Crazy to think that a year ago, I walked across the stage, received my degree and entered the so-called “real world.” For those of you making the transition this spring, I thought I would share some of these scattered lessons I learned while trying to figure things out for myself. They are not comprehensive, they are not profound, but I wish I knew them straight from the get-go. Maybe you will find them useful yourself. Or maybe not, I wouldn’t be offended.
1. Know that your major doesn’t define you.
A college degree is a useful thing, yes, but it cannot be used to predict the future.
I was a double major with two rather big-sounding subjects: “Global Studies” and “Conflict Transformation, concentration in Religion Studies.” These were some of the funnest degrees I could imagine getting — in fact, I made up the second one out of my electives — but it was not until after I graduated that I realized how hard it was going to be to live up to them.
This is perhaps more obvious with global studies than it is conflict transformation. While my friends were taking Fulbright scholarships and Peace Corps posts, I moved to a nice little neighborhood a few miles away from campus. While I was doing what deep down felt right, I kept nagging myself for not living as “globally” as a global studies major should, and that people would somehow look at me as a sort of failure for staying stateside.
It was a petty worry. Almost instantly after graduation, people went from asking “so, what are you studying?” to “so, what do you do?” People don’t really care that much about majors in the real world. So while my global studies degree gave me some important overseas experiences and knowledge, there is no reason to force my present into the trajectory of the past and leave the country when I do not have a reason to.
(A couple years down the road, however…)
2. Volunteer. Create. For free.
It is tempting to think of the “grace period” — the automatic six month deferment on student loan repayments — as a break between school and the real world. While we all need the occasional break (maybe a couple weeks long at best), the grace period can better be thought of as a six month experiment. There will probably never be another time in your life where your monthly expenses will ever be so low.
For my grace period, I did a summer internship in the Pacific Northwest, which was followed by taking a part-time job in the fall in Chicago. Neither of these were lucrative, but they paid for rent and food. While the summer internship was a good learning experience, working only part-time for the fall freed me up my nine-to-five energies to volunteer with different groups and write lengthy rambles that later became blog posts like this one.
It was not until grace period was over that I started looking for another part-time job. Eventually, I was approached with a job offer from one of the organizations I had been volunteering with, and enthusiastically accepted. While a good volunteer record is not a sure-fire way to obtain employment, it is about as effective as sending out resumes and, at the end of the day, much more personally fulfilling.
But volunteering is not the only “luxury” of the grace period. You also have an opportunity to express yourself through some sort of creative outlet (and I sincerely believe everyone has at least one creative outlet), not just dabbling here and there but with some sort of actual depth. If you have ever been wanting to try something (painting, blogging, music, etc.) go for it now. It might be quite a while till you get a second chance.
3. Pay attention to your net worth (as least as much as your monthly expenses)
When the inevitable comes and student loans are due, suck it up and pay them. Yes, the amount of debt you may be saddled with is probably obscene and likely unjust. But, the way the system is set up, you are not doing yourself any favors by reducing the minimum payment. (Counter-frictions that wish to stop the machine, skip what follows and best of luck in your endeavors in bubble-popping bankruptcy.)
My monthly budget consists of three major expense categories: rent, food, and student loans. Early on, I assumed that if I could get my pay check to cover these and some miscellaneous expenses, I would be on the right track. Which is perhaps true, but it is not the big picture.
The big picture is not my monthly budget (income versus expenses), but rather my net worth (assets versus liabilities). Granted, my net worth is currently in the negative five digits. It is a rather intimidating number to look at, but it is helpful for making my student loan payments for this one specific reason: while student loan payments are a monthly expense, they have neutral impact on my net worth. The only negative impact my loans have on my net worth are the accrued interest, which is significantly less than the monthly payment, but significantly greater than any yield I could get from putting my money into a low-risk savings account.
In other words: while I have felt spread thin trying to make my paycheck cover my expenses, which comes out to $0 or slightly below, I have nonetheless seen my net worth slowly increase. It hasn’t been dramatic, but it has been in the right direction. Which has given me the mental relief of knowing I must be doing something right, and having an optimistic sense of brighter financial future ahead as interest payments begin to decrease and loan payments altogether start to cease.
To track my net worth, I use Mint.com’s Net Worth graph under “Trends.” Simple, effective, and with a good visual. That said, a number of net worth tracking tools exist online, and you could probably create a decent personal spreadsheet if you so desired.
4. Give audiobooks a spin.
I did more than just read a lot of books in college. I underlined them, wrote in the margins, sticky flagged and sometimes even regurgitated onto spreadsheets. Every page number was a potential footnote in a future term paper or senior thesis (of which I had three total, each about 25 pages long and 100 footnotes strong).
There were some things I did college to keep my sanity. I tried, for example, to take one class each term that was not reading-and-writing based. During marathon study sessions in the library, I would treat myself to study breaks that surprisingly involved taking a ride on the elevator (no joke).
After school, however, I discovered that my old study habits got in the way of my natural enjoyment of books. I would analyze cover-to-cover, letter-by-letter, preparing for senior theses that didn’t exist. Or I would skim for information instead of reading for the fun of it.
Part of my remediation has been the practice of listening to audiobooks. I would not have experimented naturally, being a visual learner and a mediocre listener, but a hour-long traffic-jammed commute to my summer internship convinced me to give it to a try. It was during this time I began to revalue the “performance” of reading over the mastery of material. I have kept the habit up, listening to various audiobooks as I take the train or clean around the house.
As far as a platform, Audible.com has worked nicely for me. If you are looking for an audiobook to start with, I highly recommend Dr. Meg Jay’s The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter – and How to Make the Most of Them Now (and no, it isn’t a pithy self-help book, but an actually well-reflected mediation of young adultdom from the perspective of clinical psychologist) (and Dr. Jay narrates the book herself, which I think is pretty neat).
5. Develop friendship rituals.
Not every college experience comes with great campus communities. Mine did, therefore graduation marked a major transition in my social life as well.
At college, most friendships could almost be sustained by a simple walk across campus on a sunny day. Physical proximity combined with dorm life, synced class schedules, club meetings, campus lectures, this-or-that cause fundraisers, and late night study sessions meant that there is an intensity to the peer groups of the campus community that cannot quite be matched elsewhere.
After graduation, the confederacy of the campus community becomes a diaspora. While I definitely think it is important to branch out of our own generational bubbles, there is incredible value in staying close-knit to people our own age going through the same type of life experiences. For those of us who stick around the city, we at best will find ourselves part of an urban tribe to maintain the momentum of what we created in college.
But it becomes difficult to get the group back together. It takes time to put meaningful get-togethers together, and finding something that works in everyone’s schedule is near impossible.
There is no solution, no return to the way things were in college. But as best as you are able, whether with your urban tribe or just a friendship circle, look for things you can do weekly or monthly to bring everyone together. Maybe it is going out to a favorite restaurant or bar. Maybe it is poker night. Maybe it is a T.V. show. Even a recreational sports league fits under this category.
The advantage of these “friendship rituals” is that not only that they require little prep, but you know they work schedule-wise for everyone involved. It takes trial and error, these rituals really are found as much as they are created.
It is not spontaneous, so it may not sound like fun. But it is fun, and quite frankly getting everyone together for whatever reason is what creates the space for something spontaneous to happen.
Friendships after college, like work or finance or finding yourself, require a lot more intentionality. But far from being a curse, these hurdles simply mean that you and I now have to show that we truly care, care enough to go out of our way to make things happen.
All part of growing up, I suppose.
Friday Addendum: Tune into stories, not tips and tricks
I posted the original five bullet points of pithy advice on Monday. It struck me throughout the week that I had left out perhaps the most important thing I discovered about my first year out, which is to listen to the stories of people.
I mean, listening to stories is something you should be doing that anyways, because people are storied creatures and have an inherent need to have their biographies be known. Listening is love at its simplest. But when you’re trying to make it in the world, listening to stories has some instrumental value as well.
The story of the 43-year-old woman who got the job in the career field you are going into. The 27-year-old man with your same major who is currently applying it in the most unusual of contexts. The 84-year-old man reflecting on what life could have been. Even the 12-year-old girl dreaming about what life could be.
The one thing these stories have in common is that they are not yours.
You might ask someone, “what advice would you give to someone like me?”
Some may tell you to send your resume as many different places as possible. Some may say to send your resume to one place and not give up until they give you a chance, even if that means waiting outside their office for the whole day. Some may say marry young, some may say marry old, some may say marriage is for lovers, some may say marriage is for losers. Some may say save, save, save; others may say work, work, work; others may say live, live, live.
Anyone’s advice is, at best, a reflection of their own experience with success.
So, as our story unfolds, in any which of too many possible ways, we needn’t worry ourselves about living up to some sort of standard of excellence. Regardless of what the magazines say, there are no “five best tips” out there, just a bunch of people like myself with pithy advice of their own. What we have to offer each other is not a road map to success, but honest and true stories. Stories that, when shared, can help the next graduating class better identify, and see that the next generation be equipped, to tackle the challenges and identify the opportunities.
Trail-blazing is tough. We all at one point will have to go off the beaten path. And there are also some trails, some forks in the road, that we may only be able to recognize not by footprints in the ground (or institutionalized open doors) but by knowing that someone else has taken exactly that turn.
“Hey, this person has been through something similar to what I’m about to go through. In their situation, they did such and such and, well, we know how that turned out. So, then, I suppose I could try something like that as well.”
Listen to stories. Many, many, many stories.