I graduated from college about a year and a half ago, so by now I definitely know all about how life works and I’m able to pass on my infinite wisdom to this year’s grads.
I’m kidding, of course. But I have learned some things about life since I graduated, both from intaking wisdom and inspiration from others (such as this awesome piece from RELEVANT magazine or this story on NPR) and just from living life and seeing how things have been a bit different than I expected. Everything I say here is just as much a reminder to myself as it is advice to anyone else. I’m still working on getting it right, too.
This is all purely based on my personal experience and I’m sure will not apply to everyone, but since it’s graduation season I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned since I entered the “real” world.
1. You’ve got to be proactive about going out and getting what you want. No one is going to do it for you.
Want a job? Go out and get it. Want friends? Be friendly.
I know from personal experience: this is easier said than done. I spent six months applying for jobs in the field I studied in school, technical writing, and for which I had previous professional experience. I currently work as a full-time nanny. All that talk you’ve heard about the economy being bad and whatnot? Well, turns out it is very true.
I am also an introvert. When I’m spent from working or socializing a lot, my idea of a good time includes sitting on the couch, talking to no one, and watching reruns of The Walking Dead. So it can be difficult for me to take that first step required to build new relationships.
But that’s the big point I’m making here: you’ve got to practice intentionality. While you may not see results immediately, you’ve just got to be intentional about putting yourself out there. No one is going to hand you internship opportunities or job offers or ready-made friends. I didn’t realize until after I graduated just how much good stuff was pre-packaged for us students by our universities: we were assigned a dorm room with a roommate and neighbors who became our first and (sometimes) most enduring adult friendships. We were constantly invited to lectures, special events, and career fairs that someone else had already put in the time and work to organize. While in school, we were surrounded by opportunity that was, for the most part, simply handed to us.
Don’t worry—you’re still surrounded by opportunity. The difference now is that you have to make the effort to find it and take advantage of it. No one is going to check up on you to make sure you’re progressing appropriately toward your goals; there are no curriculum guides or semester charts that tell you what you’re supposed to do next. The scary and also exciting thing about life is that you have to decide for yourself what you want to do next, and then you have to figure out how to make it happen.
Practicing intentionality applies to all areas of life: do you want to be thin and healthy? Be intentional about what you eat and how you exercise. We all wish that things we desire would just magically happen for us, but in order to truly achieve what we desire, we have to consciously work toward our goals every day.
2. Get out into the world and just start doing stuff.
This is the best way to figure out what you want to do with your life, discover what you’re good at, and learn how you need to improve. You’ve already learned from professors and classmates; now you’ll learn from peers, relatives, employers, and friends about what sorts of options are out there. Expose yourself to lots of things: read books and articles, from fashion magazines to news and political outlets, from food blogs to the New York Times. Pay attention to what excites you, what you want to learn more about, and what projects and jobs other people are doing that you think sound cool. Follow those feelings, because that’s how you figure out what you’re good at and what you want to do.
Find other people who are doing stuff you admire and ask them about it: How did they get there? What do they like about it? What don’t they like about it? What can a recent college grad do to emulate them? This all ties into #1: you’ve just got to put yourself out there. Get in the world’s face, ask lots of questions, and chase after things that interest and excite you. Be curious and proactive.
And by all means, look for jobs in your field, but don’t limit yourself. If an opportunity opens up for something that doesn’t fit what you’re “supposed” to be doing, don’t dismiss it, because you never know what interests it may stir in you or what doors it may open for further opportunities.
You won’t figure everything out right away, or by the time you’re thirty, or maybe ever, but that’s okay, too. You’ll keep experimenting and meeting new people and trying different things, and every experience will teach you more about yourself. Life is one long work in progress, and if you’re open to it, you’ll spend the rest of your life learning, growing, seeing, feeling, and doing.
3. “Nobody feels like an adult. It’s the world’s dirty secret.”
I had to steal this one from a movie I saw recently, Liberal Arts. Over the course of the film, the protagonist—a man putzing around in his thirties and working a job he doesn’t like—learns to stop living in the past and embrace his adulthood. The line I’ve used above comes from a conversation the protagonist has with his former professor. He confesses that while he knows he should act like an adult, he just doesn’t feel like an adult. The gruff professor replies, “Nobody feels like an adult. It’s the world’s dirty secret.”
This is a great way of saying that, in life, you’re never really going to get to a place where you feel like you have everything figured out. When I was in elementary and middle school, I greatly admired my high-school-aged siblings and their friends. They just seemed so grown up. They were beautiful and funny and confident and everything I expected to be when I was in high school. Then I got to high school, and I realized that, while I was maybe more confident and better at doing my makeup, I still struggled with insecurity and anxiety about my future.
So, I turned my admiration to college students: oh, how mature they were! Listen to them talk about their term papers! Watch how they drink coffee and decorate their dorm rooms with all the grace and ease of a well-rounded adult!
You can see where I’m going with this. As I progress through each stage of life, I tend to shift my admiration to those in the next stage, which I suspect is a way of reassuring myself that, while right now things seem difficult and uncertain, soon I’ll have it all figured out.
Turns out, life doesn’t really work that way. Sure, we grow and become wiser, more mature, and better equipped to deal with things over time, but there will always be a new decision to make, a new conflict to resolve, and a set of new paths to choose from. Rather than hoping to have all the answers, I think it’s more important to strive to be our best in each stage of life while continually getting better, because for most of us, “better” is the best we can hope for. Wherever you are in life—school, early career, marriage, parenthood—you’ve just got to own it, do your best in it, and try to learn and grow from it. Oh, and don’t forget to have fun!
4. Life is different post-grad, and that’s okay.
This one sounds pretty obvious, but I’m specifically referring to schedules and habits. In my freshman year, while juggling a demanding honors program along with all of the other challenges that come with transitioning to college life, a professor once told us students that we would never again have as much disposable time as we did during college. I laughed and returned to the five hundred-page book I had to finish by the next morning. But I look back on that now and realize that he was right. Sure, college is busy, but when again in life will you have a schedule that includes two- or three-hour chunks of free time in the middle of the afternoon every Tuesday? And good luck finding a job that gives you four weeks off for Christmas, a week off every spring, and three months off every summer (but if you do find such a job, please let me know so I can apply).
Also, eating whatever you want and staying up until two o’clock in the morning catches up with you quickly. Do yourself a favor and break whatever bad habits you have sooner rather than later, because you really can’t maintain them if you keep any semblance of a “normal” adult lifestyle. I was very surprised at how soon I noticed weight gain, or that I could barely function if I got fewer than six or seven hours of sleep. (The other night I only got four hours of sleep, and I felt exhausted for the rest of the week.)
None of this is bad. Early adulthood is just a new, different stage of life, and that’s okay. Don’t spend it longing to recapture the glory days of college; it will make you bitter and sad, and you’ll miss out on the good things you’ve got in life right now. Again, you’ve just got to own it and continue to invest in the important stuff: work that excites you, friendships, healthy habits, your family, and your relationship with God.
5. Hooray! It’s finally over! But really, this is just the beginning.
Last weekend I attended my brother’s college graduation, and one of the student speakers shouted in celebration: “Hooray! It’s finally over!”
Yes, graduation is a big milestone that deserves celebration. You’ve accomplished a lot, and you should feel proud and relieved. But like any ending, it’s also a new beginning. As Calvin says to Hobbes in the final panels of everyone’s favorite comic strip: “It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy…let’s go exploring!”
6. Always remember what matters most.
I’ll end with a powerful quote from St. Isaac of Syria. While the journey of discovering who you are and what you’re interested in is a very important one in life, always remember that the foundation of your very being rests in Christ. In the midst of all of the other crazy demands and challenges of life, don’t ignore God. (I’ll be the first to admit that I’m constantly guilty of this one.) Making our souls right with him is the most important thing we humans have to do; may we not waste our life pursuing anything else above the one who gave us life in the first place.
“Why do you increase your bonds? Take hold of your life before your light grows dark and you seek help and do not find it. This life has been given to you for repentance; do not waste it in vain pursuits.”
Image via Wikimedia Commons