        1. Temperance*

          Honestly, it would never cross my mind that someone should be doing something “better” than they’re doing. I would just be impressed that someone got into an elite institution. I’m a huge nerd, though, and love education.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Just because you can do X does not mean you have to do X.

      I do agree that the sinking feeling is more about what we think of our own selves than what other people think of us.

  14. Meeeeee*

    You’re in good company, OP. My husband and I are underemployed, too. Hubby has an MS, PhD, and several advanced certifications. He works in a factory putting teapots into boxes.

    As long as you’re happy and fulfilled, that is a all that matters.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      My wise friend and I had a big discussion about this once. He said that people need to use their hands and do/create things. For some folks all the book learning in the world is meaningless if they cannot work with their hands. Every type of work offers it’s own type of satisfaction, and hand work is no exception. Some folks actually need to work with their hands to feel fulfilled. I suspect I can be one of those people. Not so much now, but in my younger years if someone offered me a million dollar a year job to sit at a desk OR offered me a lesser paying job building widgets, it was no contest, I would chose to go build widgets.

  15. Anonymous Here*

    OP, I may have gone to the same university as you (or another equally well-known one) and am now happily working in a mid-sized midwestern town, in a fairly humble position. I occasionally get the same questions….Alison’s point about people remarking on it because it’s unusual is, I think, spot on. I also wonder if, most of the time, people are not expressing curiosity about your professional potential, but rather why you are there (in a geographical sense)?

    Also, your colleague sounds like a jerk.

  16. Tough Cookie*

    I have a cousin who has 4 kids, 3 of whom went to prestigious schools. The other 1 of the 4 went to a college that wasn’t a big-name school and I remember my mom making a comment about how that was too bad . . . and I also remember clearly saying something to her, in front of other family members, that it doesn’t matter where you go to school; what matters is what you do with your life and if you’re happy. After all, I didn’t go to a big-name school and neither did my two siblings — and while my sister and I later pursued graduate degrees, my brother did not (and he out-earns both of us by a lot!!).
    I think if people judge you by where you got your degree, and not what else you have ever done (especially if you are happy and happy with your work), then they’re the one with issues. However, I think most people may have a momentary thought and then move on to another topic of conversation. I echo what Lil Fidget said above — if anyone has the gall to ever say something to you about not living up to your potential, you have the right to call them on it. Or do what I do when people say thoughtless, hurtful things — give them one of my long-perfected nasty smiles that shows a few teeth.
    Good for you for finding something that makes YOU happy!!

    1. pleaset*

      “I think if people judge you by where you got your degree, and not what else you have ever done”

      According to the OP, s/he’s being judged by the combination of the two. That’s the point of the letter.

      1. Rainy*

        By that one coworker, who is demonstrably an awful person.

        One of the most glorious realizations I had about being an adult was that no one else is as focused on my failures and successes as I am, because everyone else is focused on their own failures and successes and worried that I’m judging them!

  17. H.C.*

    I agree with AAM that the general surprised reaction is usually in the “Oh wow, LW is really smart” (as opposed to LW’s “Wow, how’d you end up in this lackluster-sounding industry/employer/title?” interpretation). However, if these feelings persist – LW should bring it up with their therapist/doctor.

  18. Icontroltherobots*

    OP – I once had a co-worker who went to an EXTREMELY prestigious school on a full scholarship. As Allison said, the reaction was usually shock, followed by “WOW you must be smart”. We were at sort of a smaller mid-market job in the industry.

    Co-worker would just say they liked the culture, it was a great fit, they were very happy with the job, work whatever, basically saying it was a choice and not some sort of failure to live up to their potential.

    Next time a co-worker gets shocked,smile really big and say how happy you are to be there, making it a positive choice, that you actively chose, will shut down the judgey B/S.

  19. NewHerePleaseBeNice*

    Oxford grad here. I spent years bumbling about doing admin jobs and tutoring. And now I’m a freelance trainer. I love it.

    We can’t all be investment bankers!

    1. Achoo!*

      That last line is probably how I’d address it. “(fake laugh) Well, we can’t all be the next (insert famous alumnus)!”

  20. Dust Bunny*

    Oh, honey . . .

    I’m a graduate of a top-tier private liberal arts college (in the Oberlin/Amherst category but with less name cachet) and my first job out of college was scrubbing kennels in a vet’s office alongside a high-school dropout who couldn’t spell his own name consistently. I’m currently an underpaid clerical-type at a nonprofit, in a job for which I am required to have a Bachelor’s but that could totally be done by a competent person without a college degree.

    Some of my fellow PLAC graduates have gone on to big, successful, lives, but a whooooole lot of us have bumbled through life underemployed, as chronic depressives, as stay-at-home-moms (after four years of being reminded constantly that everything you do, you do As A Woman), with substance abuse problems like everyone else’s, pick your stumbling block.

    1. ThatGirl*

      Yeah, I relate. I went to a small liberal arts college that thinks very highly of itself, with graduates who have gone on to be US Representatives, Vice Presidents, best-selling authors, award winning journalists … I have classmates who work for the Wall Street Journal, who speak internationally about finance and technology, etc., etc.

      Me, my illustrious journalism career tanked after four years and while I work for a well-known brand and I’m proud of my work, it’s hardly prestigious.

      But then again, maybe I don’t want that kind of life for myself. There is that. Not everyone needs to be in a position of power or prestige.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        Besides, I moved up quickly at the vet’s. I could get a IV catheter in almost anything and it turns out I’m a champion at getting neonate kittens to poop (if you’re not familiar, you have to “lick” their bottoms with a damp cotton ball). I think it’s my warm, relaxing, hands.

        If I can count my success in happy kittens, I’m good.

        1. VictorianCowgirl*

          Our success really should be counted in happiness units! And tiny kitten poops because they are so unhappy if they can’t go.

        2. ThatGirl*

          You can definitely count your success in kittens.

          It helps me that most of my college friends are in roughly the same boat I am.

      2. roisin54*

        “Not everyone needs to be in a position of power or prestige.”

        This. I like to say that not everyone can be at the top, some of us have to be in the middle. And that’s fine with me. I have no real ambition beyond staying gainfully employed, and I have no desire to ever be in any kind of a leadership position. As long as I like where I am I’ll stay here.

        I’ll have moments of self-doubt where I’ll think that I should be striving more, because I’m a woman and we need more women in leadership roles, but those moments are fleeting and don’t occur very often.

      3. Diamond*

        Right, I’m a lawyer at a small non-profit. It’s not glamorous, we’ve been waiting on office renovations for months, and a legal secretary at a big commercial firm probably gets paid more than I do (although I’m perfectly happy with what I get). BUT I work 8.30am-4.30pm, rarely have to go overtime and get 30 PTO days a year. I would never want one of those high-flyer jobs where you stay until 1am every night. I need to walk my dog every day!

    2. Peachywithasideofkeen*

      I also went to a PLAC and my first job after college was as a temp in a call center. When I was 18, it seemed like going to good school was all that mattered. I thought getting a job I wanted would be easy! It took awhile though, I also worked as a nanny and in a deli. I have a better career now, but if I could go back in time I’d definitely do things a bit differently.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        I was weirdly fortunate in that I’m learning disabled and had a whole lot more practice failing at things early in life than many of my classmates did. Getting to college and finding out I wasn’t a genius after all wasn’t a shock because I’d already spent 18 years feeling like I didn’t know what I was doing. So, really, it’s sort of a miracle that I made it through at all. Either way, I’m OK with it. I met great friends there.

  21. Bea*

    This reminds me of people who start feeling badly about themselves because others their age or younger or whatever are “better off” and “doing so much better” in whatever their path in life is.

    You have to detach and find a way to feel good about yourself.

    I didn’t come from that life. I didn’t get to go to college due to a lower middle class upbringing that didn’t allow for it. But I climbed the ranks without it. And I get people who want to pat my back and ask me “how did a little street urchin like you make it this far?! What a fairy tale! How can we all do this?!”. Well they can’t. We all have our own journeys through a million different circumstances.

    Anyone who treats you like some kind of failure or “what happened to you?! You started out so well” is an idiot. They are looking through a distorted lense, often not out of intended malice but out of their own idea of what comes from putting a person in X situation.

    I’ve seen people with MDs not become doctors. That one truly breaks many minds, let me tell you.

    Education anywhere is a building block. It’s like a scrabble piece. You have to have the luck of the draw to turn it into a triple word score answer. It’s not a yellow brick road to riches and fame or even a successful career.

    1. Temperance*

      I have a similar story to you, although against all odds, I went through college and law school. It’s always awkward because I want to compare myself to middle class-raised peers, who I clearly lag behind, but my household income is easily 4x that of any of my childhood friends. It’s weird.

      1. Bea*

        I was happy to see a couple people from my old hometown (poor to the point of intermediate homelessness) get to college. They needed it desperately, I squeaked out just knowing someone who knew someone and referred my recently graduated self for a job I clicked completely with.

        There was a real moment in my mind when in my mid 20s, I realized I made more than our household income growing up. As a single person, no dependents. My friends all graduated at the height of the recession, so their degrees started collecting dust and even entry level places or retail wouldn’t bother to give them a chance.

  22. Green Cheese Moon*

    Here’s the deal, there are tons of people who go to elite schools who end up in “under-placed” positions. So many that it is normal. They just don’t make headlines the way the superstars do.

    In my current position as a college instructor, I have a degree higher than the minimum qualifications. I used to feel like I was “wasting” my degree and should be at a “better” institution. But now I feel like, wait a minute, the students here deserve the best too (ok, I am not “the best”, but you get my point) and not just someone who is minimally qualified. I feel like it’s spreading the wealth. Not everyone can be up in the ivory tower, there’s great and interesting work to be done down in the real world.

    1. a*

      This is my thought too! There are many elite schools graduating hundreds of people every year – probably thousands. Not everyone is a captain of industry, political superstar, innovating entrepreneur, life-saving doctor, etc.

      I’ve always been smart but not ambitious. I’m very good at my job, much more in tune with the scientific intricacies than my colleagues, but we’re all at the same level. I would rather do than create policy, so my options are limited. I’m perfectly content with that. But the one thing you can always get from elite education is a good network. You can use it for your advantage or for making connections for people you like, if you feel like you need to use your elite education.

  23. lyonite*

    I could have practically written this, only in my case it’s a science/engineering school. I have trouble dealing with it sometimes, but I remind myself that I’m friends with plenty of other people I went to school with and they’re not ruling the world either, and judging my worth by my achievements (oh, like I did for my entire childhood/youth) is neither useful nor true.

  24. H.C.*

    Communications manager in 6 years is doing quite well! Also, I agree with AAM’s interpretation that the surprised response is more in the “LW is really smart” interpretation (rather than LW’s “Oh, how did LW end up in this lackluster-sounding industry/employer/title?”)

    However, LW, if these feelings persist – do bring them up with your mental health clinician or therapist, they may be related to the depression you experienced in your college days

    Lastly, all the mentions of prestigious reminded me of this “We Are All Savages Inside” Dear Sugar column, where Sugar wrote:
    “You might, for example, be interested to know that the word prestigious is derived from the Latin praestigiae, which means conjuror’s tricks. Isn’t that interesting? This word that we use to mean honorable and esteemed has its beginnings in a word that has everything to do with illusion and deception and trickery.”

    1. Not So NewReader*

      The longer I go the more I see that most of what we place a high value on is, indeed, an illusion in reality.
      It’s funny/odd you know. I repainted a bit in my house and I got to thinking about how paint is an illusion. We fill the cracks with spackle then paint over it and no one is any wiser. We chose colors to make the room look larger and cheerier OR we chose colors to make the room feel smaller and cozy. It’s all illusions. We put a mirror on the wall to add light or give the area a certain feel. It’s an illusion in all these instances because the area is still JUST a room.

      So we attach all kinds of meaning to a diploma from certain schools. why. It’s just a diploma. Decent grades only prove we know how to take tests, decent grades do not prove anything about us as a person or about our abilities. They are just grades. So we end up with just a collection of grades that go into just a diploma.

      You can say, “That is just where I happened to go to school that is all.” And let that statement hang there in mid-air. Say it in the same tone as “[shrug} People have to go somewhere if they want to go to college.”

  25. Emmie*

    People place all kinds of expectations on individualsn with what appears to them to be a great accomplishment. It can occur because of a specific uni, a major (like law), or a former professional athlete. I have found that the comments usually come from others who have no frame of reference for a person’s experience, somewhat halo-ize that person’s accomplishment, and place their expectations on it.
    It’s hard for those not to sting. I get that for being a lawyer who doesn’t argue cases in court. A friend played a professional sport. He worked in a factory post-retirement, and people looked down on him for that. (Much like we thought people would with the Cosby actor who worked at Trader Joe’s.) In his case, it lead to a substance abuse dependency and major self-esteem issues. Don’t let yourself feel bad because others have halo-ed your experiences. You have done remarkably well. I don’t have perfect come back for you; however, I ask people with rude questions about my lawyer experience whether they know that lawyers are needed in all kinds of industries. Perhaps you can tell people that you are making a difference, and say “I wonder why you’d say such a thing.” Return the awkward feelings back to them without being rude.
    Congrats on your major accomplishments: working through difficult circumstances to earn your degree in a challenging major; and having a solid work history with accomplishments despite challenging circumstances.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      My friend worked at Famous Place during a Big Moment in History. She knew those people mentioned in the history books. She worked with them and knew them on a first name basis. It was her job, that was it, she needed to earn a living. She has only mentioned it twice and each time she says, “eh, it makes great stories for the grandkids….”
      Comparatively, the rest of her life has been pretty normal.
      Some times ordinary people have speculator moments. Perhaps they go to a school that enjoys an big reputation or perhaps they are working for an employer when a Big Moment in History occurs. Of her education she says a similar thing, “I was most fortunate to be able to go to X school.” Attitude of gratitude can derail a lot of conversations that are going the wrong way, OP. That gratitude can kind of deflate the Wow that is being expressed. “Yeah, I went to Big School. I was most fortunate to be able to do that.”

  26. Persimmons*

    LW, you are the opposite of the windbag who walks around his office bragging about going to “An Ivy” or being in Mensa. Your colleagues may express a bit of surprise at first, but on the whole you will be seen as a smart humble person who they enjoy working with.

  27. Myrin*

    I really think the confidence with which you speak about your current job/actitvities/life is key here. Like Alison says – people will take their cues from you, so if the topic comes up and you’re hemming and hawing and going “oh, I know it’s weird” and similar, people who actually have only a very superficial interest will suddenly start to wonder themselves about the presumed weirdness here when just five secons before it didn’t even occur to them to think about it particularly closely.
    Speak confident and in a breezy manner and no one will bat an eye!

  28. What’s with today, today?*

    No worries! I started my radio news career in small market, and very quickly moved on a big, prestigious news station in a Top 20 market. I stayed there for three years but I hated it. I moved back to my small town and went back to the small market station where I got my start. I love it. I like covering small town news, and not having the pressure that big markets bring. I like walking into the grocery store and having the clerk ask me about the upcoming chamber of commerce ribbon cutting, or the latest scandalous arrest. I could have had a really lucrative career in a really big market, but that’s not what I wanted out of my life. 10 years later, I make less money than I would elsewhere, but I’m extremely happy where I am.

    1. MatKnifeNinja*

      I have friends in radio, and breaking into that NYC market isn’t all unicorns and cream puffs.

      Their experience mirrors yours. They were so happy to move back, even with a pay cut.

    2. sofar*

      Similar career path, here! Started out my career small and then got a HUGE opportunity at a big publication with lots of name recognition. The kind of place that makes people say, “Wow!” when they ask you where you work at parties.

      I lasted just under two years. The hours were brutal. My coworkers were competitive and often toxic. When I lost that job, I moved on to a corporate communications/marketing job at a place with zero name recognition. And I love it. Great work environment. Healthy hours. And I love the problem-solving I get to do that utilizes my background.

      I’ve had a former classmate tell me I “sold out” at the reunion. I’ve had relatives say, “Oh don’t worry, you’ll work your way back up.” I always say, “Gosh, I HOPE not! I don’t miss working til 2 a.m. at ALL.”

      I keep my tone amused and positive when people make assumptions about how I should feel about my job.

      1. CM*

        Isn’t that the opposite of selling out?

        Amused and positive is the way to go. Alternatively, you could say, “Ouch, that hurts!” which lets you laugh at the person for making such a judgmental comment.

  29. AnonEMoose*

    How do you know you haven’t lived up to your potential? You’re not done living yet! I didn’t go to a top university, but through high school I still got the “you have so much potential” speeches from various teachers, etc.

    And sometimes, I think I should have done more with my life, that I could be doing more in the world. But then, I try to remind myself that you never know the impact you’re having or have had on others, not really.

    My life’s not perfect. But there’s a lot that’s good in it. I have a job I mostly like that gives me flexibility. I have a spouse I still love after roughly 2 decades together. I have family that supports me, good friends, and a community of pretty awesome people around me. I have hobbies I enjoy – and while volunteering for a science fiction convention might not be something a lot of people would think of as valuable – it’s a community of bright, creative people.

    As the saying goes “not all who wander are lost.” Some people just need more time and exploration to figure things out…and sometimes the place you end up might not be where you set out to go. But that doesn’t make it bad.

    So give yourself a break. Never stop learning or exploring; try new things just because they interest you; you never know what will come of it. And even if nothing does – you still learned something new. And if anyone wants to judge you because they think you “should have done more,” that says a lot more about them than it does about you.

      1. AnonEMoose*

        Thank you! There are definitely things I wish I’d figured out earlier. Like knowing that it’s ok if my job is mostly a job, and it’s ok if the things that make me feel personally fulfilled come from elsewhere.

      1. AnonEMoose*

        Thank you! It took me awhile to get to this spot in life, but most of the time, I have few real regrets. The choices I made got me to what I consider to be a pretty good place, even if the route was kind of indirect.

  30. Smarty Boots*

    I went to an elite college and earned a doctorate at one of the top universities for my field (a humanities field, like you). I am not “doing anything” with all that education (= I’m not a professor, I haven’t published in my field in decades, I’m not making the big bucks).

    On the other hand, I like and respect most of my colleagues, I have a good boss, every day at work I help somebody make their life better, the pay is not bad, I have a nice little house, I have nice friends, I read a *lot*, go to movies and plays and clubs, my work-life balance is pretty well balanced, my health insurance paid out well enough so that I could financially manage my kid’s serious illness.

    Anyone who, like your colleague, is mean and nosy about “OMG What happened to YOU, you went to such an impressive school,” is an A-number-one jackhole and I encourage you to (1) see their remarks as such and (2) don’t tell them anything personal at all ever.

    You might also think about it this way: How many people have graduated from your school in the last 40 years? How many of them are famous / the very top of their field? Lots of people who graduated from your school are just like you. Most of them, in fact.

    1. J.B.*

      I agree very much. I would also add – working to live can be a great thing. Those who make it to the top put in a lot of time and may not have much of a life outside of work. Using the brain for decent pay, then going home is a nice way to go through life.

    2. Bowl of Petunias Falling Through Space*

      Unfortunately, some of us really do have a LOT of people that we graduated with who are now highly successfully professionals, corporate CEOs, high level politicians, even famous celebrities, novelists, etc. I can’t even look at my college alumni magazine without getting depressed.

      1. Smarty Boots*

        Oh yes, same for my college and university— lots of folks like that, nationally and internationally known, powerful, and wealthy. They still aren’t the majority. And they get into the alumni magazine for just those reasons. The larger number of “unimpressive” folks aren’t, but I’ll bet that there are more of them at your alma mater as well.

        1. Can Man*

          Agreed. If the graduation class is, say, 500 people, an entire issue about just people in your class couldn’t even cover 10% (and that would be 50 people, which is a lot for one issue). And that’s just one of the many classes with living alumni, for not a huge school. That leaves a lot who are never covered in any issues.

  31. Cordoba*

    I have an engineering grad degree from a big-name US school, one of the ones they name drop in TV shows as shorthand to tell the audience “this character is the smart one”.

    When people find out about this I also get a lot of surprised reactions; although I think it’s less to do with my specific job and more to do with the fact that I am not remotely studious or serious with school and work related things.

    My standard response is to shrug and say “I was surprised they let me in, too. I guess even fancy colleges make mistakes.”

    The nice thing about a name-brand degree is that if you ever decide you want to actively “use it” you can knock the dust off and find it still opens doors almost anywhere you go. Just because it’s not useful now doesn’t mean it won’t be useful later.

  32. feministbookworm*

    Echoing everything above, but also, OP, you said you’re only 6 years out of school and already a manager? That’s a serious accomplishment on its own! And, this is not meant to feed into the “you went to a fancy school so you must do something that gets you a NY Times profile article!” pressure, but you have a long career ahead of you, and plenty of time to make a difference/make a name for yourself if that’s what you truly want.

  33. Archie Goodwin*

    I’m another who went to a pretty prestigious state school and then jumped into a couple of jobs which, frankly, felt like they were underpaying me.

    I mean, I have a lot of good points. One thing I never learned to do, though, was to market myself…it took me a while to find that first job, and it was just a foot-in-the-door type thing. I used to feel very much as you describe – that I wasn’t living up to my full potential, that people would expect more of me, that sort of thing.

    What I have found is that feeling fades over time as you get deeper into your career. I have found myself judging my worth, and my abilities, much more based on my activities in the workplace and less based on my own educational standard. It’s been twelve (!) years since graduation, now, and I’m a lot more settled into a career track.

    And I did end up snagging a profile in the alumni magazine…for something totally unrelated to anything I had done in college. Sometimes the most unexpected paths lead you to someplace really wonderful.

    1. AnonEMoose*

      I love your last sentence in particular! Some of the best things in my life came from totally unexpected directions.

      Sure, some people thrive on having a 5-year plan, 10-year plan, and so on. I’m not really one of those people, and I’ve mostly learned to be ok with that. Could I be making more money and such? Probably. Would I be as happy? I don’t know.

      1. Archie Goodwin*

        Thank you kindly. It’s one of two lessons I wish I had internalized earlier in life.

        The other: I think a lot of people spent their 20s wondering when they’re going to BECOME something. I know I used to be the same way. I mean, we glorify the young geniuses like Mozart, Schubert, Raphael, Caravaggio…people who died before they were 40, but had already achieved greatness. Ultimately, I think it’s important to remember that there’s just as much value in, say, Leoš Janáček, who was just an unknown, provincial composer in Moravia until he wrote Jenůfa…one of the greatest works of the twentieth century, and one which premiered when he was 49.

        Nothing at all wrong with being a Janáček, says I.

        1. AnonEMoose*

          The thing about the Mozarts, etc. of the world…they’re DEAD BY 40. And many of them didn’t exactly have awesome lives beyond whatever they’re remembered for. Maybe it was worth it to them, or maybe whatever drove them was so powerful they didn’t have much choice.

          Me? I’d rather have a more balanced life that maybe doesn’t have the super intense highs…but doesn’t have the flip side of that either.

          Also, fairly early on, I looked at the people around me who were successful in the corporate world, and I realized that I didn’t want to be the person I’d have to be in order to get there. I don’t like office politics, I don’t want to work 12 hour days, and so on. I just want to have a job I mostly enjoy that compensates me fairly and treats me reasonably well. And I want to have the time and energy to spend on the things I love to do outside of work.

  34. h'okay*

    I usually play dumb and say something to the effect of “What do you mean by that?” or if I know them a bit better something to the effect of “Um, I studied humanities? I’m living my dream of not starving to death?”

  35. Cube Diva*

    I’m 8 years out of college from a big public university in the US, and I’d LOVE to be a communications manager at this point! I’m on my way there, but it’s taken me a few tries to find a company that I’d love to climb the ranks for. I say, go you!

  36. Bigintodogs*

    I have a friend who went to [elite East Coast US school], then graduated and realized he didn’t love the field he majored in. Went to a bootcamp to learn a new skill. Some people were skeptical, saying things like, “Oh you went to [elite East Coast US school], why are you doing something different now?” But he’s super good at his job and likes what he’s doing.

  37. anon teacher*

    Oh, I feel your awkwardness – I went to a pretty prestigious US school, and I’m currently teaching high schoolers. Invariably, at least once a year, one of my juniors will ask me where I went to school…and 90% of the time, when I tell them, the response is something along the lines of, “…but that’s a really good school, miss!” Ouch.

    I try to remind myself of two things:

    1) Every conversation about my school, for me, is chock full of FEELINGS. Feelings of not-living-up-to-my-potential guilt and sadness, feelings of in-over-my-head helplessness, feelings of anger at the administrators who didn’t support me, feelings of loss and guilt and grief and stress and and and and…

    …and absolutely NONE of that is in my students’ heads. Nor should it be! I just try to remember that just because this is an emotionally fraught topic for me, it doesn’t mean that my kiddos are intentionally poking my sore spots.

    2) My students are young, and many of them are tremendously sheltered. They honestly don’t realize how rude their comments are, or what they’re suggesting about the general education / intelligence of teachers, until I point it out to them. It’s a learning experience! Namely, they’re learning not to be jerks.

    But yeah: it’s rough, sometimes.

  38. theletter*

    six years isn’t that far in your career, and considering you’ve made it to manager level in a competitive field, you should feel proud of yourself.

    I would react to the “what are you doing here?” questions with a “What? You think our company isn’t good enough for someone with my credentials? Is that how you treat your job? I worked hard to be here and I take this position seriously.”

    Unless they’re calling you from a company that you’d like to work for, in which case you can react with “Are you going to offer me a position that better matches my potential?”

  39. SadMidwesterner*

    Oh yikes, this is me me me. I said as much on the phone to my mom just yesterday, because a few news stories had just come out about awesome things my alma mater was doing and I’m unhappy with my career trajectory. It’s hard when you’re still pretty newly graduated. I don’t really have advice, I just needed to read other people’s today badly.

  40. And Now A Mouse*

    Similar feeling, I went to school for a theology/divinity degree with the intention of going into a religious vocation. I am VERY MUCH not doing that 10 years post-graduation. I feel like I made a terrible choice in the school I went to; I definitely should have done something else. I – also similarly – struggled a lot with anxiety and depression at the time, which I really think contributes to both of our feelings around this. But ultimately, I have a career that pays me enough, that I enjoy enough to be happy going to work in the morning, and that funds my hobbies. My schooling? Doesn’t matter beyond the fact I completed it. It’s really just a random anecdote about me at this point. It comes up occasionally, but AAM is right – it’s only as big a deal as you make it. TONS of people graduate in completely different degree programs than they pursue, or from schools that are amazing, or that no longer exist, or whatever! And it really doesn’t matter once you have work experience to base hiring off of.

    Plus, just think of ALL the alumni from your school. Are they ALL in amazing, high-powered, “important” jobs? I am really betting not. Like everything else, I’m sure there’s a range. Someone is out there being a Prime Minister or something, and someone may be out there underemployed or just doing something completely different than they studied at school! You’re succeeding. You’re employed, you like what you’re doing and where you’re working, assumedly you’re paid appropriately for your role. You’re just maybe not…prestigious? And seriously, a pox on prestige. Who has it ever made happy?

  41. FannyPackOptional*

    OP, I empathize. You’re still early in your career and not yet at the point where you can comfortably define success for yourself. (That’s totally normal for your late 20s, BTW.) I’ve found the book “Playing Big” by Tara Mohr helpful in that regard. Note: it’s not about ramping up your career (e.g., Lean In), it’s about figuring out which voices in your head are actually yours, and what to do when they’re saying unhelpful things.

  42. Anon for this particular posting*

    I went to a semi-fancy school (US News & World Report top 50, not top 10) with a decent regional cachet. I graduated into the Recession underemployed and have made little forward progress since.

    The big problem I’ve had with my degree is that I’ve had people find out lash out at me for it, and then I have to spend a lot of time downplaying it as well as playing dumb at work so as not to draw attention to myself. It marks me as an outsider to be punished and purged as a threat.

  43. Umvue*

    I once had a dudebro colleague who did this to me. I perceived it as placing a conversational wedge between me and him, and another one between us and the office (because his tone was laced with contempt for our colleagues). Awkward! Readers, don’t be that guy. If you find yourself feeling outclassed by your colleague, for Pete’s sake, put a positive spin on it.

  44. Copenhagen*

    I don’t think there’s one specific thing that will make a person “fulfill their potential”. When I was younger I wanted to be a zoo keeper (you can go to school for that where I live), but my parents and teachers agreed that I had a lot of academic potential, so I should pursue academia. I’m studying for a Masters now, and I love it. But I still think I would have been a kickass zoo keeper and the type of work still appeals to me.
    My point here is; I could have branched off several places along the way, and I’m sure I would have been both happy and good at various different things. And luckily I ended up pursuing one of those things. But academic potential does not mean, that you don’t have other sides of you, that will be fulfilled by other types of work.

    Fulfilling academic potential is just fulfilling a fragment of you – people with PhDs are still allowed to be stay at home parents, if that makes them happy and fulfilled.

  45. Hollandaise*

    I feel for you, OP. I’m a licensed attorney and ended up not doing anything particularly law related. I get questions and looks when people find out and I don’t broadcast it. My in-laws like to throw it around but I kinda just sit there like [enter wide eyed blushing emoji here]. Don’t be so hard on yourself, though. You’re doing just fine!

  46. blink14*

    I know 2 people (siblings, actually), in their late 20s/early 30s who both went to Yale, and are both working seasonal jobs and traveling during off season. Not as big of an extreme as your situation, but they both seem happy. Their parents may not be, with the cost of Yale, but who knows …

    Just do your thing. It’s so common for people to end up in careers outside of their major that unless you are doing something very specific, it’s almost surprising now in the US to find someone actually working in a career that aligns with their degree. You don’t need to justify your choices to anyone or explain the struggles you had while in college. I will say that names and university reputations still mean quite a bit. I went to a public university with a high reputation, and it’s a near guarantee that the name alone has gotten me some interviews. I’m not in a career path that relates directly to my major (although I’m now in academia, so it’s sort of like 3/4 of a circle), but my first long term job had nothing to do with my major. I did however have useful experiences and skills for that job from a side project passion that I still am involved with.

    If you have to give an answer, just say something like you discovered a different path after graduating and your education and experience gave you the skills to move into may different career paths.

  47. 6000 Ivy Leagues under the Sea*

    I went to an Ivy League college. I love my job but most of my colleagues who do the same thing went to state colleges and some to unknown small non-competitive colleges. I really didn’t need to go to a fancy college to get my job and sometimes I too wonder if I am wasting my education. But I like my job and have good work life balance, so that’s all that matters. My friends from the same Ivy League college have gone on to a wide range of jobs. Some are impressive and fancy. Others are regular jobs such as teachers in public school, nurses, and other jobs for which an “Ivy League” education was not needed. And some of my friends have struggled with mental health issues or family issues and are not working at all. No one really cares. Getting into an elite college means you were a good student in high school and are probably generally pretty smart. That’s about it. Its not a predictor of who you should become.

    I suspect your depression makes you vulnerable to interpreting benign situations as more negative than they really are (I suspect this because I also suffer from depression). When someone says “Wow, you went to Fancy College?” they probably don’t really mean much of anything other than that they are surprised by a new fact about you. You could have some swagger and think “Yup! Bet you didn’t know I was so smart! Lucky for you I am so down to Earth” or you could think “They might be intimated by how smart they think I am.” But your depression may capitalize on this situation and generate the thought “They think I am a loser.” Consider getting a good cognitive therapist if you still struggle with depression. It could help.

    Conversely, maybe the shame you feel about the (perceived) mismatch between your education and your job is telling you something. Are you really happy in your job? Maybe there is something else that you would want to pursue? If you really like your job, you shouldn’t feel that you have something to explain or apologize for. My public high school teacher went to Harvard, and no one thought “why is he wasting time as a high school teacher?” We all knew teaching was a calling for him and felt lucky to have him. Maybe your feelings about this are helpful in giving you a clue about what is important to you. If you need to make a change, now is a good time to consider it.

    Take care of yourself.

  48. MK*

    Plenty of people with unimpressive degrees, or no degrees at all, reach the top of their chosen careers. Likewise, I am very certain the OP is not the only alum of this school who does not have a high-powered career.

    On a sidenote, my father, who dropped out of school at the age of nine due to poverty and lack of academic interest and who for my whole life has made more money with his small car-repair firm than I ever did as a lawyer, was adamant that his daughters should get a university degree. He didn’t care what we would study, if we end up being housewives or car mechanics in the family business; he believed education had a value of its own, not merely as training for a job. I realize that not everyone can afford to take this view, especially in countries where higher education has a stiff price tag, but I find it really depressing that universities are becoming glorified training centres and attendance there is considered wasted unless the degree is used in a specific way.

    1. Bigintodogs*

      My great aunt has a similar attitude to your father. I don’t know how far she made it into school (she grew up in rural Italy in the early 20th century), but my grandfather (her brother) went through 8th grade. She puts a lot of value on education, and I think it’s a regret of hers (and of my grandfather’s, though he passed away) that they could not pursue more education.

    2. Fairydust*

      My father put such a value on education that he wouldn’t allow me to pursue my chosen course of study – because it wasn’t academic. I did the academic degree and never used it. Nor did I become a big success in the job I ended up in, though I enjoyed it.

      1. MK*

        As I said, mine didn’t interfere at all with our choice. And any definition of education that excludes courses of study because they are not “academic” is flawed. I used “university degree” above as shorthand, but in my country third-tier education (which is free) encompasses not only traditional universities, but also sorts of schools and institutions.

  49. Captain Radish*

    I can fully sympathize. I got a degree in English Literature (primarily because my dad decided I needed a four-year degree) and now I’m actually doing something I want to do: installing fire alarms!

  50. Akcipitrokulo*

    Do you mean university? Not many colleges would get that reaction I’d think?

    Anyway… it’s OK. People might be surprised but as long as you go with “I like this!” (or, depending on your views and how well it would go down, dark mutterings about Brexit may go down well as a way of making it funny…) then it will be fine.

    1. Akcipitrokulo*

      (Sorry, read OP as UK not Europe inc poss UK.)

      I went to oldest, well respected in my country. Now in totally different field :)

    2. Bea*

      It seems like a lost in translation thing re:college vs university. In the US most people call it college even if you went to the best of the best.

      1. Akcipitrokulo*

        Yeah… but OP is in Europe, and if in UK colleges are seriously not as well regarded (until relatively recently they couldn’t award a degree and many(most?) still can’t). You may have a very good college, but it won’t have the orestige of a mediocre uni (usually, stereotypes etc).

        1. Bea*

          Yes but Alison changes words to the American equivalent frequently due to the large subset of readers being in the US. Even when it’s clear the writer is not from here.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Just so people know, I don’t change things like “university” to “college.” I just change things like “behaviour” to “behavior” to have consistent spelling site-wide.

        2. NoMoreFirstTimeCommenter*

          OP may be in a non-English-speaking country and translated the college/university/whatever as what they thought would describe it best. These words aren’t easy, there are so many different cultures and conventions in different English-speaking countries and colleges/universities in other countries can have official English names that may or may not give the intended impression to a native speaker. In addition to those, at least the Finnish ministry of education has translated every single official education-related term to English, but those translations aren’t necessarily anything like what the corresponding terms are in any English-speaking country. For example, we have made up the translation “practical nurse” for what I believe would be called a nurse’s aid anywhere outside Finland…

          1. Aurora Leigh*

            Off topic, but in the US a Liscensed Practical Nurse (LPN) has had more training than a Certified Nurse Assistant (CNA). I think it’s something like a year of schooling instead of a semester. Registered Nurses (RN) can have a 2 year degree or a 4 year degree.

            So we do have practical nurses in the US! I usually hear them called LPNs though.

      2. Dust Bunny*

        I would say in the US colleges tend to be smaller and not have as many departments as universities but the prestige potential is equivalent. We do use “college” as a catch-all for higher education, but having gone to a college vs. a university is not automatically a mark against you. A whole lot depends on the college itself.

        1. Smarty Boots*

          In general, in the US, colleges offer undergraduate degrees while universities offer graduate (and often professional) and undergraduate degrees.

    3. OP*

      Sorry, I did mean university. I am not a native speaker, I thought college and university meant the same thing.

  51. I used to be Chuck Finley*

    To paraphrase someone or other, “You wouldn’t worry about what people thought of you if you realized how little they do.”

  52. This Liz Sews*

    Sometimes it is not the degree but the skills and knowledge that earning that degree gave you. I have a BFA and have had one retail job where my art background was an advantage in that I could talk art specifics. All of my other jobs required the use of research, critical thinking, project management, etc. that I learned when balancing 4 studio classes with 3 history/science classes. That is what my working reputation is based on. Not my degree.

  53. Trinity Beeper*

    This is so normal. I did my undergrad at a university that consistently ranks in the top 5 for the US. My first job out of college was at a bar. The owner of the bar asked me why I was even there, given my degree. The answer was…because nobody else would hire me. I worked at a restaurant after. I’m finally in an office, and I actually hate it.

    Your colleague is a jerk, looking for spectacle. The problem isn’t you.

  54. pmort*

    I know a lot of folks who went to fancy-pants schools who are now doing “regular” jobs. The only thing you need to worry about is whether you are happy in your life, and as Allison stated, there’s a lot more to life than simply the professional part. Are you doing a job that needs doing? Do you like it and does it compensate you appropriately? If so, you’re golden!

    It’s not quite the same, but I am in hard-charging field, and always thought I wanted to move up, up, up. I got my professional teeth kicked in a few years ago by pushing for promotions too fast, and into jobs that were outside my skill set and talent zone. What happened was I crashed and burned. I didn’t get fired, but I got demoted. Twice. During it all I heard more than one manager talk about my potential and why wasn’t I living up to it? But you know what? Two years on, in my much more junior position, I am happy to come to work each day and can contribute to my organization in concrete ways I understand and enjoy. I am sure there are people in my org who think I’m a failure on some level, but they aren’t living my life, so their opinions aren’t particularly relevant.

    It too awhile to get to this point of acceptance, but if I can do it, you can too. If you’re happy with your life, you don’t owe anyone else an explanation of why you are, or how you got to this point.

  55. LawLady*

    “Living up to your potential” can be such a trap. I went to law school with a woman who had a good undergrad GPA and scored really well on the LSAT. Originally she had intended to go to a local law school and do family law in her mid-size city. But once she realized her stats meant she could go to Harvard/Yale/Stanford/etc., she felt like it would be throwing away an opportunity to go to her local law school (even though they would have given her a full ride).

    She ended up dropping out after the first year, because she realized she was on a path (debt load) that would require her to either work at a big firm or spend at least 10 years in public service and seek loan forgiveness. She didn’t want either of those paths.

    The fact that a lot of people want x career and are unable to achieve it does not mean that everyone who can achieve it should absolutely seek that career.

  56. S*

    Allrighty – ready for some irony? I went to a “potted ivy” school, got a BA with honors, arts major. Headed to the big city to pursue my dreams (hey, see how I just skipped over the year or two I spent depressed at home after graduation there!?) and took a series of “day jobs” to support myself. Found one I kinda sorta liked. I’m still there 18 years later, all the while trying to do “art” and feeling bad about not “fulfilling my potential.” Recently got a kind-of-a-big-deal promotion, and now I have kids from my school looking me up in the alumni directory and sending me emails asking for my advice on how I rocked my career! HA!

    Are you paying your bills and engaging your mind (even if it’s with weekly trips to the library)? Then you’re fulfilling everything you need to fulfill.

    1. Rainy*

      I f&*(ing love what I do and the only way my degrees prepared me for it was by going through what my client population is going through. Turns out that’s enough to give me the kind of authority that most people doing what I do can’t command out of the gate with my population. I’m also not intimidated by my client population the way, frankly, most people in my line of work are.

      I don’t regret a second of my fancy education, even though I didn’t end up doing the only thing my education really prepares students to do. I love my work, I’m good at it, I find it varied and novel and morally fulfilling, and it pays the bills. What’s not to love?

  57. Teapotty*

    Reading this thread made me remember something that a friend said to me when I applied to change university partway through my studies. He was aghast that I wanted to go to ‘a local university’. I had to point out that all universities are local to somewhere and in this instance it suited me more – end of conversation. (I do know what he meant on a deeper level – it was an ex-polytechnic but the other university was still being supervised by another conferring university at the time so he was actually wrong in his perception!)

    That aside, I wouldn’t worry about what people think as they’re probably just either envious of or slightly in awe that you studied at X place.

  58. Hermione Stranger*

    OP – You are certainly not alone in feeling this way. I too went to an Ivy League school here in the US and I’m certainly no CEO/Co-Founder or Executive nor am I on any Forbes 30 Under 30 list like some of my classmates. I work in corporate retail and have been out of school for 10 years. The Imposter Syndrome is real! But the way I see it – you can’t always look at education as a ‘means to an end’ – going to a good school for a good education’s sake is more than enough reason to have been there, even if you spent the rest of your life doing blue collar work. People can sometimes just be really thoughtless and it doesn’t help that we exist in a hyper capitalistic society where if you went to Harvard and you’re not Mark Zuckerberg -you’ve wasted your entire existence. I hope your battle with depression is behind you and if not, I hope you have a network of people to support you. Fight the imposter syndrome – and look for everyday wins.

  59. Bibliospork*

    Hoo boy. I am right there with you, OP. I have a computer science degree from a very respectable university. I made a very nice salary 10 years ago. I had great reviews and was going up in the world.

    I’m a stay at home mom.

    (Parenting is so so so important. And this is what we chose. But I can’t help feeling like I wasted my intellectual potential, and wonder what other people think about me.)

  60. Sarah*

    I went to a state school so I don’t know from any sort of personal experience, but I kind of always assumed that plenty of people who went to Ivy League schools wound up getting mundane office jobs. There’s only so many world-changing job opportunities out there after all.

    Of course, you only ever hear about the ones who go on to cure cancer/explore space/become president/commit white collar crimes, so its easy to have a skewed perception of who graduates from elite schools.

  61. Say what?*

    Also, how many politicians and scientists can there be in the world? Sure there’s a high profile there but how could society function if we all only considered our lives complete when we got into ~those~ fields. Damn, we’d be hungry without the occasional burger joint worker and who would those prime ministers turn to if their plumbing went out? The idea that only certain jobs are meaningful is ridiculous.

  62. TheErstwhileLibrarian*

    Here’s a secret. For every “famous” alumna that a university produces in any given class, there’s several dozen who, like the rest of us, have not substantively changed the world and go about their daily business like the rest of us mere mortals. Maybe you (or any of us) could have pursued different opportunities more concertedly, but it doesn’t mean that you squandered your time at university. In the midst of dealing with your depression, you completed your education (not everyone does), made good grades (many people don’t), found out a career track you didn’t care for (as many people do) and are now gainfully employed in something different.

    For someone six years into a career, that’s a darn good track record.

    Finding meaning in life and contributions to the world around you don’t have to stem from your job or what you’ve done with your degree. Where you find your joy and passion does that. For some people, their passion IS what they do for work every day, for others it’s not, and for the vast majority it falls somewhere in between. You get to be the one who decides what makes the most sense for you.

    1. gquaker*

      100% agree! I went to a top 10 liberal arts college in the States and really struggled with feeling inadequate professionally for years. Yes, there are alumni from top schools who set the world on fire. But the majority of ‘top school’ graduates eventually settle into average jobs and careers. I suspect that many elite schools end up with an even larger crop of ‘career failures’ because they don’t offer the socio/emotional support that late adolescents need to stick with something even if it means getting a bad grade or performance review.

      The vast majority of college and universities don’t equip students to deal with finding meaning in their work. The struggle is often even harder for students who struggle with adverse childhood experiences and/or mental health issues.

      So long as you’re allowing your career to be shaped by your needs, values and desires and not fear of failure or of what others may think, you’re really doing fine.

  63. OhGee*

    Just another of many here to say: you’re not alone! I don’t have an elite education, but I was the high school student who was expected to be a Broadway star. Years later, I was accepted to a high-ranking doctoral program in the arts…but had to pass because I wasn’t offered funding. I have many different interests and in my late thirties I have, maybe, started to figure out where I want to focus my career — and I had a great series of interviews last week that ended with a lifer at the organization making unenthusiastic comments about my “unusual” career trajectory. Ultimately, who you are and what you did and are doing is only for you. Others will always try to put their own spin on it.

  64. Episkey*

    I was another one of those “smart” people who had lots of potential that I ended up “not living up to.” I think the only people who really care are my parents. I know they are a bit disappointed, but at this point, they have accepted it.

    I used to feel really crappy about it myself, and funnily enough, it was this column that helped me feel much better about it! Specifically, this post of Alison’s, which is in the same vein:


    I also read an article that I’ll link to in my username which was seriously my life & attitude. And you know, there’s nothing wrong with that!

  65. Ivy Employee*

    As my name indicates, I’m an employee at an Ivy. What I’ve learned is people just treat highly-ranked schools weird. I work in the fundraising department and some people will still react to my employer’s name. My advice is to just accept certain people act like this and ignore it. You didn’t fail. You’re doing what you’re doing.

  66. Bowl of Petunias Falling Through Space*

    OP, I understand completely. I’m embarrassed too (or is it ashamed?). I have an undergraduate degree from Harvard, and did nothing with my life. Didn’t get a higher degree. Didn’t found my own Fortune 500 company. Didn’t become a bohemian world adventurer. Instead, I got an office job in the legal field, kept myself in that type of job for two decades, battled depression my whole life, and went nowhere. I am distinctly unambitious. For the first 8-10 years of my work life, I got this question a lot: “Why don’t you become a lawyer?” I got so sick of hearing that. The truth is, I did take the LSAT and got accepted into top-ten law schools–I only did that because I had no other plans for my life, so it was a kind of a lark, just to see what would happen if I applied. But I never tell anyone about that. Just like I never volunteer that I went to Harvard. I never wanted to be a lawyer. I don’t even like working in the legal field. It’s just a job that pays the bills. And I don’t have a happy ending to tell you about–I don’t have some special, fulfilling meaningful life outside of work.

    Unfortunately, people do make assumptions about you, and have expectations of you, when you go to a top school and are a top performer in school. For me, that inner feeling of inadequacy and shame never went away. I wish I had never gone to that school–it has a been a ball and chain around my neck. Someone I went to high school with contacted me through Facebook and wrote “I always knew you would do great things with your life. What are doing these days?” I cried after reading that.

    But I have some good news for you, OP. Eventually, people will stop asking about college. Eventually, it does not come up in conversation. And employers will be focused on your many years of experience. Around the age of 30 or so, I found that college was no longer a relevant topic. In the meantime, no, you shouldn’t worry about it. If someone asks you directly, just answer.

  67. TeapotSweaterCrocheter*

    Taking the risk of repeating what so many others have said so eloquently… it doesn’t matter, and you’re doing alright! In fact, I’d say you’re doing better than alright, and here’s why: a) you graduated. Not everyone does. b) You’re a manager 6 years into your career. While not everyone wants to be a manager, if that’s a career track you’re enjoying, that’s a pretty fast track! c) I had a “c” and I forgot it while typing.

    I’m in a similar situation (my school is considered almost an Ivy, still has a lot of name recognition) and I have a B.S. in Psychology which I am using to do… Human Resources/Information Systems. I have a sign with my school name on it at my desk, and have for years, because I’m proud that I did the work to get accepted to the school, graduate from the school, and do so with a good GPA (although the last part is personal pride; my employers have not cared!) It might be worth thinking about it in a different way. Right now, you seem to think that because you’re not “using” your degree, you’re not living up to your potential. But just think about the work it took to get that degree! It doesn’t matter what it was, you should be proud of your work. The 10-minute inquiry (!) about “what happened to you” (!!) from your colleague says much more about her than it does about you, I promise.

    1. Similar Background/Situation*

      HA! I have a BA w/Hons in Comparative Lit from one of the top public schools in the US and also do HR/Outsourced Payroll and Accounting. I also am the person with the UK MA from a top school that’s equally unrelated to my BA and my job. I’ve been at my job for 4 years and it’s just a point of conversation for people to politely (and probably thinking neutrally) ask about. And before this job…I was a personal shopper for 3 years.

  68. Dasein9*

    You’d think, given all the reverence people pay these name-brand schools, they’d see that a lot of very smart people with solid educations are choosing jobs over careers or careers in less traditionally lauded fields. It’s not failure: it’s prioritizing what’s important and making what we can of the opportunities we get.
    (So many of those make-Grandma-proud fields are seriously unhealthy!)

  69. T*

    I think it’s pretty common for your job to have nothing to do with the degree you received at college. The phrase life is what happens when you’re making plans or something definitely happened to me. I’m rather the opposite, I have a degree in art and work in a job that’s heavy on math, which I ironically suck at. I make a point of not announcing what my degree is in since I work with a bunch of analytic majors.

  70. Justin*

    So this was my life (in the US). I taught overseas (as a lark, but it became my career) and then came home and was underemployed for several years (4, to be precise) before I got an entry level nonprofit job. And was told, mostly by my dad, how I wasn’t living up to my potential.

    The thing is, I wasn’t (it wasn’t really my fault, my mental health was sapping my motivation, but, still). But it didn’t matter. Because there was time.

    Based on this letter, OP, you are, what, late 20s? Maybe 30? Barring catastrophe, you have many many many years left. I got to a better path at the end of my 20s, and started really making progress. Maybe you will soon. Or maybe you won’t. There is nothing wrong with you, fellow gifted child who didn’t burst out of school into fame and fortune. Nothing at all, no matter what other people say.

  71. Violet Rose*

    Joining in the chorus of people who have done this! There are decent odds we even went to the same school (I went to grad school in the UK). Shortly post-graduation I landed a job in a field related to my degree and… hated it. Mostly because of “personality clashes” with the boss of my 9-person company, of which I was by far the youngest and the only woman. My next job, which I held for a year and a half until I had to leave the country, was cycle courier – a job for which you needed only to be able to ride a bicycle reliably!

    I always dreaded the “But what are you doing here then?” question, which, fortunately, I was never asked. Eventually I decided my response would be a truthful, chipper, “Because I like it!” After all, elite schools are supposed to *broaden* our opportunities, not shut us out of jobs we enjoy because they aren’t prestigious enough, right?

  72. stump*

    Hey, I feel you OP! You and I (and it looks like a ton of other people) are in similar situations! I went to a Highly Regarded Private School for my bachelor’s and also dealt with depression The Entire Time. It didn’t affect my grades too badly since I got pretty much all B’s, but this was one of those schools where anything less than an A was practically failing. No pressure there, huh? I didn’t get into any of the med schools I applied to (although I did get waitlisted), I got a master’s online so I could try to get into some PhD programs and failed to get into any of those as well.

    Ngl, my confidence and sense of self worth took a beating. You grow up a Gifted Kid your entire life, overachieve up through high school, you and everybody else in your life keep stressing how Important it is for you to get a High Level, Important, Smart Person Job, get smacked in the face with the College and Life Stress you’re entirely unprepared for, and when you fail to achieve all these goals you (and let’s face it, your parents) have set, you’re just sitting there dumbfounded, thinking, “What the hell am I going to do next?” I’m far from the first person to go through this and I certainly won’t be the last.

    I’m working in a cube farm now in a Job only tangentially related to my degrees after working years of retail and I’m a hell of a lot happier now than I ever have been trying to grind myself down through the Smart People Machine, but I had to take a few years to totally reevaluate what I value in life, about myself, about work, and (this is a big Duh to anyone who escaped this crap), whether, you know, it’s really worth it or whether my worth as a human was really dependent on successfully climbing the Smart People Ladder. (I know this probably sounds stupid to a good chunk of people, but every Former Gifted Kid I’ve known has gone through this!) It wasn’t always easy, but I got through it and I think I have a lot healthier viewpoint on all this crap now.

    Please be kind to yourself! A lot of people are in this situation, whether they burnt out, the economy crapped up their job prospects (that was another big one for me, too), Life otherwise got in the way, or whatever. I don’t know if people think I Wasted My Potential when they hear what I do (especially when I was in retail), what my degrees were, and where I went to school. I know it doesn’t feel like it now, but ultimately it’s not important. At all. I’m happy doing what I do and am a hell of a lot happier than I would ever be had I successfully gotten into medicine or academia.

  73. Occasional poster (child)*

    This is me too! I’m currently on a week’s vacation at my parents’ house, not doing anything exciting, just taking a break from my consulting job that occasionally has long hours (nowhere near as bad as the other recent post, but definitely more than I think are necessary to help clients I don’t particularly like anyway!)
    I didn’t have a great feeling about the consulting job in the first place, but after failing to “live up to potential” (aka be a rockstar professor or entrepreneur) with the rest of my background (prestigious college + STEM PhD), I figured this was the acceptable amount of a step “downward” into lower-potential land.
    The good thing (maybe) is that maybe this will make me feel comfortable stepping even closer into what I probably wanted all along — just a regular job, or even just being a really available parent or family member.
    One thing that complicates it a bit is that my husband (whom I met in college), regularly tells people that his goal is to “impact as many lives as possible” and hopes that his start-up can “reach 1 million people.” I admire his strong desire to improve the world (and I think in his case it does come from idealism rather than just wanting to be famous), but it’s hard sometimes because we have such different approaches!
    And of course, out of the two of us, guess whose parents were super invested in education and after-school enrichment and whose parents were mostly just super busy keeping a small business afloat

    1. animaniactoo*

      fwiw, there are a lot of ways to reach people. At some point last year, I realized that my saturation rate for people in the U.S. having at least laid eyeballs on product I have designed is likely somewhere around 95%.

      There are maybe 20 people inside my industry who know my name. And almost nobody outside of it.

      Career or intellectual-wise, I know I am nowhere near living up to my theoretical potential. But it’s my life. And I make impact in other ways, even when it’s just really really low-key ways that people might not have gotten otherwise. In the meantime, I am relatively happy with the life I’m living and that just has to be my priority. Because yes – there actually IS someone else out there who can do those things and fill that void and if they’re happy doing it, more power to them. But I probably wouldn’t be. And in a lot of ways, I know that because I never had the urge to really try.

  74. Argh!*

    No matter how elite the college, a humanities degree is still a humanities degree. It’s not a professional degree and guarantees nothing. Studying the humanities is supposed to sharpen your thinking and give you an overview of (usually Western) culture.

    And the reason for any college degree, as opposed to a technical degree, is to teach you how to learn. This idea is becoming a bit old-fashioned in the age of college-as-professional training, but a humanities degree certainly doesn’t prepare a person for a career. If someone questions its practicality, say “It wasn’t meant to be a practical degree.” No apologies needed.

  75. Me (I think)*

    Another one here who can relate. Went to a well-known-very-very-very-old-but-not-Ivy-League school in Virginia, and ended up as a news photographer. Not really the career path my classmates took. :) No money or prestige in it.

    My favorite related episode was probably 25 years ago, I was working as a newspaper photographer, and another news photographer whom I’d known for a few years found out where I went to school. He said, and this is a direct quote, “You went to [school name]? YOU went to [school name]? I thought you were dumb as a brick!”

    I laughed and laughed. Still do.

    I’ve met numerous people with Ivy League degrees who have normal jobs. It’s not really a big deal.

  76. Det. Charles Boyle*

    There’s something about this that rubs me the wrong way. What’s so bad about being ordinary? Why do you have to be king (or queen) of the world to feel worthy? Would you think that way about your child? My children absolutely don’t need to “live up to their potential” in order to be worthy of love or compassion or anything else. Every being is worthy of respect and love.
    Once you start comparing yourself in this way, there will always be someone that you feel superior to and someone else you feel inferior to. Start seeing yourself as just one creature in a complicated and interdependent web of existence, and you’ll see how silly and self-absorbed this whole mindset is.
    Going to an “elite” school does not make you better than anyone else, and it doesn’t make you worse. What kind of person are you? Do you serve others? Do you live out compassion? That’s what is important. Not what school you went to or how much money you’ve amassed.

    1. stump*

      This is an unkind take on the situation. From somebody who’s been through this: This isn’t a case of a superiority complex, but the result of having been pressured by their parents, the school system to succeed, etc. at all costs because they showed a glimmer of being Offically Academically Gifted and being shunted through the high pressure Gifted Student Machine through their entire childhood and young adulthood, not being shown any option other than a certain narrow subset of acceptable (“smart people”) life goals and then ultimately having no idea what to do with themselves when they crack under the pressure and “fail”. It’s definitely an inferiority complex created because an Official Gifted Kid’s parents get screwy ideas about Potential and Wanting Their Kids to Do Their Best and way too often really f*ck up their kid’s self esteem and sense of self work and, honestly, really f*ck them over for having a healthy sense of self in adulthood. My parents (unintentionally) screwed me over since childhood and it’s taken a long time to get over that crap. I’m guessing you’ve been lucky enough to avoid this kind of upbringing, but everyone who’s gone through it gets where the OP is coming from.

      1. Bea*

        You’ve got a lot of baggage tainting your POV here

        It is not unkind to tell someone, no matter their background or upbringing that you need to focus on just being a good person instead of hanging your head over not being the next extraordinary scientist who cures all the diseases.

        It’s what everyone needs to hear. To hopefully wash your parents crappy teachings out of your mind.

        1. Julia*

          Who says OP isn’t a good person? Just being told to stop moping over something they’ve been conditioned to feel their entire lives isn’t exactly kind either.

          I absolutely agree with stump that this isn’t about feeling superior, it’s about feeling like you had everything you needed to succeed, and saw people succeeding, and feeling like everyone else gets chosen when you are being devalued.

          1. Det. Charles Boyle*

            Her value isn’t based on her ability to make money or attend an ivy league school. It’s based on her character. I don’t know whether she’s a good person or not and I suspect she doesn’t, either. She’s still very young. With more maturity will hopefully come the ability to see what really matters (and “living up to my potential” isn’t on the list).

      2. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

        stump, you are correct, and people who have not gone through this experience probably don’t understand. There can be a lot of external pressure placed on overachievers, leading them to feel like a failure if they do not fully “live up to their potential”, achieve professional greatness and meet the expectations that others place on them. Also, elite schools in the US are incredibly expensive, so to spend that money and even go into debt for that degree can create even more feelings of guilt and failure about not taking a particular career path.

        1. Det. Charles Boyle*

          I completely agree — this type of external pressure can be enormous. That’s why it’s important to realize that, once you’re an adult, and hopefully out of the day-to-day reach of your parents, this burden can be put down. Life is so much more satisfying if you can reframe and create your own perspective on what’s valuable and what’s not.

    2. Argh!*

      What percentage of graduates of any “elite” institution are household names? The Harvard Law School graduates 2,000 people per year. They aren’t all Supreme Court justices.

  77. Ella*

    I have friends who went to a massively wide range of schools – from Ivy League and Oxbridge to state universities and community college. Some of them are quite successful in their chosen fields these days, others are chugging along at desk jobs that pay the bills, and still others are still living in their parents house at this point. I’ll be honest with you, other than the occasional fleeting “so and so is super smart, she went to Harvard” thoughts, I really never think twice about how their education matches up with their current career.

    I know your education seems really fraught with expectation/emotion for you. I went to a fairly well known school where I sat next to a now very famous writer in one of my classes, and boy does it ever feel like I’m a failure every time I see she’s gotten another prestigious award doing my dream job, while I sit at a desk and wrangle excel spreadsheets every day.

    But I promise you other people aren’t looking at you and thinking you’ve wasted your potential. They’re thinking your school sounds interesting, or unique, or possibly (uncharitably) a bit elitist. The best way to handle it is to try and make your response as divorced from complicated emotions as possible. Speak about your education like it’s a fun if not terribly interesting fact about you, rather than a crushing weight you have to carry around, and other people will be inclined to treat it that way as well.

  78. Delta Delta*

    I once met a woman working in an unexpected place who had degrees from 2 Ivy League schools. She quickly said she got the degrees because she could (won’t say how – would be identifying). She didn’t regret the education but discovered her life was about something different. I was 17 when I met her & this always stuck with me. Now when I meet someone who went to Fancy School Whatever I always try to ask what they enjoyed about their experience there or something. I assume people are living their lives and their educational pedigrees are but data points in their greater lives.

  79. Camellia*

    At one company, I worked with a senior IT developer. In the getting-to-know-you phase, he mentioned that he had a doctorate in nuclear astrophysics. When I asked him what he was doing [at that job] he said he liked to feed his family and put a roof over their heads! And that most of his peers were doing the same thing but they were five years behind him. He laughed about it, the question didn’t bother him, and afterward he amended his email signature to also say Nuclear Astrophysicist, Ret., which we all thought was fun.

  80. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

    Ah yeah, I can relate in a lot of ways. I went to one of the top schools in my home country, that does have famous alumni, in fact someone who was one year ahead of me, same math department (different majors though) made news worldwide a few years ago, after he won the million-dollar Fields prize for solving a theorem, and then turned the prize down. I got into the school fairly easily, then was almost immediately intimidated by my classmates (a large part of whom, by the way, were graduates of advanced-level math schools for gifted children, and had already covered the entire first year of college material in their last year of high school, but were not allowed to skip ahead or take extra credit like people do for AP classes here, so were breezing through the classes that I struggled in) and spent most of my time in school drinking, dating, and exploring the city. I did get my act together in the last year or two of school, but by then I guess I already had a reputation of being below average, and had at any rate convinced myself that I was, so off to a “normal job” I went. Married a guy I’d met in college who was kind of in the same boat. We immigrated to the US through my family, and went on to more “normal” jobs, this time starting with entry level because we were new to the country. Been here 20 years, both of us still in “normal” jobs, no one has heard of our school around here, it is what it is. At least no one is surprised or says things like “what are you doing here?”, because they have never heard of our school. But yeah, sometimes I do wonder if my (now) ex or I could’ve done better in our careers if we’d applied ourselves in school… or something.

    I have to tell you though, OP, your letter made me think of someone else I used to date here in the US, a few years ago, who had received his Bachelors, Masters, and PhD from three different Ivy League schools. Took several dates for him to reveal the information. He was not in a hurry to tell me. My reaction of course was, “omg how cool, tell me what it was like”, and he never did. I tried to ask on several occasions, but it was like pulling teeth. He was a professor at a small-town LAC in the middle of nowhere, where everyone else on the faculty had gone to lower-ranking, mainly state schools. For the longest time after he became my ex, I thought that he didn’t want to tell me because he thought I was beneath his station in life and not worthy of being told these things, or something of that nature. I now think that maybe he did not want to talk about it because he was feeling the same way you say you do, or I do on occasion; that he could have done a lot better. But honestly, I thought he was doing very well for himself (as was I), he enjoyed his job (as do I, most days), and I really genuinely wanted to know what being a student at those schools had been like – no judgement intended.

    Lastly, at six years into your career, the night is still young. You may still change or improve your career the way you want to. Among other things, remember that you have the network of your school’s alumni. (I successfully used mine once, not for myself though, for one of my children.)

      1. Det. Charles Boyle*

        I know, right!?!? Ouch!! People who go to “lower-ranking, mainly state schools” definitely belong in the rubbish bin of life. I wonder how they rank people who don’t attend college at all?

        1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

          I apologize if it came across that way. I definitely did not mean it. My one son has graduated from a local state school, and the other is about to do the same.

          Honestly, to 99% of the people I work with, I went to a school they have never heard of, that may or may not actually exist. Why do you think I would be looking down on a state school graduate?

            1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

              Liberal arts college.

              An expensive one, BTW. Just checked and one year’s tuition, room and board at that college for 2018/19 is more than I paid for both of my sons’ college educations put together.

      2. n*

        I don’t think this was meant as a jab. In academia, talking about the rank of a university is very common, and how a university is ranked carries some significance when applying for academic jobs. Not to say that it’s fair, but just pretty standard.

    1. Bea*

      That’s sadly the story of immigration deeply ingrained here. You could have been magnificent in your home country, you could be top of your class. But over here, it’s not even considered often enough. So given you left, having done better probably wouldn’t have mattered.

      I say this because I worked with a brilliant man for years who went from prestigious work in his country to a production worker in the US. My boss took a shot on him and he stayed until well passed retirement age because a job, any job, gave him purpose.

      I asked, being young and forward about him not having a high ranking job like in his home land. He smiled and told me escaping the country due to Reasons His Own was well worth it.

  81. TeacherNerd*

    I still don’t understand what “living up to your brain potential” means. Does it mean that you have to do something that will drastically alter humankind for the next thousand years? (I’m a high school and college teacher, and I like to think I’ll affect at least some of my students going forward. Does that mean that’s more or less valuable than a single-handed ability when it comes to colonizing Venus?)

    I’m not being sarcastic or trying to be dense. I mean, based on this comment section, many of us are very intelligent, but I’m not sure how “living up to your potential” is quantifiable. It’s like trying to define “a successful person” – there are a lot of ways to define that, and how YOU may define that might not be the way I would. Doesn’t mean either of us is wrong. Perhaps it’s like trying to define “prestige”; fine, so Harvard higher ranked than the SUNY school I attended for undergrad, but I didn’t want to go to Harvard, so…so what?

    Seems like it comes down to prestige, however it is we’re defining that.

  82. Shay*

    Being 6 years out of school (and 6 years into your career), it is time to stop thinking about where you went to school – it doesn’t matter (and might never have). When interviewing a candidate, I am interested in what you are doing today, what you have accomplished in your current role, what impact you’ve driven in the past year or two. Candidates that put weight on the name of their school seem to be trying to get by on just that, the name of their school … which doesn’t tell me anything about the person sitting in front of me.

  83. vr larson*

    Without having read all the comments and only some of them plus what Allison wrote…I’m definitely going to have to disagree with the idea that “nobody cares except jerks and your parents/grandparents.” In the US, I attended a top 10 law school from a university that is referred to as a “public Ivy,” and I attended a top 20 university for college that would be considered more like a “Southern Ivy” if people used that terminology more often. The law school thing was a huge mistake, and I never could get a job practicing law…which means I had to apply to jobs in other fields…where *every* employer would be like “why in the world are you applying for this job with a law degree?” I used to have the hardest time in job interviews with this, the VERY few times I could even GET job interviews. I had to take my law degree off my resume altogether to get anywhere with getting a job.

    That left my college as the issue, causing people to basically laugh at me when they found out what college I attended and where I was working. Sometimes people would laugh at me just for the fact that I even attended college and was working where I was working. I’ve had all kinds of jobs people can get without attending college. I know that most of the time when people laugh and smirk and make snide comments about where I went to college vs where I’ve worked, it’s really to feel better about themselves. Still, I don’t want to deal with it, and ending up working hotel front desk, repairing laptops and working IT help desk is not why I attended the best schools to which I could get accepted. I’ve also had friends and family members use me as an “example” with their kids and other people as to why they shouldn’t go to college or why they should go to cheap colleges or whatever, and when they tell me that they’re talking about me like this to other people it feels really bad. And I haven’t even touched on how all of this affected my relationship with my parents.

    I will say this, though–if you feel like you didn’t live up to your potential, you can change that. My career is finally going in the direction I want it to go, and, regardless of what other people think about you or what they say to you/behind your back, it does make you feel better to feel more successful and to make the kind of money you feel matches your educational background. You feel better telling people what you do for a living, where you work and where you went to school. So, yes, some of this is about you and not about others. It has been really hard to get to where I am now and it has taken a lot of time, but “not living up to your potential” doesn’t have to be forever as long as you still have time left on earth. One of the best parts is now I’m finally getting jobs that “require” a college degree, i.e. jobs I couldn’t otherwise get where people with high school diplomas are laughing at me for working with them.

    As for telling other people about your degrees and explaining your situation, I don’t know why you’d do this any time except for a job interview. It’s none of their business.

  84. Similar Background/Situation*

    I too went to a fairly prestigious UK university for a master’s degree that I 1. didn’t need 2. didn’t even like the programme much 3. just was lost in life and so going to grad school (??? [don’t do it.]) . I also was battling crippling depression and anxiety issues. I only finished because I felt like I’d spent the money and dropping out was a waste. People ask about it often and I get conflicted about putting it on my resume because I get tired of talking about it, but honestly most people are just being politely interested about something different in your background to make small talk. This co-worker sounds like a jerk, so I’d take her reaction as a one-off. Plenty of people go to prestigious schools and end up in normal jobs, doing well, living a comfortable average life. I for one am much happier in the latter situation than when I was in the former. Good luck with your jerky coworker.

  85. Genny*

    Universities, much like social media, only highlight the impressive/prestigious/amazing parts of life. I suspect if you surveyed all of the people who graduated from your alma mater in the past ten years, you’d find the vast majority of them are in “normal” or “unimpressive” jobs. Not everyone can be a world-renown (musician, scientist, politician, diplomat, philanthropist, engineer, doctor, lawyer, etc.).

    Naturally, universities will want to highlight their alumni who are world-renown to draw in prospective students. You might even find a high concentration of people from certain schools in certain profession (think Harvard law grads on SCOTUS, or Georgetown School of Foreign Service grads as diplomats), but that doesn’t mean everyone in those schools will go into those professions. A Harvard law grad who is in-house counsel for a small firm isn’t a failure because she isn’t sitting on the Supreme Court. You’re not a failure because you’re not doing X prestigious thing.

  86. knitcrazybooknut*

    I can relate, and I love reading everyone’s stories. But I also want to say there are two parts to the interaction you described, OP. There’s your anxiety about your background – that’s a big one, and that will indeed color your responses to any questions about it. That’s something you can work on, which is great.

    The second part is the type of questions you’ll get. When I read, “What are you doing here?”, I flinched. To me, that’s a rude question. It will probably reoccur, so you can put an answer together, but jeeeez. And if your gossipy coworker interrogated you for 10 minutes about this, WHOA NELLIE. That’s seriously rude. I would consider answering, “Wow” with eyebrows raised and changing the subject.

    Remember, you don’t owe anyone an explanation or justification on this. My family of origin badgered me into oblivion, so I used to think every question required full justification for my existence (and in that situation, it did!) But other people are only asking questions, and you aren’t required to give your full dissertation, or even answer at all. It’s up to you.

  87. Archaeopteryx*

    I think there’s more pressure on young adults now to do something in your chosen field or get your dream job right away, since now people can keep up with what you’re doing on Facebook (as opposed to only keeping in touch with close friends, and seeing the others at reunions). This is especially ridiculous for those of us who graduated at the start of the recession, but a couple years out of college I definitely felt this pressure to ‘prove’ I was fulfilling my potential with an impressive job. That didn’t happen, and now I’m 31 and couldn’t care less what people think; careers can take decades to get to where you want to end up!

  88. NotAnotherManager!*

    I have generally encountered the opposite – I work in legal (which cares a great deal where you went to college unless you are an attorney with a huge book of business to make up for your decades-old, no-name undergraduate degree), and I have lost track of the number of people who are shocked to learn that I went to a *GASP* state school. But you’re SO smart, they say… why did you go to a public university?!?!? (And, in your head, please read “public university” with the same tone about which one would comment about dog poop on your shoe. Also, I’m not that smart. I’m just smart enough to succeed in the job that I was just lucky enough to get the opportunity to have.)

  89. AKchic*

    Hi OP!
    “Highly gifted” “extreme potential” “classic underachiever” here. Oh honey, to talk to my family, and anyone who knew me when I was in elementary school – the world was my oyster. I was going to have scholarships galore. If only women were allowed to be president, I would have been the best (yeah… my family thinks this way… we’ll bypass that BS). I could do anything I want, y’know! Junior high… yeah, still could do what I want, but maybe I should start thinking about a man, right?
    High school I disappointed them all. I dropped out my freshman year. I got pregnant. I got pregnant again and married a felon. I worked *gasp* fast food and retail. (oh how the mighty have fallen)
    Then… I got divorced.
    And pregnant again. And married again. And divorced again. And pregnant again. And married again.

    And you know what? I’m still a success.
    I’m not where my family expected me to be. I’m not where *I* expected me to be. I’m a high school dropout with a GED and a lot of operational knowledge of a variety of things that helped me get where I am. And I have my fingers in a lot of pies. And I am happy being a small fish organizing a lot of things behind the scenes in my decent-sized community.
    I don’t strive for greatness. I don’t look for fame. As long as I am content with myself and my life, that is all that matters. I don’t care what other people think or expect of me. Other people’s expectations are just that – theirs. It is up to them to manage those.

  90. Jadelyn*

    OP, what you do, or don’t do, with your degree has nothing to do with fulfilling your “potential”. Screw the whole idea of “potential”, and most especially the idea of “living up to” it. You don’t owe anyone a particular kind of success, or success at all. Having a particular degree, or going to a particular school, doesn’t obligate you to do anything in particular with those experiences.

    Look. I’m about a decade behind where I “should” be. I was one of those “high potential” kids, “gifted”, all that. I also have severe depression, moderate anxiety, and late-diagnosed ADHD (gods, I wish we’d known that when I was a kid). I dropped out of the 4-year university I got into – it wasn’t super prestigious, but well-regarded, in that second tier below the Big Name schools where the really good schools that don’t have name recognition go – because my depression worsened to the point where I could barely leave the house and I flunked out. I was 22. I moved across the country to live with my boyfriend, spent a couple years there struggling with depression and self-harm while being incapable of holding down even basic, low-level customer service jobs for more than a couple months at a time. Eventually it became clear that living there was actually detrimental to my mental health, so I moved home and moved in with my mother. I lived with her for a year, broke up with my boyfriend, started dating someone new, got engaged, and moved in with him. But I still couldn’t do more than part-time retail for any length of time. Eventually he burned out trying to “fix” my depression for me, since I was uninsured and not receiving any treatment for it at all, and we separated. I moved back in with my mom. By then I’d finally made it to the top of the county mental health services waiting list and was getting treatment. Over the following 5 years I was able to get myself together and get on with a temp agency, became one of their best employees, got into a placement that turned into a full-time benefited position, reconciled with my fiance, bought a condo together, and went back to school to finish my degree.

    I’m 33 now, and I’m just one tier up from entry-level/assistant. My job title says “specialist” now, instead of “assistant”. And I’ve watched us hire regional managers, department heads who will be involved in strategic decision-making for the company, who are my age – sometimes a year or two younger. It gets frustrating sometimes, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t sometimes bitter about losing a decade of my life to mental illness. But…I’m the only one who has to live my life. No one else. So I’m the only person who has any right to hold me to account over my “potential” being wasted. Any “potential” you have is entirely and solely yours, and you decide how to use it – and anyone else who wants to express an opinion can shove it.

    Besides, there’s always the example of Brian Wecht of Game Grumps, who’s also Ninja Brian in Ninja Sex Party. He was some kind of high-level, prestigious theoretical physicist, working in research on string theory and quantum something or other (seriously, I looked up some of his papers in my college’s database once and I couldn’t even parse what the titles meant, much less understand anything he was talking about) – but he left that behind, and now he’s in a comedy band and on YouTube, playing video games and singing silly songs about terrible sex. It’s what makes him happy, and it’s what he chooses to do – doctorates and published papers be damned. Be a Ninja Brian. Live your best life in spite of what you studied or where you studied – do what you do now, and to hell with anyone’s opinion on it.

  91. LCL*

    I work in the trades. You would be surprised at the amount of people in the trades who have college degrees that are completely unrelated to what they are doing now. Any one of these people will tell you that education is never wasted, even if you never work in the field you studied.

    1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      I agree. It never is. Mine is in the field where I work, but has been obsolete for, to quote Cersei from yesterday’s post, “longer than some of the people in this room have been alive”.

      When I was a college student, my classmates and I used to stress out about not being taught the latest, most cutting-egde technologies in our classes. I was told that a group of my classmates went to talk to one of the professors about it. They were, “why are we learning this old stuff? Can we study (trendy programming language) instead?” (It was the mid-80s, so of course this trendy programming language is long forgotten by everyone.)

      The professor responded with something like, “you are not here to be filled with facts, knowledge, and hard skills. You are here to acquire the skills that will allow you to attain new knowledge, on your own, throughout your lives.”

  92. Chie*

    The advice column “Dear Sugar” on The Rumpus did a wonderful piece titled “We Are All Savages Inside,” which I believe would be useful to the LW and anyone struggling with the feelings LW describes. While I highly, HIGHLY recommend reading the whole thing, this part in particular is relevant:

    “What is a prestigious college? What did attending such a school allow you to believe about yourself? What assumptions do you have about the colleges that you would not describe as prestigious? What sorts of people go to prestigious colleges and not prestigious colleges? Do you believe that you had a right to a free “first-rate” education? What do you make of the people who received educations that you would not characterize as first-rate? These are not rhetorical questions. I really do want you to take out a piece of paper and write those questions down and then answer them. I believe your answers will deeply inform your current struggle with jealousy. I am not asking you these questions in order to condemn or judge you. I would ask a similar series of questions to anyone from any sort of background because I believe our early experiences and beliefs about our place in the world inform who we think we are and what we deserve and by what means it should be given to us.

    It is a way of going back to the roots of the problem, as it were. And I imagine you know I’m a big fan of roots.

    You might, for example, be interested to know that the word prestigious is derived from the Latin praestigiae, which means conjuror’s tricks. Isn’t that interesting? This word that we use to mean honorable and esteemed has its beginnings in a word that has everything to do with illusion and deception and trickery. Does that mean anything to you, Awful Jealous Person? Because when I found that out, every tuning fork inside of me went hum. Could it be possible that the reason you feel like you swallowed a spoonful of battery acid every time someone else gets what you want is because a long time ago—way back in your own very beginnings—you were sold a bill of goods about the relationship between money and success, fame and authenticity, legitimacy and adulation?”

    I know reading this was a big help to me, so I hope it’s a help to others, as well.

  93. Hobbert*

    But you did do something with your degree! You have a career and, I assume, contribute to society and have an impact on the lives of your employees. That’s huge! And it’s something to be really proud of. The answer to “what are you doing here?” is, well, whatever it is- I like it here, I enjoy this field, I think the work we’re doing is important, etc. Where is went to school is just an interesting fact about your life, like where you grew up or your favorite hobby. Don’t let your coworker turn it into anything else.

  94. Chie*

    Probably worth noting here, too, that while the LW in Dear Sugar’s column was dealing with jealousy, replacing that word with “regret” or “shame” seems to have equal effect… at least for me.

  95. HannahS*

    When someone expresses surprise, I think it’s fine to laugh and say something like, “Going to Université de Fancy-Pants isn’t a guarantee of a high-powered career! Some people go on to do that, but most students have ordinary careers, like me.” Or “Yes, I was very fortunate to go to Université de Fancy-Pants. It was a great education, but I wasn’t interested in a really intense career.” We’re aiming for light-hearted here; how silly of them to think that someone with a degree from U de FP shouldn’t be their colleague!

    You don’t owe anyone an explanation. Most people don’t live up to their career potential. Nearly everyone chooses to compromise their career potential for relationships, for family, for their passion for travel or rice-sculpting or competitive martial arts. Many also have their career potential strangled by things like illness and circumstance. You don’t “owe” the world the career potential people thought you had when you were 18. Almost all of us fail by that measure.

  96. Spider*

    I just had a funny conversation about this with my coworker. (We’re staff members at an academic library.)

    ME: Graduated with honors from a prestigious liberal arts college, earned a Master’s degree with a 3.9 GPA from one of the top Master’s degree programs in our field in the country, have volunteered and worked in both public and academic libraries since I was in high school (1990s).

    HIM: Took 8 years to finish his Bachelor’s degree from a state university, graduated with a 2.2 GPA, worked mainly in fast food and low-level construction jobs before getting hired here.

    We have the exact same job, same title, and same salary.

    I’m sure someone else in my position would find that pretty galling, but I find it kind of humbling in a humorous way. Because what’s more important to me is that we’re both good at our jobs and we both love our jobs (occasional hiccups notwithstanding).

    My job is unionized so there is no way I can get the professional-level experience I would need to move into a professional-level librarian job while I’m here, but I’m able to use the knowledge and understanding I gained in graduate school all day/every day in my para-professional position. My supervisors are wonderful and fully support me looking for ways to grow my skill-set, work on special projects, etc. I hardly ever feel like I’m wasting my potential or my education.

    Then again, I’m also sure there are people who do think I’m underachieving, but hell, I was diagnosed at 35 with ADD so I am well inured to being called an underachiever.

  97. Bikirl*

    From a psychological perspective, it seems to me your looking at your degree either as something to put yourself down with (I should have a better job since I have this degree!), or something to aggrandize yourself with (I unlike my colleagues have a degree from a really prestigious university!). Neither position is a good place to be. The ideal place to be, IMO, is simply happy and grateful for the education you had. When you can feel this way, you might feel freer to look at what kinds of work would make you most satisfied, or where you want to go in the future–and you won’t be too concerned about questions from colleagues.

  98. WoolAnon*

    I got my BS in physics, and now I’m an entry-level paralegal at a law firm, managing paperwork and signatures, and absolutely nothing to do with math (took me six years after college to really start my career). I’m much happier doing this than doing anything physics-related.

    I don’t regret my choice of subject in college, though. Getting a degree doesn’t just teach you about the subject – a huge part of higher education, and why I’m in favor of it, is that it trains your mind. That, more than the particular degree, is a huge selling point of college (or any higher-level education forum).

  99. Scubacat*

    I’ve encountered something similar OP. You arent alone! I’ve found it useful to link my education (Primatology) to how it actually does relate to my employment (finances). Sometimes the link between education and employment isn’t obvious but there’s usually something.

    Well, most graduates from This Program at Impressive School actually end up in this field.

    It was great to attend Impressive School and I used Useful Skill a lot. The Useful Skill is actually how I ended up here.

    People with Such A Degree have a lot of options and transferable skills. We sometimes end up in surprising places.

  100. Justin*

    I was considered a gifted kid, but I hated school and underachieved. I hate the pressure that parents and teachers put on individual kids to achieve greatness, it never really does any good. My wife went to a top tier private university (not Ivy but comparable) and I have a post-graduate degree, and we both have….decent jobs. Can’t complain, it’s not bad, but it’s not up to any “expectations” that were set for us.

  101. Viva*

    I have a STEM degree. I’m an assistant manager at a fast food restaurant. I took the job because I needed A job and it was the only one I could find. I felt bad about this for a long time, like I was letting down all the people that believed in me, but honestly? I knew before graduation that I didn’t want to work in my degree field but I was so deep in that I figured I might as well finish. Then, eventually, I accepted that I have no desire to have a real career, and that I wasn’t more or less of a person because of my work, and I just felt free for the first time in my life. I mean I do badly want to get out of food service, but my goal is to work enough to pay the bills while leaving myself enough time for the things that I care about like writing, or getting into music again.

  102. Just Graduated*

    I can relate to this. Gifted in a private HighSchool, never finished due to mental health issues. Still got into a top college because of test scores and essays, failed out of that too for mental health reasons. After 10 years of trying and failing at college, I graduated from a college that some people have a hard time respecting. I feel so far behind my peers in work, school, personal relationships, everything. And I often wish I’d had a different childhood, parents who were open to getting me help with my mental illness, anything that could have made things different. I think of what life would be like if I’d graduated from a prestigious college I’m 28 and feel like most of my life has been a waste, I’ve lost years to mental illness and I’m still struggling.

  103. Indie*

    This depends somewhat on your degree topic; but it might help to separate out university and career as not having all that much to do with each other. I spent a lot of time during my degree on such practical stuff as Saxon poetry. It was a prestigious school and a good degree but….it was all purely academic. You don’t go to uni for a guaranteed job at the other end, you go to get educated or simply to figure out what you want before getting career experiences.
    Even if your school/course was gearing everyone towards a set path, it’s just college! It’s not an unbreakable vow or obligation. You get to change your mind or bow out, or simply not have it work for your circumstances and just do what’s best for you.
    It took me a long time to put ‘job’ in it’s proper place as simply a means of making a living. Your job title is not a sum of your worth. The minute I realised this I stepped onto a different career path entirely and hardly any of my new co-workers have any kind of degree, much less a fancy one. Their practical experience is stunning though, and when they ask me ‘what are you doing here?’ They’re simply a) admiring my degree (which I am proud of) and b) acknowledging that I had choices and showing an interest in my chosen path. I usually say I feel my quality of life is better in New Field. How you feel about your own path and your own field is only known to you. On their end it’s probably just admiration at best and small talk at worst.

  104. LadyCop*

    OP. You are not alone! Dropped 6 figures on an education at a very selective college…and then went back to school 5 years later for Law Enforcement. I often feel like I didn’t get a lot out of college (I battled with PTSD related anxiety) except for international travel.

    When people learn about where I went to school, I do get kind of an “Oh!?” and yes even a “What are you doing here?” but that says more about them than you. Graduating into the 2008 economy was not fun, and although I don’t regret my experience in the Army after college…it was a path that had almost nothing to do with where I went to school.

    Like Alison mentioned, your success is a lot better measured by your happiness.

  105. Anne Elliot*

    Part of the problem IMO is that the OP’er and his/her coworkers, and many of the public at large, appear to have internalized and to unquestioningly accept the assumption AWESOME SCHOOL –> AWESOME CAREER –> AWESOME LIFE. But the reality is there’s nothing inevitable about that cascade and in fact for many people it simply isn’t true. But it is buying into this assumption that makes your coworker feel entitled to an explanation why you’re not at AWESOME CAREER, and it is likewise buying into this assumption that makes you feel like you should be at AWESOME CAREER,and make you feel bad that you’re not. (Also, insidiously, this assumption narrowly defines AWESOME CAREER, as others have pointed out: It doesn’t mean being happy or making a difference, it means being famous, prestigious, or rich.)

    In terms of trying to add something others have not already said, I would only remind you that there are thousands of people who are doing jobs that they hate, or that bore them sideways, or that have left them dead inside, because their jobs meet the social definition of AWESOME CAREER and they feel like they have to stay there, doing that sucky thing, because they went to AWESOME SCHOOL so they are stuck in [un]AWESOME CAREER, and then wondering why the hell they don’t have AWESOME LIFE. If you are happy doing what you are doing, and happy in the life that you have, then you’ve done better with your prestigious degree that many of your classmates who have been trapped by theirs.

  106. Gumby*

    I think most people struggle with this type of thing. Particularly when you get to comparing yourself with classmates and fellow alums who are in the news for the amazing things they have accomplished. The thing is not *all* of my classmates from my big-name school are CEOs of household name tech companies. Sure, some are, and that is why they get written about. But also? Some are teachers, some are middle managers, some are stay at home parents, some are dealing with crippling health problems, some work as administrative staff on campus, etc. Normal people with normal jobs who are never written about in the New York Times.

    I don’t get the “wow, you went to [school]” reaction very often because I still live near-ish the school and there are a lot of alums who stayed in the area so it’s easy to blend in. But I do on occasion when I’m traveling and I find being matter-of-fact about it and maybe having an anecdote or two to share if asked (“what was it like?”) and people get over it quickly. I used to try to be coy about where I went to school (naming the geographical area, which has several colleges and universities) but I gave up on that years ago since it never worked – people kept asking until they got a school name.

  107. PhoenixRising*

    I’m a graduate of two fancy private colleges (undergrad and law school), a former defense attorney, former managing partner, and I stepped away from my law practice to work in a standard office job in higher ed. At first, there were days I felt like a failure. How could I spend all that money (much of which I am still paying off) and then not be a lawyer? Am I just lazy? Wasn’t I a disappointment to my family, particularly my dad, who was so proud of having a lawyer daughter? How come I wasn’t strong enough to be a positive role model for other women in law? I had to answer those questions for myself, and honestly, it’s not about whether other people are ok with the answers – it’s whether you are ok with the answers.

    Everyone I meet wants to know why I left law. Was it terrible? (No.) Was it the hours? (No.) Was it because women are not treated well? (Nope. I was treated just fine.) I have two stock answers. The first one goes something like this: “I know, aren’t I lucky to have had the chance to try a second career? Hey, is that (insert food item, person name, whatever..)” The second one is more detailed and sounds like, “I came to a point in my career where I had the opportunity to make some decisions, and I decided to do this work. I really enjoy it, and I’m glad I made the change.” I find that most people (unless they are also former lawyers) aren’t actually interested in the detail, they are just making conversation. (Lawyers are always trying to get tips on how to leave.) I think you might say something like, “I am really fortunate to have attended (school name), I (learned a lot, made good friends, loved the city –whatever fits). Where did you go again?” or “Yeah, (school name) is great! I’m really enjoying where I am now, and I’m excited about the future.”

    By the way, it sounds like you’re doing great. Congrats on the degree and a job that you seem to like! Also, don’t for a minute think you aren’t living up to your potential: you’ve got plenty of life and experiences ahead, and who knows where your path will take you?

  108. AnonAcademic*

    I have a PhD and work in the top university in the world for my field. I still feel this way often – that I am a small fish in a big pond when I should be a bigger fish. But I’m slowly starting to let go of prestige as shorthand for self worth. That idea doesn’t seem to make many of my “prestigious” colleagues happy anyhow.

  109. RNL*

    I wonder if you’re mis-reading this whole thing, OP. Your colleague would have to be pretty down on herself and your whole work environment to think “what a lame-o, working here. She must have some secret demons to explain this fall from grace.” She might be a bit jealous or threatened by your background, but it’s not very good gossip to be like “Did you hear OP went to Oxford?? What terrible thing made her work in this hole?” If someone said that to me about my workplace I would be offended.

    1. Bart on Film*

      I’ve found that this is the way the majority of people think. No matter where you work, if you’re considered highly skilled/talented/educated, people will wonder why you work “here”, wherever here is. It’s a form of self-defense, I believe.

  110. Hot Chocolate*

    I have an honours degree in English and I’m an office manager. There’s not much practical use for Shakespeare knowledge outside of academia.

  111. Diamond*

    I promise absolutely nobody is thinking ‘wow, Jane has really come down in the world’ or anything along those lines. All they are thinking is ‘wow, Jane is really smart!’ The ‘not living up to your potential’ thing is coming from your own mind, not theirs. You must know people who graduated from the same college as you and have a job on a similar level to you now and I’m sure you don’t look down on them (I’m not even sure what kind of jobs we’re talking about here, your job sounds fine? It’s not like everyone can be the Prime Minister!)

    1. AnotherJill*

      Yeah, I’ve never worked with anyone who cared where anyone’s degree came from or had any opinion about anyone’s “potential”. Are you doing your job well? That is really all your coworkers care about.

  112. Laurel rester*

    It really doesn’t matter where you went to school for humanities, outside of academia. It takes a combination of schooling, drive and ambition to live up to potential. That’s why it’s “potential” and not “actual”. Many smart people have no ambition, but it’s often ambition rather than degree that gets you places.

  113. buttercup*

    Something I don’t understand…what’s wrong with just being smart? Regardless of what you do, being smart must enhance the way you do it (I imagine…I’m not gifted like many of the people on here..) Why do people have very specific careers in mind for smart people?

  114. LilySparrow*

    I agree with Alison and the others that most people aren’t going to see your schooling as any more than a passing curiosity. I’m sorry you have a gossipy jerk co-worker who felt entitled to put you on the spot for ten minutes in such a derogatory way.

    Feel free to shut that nonsense right down: “What happened to me? I figured out that there’s more to life than name dropping.”

    Personally, I want to know what happened to people who act like your co-worker. How obnoxious!

  115. Nox*

    I’m a high school dropout who got her diploma finally this year. Despite that I am a department manager and am pursuing an HR analytics career [ironically have a job interview tomorrow for it]

    So I’m on the opposite side of the spectrum where I get written off as dumb if you judge me by what’s on my resume with the big fat high school equivalency under my education. If you talk to me, you would think I have at least a 4 year degree…my point is it doesn’t matter stuff happens and you just gotta go with the flow!

  116. chickaletta*

    Ugh. Yeah, count me in this group too. School: super easy. Never studied, got a full ride (to a state university, but still), and got a BA with honors without putting in more than a couple hours of studying over the entire four years. I was great at showing up for class, following directions, and being well organized. I make a great secretary! But people misconstrued my A’s for IQ and I was never able to translate school success into career potential. I never had a “dream job”, am not highly driven in the job world, and combine that with a healthy dose of cynicism and wanderlust, and ta-da! Twenty years later I’m in an entry-level admin job who’s outranked by managers who never went to college and coworkers who don’t even have a GED. I beat myself up over it all the time, but I’m in my 40’s now and I think it would be easier if I just learned to be happy with what I’ve done to my life. Jobs shouldn’t define who we are, but in our culture, it’s hard to not let it bother me when job title means so much. I suppose it’s both a blessing and a curse that most people I work with don’t realize I have a college degree. They think I’m just amazing at my job…but they don’t know I went to college.

  117. Boswell*

    I can really relate! I have my Masters, but after a really unhealthy job out of grad school, I have taken a retail job part time. It has come up here and there, organically and is met with lots of suspicion and questions. I am glad you wrote in about this because I thought about writing in about this very problem!

  118. AB*

    As I say to the friends of my teenagers, 12 months out of school no one is going to remember what mark you got on your final exams; and 5 years out of university most people don’t really care where you got you bachelor’s from. My eldest had the opportunity to go the one of the top academic selective girls schools in our state yet chose to go a local comprehensive high school. She also entered into a degree where the entrance mark was significantly lower than her final exam scores in high school. Why? Because that is where and what she wanted to study. Life takes us on different paths; there is no need to explain what happened.

  119. mountainshadows299*

    OP- I can definitely relate! Though I didn’t go to a prestigious school, I ended up with a graduate degree at a younger age than most (with no practical work experience to back it up) and, due to the economy at the time, ended up in a job that I was overqualified for. Unfortunately, I had to start my work experience there, and while I certainly have advanced in my career, I’m still not in the place that I thought I would be by now, and that can be its own kind of shame when people go: “Wait, you have a master’s degree? Why are you [still] working here?”

    A younger coworker of mine actually hit the nail on the head earlier today by saying you start to feel old when you look around and realize you’re a certain age and haven’t hit certain life benchmarks like everyone else. Unfortunately, sometimes it is lack of opportunity or just plain old bad luck that causes you to miss out. Sometimes it’s a matter of shifting life priorities or being only able to see the truth of something in hindsight. While it may feel like you’re the only one who experiences this, you aren’t… You’re in good company, and it’s unfortunate that some people may view it as “not living up to your potential” when really, it’s just life and you prioritized your life differently based on your wants, needs, and the circumstances that you found yourself in. Nothing to be ashamed of.

    Wish I had some good scripts for you to utilize, but mostly when people try to “figure out” why I’m still in my current job, I just honestly reply that I actually really enjoy the type of work that I’m doing.

  120. Liza*

    This is very much me, only I never made it as far as the prestigious university (I failed my second interview for Cambridge). But I was a top-of-the-class student who had no idea how jobs worked and went to a mediocre university to study whatever looked interesting because… that’s What People Did. Fifteen years and a mental illness diagnosis later and I’m long term unemployed (until next week) and living with parents. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel like a failure.

    When depression or other mental illnesses come into play, it’s hard to take ownership of our situations, because we’re not usually the people who are here by choice. When somebody asks why you’re doing what you’re doing, there’s this part that ascribes it to whatever painful history you have, and suddenly that question feels judgey or invasive. Not to mention living in a culture that sees poverty and depression as moral failings.

    But it sounds like you have at least somewhat made conscious choices about where you are in life, so you can own those choices and empower yourself with them. You don’t have to disclose all the difficulties you faced (especially to a nosy person who you don’t trust). That is nobody’s business but your own. Focus on the things you have done that you yourself value, and don’t get tangled up in proving yourself to others. Best of luck.

  121. OP*

    Thank you for your answers, and thank you Alison ! I am in Europe and not in the same timezone so I don’t know if any of you still read this thread, but I just wanted to let you know that your answers help.

    For more context, I did misspoke when talking about “college”, I indeed have a Master from a university – I am not a native speaker, I thought those were basically the same.

    I completely agree that I might be projecting personal issues when people ask me what I am doing here, because to be completeyl honest, I do ask myself the same question. I thought I would be doing much better by now, or at least be on the path to greater things. It does hurt when I see friends doing awesome in the culture industry, which I did not manage to get into.

    Anyway, not to be gloomy – because all your answers really do help -, I also some good scripts to answers questions from people about my academic background.

    1. londonedit*

      The college/university thing – in the UK, ‘college’ generally means a place of education for people aged 16-18. It’s somewhere you go before university, to take the exams that universities use for their entry requirements, or to study for work-related qualifications. In the USA, ‘college’ generally means the same as ‘university’ would in the UK; somewhere you go to study for a degree.

      The only exceptions are British universities like Oxford, Cambridge and Durham, which are universities that are made up of many different colleges. But that’s a separate terminology that’s specific to those institutions.

    2. J.B.*

      I’m glad you found the thread helpful. I think it’s worth figuring out a) do you not like where you are now or b) do you like where you are but are struggling with this picture of where you are supposed to be. Either is fine! But knowing which tells you what you need to focus on.

  122. londonedit*

    I sometimes feel like this. Throughout school I was ‘gifted’, especially in English. I got very good GCSE grades (exams age 16) and excellent – as in, couldn’t get any better – A level grades (exams age 18). I went to a respected university (I feel like in the UK, unless it’s Oxford, Cambridge or a couple of others, there isn’t the same focus on prestige generally attached to universities here as there is with colleges in the USA, but my university has a very good reputation and is one of the oldest in Britain) and got a very good degree. But I don’t have a Master’s; I got an office dogsbody job straight out of uni in an industry I thought I might like to work in, and 15 years later I’m still in that industry. I worked my way up, decided I didn’t like life towards the top of the ladder, went freelance, and now I’m doing a mid-level job. It doesn’t pay very well, I can’t afford to buy a house, I’m still earning now what many people would consider to be a decent ‘graduate’ salary despite being nearly 37. Some people would probably say I’ve failed to live up to my potential. But my job allows me to (just about) pay the rent, it allows me to live in the only city I’ve ever wanted to live in, it’s not highly stressful (I’m a work-to-live sort of person) and it’s fairly relaxed. And that’s all I really want, so if you judge by that, I’d say I’m pretty successful!

  123. Cassandra*

    OP, I teach in a professional program in higher education. Not communications, so if you had the degree I teach for, your current work would be a bit out-of-field. If you were my former student, and you came to an alumni event and told me what you do, I’d say…

    … wait for it…

    “COOL! Tell me more!”

    On this side of the education fence, we know education isn’t (and mostly can’t be) destiny. There’s just too many other variables in life and with human beings for that! So whenever our graduates are keeping their head above water and doing good (or at least not active evil) for the world, I count them in our win column. What exactly they’re doing, what level in a workplace hierarchy they’re at — I just don’t care.

    (In all honesty, I might make a mental note about where in the country you’re living and whether/how you’d be able to help another student or alum — but that’s not a value judgment, just career-placement pragmatism!)

  124. babblemouth*

    I relate SO much… Not so much the comments from others, but the feeling that whenever I hear what people in my graduating class are doing, I’m falling behind. I try to remind myself that happiness is very very subjective. Yes, so and so has a fancier job title and probably makes more money, but they’re also working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. I made my choice to stay in positions that allow me to have a good work-life balance while still making very decent money.

    Also, from what you’re telling us about when you graduated, you’re still in the first phase of your career. Some candles burn bright, but quick – maybe you’re more of a slow-burn, and your chance to peak will come later, with more maturity and experience. Don’t discount that either.

  125. Gazebo Slayer*

    I think you are my transatlantic double. I was a “gifted child” who was reading lobg before kindergarten, then went to a fairly elite college and did well – but by my senior year I was suicidally depressed (for reasons unrelated to my college, which I generally loved). I had crap jobs my first year out of college, developed an extremely cynical and antagonistic view of employers, goofed off on and completely screwed up my first “real professional job,” changed careers, crashed and burned again in my second career, and am now a low-level temp in my mid-thirties with few prospects of anything else. People hear where I went to school and how well I did and they are mystified and come very close to outright saying “what’s WRONG with you?!” It doesn’t help that everyone in my immediate family is far more successful.

    At this point I’ve basically adopted “Loser with a capital L” as my identity. The bright side of this is that it’s given me a a lot of compassion and desire for a more just and equal society (and a complete lack of tolerance for the BS of people who react to their lack of success by becoming fascists, and the guilty rich folks who just want to understaaaaaand them).

  126. Sciencer*

    Hi OP! I can relate to you a lot. I got my PhD at a prestigious school in the US. The vast majority of people who’ve graduated from my research group have gone on to tenure-track academic jobs or high-paying industry jobs. (I’m honestly not sure I can think of any, besides the very recent graduates, who haven’t.) Meanwhile, I became disenchanted with the traditional professorship role (research + teaching + a million other things) and have tried to steer myself toward a full-time teaching or teaching + outreach career.

    I’ve had pushback from numerous faculty, including a PhD committee member who lectured at me for 20 minutes about how I was wasting my time applying to non-research-oriented/undergraduate-only colleges, and a new prof at my postdoc university who kept insisting that I don’t need a PhD to do what I want to do, so why did I waste my time/why am I not making use of my degree? Those individuals were both jerks in their own right, but I’ve even had painful comments from people I respect and look up to, and whose opinion of me matters both personally and professionally. It sucks!!

    But y’know what? I’m adjuncting right now (the pits as far as academic jobs go–terrible pay, no benefits, etc.) and I LOVE it. I’m happier day to day than I have been in years. I get up excited to go to work. I come home physically tired (teaching is exhausting!) but mentally jazzed, and have more energy for my hobbies and creative side projects than I ever did as a grad student or postdoc. Obviously I don’t want to be an adjunct forever, and I still hurts when I hear or see friends’ and acquaintances’ surprised reactions that this is “all” I’m doing right now, but ultimately I know this is the right path.

    Success is not objectively defined. This is the most important lesson I learned (via those unpleasant reactions in grad school with faculty whose definitions of success did not match mine). If you follow a path to meet someone else’s idea of success, whether that’s professional, personal, or whatever else, you’re likely to find yourself wondering one day how and why you got to where you are. If you’re happy with what you’re doing, then maybe those comments and reactions hurt because you’re still holding on to other people’s definitions of success. If you’re not so happy, then take that hurt as a sign that you’re ready for a change, and take some time to ask yourself what success looks like to you, what you want to be doing in your career and your personal life. You pushed through some major personal shit in your college years, and that’s a massive success in and of itself. Try not to let the thoughtless comments of others bring you down!

    1. Det. Charles Boyle*

      Yes!! Why do so many people try to live up to everyone else’s ideas of what life should be, and never try to figure out their own values and desires? Just because the marketing powers-that-be in our country say we should all be striving for money/big houses/cars/the latest gadgets/high-powered careers, doesn’t mean that we should! Those things aren’t truly fulfilling for the majority of people, I would guess. Close, authentic relationships and meaningful work are the most important things for happiness.

  127. Existentialista*

    I can relate as well. I have not one, not two, but three degrees in a Liberal Arts major, all from pretty good schools, and the last one a Ph.D., but I left Academia early in my career and now work as a middle manager in Digital Marketing at a manufacturing company. I also get questions about the change, so over the years I have worked up a spiel, based on what I have said in job interviews: “Yes, it turns out I was a better student than teacher, and in this field there’s always something interesting to learn because it changes so fast!” I focus on the positive of my new role, and no one ever asks any follow up questions about the negatives of my former one.

    Is there something that’s great about your current job that you could mention when people ask, “What are you doing here?” Could you reply, “Are you kidding? I get to do (XYZ great thing). Who WOULDN’T want to be here?”

    1. Anon bc work*

      I currently work in a company that is primarily made up of people who have PhDs but left academia. (I work in industry-applied research.) Our firm is grateful for them – they provide awesome skills. Granted, industry research is never as scientific and rigorous as academic research, but academia isnt for everyone. Many of my coworkers and supervisors get paid way more in industry and feel more fulfilled. Also, based on what I’ve heard from my colleagues, PhDs, just like any other degree, have an expiration date. Even if you work in the field, fields evolve so much over time that your degree gets more stale the older you get.

  128. AdminX2*

    That inner stuff totally sucks, as someone who loved philosophy enough to get a degree in it. I’m not anywhere near where I would think a person of my age should be and yes it’s due to all that life stuff, economy stuff, some bad luck, and some emotional baggage thanks to a dysfunctional family I had to do a lot of work on.

    Most days I can say “If everyone else had to sludge through sand, they would be at the same place and I should be very proud for doing so much for myself.” and know I am stellar in a lot of ways. I look at some of the super star friends I have from college and remember their own issues and we all have our battles.

    Some days it just doesn’t work and I go into emotional self care mode.

  129. shortbread*

    I have a humanities degree and had really high hopes for what I wanted to do and be. I ended up in IT and it’s fine. It’s obviously not what I wanted, but it’s where I am now and it pays the bills. Also, because of my training in history and religion, I still do research for “fun”. You don’t need to work in the field to continue to study in it.

  130. Michaela Westen*

    Teachers saw potential in me and as recently as 2006 I was hearing “oh you’re so smart! you should go on and finish your degree!”
    The thing is, getting a degree wouldn’t take me where I wanted to go. I had a bad childhood with abusive people. What I needed wasn’t a demanding career, it was time to recover and figure out how to have a happy healthy life.
    I am smart, I was born with an analytical mind and I use it to make a living. What’s most important is enjoying life – for me that means enjoying my hobby with my friends. If I had done what they all told me – get a degree and a demanding job that would take up all my time and energy – I would be a miserable person.
    It sucks that America is so focused on degrees, careers and money. This is one of the reasons so many people are unhappy.
    So I don’t know if I have anything specific for OP except maybe she’s being smart by not letting the expectations of random colleagues control her life. If anyone judges you OP, that says more about them than it does about you. They’re miserable, you’re not. :)

    1. Det. Charles Boyle*

      This is a great perspective. Life is so short! Why in the world would someone want to dwell on this whole “you need to live up to your potential” BS, which is really meant to shame people, in my opinion.

  131. GreenDoor*

    I worked with someone who was in a very low-level, low-paid position in our company. She happened to graduate from an Ivy League school – and never missed an opportunity to make mention of that in a conversation. Really, that’s what made it weird – bragging on it when a degree from that college had absolutely nothing to do with the work she did or, in many cases, nothing to do with the topic being discussed. It was akward and weird and made her just look braggy.

    So I think you’re fine. You’re not bragging about it or working it into conversation needlessly. I think Alison’s suggestion of a breezy blow off reply is the right way to go.

  132. MassMatt*

    I’m coming to this thread a little late, but my take on the letter is more about the gossipy coworker who made the “so what are you doing here?” Comment.

    IMO she sounds snide, and just based on the little you’ve mentioned here (that comment, and that she revealed another coworker’s pregnancy) rude and untrustworthy also.

    That she wonders why someone with an education would be working there or in that capacity says more about her than about you, probably SHE would rather not be working there and wouldn’t if she could. Her poor prospects are not your problem.

    Taking a note from a recent comment in another thread, don’t share personal stuff with this woman, she has shown that she is not trustworthy and will use whatever she knows to make waves and/or just be snide. Keep things shallow and definitely don’t give her any more “ins” to get in your head.

  133. n*

    The thing about “living up to your potential” is that it is one of those terms that is so nebulously defined that it is impossible to achieve. Is there a light or a buzzer that goes off somewhere once you have reached your potential? Or does the Official International Committee on Human Potential send you a certificate in the mail when you’ve finally reached your potential? No.

    OP, it sounds like you are still in the process of reaching your potential. You’ve got some solid work experience and are now a communications manager, which is nothing to sneeze at. Who’s to say that your next move couldn’t be becoming a communications director at a larger company? And after that, maybe becoming an executive at another company or launching a successful consulting firm. Then, when people found out about your elite education, would they still think you hadn’t reached your potential? Probably not. You’d probably look like another elite university success story.

  134. kjdubreuil*

    My father graduated from Columbia College and then Harvard Law School at the top of his class and then never much worked as a lawyer. He wanted to be very important but was not. Wanted to be an ambassador or a judge. Got to judge at a very very low level family court in a borough of NYC for a while. Not very successful at anything he tried to do and was miserable about it. It’s better to be a big fish in a small pond instead of a guppy in the ocean.

    For the OP – tell people that you were happy (or not happy if that was the case; such as saying ‘it’s not for everyone for sure . . . ‘) with your choice of college and that you are now quite happy with the path you are on.

    I could have gone anywhere (I was one of those gifted accelerated kids) and went to the University of Michigan which was a great great choice for me, more down to earth and less pretentious than the Ivy League but still on a par with the Big Ten. I am very proud of my alma mater and happily discuss it with anyone who cares but I don’t think most of my friends even know I went there unless they read it on my Facebook.

  135. Are you me?*

    OP, you could be me 30 years ago. I was intellectually gifted, took part in one of the first “gifted and talented” programs in my country, attended an elite college where most alumni go on to be Successful … and the people running the G&T program wrote me just before I graduated to let me know I’d underperformed and had flubbed my entire life. I really took that letter to heart and felt very down about myself for a long time.

    Then when I was in my 30s, I had a revelation: I could define success for myself, and all that really mattered was that I was happy with my life. So now, if anyone asks me why I’m not a doctor or lawyer or business exec with a big house and a second home at the beach, I just tell them that I love what I do.

    You can say that, too. Just say it with confidence and a smile. :)

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