My current work in progress, Green Bay Outsiders, is about a group of friends who recently completed their undergraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay and are facing the real world for the first time as newly graduated adults. Things don’t end up going well for several of them and, in particular, for the protagonist Carl Daniels. He is, however, also the source of disappointment for one of his female friends due to his reluctance to return her romantic affection.
The post-college world can be a scary time. And there will be no shortage of well-meaning advice. A lot of important experiences that new graduates face never get communicated and can only be found out through personal experience. Hence my interest in writing this book. It’s been more than 20 years since I graduated college, so Green Bay Outsiders is not an autobiographical story by any means. But the topic is of great interest to me. Occasionally, I will trace my life decisions back to find out what earlier experiences brought me to where I am today.
My 20s offered, without question, some of the richest experiences of my life. Most of what I learned, however, I did not learn through someone’s advice but through the personal voyage of discovery. Below are six truths, based on my experience, that I wished someone had told me when I graduated from college. (Feel free to leave examples of your own in the comments section below.)
1. You have to plan what comes next before you actually graduate.
I failed miserably at this one. It’s easy to get caught up in the cocoon that is university life – classes, studying, friendship and the occasional romance – without recognizing that the world you face after your undergraduate studies is infinitely more complicated and requires a different lifestyle. The best way to prepare for post-college life is to have a fairly decent vision of what you want to do after you graduate. That might mean finding an entry-level position in your industry, being a ski bum for a while (which a friend of mine did) or anything else that you think comes next. Take care to think of how you will get there, and what steps you need to take. If you stay focused and do things to get you there, your chances of success will improve greatly.
I did no planning whatsoever and ended up living in my parents’ home for a while working a job I did not like, and which had nothing to do with what I studied. About a year after graduating, I realized that this poor first step could end up leading to a longer-term trajectory unless I started getting my act together.
So I flew to Alaska for the summer and gained some confidence, lost some fears and discovered a real passion for living on the road. It was the right decision to make at the time. But if I had planned better while I was still in school, I wouldn’t have had to lose a year getting there.
2. Success isn’t a straight line and may end up being something you never studied in the first place.
My day job is in marketing. I enjoy it quite a bit. I especially enjoy doing marketing for an accounting firm, which I have been doing on and off since 2003. In fact, for a while, I was on the board of directors and executive committee for my industry association and made many friends there, for which I’m grateful. I studied English literature as an undergraduate and as a graduate with the idea of one day becoming an English professor. Sometimes it can be hard to focus on what you ultimately want to do because you still don’t have a lot of life experience. Sometimes choices later appear before you that you hadn’t considered, or you take a risk that leads to a new opportunity. That’s called life and it’s a fun ride even though it hurts sometimes. Graduate and enter life’s flow with zest but don’t try to control too much. You’ll only end up hurting yourself and no matter how hard you try, you’ll never be in control anyway.
3. You’ll miss your friends and you’ll also be afraid you’re missing something they’re not.
I lived in upstate New York right after graduating from university. Most of my friends lived in New York City or Long Island though one friend also lived about an hour north of me. I traveled quite a bit to see them and they reciprocated as well. Through most of my early and mid-20s, I did a good job of staying in touch. We were all getting our first jobs, having our first post-college experiences and doing whatever we thought was the right thing to do. But I was also worried that they were meeting new people, having new experiences and growing in ways that I was missing. It’s natural to feel that way. When you’re in college, you spend a lot of time with your friends (daily, sometimes) and you’re all doing the same thing. But the ballgame changes, and there are many more options after graduation. You may also worry that one of your friends may find a choice or experience that leads them to success or happiness while you missed it. No one ever wants to feel left behind but that feeling will nag you for a while as you discover your own life path.
4. You should take advantage of the freedom you have right after college because it won’t always be there.
If I didn’t plan ahead as well as I should have, I did a much better job taking advantage of my 20s to travel. I can’t say it was due to great wisdom on my part though but probably ties very closely with my failures to plan. In one song, Bruce Springsteen sings: “I can’t tell my courage from my desperation,” and that about sums up my motivation for traveling in my mid-20s. I mentioned how I went to Alaska for a summer when working a job near my hometown right after graduation left me depressed. So I HAD to go. And soon after returning to New York, it was clear I caught the travel bug, and less than two years later, I was heading over to Sri Lanka to teach English as a Foreign Language. Within the next several years and before I hit 30 years old, I also managed to visit Guatemala and Ireland.
When you get older, responsibilities fall heavier on your shoulders. I don’t mean that in a bad way. But seeing the world, hearing and considering new perspectives and having memorable experiences away from home is something everyone should take advantage of if they can. Years later, you’ll remember doing it and realize just how much they shaped the person you became.
5. You should start saving money as soon as you can even though that will seem boring.
Once you graduate from college and get your first job, you will have something you’ve likely never really had before…money. Your first inclination, too, will be to enjoy it as much as possible. And you should. One of the perks of getting a job is the fact that you get paid to do it! And you should enjoy the outcome of working. Go out with friends. Fill your car with gas and go! Do all the things that the new-found freedom of adulthood can give you. But at the same time, develop solid financial management skills. Even if you don’t strangle your cash flow by saving a ton of money, at least get a good understanding of how money operates, and why it’s important to save for mid-term financial goals (such as a down payment on a house) or long-term financial goals such as retirement savings. The more you learn when you’re younger, the better your decision-making will be throughout the rest of your career and your life.
6. You will go through more emotionally than you can possibly imagine.
The first five points all touch on this final point, which is that you will go through much more emotionally than you can possibly imagine. You’re an adult now, at least as far as how society sees you and expects you to behave. The same concerns that you have had through your adolescence, and maybe even as far back as childhood, will be there – friendship, family, romance and employment. Only you’ll have more decisions to make about more of them. And you won’t have a history of decision-making to draw from to ensure your decisions are good ones. It can all be overwhelming. And you’ll no longer have the nurturing presence of parents or the cocoon of the university years to keep an eye on you. You’re on your own.
As the years pass and you make decisions–both good and bad–you’ll eventually get the hang of life. Challenges will continue to face you, and unexpected events will startle you. But even there is a part of life that you can learn from. But your 20s can be a very emotional time as you take your first steps into adulthood and set a legacy for those alongside you and those who come after.
There is a lot I wished I’d known when I graduated from college, but at the very least, having learned many of them through personal experiences, I do have memories and stories to tell. And the fact that I am sitting here writing this also means that I survived the consequences of some poor decisions, which makes me stronger.
But what about you? What advice did you wish someone had given you when you graduated from college? How did it feel to have to learn something on your own during those first months and years? Feel free to leave a comment below the form.