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Your Graduation Pep Talk: I Feed Myself, and So Can You

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Editor’s note: After 3 Things No One Tells You About Graduating from College went live last week, we received many responses, some in agreement with the author and others that offered a completely different perspective. Here’s one smart take.

It’s graduation season, when colleges nationwide deliver one final flying roundhouse kick to the face of heavily indebted students by making them shell out $80 for one-time-use robes and hats.

Downer? Yes. Now let me add to it: for nearly everyone I know, leaving college was uncomfortable, often profoundly so. This is a time of change, after all, and change is tough.

And while today’s underemployed graduates may hear a lot of spiels about Spreading Wings and Traveling, there is always room for more practical advice.

So here are a few other thoughts on how to navigate an economic mess of a post-college working world:

1. Being nice to (or just ignoring) the 1 percent will keep you sane

No, not the 1 percent of people who earn like 542 percent of the nation’s earnings, as we keep hearing on the news. I’m talking about the slim minority of grads who immediately move into solid, fulfilling careers.

These rare specimens don’t just land on their feet after college. They dismount with a double-twisting handspring and quadruple somersault, then stick that landing and throw up their hands and throw back their heads while the crowd waves mini American flags.

Good for them.

You’re leaving this relatively egalitarian college world, where everyone lives in the same dorms and dining halls and classrooms, being graded on the same curves. But in the real world, some of these people will immediately be successful and Good at Life. Others will not.

I beg you, put on your blinders. If you are still one of those competitive people who compare themselves to everyone, stop.

Because when you see on Facebook that that pretentious guy with the dreads and hot pink Crocs who was in your anthro seminar has released a book of poetry at 22, it will make you crazy.

And that’s not the worst of it; seeing your best friends immediately settle in at their dream jobs while you desperately search could make you even crazier. So before your competitive self lets bitterness gnaw all of her friendships to death, take a deep breath and give your BFFs a hug, because they are lovely people. Then get back to your own life.

2. Money CAN buy happiness

My first big post-college choice was to either tutor underprivileged high schoolers with a service corps or to take the only other job I could find, as a “legal assistant” (read: deceased-debt collector), where I would call people and say something like:

“I am sorry for your loss. I am also sorry that Aunt Geraldine died with $8,600 on her Home Depot Mastercard. So how’s her estate looking?”

The choice really was (a) food stamps, a perpetual scramble for babysitting gigs and still not making rent, or (b) hating work but getting by, with enough to spare for the occasional 24-rack of Diet Coke.

I chose (b).

For some people, (a) would have been fine. But as miserable as I was being a “legal assistant,” I would have also felt miserable, PLUS helpless and alone, living on dry ramen shards and begging my parents for cash.

The point: doing meaningful work may be good for your soul, but you can only do so much meaningful work (something like 20 minutes’ worth, I’m guessing) if you aren’t eating. You’re not selling out by looking for a first job that actually pays, rather than working for pocket change or even for free. And if you simply insist on feeling like you’re selling out anyway, volunteer in your free time.

2.5. Independence is an accomplishment

This is a corollary to No. 2. Let’s say you aren’t rocking the world’s socks off yet, but you are pulling through as a cashier/dogwalker/debt collector.

Go celebrate.

Did you just pay the deposit on your first lease? Did you make your first student loan payment? Yes? Go buy yourself a beer. You are becoming independent. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t particularly enjoy earning that money.

Maybe the broader point here – and really, tattoo this on your forehead so you can see it every time you look in the mirror for forever – is this: You are not your job.

Repeat after me: You are not your job.

Good. Never forget it.

3. Careers are not Katherine Heigl movies

If they were, we would all be losing money.

No, seriously. People often talk about careers the way romantic comedies talk about love: like someone sees a calculator across a crowded room and out of the blue is filled with a sense of beauty and wonderment and the knowledge that she is destined to be a CPA.

Some people feel “called” to careers. For the rest of us, it’s a work in progress, consisting of some variation on the following steps:

1) Doing Job X for a while.

2) Leaving Job X for whatever reason.

3) Seeing Job Y and saying, “Ooh! I can do that.”

4) Doing Job Y for a while.

…and repeating the process as often as necessary.

Now go get started on that.

And though you may not believe me, let me assure you: it will all be fine. And when that fine-ness happens, do a handspring and wave a mini American flag for yourself.

Danielle Kurtzleben (@titonka) lives in Washington, D.C., where she works as a journalist. She has nothing against Katherine Heigl.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

  • Hess

    Wish I had these pearls of wisdom right after graduation, Dani! Still a very helpful reminder. Careers are just a little fruit basket, upset, and sometimes we just need to drop trow and celebration dance :)

  • http://www.lifecommaetc.com/ LifeCommaEtc

    I have totally succumbed to blog and facebook-envy. One thing that helps me through it is realizing that everyone – including myself – emphasizes the positive when it comes to their internet persona (except those creepy people who post sad things, mean things, or angry things 24/7).

    So, be friendly when people seem to have it all together, because the odds are they really, really, don’t and need your support!

    Great post!

  • Anonymous

    Maybe some of us already realized that we are no longer drinking milk but we are already buying meat. See the difference? We are no longer relying on what our folks would give us but we are already living our lives on our own. Getting our own job, fast, is the start of true independence. Getting along with life is not easy but life can always get you along.

  • Jrandom42

    Number 2 is answered by MSN Money:

    “Collecting debts of the deceased is a growing and lucrative business. Creepy, huh?” says Mary Reed, the co-author of more than 20 legal and financial books (including the book she co-authored with the writer of this article, “Debt Collection Answers: How to Use Debt Collection Laws to Protect Your Rights.”) But generally, she points out, you aren’t responsible for the debts of relatives who died unless you were a co-signer, or the debt belonged to your spouse who died and you live in a community property state. Creditors or collectors may try to collect from the estate, if there is one. If the person left nothing, however, then they may simply be out of luck. Although they are supposed to tell you that you don’t have to pay the debt, they may conveniently leave that out or gloss over it.”

    http://money.msn.com/debt-management/8-things-debt-collectors-will-not-say-credit.aspx?page=2

    You want me to pay the debts of a dead relative? Go suck eggs! You get NOTHING FROM ME!

    We”ll see how long you last a as a sleazy legal assistant doing sleazy business.

  • http://www.facebook.com/morana.medved Morana Medved

    Thanks for the great article, I think this one is much more relevant than the earlier version with a great sense of perspective.

  • David H

    Excellent post.

  • http://twitter.com/SavedByGrace14 Brenna Christiansen

    Thanks for the encouraging post. It’s something I and most other recent college grads need to hear, especially about not finding the “dream job” right away. I thought I would get the perfect job right out of college, but now I am looking for anything decent. Life is tough, but we just keep moving along and maybe we’ll find our star moment.

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  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/storylabwest Ken Mcpherson

    Thank you for giving today’s graduates a realistic perspective for the job draught we are in, offering reassurance that there is true dignity in work that meets ones basic needs, despite being far afield from ones ideal job. To them I would add: keep your dreams alive so that you are ready when opportunity arrives. Cultivate your career related enthusiasms and insider knowledge by doing a series of informational interviews with people doing things related to your dream job. There’s always more to learn about it. And if you are unable to identify the key elements of that job, then that is your research assignment. Do a series of informational interviews with alumni, or with experts in your field of interest or with professionals at planned happenstance events. Passes onto the exhibit floor at professional conferences are often free or available at low cost to students, faculty and alumni.
    Remember that informational interviews, done with the workers and not the hiring manager, are not job interviews, or even internship interviews, though job or internship opportunities are sometimes or revealed. As your research brings you closer to meeting people whose work meets your criteria for a good fit you are likely to be seen by those you interview as someone whose priorities are in sync with theirs. If that happens, send your new friend a thank you note and focus on how to return to that organization as a job seeker.

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