I graduated two weeks ago today. In that time I’ve done a lot of thinking about what this means. The weirdest thing about graduating is that for the first time in my life, there is no road that is showing me the next step ahead of me. From a very young age, we’ve been given a prescription for how to progress as we got older. It started as young children, where our parents or nannies told us how to behave. We moved onto to elementary school where everything from our etiquette to our intellect began development through exterior forces - our teachers and peers (both older and the same age). In Middle School and High School, we were still confined to a schedule without our input - class every day, 8:00am-3:00pm (or thereabouts), and most of those classes were chosen for us as requirements for our next tier of education. Finally, in college, we were starting to be treated as independents. We could choose our schedules and our majors, our classes and whether to attend them. We chose whether we wanted to exercise or not, what we wanted to eat, who we wanted to hang out with, where we wanted to live and whether we felt like talking to our parents anymore (although this was a precarious choice if our parents were helping us out at all in paying for our education).
It’s not surprising then that when many young adults graduate college there is a certain degree of panic. Some mitigate this by going to graduate school. Not all people go to graduate school to avoid uncertainty, but some do. It’s another set path to follow. But still, many of us are left looking at a glaring question mark when we finish undergrad. We don’t know what to do and that scares many of us. But why?
I am going to admit a bias here: I did not have the most positive academic experience in college. Bureaucracies, a large student body, and an institutional rigidity that prevented me from successfully completing a major that I was interested in (without wagering another $60,000 against my future) all marred my experience. But while I turned away from classes, requirements and majors, I began to spend more time looking at people, including myself, and attempting to decipher the cause and effect relationship between environmental/external forces and people’s reactions to them. I think this was a good thing. We spend all of our lives living around, interacting with, and compromising with people around us. However, we only spend our early, formative years in school. In the end, investing time in understanding and learning to work with people is something that has a longer lasting value. Though I am grateful for the lessons I learned in school about how to learn, study and analyze information, I think that my time observing and interacting with others has been the most valuable information I have gained in the course of my life.
I suspect that my love for and interest in people along with my souring experience in academics has made me more comfortable with this transition from a rigid academic life to a uncertain life in the “real world”. But the real world offers no solace on its own; it does not tell us who to meet and hang out with, what job to take (and more frighteningly, if you will even get that job), or where to live. This is the ultimate uncertainty. We are without the nurturing advice we have generally received since our birth.
But I think there’s a better, different way to perceive this phenomenon: uncertainty is potential. Unlimited potential. We no longer have institutional inhibitions telling us what isn’t possible within a smaller system. The world is our new system. Only a lack of determination and work ethic inhibits our ability, once we know what we want to do (which means indecision is the first hurdle to overcome). But all we need to do is think about what we like and what makes us happy. Everyone has likes and dislikes. And even if you don’t have a favorite job in mind, you will have something that you know you can like. With this knowledge, you can’t go wrong - all you have to do is try doing something in that field. Once you’ve tried it, you will know whether it’s something you like and want to keep doing or if it’s something you want to stop. If it’s the latter, you cut your losses, appreciate the valuable experience that helped you narrow down your interests and options, and move on. No harm done. Repeat this process until you find something you want to do for awhile, and suddenly, you’re back in a situation where you path is defined. You know what you want to keep doing for an extended period of time. And this kind of definition is more valuable than the kind we got in school because we are in control. There is nothing stopping us from changing our minds other than ourselves.
And to me, that is a beautiful freedom. We don’t have something that we are expected to do other than our own expectations to do something at all. For me, embracing the wonderful and nearly infinite unknown of this “real world” is exciting and promising. I have never had more opportunity in my life.
So when people ask me what I want to do with the rest my life now that I’ve graduated, I never have a short answer. I know what I want try in the next few years, but expressing certainty beyond that would be a lie to myself and to them. And I wouldn’t want to have it any other way.
Economists (including at least one in my PhD graduating class) have often tried to show that college doesn’t produce useful skills. But I think that this is missing the point; useful skills, which you mostly learn on the job, are not the only valuable form of human capital. There are three extremely important forms of human capital that you can’t acquire on the job: 1) Motivation, 2) Perspective, and 3) Human networks.
Economists (including at least one in my PhD graduating class) have often tried to show that college doesn’t produce useful skills. But I think that this is missing the point; useful skills, which you mostly learn on the job, are not the only valuable form of human capital. There are three extremely important forms of human capital that you can’t acquire on the job:
2) Perspective, and
3) Human networks.
Noah Smith on what college is for.
(Source: , via explore-blog)
Hope: The juggernaut of a steam engine that is “Joe finding a viable, enjoyable, adequately paying job, pre or post-graduation” arrives at station 2012 smoothly and on time. I can start paying off my student loans and thank my parents for helping me for all these years by establishing real financial independence. This job will be in LA, SF, or New York, because damn it do I love predictable young-people locations.
Reality: I will go through these last two quarters at UCLA, applying for jobs in the tech industry that I will find I am not quite readily qualified for. I am close, and motivated, these interviewers will tell me encouragingly (in the same way you get told “it’s not you, it’s me” in a breakup), but realistically, my programming skills, my design skills (or lack thereof in each category) need a little more time before I am hire-able. Inevitably, I’ll cave into the over-romanticized notion of working long hours at a coffee shop in west LA, or, in a worst case scenario, Sacramento.
Hope: Living in my first apartment (I’ve been relegated to frat houses and dorms thus far), I will be overjoyed by the freedom to decorate and dress my first completely autonomous abode. I will be able to navigate IKEA and other student-or-below-the-poverty-line-but-insists-on-mildly-chic-furniture stores to a T, filling my room and apartment with aesthetic, tasteful, and affordable decoration. I will feel like I really am in a home rather than just another place that I am living. This place will be located conveniently for my job in whichever aforementioned city I end up in.
Reality: Decorating an apartment is hard. I sign a year lease, not an indefinite one, and recognizing the transience of this situation, I will get lazy and throw up a few posters and a can of paint that I don’t really like after the first two weeks of living there. There will be enough furniture - one couch that doesn’t match, possibly a table with that, my own bed and desk - but overwhelmingly, the apartment will likely fail to support more than a crowd of 3 or 4, assuming everyone needs a seat (did somebody says “endless hours of fun sitting on the ground?!?!”). All of this will be compounded by the fact that I won’t be able to fully afford rent and living well and easy, so one of these is going to take a hit.
Hope: I’m graduating! Now that I’ve made all these awesome relationships in college and we text and hangout all the fuckin time, this will undoubtedly be the trend going forward the next 5 years of my life. Besties for lyfe, right? There’s nothing stopping me from seeing those to whom I live close on a regular basis, and I can skype, call and text every friend ever, 24 hours a day while sipping fresh brewed coffee in my well-decorated apartment.
Reality: I will find that even if I live in Westwood, working will prevent me from maintaining many of the ancillary friendships that spiced up a well-rounded social life in college. I will be able to maintain strong or worthwhile relationships with a very small group of people, but I will still likely end up frustrated knowing where the relationships were the previous year. Oh and, like I said, the apartment being inadequately decorated will preclude any hope I have of sipping coffee in it without wanting to throw the coffee on the wall in frustration.
Hope: Given that I’m still only 22, I will maintain my hopeful idealism that I can act, be, and feel young and inspired as long as I allow myself. I will continue doing the things I love: exercising, designing, reading, programming, and creating a better world around me, on as micro or macro a level I can possibly muster. I will stubbornly hold onto my optimism, because goddamn it, if I don’t have that, then I’m already on the path to death. “If you aren’t learning, you’re dying” will continue to be a phrase I take to heart. I will be my own bubble in whatever world is put around me, because self-confidence and self-belief are the only static thing you have complete control over in the evolving reality surrounding you.
Reality: see above paragraph.