5 Life Practices I wish I’d Known When I Graduated

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My sister graduated from Emory two weeks ago. During the <exceedingly long> ceremony, my husband and I reminisced about our college days, how lovely it was to be immersed in campus life and learning, and about having access to so many resources for learning and making new things.

We also talked about what it was like to graduate, and agreed it went something like this: Here is some paper; there is the curb.

The transition between college and the ‘real world’ can be a tricky one. For one thing, there is the social pressure to start making use of one’s expensive education as soon as possible. My sister is now dealing with the onslaught of people asking the question, “What are you going to do now?” Despite that question becoming taboo, especially in difficult economies, we all get asked it, and then we all become the people who ask. Unfortunately for ex-students, the answers rarely sound as good as hoped for.

Secondly, unless you were one of those people who nabbed all the internships, launched a tech start-up, and wrote a novel while you were still in school, getting jobs these days presents a Catch-22: you need experience to get a job, and you need a job to get experience. So what is a new college graduate to do? I floundered quite a bit with this, as did my brother, and my sister may do the same. On top of this, the real world does not operate like school; recent grads need to learn fast to create the structures in life that school used to create for them. This can be especially uncomfortable and foreign to many students, and arguably hit the high achievers hardest, because they are so used to jumping through hoops set up for them by institutions. Now, all of sudden, these students are hoopless for the first time in their lives (unless of course they go to grad school which many students do (I think) just to remain in a world they understand). The alternative means setting one’s own goals, one’s own schedule, and learning what work looks like for their new lives. And this can be very, very intimidating.

On the upside, though, it can also be exceedingly liberating to have the world as an oyster, for anything to happen, and for so few responsibilities to inhibit new experiences. There is a part of me that would like to redo the last eight years, wherein I would take more risks, try more things, and–for the love of God– be less self-conscious about everything. But I say that knowing that the last eight years taught me some very important lessons, and I would never go back without those bits of armor.

So, for my sister and those of you in similar circumstances, whether you just graduated or are starting a new career path, here are five life balancing acts to guide you:

  1. Find balance in the Meaning of Work
    For most people, their ideas regarding ‘work’ fall somewhere on a spectrum. On the one side, work is the thing we have to do in order to survive, and so it carries a stigma of being an obstacle to enjoying our lives. In this mindset we develop a myriad of avoidance tactics to get away with doing as little as possible. On the other side, people grow overly obsessed with work, and lose sight of anything else they could and should enjoy. Work becomes the whole of their life, and whether they bring this on themselves or are forced into by an office culture, this creates the other sad extreme.What I suggest is thinking about work beyond this spectrum. Work is not only the activity you do to make money, nor is it the all-consuming, identity-forging power our American sensibilities lead us to believe. Work is, simply, the thing we do to create value. This is true whether we get paid for it or not, or whether anyone notices we did it in the first place. I like thinking about work this way because I find it ennobling; we are all created with the capacity to create value where it didn’t exist before, to reap fruit from our labor, and to derive satisfaction from the process as well as from the end result. This is very, very good news. For me, it changes the way I see my own work, whether I am doing work I don’t enjoy or work I adore. It means that no matter what I do I am making progress, making a difference, improving some aspect of life. This is true whether I’m cleaning gunk out of my kitchen sink or doing a menial favor for a coworker or writing my novel. Work, in this way, is humanity’s birthright and privilege. It makes me want to get better at it, and to complain less. I wish I knew this much, much earlier in life.
  2. Find balance in work through rest and sprinting
    I am reading Todd Henry’s third book, Louder Than Words, and in it he talks about the fallacy of “Slow and steady wins the race.” While there is value in avoiding the procrastination that cost the proverbial hare his win, Henry is an advocate for accommodating sprints in work. Sometimes hustle helps us focus, helps us produce more, and opens up more opportunities for us by ensuring we are in the right place at the right time. Granted, knowing when to sprint, that’s a tricky question. But knowing that we should prepare to sprint is important lest we become complacent and let opportunities slip by. At the same time, Henry would also advocate for taking frequent breaks. So many professionals slog through their days, put in extra hours, and ignore their vacation time, all to the detriment of their health and their quality of work. Creativity experts say more and more that the best ideas often come from stepping away from a project and doing a completely different activity. I believe we are hard-wired for cycles of work and rest; ignoring our own cyclical natures can be disastrous.
  3. Find balance between a long career and getting your butt in gear
    There are two pitfalls awaiting college graduates: The first is worrying about moving too slowly, the other is actually moving too slowly. It came to me, as it does to many, as an epiphany to realize that I still have 30 or 40 years of work and opportunities ahead of me. This comforts me in knowing I have a long time to gain mastery over the work I do, and that I don’t have to get everything right the first time, or even the 11th time. At the same time, the temptation with this is to say, “I’ll figure that out later,” and herein we have a problem. My biggest regret from the last eight years is not looking at each day as an opportunity to learn, to create, and to connect with other people. I took my time, and lacked intentionality with how I spent it. I fear that means I wasted a good bit of it. I am still learning this balance, but at least I have the lesson as a goal.
  4. Find balance between confidence and knowing you have a lot to learn
    This is another lesson I’m still learning. Coming out of college you may have a piece of paper that says you’ve been educated, but the fact is education never stops. This is a good thing to realize early, because the sooner you can make a habit of seeking out learning opportunities the faster you will be gaining expertise. Ask a lot of questions, show enthusiasm for the help others lend you, and practice new skills whenever you can. For the most part, humility is a good thing. Don’t be the little, Millennial pissant people expect you to be. BUT..but but but…DO NOT take this to mean you should be a doormat. Do not let people take advantage of you or to misinterpret your humility as weakness or ineptitude. You are working to add value, not to be undervalued. Stand up for yourself and know that you hold your position for a reason and have the capacity to excel. Note: this does not mean you are entitled to promotions, or working less, or being treated like you are special. But if your work is good, you have a right to respect. Speak up, hold your own, trust your instincts, and when you are wrong (and only when you are wrong, ladies), apologize like the grown-ass person you are.
  5. Find balance between what happens to you and what you make happen.
    In life, shit happens. So much of life we cannot control, but there’s no need to get weepy about it (and I’m talking to myself as much as you). There are also good things that happen to us out of our control, like when we meet our spouses, or when someone drops your future puppy in your friend’s car (true story), or when a random puppet designer offers your husband a job in Nashville out of the blue (true story). Going with the flow, crossing bridges when you come to them, staying flexible–all good ideas. That said, every single day we have the choice to wait for things to happen to us or to make things happen. When it comes to work, we need to be especially creative in making what we want come to pass. We need to use our imaginations for how we can make improvements on the tasks in front of us, and then in strategies for making them happen. The sooner we learn just how much agency we have, and how it pays to be more active than passive, the better off we will be.
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