Personal, Stories Told

Living life after running out of things to graduate from

I first shared this in 2013 as my older son was about to apply to colleges. Now he’s weeks away from his final year of college, and I’m thinking about this message again.

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. (Sadly the station shut down in 2013.) 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 (in Sept. 2013 when I first published this; it’s 10,600 now) 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.

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15 thoughts on “Living life after running out of things to graduate from

  1. George Denzinger says:

    I was totally unprepared for the work environment when I left university. University had given me a lot of technical preparation to do things in my field (graphic design), but virtually none on how to deal with all of the different personalities in the work place. I was on a steep learning curve my first couple of years. Over the years, I’ve had to integrate into a number of different offices/environments and the hard lessons learned at the first office job are still with me…

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    • I felt much the same way when I started my first post-college job. All the ways I’d learned to relate to the world during college were now useless to me and I didn’t immediately understand how to relate to the world at work. It was hard to learn those skills.

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  2. Great title Jim, I really like this angle of looking at it.

    I would say very little in college and university prepared me for life. I remember going to both with my main motivation being to prolong having to get a “proper” job. By the time I’d got the end of university I was sick of the subjects (computing and maths) and they weren’t fun anymore. Add in some personal/relationship experiences that really hit me hard at the time and it wasn’t a great, or particularly useful experience.

    I think whilst having more school lessons specifically on relationships, finances, and generally being organised would be very valuable, ultimately you only learn by doing it yourself.

    I don’t know where things like being organised and efficient come from, but I remember at university many people always asking if they could copy my notes from lectures as theirs were incomplete, illegible, all over the place, or all three. Skills like this have served me well throughout life, but I’m not sure where/when I learned them.

    Interesting topic…

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    • Hi Dan ,

      I think there’s a lot of agreeable points to what you’re saying about school not being representative of reality. I think the main reason as to why this transition between school and “the rest of the world” is discrete is because we’re in controlled environments for so long that it seems like whole world coincides within a orderly (or well-defined) system. In reality, everyone’s personal life is not a reflection of the way we live our lives within school.

      I think that school does indirectly teach us some life skills especially related to building communities (e.g. friendships), but I don’t think things like finances can fully be taught in school. In my high school, we did have lessons about financial literacy but in reality the decisions we actually make about how handle money are up to us.

      School doesn’t exactly explain well that outside of a structured environment, our decisions do not have cookie-cutter outcomes. So far in school my classes have taught me how to critically think, but the things I do outside of my classes (especially extracurriculars) have contributed more to my organization, goal-orientation, and work ethic skills. The thing about extracurriculars is that they’re more unstructured than classes because the outcomes of the organizations are unpredictable and dependent upon the people involved rather than a syllabus. In total, I think the way for people in schools to better “prepare” for the world is to engage in less structured activities.

      Life is very unpredictable. School is not.

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      • It’s a huge topic. Many think that the main purpose of school is to train us all to be obedient little workers and consumers for the rest of our lives, and not cause too many problems for those in power.

        Having young kids now, my wife and I try to balance school with a variety of other activities, like swimming, gymnastics, ballroom dance etc. But then you don’t want to overwhelm the kids with too much as school alone can be exhausting. And none of these extra curricular activities are cheap.

        I think how we are as adults (and especially as parents) is influenced more by how our own parents were more than anything else. We try to take the good parts and emulate those, and recognise the bad parts and try to do then better with our own kids.

        There’s a huge expectation (at least over here in the UK, I imagine the US is much the same) that kids know from about 12 years old exactly what their career path for the next 20, 30+ years will be. It’s just not possible at that age, you need to try a whole range of things to know what you enjoy most, what you’re good at, and the sweet spot where those two meet.

        At school I went with maths, computing and science for A levels and my degree (so from age 16-21) and the things I’ve been most passionate about since (psychology, coaching, writing, drama, dance, photography) were not even on the horizon then.

        I don’t know what the answer is, other than giving kids enough of a variety of experiences to get a feel for what they like. But saying that, I asked our nine year old daughter the other day what she liked best of dance, swimming, Brownies, horse riding (all of which she’s done for between two and six years) and she answered “I don’t have a favourite, I like them all”. Maybe that’s the secret – a mixture, a balance.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Some skills we pick up in our school years (organization for example) are useful in all aspects of life. But yes, school is a structure that is very different from the rest of life, and it is a shock to many people to find that out.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. DougD says:

    Wow, great post. And very timely, my son just graduated from high school and was sad / uncertain about things ending and moving on to the next stage.

    University left me fairly unprepared for real life in the working world. I’d had a few helpful experiences, going to an institution 4 hours away from home underlined that I had to manage my own life now, and a summer job at a distant location gave me a taste of the working world.

    But I’ll say that it took about 3 years of living on my own and working to more-or-less figure out real life. Difficult people at work was a big one, both my manager and the shop manager hated engineers on principle and I could not change that.

    What really helped actually was after my first post-graduate job I found my self both jobless and girlfriend-less which was a double blow. A University friend invited me to spend a month in England, I used his house as a home base for my travels there, It turned out to be not just a great adventure, but also a very helpful time of self reflection. After the month I was able to get my life on track with a much clearer direction of where I wanted to go and what kind of person I wanted to be.

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    • I had a similar experience. My college girlfriend and I broke up within my first year post graduation. I was trying to figure out how to be an adult who got up on time and went to work every day. For a while I could hang out with some college buddies as I stayed in my college town, but soon I saw my life problems were very different from theirs and we started to drift apart. And then they graduated and moved away, and my friend network was gone. It was lonely for a while until I figured that out.

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  4. Heide says:

    Fantastic post, Jim. And great observations, too! I was tempted to agree that college didn’t prepare me for adult life. But on deeper reflection I realized that I did gain some valuable skills, such as learning how to manage my time and budgeting my money. And while living in a dorm and focusing on my studies was still an artificial environment, college did provide a good blend of structure and autonomy during a crucial period when I still needed some guidance but also wanted to be independent and “grown up.” I learned a lot during my years at university, and most of the best lessons didn’t come from a classroom.

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