Living life after running out of things to graduate from

I overheard my sons talking the other day about college. I found that to be encouraging, because I think they’re both bright and capable and should go to college.

My youngest said, “Elementary school prepares you for middle school, which prepares you for high school, which prepares you for college. And then college prepares you for life.” I was with him right up until the last link in his chain.

My degree itself didn’t prepare me for life. My overall college experience helped prepare me for life a little. But after I graduated college and lived on my own, my adult life was significantly new and different from anything I had experienced before. I had to figure it out as it happened.

Cueing a record
On the air at Rose-Hulman’s WMHD

Now, I loved my studies. I majored in mathematics and minored in German and sociology, and exploring these subjects made my heart sing. A few things I learned in class have directly helped me in my software-development career, but otherwise, my studies have benefited my life and career only intangibly.

Surprisingly, my time working at the campus radio station gave me much better clues about life and career. I had fun doing my regular air shifts. I learned a lot about working as part of a team and taking care of my commitments to them. When I became station manager, I led an executive board and had responsibility for about 100 staff members. I also learned to deal with difficult people (primarily the chief engineer, who seemed always to look for reasons to clash with me) and still get the job done.

There were no tests and no grades; there was no end goal. We meant to stay on the air indefinitely. We aimed to deliver the best on-air work we could today, and do it a little better tomorrow.

What I didn’t see very well at the time was that this was a lot like real life. When you run out of things to graduate from, you need to set your own goals and live to make each day as good as it can be.

I’ve lived more than 8,700 days since I graduated college. There have been some great times and some really awful times as I’ve figured out what works for me and what doesn’t. I feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on it now that I’m middle aged. With good health and good fortune, my sons will have many thousands of days after they graduate from college, too. I hope they figure this out faster than I did.

Did college prepare you for life? What prepared you best? Tell it in the comments, or write it on your own blog and link back here.

Paul McCartney saved my life while I was in college. Read that story.


19 responses to “Living life after running out of things to graduate from”

  1. Geraldo Avatar

    I wouldn’t say it was college that taught me stuff about life, but rather just the fact of living away from home for the first time. It was quite confusing at first; I couldn’t work out why clothes that I threw in the laundry basket no longer miraculously turned up clean and ironed in the wardrobe…..

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yes, I get that. There’s still a bit of that young boy in me who likes going home to visit Mom because she will always put a dinner on the table that I didn’t have to make.

      1. Steve Miller Avatar
        Steve Miller

        Hope your mom was a better cook than mine. Learning to cook was a revelation!

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          She was! But I still had fun learning to cook.

  2. Deanne Avatar

    College gave me a taste of what it meant to live up to standards and expectations. What prepared me best were the mistakes I made. Some whoppers, others minor by comparison, but all of them taught me lessons I needed to keep going. Life was a much better teacher than college was in that respect!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Deanne, there’s nothing like making mistakes to teach you, that’s for sure.

  3. Derek Avatar

    Oh, Guten tag! Wie geht es ihnen?!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Heute geht es mir nicht so gut; zuviele Probleme beim Arbeit. Leider.

      1. Derek Avatar

        Even I am extremely rusty and never even that good to begin with. I understood what you said! Well tomorrow is a better day!

  4. Steve Miller Avatar
    Steve Miller

    “Surprisingly, my time working at the campus radio station gave me much better clues about life and career.”

    Surprisingly, that doesn’t surprise me at all. Forty-plus years on, I still see many friends from those days at least annually, and my employment, though never directly in broadcasting, grew directly from side projects done during my tenure at the station.

    College should teach you to think — to analyze a problem, consider a range of solutions, and to select and produce the best response. Or better yet, don’t wait to react — create something new.

    Probably the one reason those college days remain so important in memory is what we achieved so much is that we hadn’t “learned” the bounds of possibility. We did things simply because we didn’t know we couldn’t…

    And, damn! but we had fun, too!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yes, my time in college radio remains unrivaled in the amount and quality of fun I’ve had in my life. I feel incredibly fortunate to have experienced it.

  5. Melissa Waggoner Dieckmann Avatar

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this question before answering. Yes, I believe that college – both the curriculum and the experience – prepared me for life. I do, however, think that this is true mostly because I chose a small, liberal arts college over a large, state-based engineering school where I thought that I really, really wanted to go until I got a better offer to go to DePauw.

    The most important thing that I learned my freshman year at college was that I’m not as smart as I thought I was. I discovered the feeling of humility – I didn’t like it at first, but I think it fits me well now.

    I also learned a lot of science and math that I use every day in my career, and I also learned a lot about good teaching which I also use every day in my career. I got the opportunity to work on research projects every summer beginning with my freshman-sophomore bridge summer. That was very valuable experience for graduate study and my career as a professor. But then being a college professor is probably not a “normal” job – at least I’m often told by others that I don’t have a “real-world” job; I guess I’m just living in a fantasy land.

    Additionally, the liberal arts education gave me an appreciation of those “unimportant” skills in life, like caring about what’s happening in the world, being aware of and open to other beliefs and viewpoints, crafting a good argument for why I think/believe the way that I do about a particular issue, and recognizing and appreciating beauty in this world. Most of the college students at the university where I teach think that the general education/liberal arts experience that we require of them is a waste of their time and money as they work toward a career, but I found those non-majors classes to be the most enriching and educational courses in my college life.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Annnnnd as you know I didn’t get a liberal arts education; I went to engineering school. That’s got to be very different.

      But in engineering school, things were still much more academic than practical. My work life has been incredibly practical. Frankly, engineering school utterly failed to prepare me for that. But one might argue that this was never its job.

      1. Melissa Waggoner Dieckmann Avatar

        I really, really wanted to go to an engineering school. In fact, I really, really wanted to go to YOUR engineering school. Since that wasn’t an option, I chose the major engineering state university. But DePauw made me an offer I couldn’t refuse – and I’m glad.

        I also think it makes a huge difference what KIND of engineer you are. I’m an environmental engineer (I got my engineering doctorate at yet another school I didn’t think I wanted to attend until the offer came in) and when I was dreaming of going to the big state engineering university, I wanted to be a chemical engineer. Your engineering is much more… abstract? You deal with codes and computers, I deal with water and air and soil and tangible stuff.

        Let’s be honest – I went from high school to college to graduate school to teaching at a university. The set of skills and knowledge that I need are very different than those that you need. School prepared me for more school – CHECK! But my liberal arts education prepared me for citizenship and stewardship, and other things (like my religious upbringing) shaped my character and my values.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Well, now your daughter can go! Time does march on.

          True, I studied mathematics and computer science and those aren’t “hard” engineering disciplines.

          And also true, nothing like university to prepare you for a life in a university. But citizenship and stewardship, as well as critical thinking; these are universal skills we all need, and I’m not sure who or what is preparing us for those things today.

  6. Nicole Gelinas Avatar
    Nicole Gelinas

    This article was exactly what I needed to read this morning, so thank you! This quote “When you run out of things to graduate from, you need to set your own goals and live to make each day as good as it can be.” Great stuff!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      So glad this connected with you today, Nicole! Sure miss your camera posts.

      1. Nicole Gelinas Avatar
        Nicole Gelinas

        I actually post all of my content on my newest blog: and from there I have a Camera Crypt category that I am slowly moving my old posts over to and posting new content as well. It was just getting too time consuming to have too many blogs at once, so I just combined them! I actually got some new cameras I will be posting soon!

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Excellent! I’ll look for more old-camera goodness over there.

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