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 his younger brother has graduated 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 11,600 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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28 responses to “Living life after running out of things to graduate from”

  1. Joe Nield Avatar
    Joe Nield

    I found the hardest thing about leaving the academic environment and transitioning into the “real” world, whatever that means, was losing the regimented feel of academic life and the “fresh start” of each new semester. It made it much harder for me to destress without that mental reset, and led in part to my continued descent into poor mental health that began at a much younger age than I realized.

    As I approach 39, I, too, feel as though I’ve started to figure things out a little bit. I can’t help but be regretful sometimes for the things I could have experienced had I been less in my head as a younger man. I’ve done some amazing things, things that I never dreamed I’d get to do, but I still feel like I missed out of some things.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It is hard to make that transition. For me, not having summer vacation anymore was a challenge. I always worked my summer vacations, but it was a complete change over what I did the rest of the year and in its way refreshed me. I had to find my own way of doing that mental refresh as I lived everyday life.

  2. a Avatar

    A couple of observances to talk about here.

    I actually worked in what turned out to be my industry, since I quit being a paper boy, so basically since I was 16 years old. I worked full time summers and part time during high-school and college. I learned a lot about adult work life early on, and I have to say, I really didn’t appreciate college, and was disturbed by how little the professors in my classes that were allegedly ‘teaching’ about my industry, knew very little about what was actually happening in my field and how it functioned! The world of academia is farther and farther removed from “real” life every year, and it’s been so for the 50 years I’ve been watching it.

    The number one thing I heard from my “direct-out-of-college” hires for our starter positions was: “…I feel like I wasted a lot of money, because I never learned any of this stuff in college…”. In the mid-70’s, my state uni cost was 267 dollars a semester for full credit load, and I was required to take a lot of liberal arts courses, you also couldn’t get into college without two years of a language. This was because college was “setting you up to learn for life”. I actually agree with that. Now, it is so expensive, kids don’t want any extraneous courses; which might have something to do with how we think about millennials, and their lack of broad-based abilities out of college..

    Throughout my life, I’ve always met people who can’t seem to get out of the “college mode”. I’ve know people who quit legitimate work just to go back to college and feel rewarded by the process of class completion and grading! I consider these people to be adult “fails”, and they’ve always existed. As an adult, the work pile never grows short. I’ve rarely ever been “done” with anything at work. Even completing short and medium term development projects, means the pile of projects I’ve been working on in the background come to the fore-front. Many years I could never even take a vacation, just a few days here and there. No spring break.

    I’ve done a lot of work in the Pacific Northwest, and met a lot of highly successful people who’ve developed technology companies and sold them on, very few with even a completed four year degree. Many of these people have said they didn’t hire people with college degrees for positions in their companies because they didn’t want people who were devoted to “thinking inside the box”. Bill Gates, no degree, Steve Jobs, no degree. I also personally know people who became millionaires, with zero minutes in college, and in the investment arena; who weren’t anything but admin assistants in the Midwest, and when they went to the west coast, they were in an environment where they could finally shine. Go someplace where you can follow your interests and not see a lot of barriers to what you want to explore. BTW, Midwest corporate HR departments are the worst. I had to take the hiring process away from them at one place because they were sending me C minus multi-degree dogs, and dunning the best and the brightest that would have been value added to our department!

    I also lived and worked in Washington D.C., where it was a meritocracy based solely on college degrees and not a history of high performance! It wasn’t unusual to have a boss that had three college degrees that couldn’t tie their shoelaces and couldn’t figure out how to “work with people”.

    What to do after college? Go someplace with an amazing amount of diversity and volume in employment. Opportunities to change and following things you’re interested in and get paid for them! 65% of my college class left the Midwest for the coasts within 18 months of graduation, and virtually all of them were more successful than everyone who stayed. Everyone that stayed were on the downward arc of their employment life by their early 50’s.

    Sorry about the long entry, but I mentor kids in my industry and this is a particular area of concern…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Time was, you could go to a state school and get a 4-year degree for very little money. When you graduated, a whole world of opportunity was open to you that was closed to people with only a high-school diploma. It almost didn’t matter what you studied in college, you could get a decent career-track job.

      Even then, college and career had little to do with each other. But that was okay; it was expected that you’d learn what you needed on the job. College gave you a good background of knowledge and hopefully you learned how to think while you were there.

      It’s all different now. Even Purdue University, one of the great bargains in state schools, is $21,000 a year for in-state on-campus students. State subsidy is negligible compared to 50 years ago. When my sons apparoached college age, I told them point blank that if they wanted to major in history or art or anything that did not directly lead to good employment, I would not pay for it. I would only support them majoring in a hard discipline that led to good employment. Those other majors led to jobs that involve saying “do you want fries with that.”

      I didn’t like it very much that I needed to say that, but I had to play the hand I was dealt. My sons took my advice. One has a degree in environmental science and works in a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant. The other has a degree in computer science and will seek jobs in IT.

      I take issue with you using Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as examples, as they are outliers to the max. Gates in particular was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, which gave him incredible advantages. But I do hear your underlying point. In my world of software development, anymore people who went to code boot camp are just as employable as people with four-year CS degrees. Our youngest son is considering quitting college and doing a boot camp in information security. His mom isn’t sure about this choice but I’m okay with it.

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        Sorry I forgot to sign my name, just an “A” popped up.

        My number one advice to college grads? Don’t buy a sofa! i.e. don’t do anything that impedes your ability to move at a moments notice for an opportunity that you want, until you get enough experience to really understand what you want to do and where you want to do it!

        Bill Gates and Steve Jobs might be outliers when it comes to their massive success, but not in their education for where they live. The West Coast is far less “degree oriented” for a lot of types of employment, far less than the Midwest. Sociology is different every where, even city to city and state to state; and I can say that because I’ve lived a lot of places. “Degree Reverence” is almost a religion in the Midwest, and a lot of times, based on the history of blue collar/white collar animosity.

        I absolutely agree with your paying for college only if you study something that will “pay off”. But only because it’s too expensive! My sister teaches illustration at an art college, and it’s well over 20K a year! Who’s going there? Kids of the wealthy and scholarship students. There are very few marginal talents from the middle class that are trying to work their way through. They’ll never be able to make the money back! It’s unfortunate that academia is so expensive, you can’t go and study lit or any other important discipline, just because you won’t be able to pay it back. Everything I disagree with in American society today is mostly a product of the lack of a broad based education!

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          It’s heartbreaking that you can’t really study literature or art anymore and expect to find reasonable employment when you’re done.

    2. tbm3fan Avatar

      The above is so very true and so Horace Greeley is still correct about go west young man. I see many people in my office who are in their 30s but born and raised in the Midwest. They got out as soon as they finished college and headed to California. Kids, born here, if they leave the state mostly tend to go to New York City. As for me I wasn’t happy when my parents moved from Maryland to California in 1966. Little did I know because now you couldn’t pay me to live in the Midwest or the South as they couldn’t handle my way of thinking at all.

  3. brandib1977 Avatar

    College exposed me to people and ideas that were different than what I knew. It broadened my horizons which was important to a gal who came from an extremely white and republican rural community. I learned to meet impossible deadlines and how to communicate with people from all walks of life. It also helped me see the value of studying things that aren’t related to your major. I was an English major with a minor in history. Those history classes were perhaps the most eye opening part of my education as I realized how biased and even inaccurate public school textbooks are when it comes to telling our country’s history. This caused me to start questioning many things I thought were fact – another good tool for living.

    So yeah, I feel like it prepared me for life and especially for my career path through newspapers and marketing. However, these lessons came from the overall experience and not necessarily from specific classes.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Even though I went to engineering school and got a very practical college education as a result, I came out of college thinking differently from my working-class, white parents. It created friction between me and my father for the rest of his life, as he kept trying to convince me his world view was right and I had learned that there are other valid world views.

      1. brandib1977 Avatar

        That sounds familiar. My parents have a limited worldview that I find harmful at times. That’s actually the common perspective where I live and I’m the oddball. As an only child who lives next door, it seems smart to simply not engage in those discussions. Sometimes I just want to shake them and demand some empathy for others but have learned it best to let it go and keep peace.

  4. DougD Avatar

    Yeah, I remember that “time to go back to school” feeling I used to get every September for years after I graduated from university.

    As I’ve said elsewhere I figure I was about 5 years behind the curve on maturity in those years, akin to a 10 year old in high school and a 15 year old in university. University did partially prep me for real life, but certainly not fully. My first two years of working were extremely stressful as I struggled to navigate office and solo home life.

    I used to wake up from screaming nightmares, then realize I wasn’t at work and be so relieved I’d fall back asleep immediately. I quit after two years at that place, and had some soul searching during a month of youth hostel travel in the UK. After all that I was in the right space to start my next job, which was another entry level engineering position.

    I hope your sons have a better time of it than I did at first, and manage to build complete and well balanced lives.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Wow, you had a very rough start. I’m sorry it had to be that way. It sounds like your UK trip really pressed you reset button so you could go at it again with greater success.

  5. Nancy Stewart Avatar
    Nancy Stewart

    Well, I guess if I had been able to go on to college back in 1962, my interests and choices would have been in archaeology, anthropology, history and art. Not the best of choices, I guess.

    1. Andy Umbo Avatar
      Andy Umbo

      Nancy, my older sister went to college in the mid-70’s, got a degree in Anthro and Archeology, and a masters in Arch; and she said that was about it. She barely made it to retirement with full employment at multiple educational institutions, and basically was “shorted” for the last third of her career. Back in the 60’s, all you needed to do was go to college, and you would get hired for what-ever the need at a corporation, regardless of degree; they were just looking for smart, educated people with a systematic approach. She loved her career, for the most part, but wouldn’t do it again based on what she knows.

    2. Jim Grey Avatar

      In 1962, you could have gotten a degree in any of those things and still gone on to a good career! It’s a lot harder to do that now.

  6. Marc Beebe Avatar

    College prepares you for life? I have never seen an example of that. I do know (knew – most of them are dead now) a large number of people who earned degrees in fields they were never employed in.
    I think the phrase “life is what happens while you’re making plans” is more accurate.
    Although the precept does point out the flaw in education: high school should prepare you for life, because not everyone goes on to college (or needs to). Too many people come away from school without basic understanding of so many things you have to deal with no matter how you earn a living. It has been this way for over half a century and shows no sign of being corrected.

    1. Andy Umbo Avatar
      Andy Umbo

      Marc, you couldn’t be more correct! I was a graduate (in ’72), from a Trade and Technical High-School. The first two years, you spent a portion of a semester in introductory classes of every thing they offered, Auto, Aero, Machine, Wood, Electric, Electronics, Plumbing, Construction…and more. In the third and four years, you selected a discipline to follow based on how you liked what you learned about them all, and your “innate proficiency”. You selected a “Trade Course”, which allowed you to go right into the trades like electrician and plumbing (and if fact, you had to stay a 5th year), or you selected a “Tech Course”, which was a similar course with enough credits to get you into college! You even had to have a “B” average in grade school to even get into the high-school! They didn’t want it to be a dumping ground for problem kids to “work with their hands”.

      When I ask my friends about their high-school, their experiences are so different than mine. The U.S. is way, way behind in this, the Euros and Brits have been educating like this for decades! Leave it to the Socialist Germans in Milwaukee to create a school this valuable, AND this valuable for the community!

      1. Jim Grey Avatar

        When I lived in Germany, there was sharp criticism of the three-tier high school system in that you were slotted into a tier fairly young and it was nigh onto impossible to change tiers. If you missed out on college prep HS but grew as a teen to be ready for college prep you were pretty much stuck. It tended to pigeonhole students.

        I agree that having tech prep high schools make sense for many, but somehow you need to figure out how to create mobility among the levels.

        Garrett is a great example of this. He was a C-D student in HS until end of soph. year. He grew up a ton that summer, and figured himself out, and was a B student the rest of the time. In the German system he would have been shunted to Hochschule or Realschule and would have missed out on the college prep Gymnasium — and would have missed out on college.

        1. Schmitt Avatar

          He might have missed out on college – but the typical track to computer programming here is via an apprenticeship, not college.

    2. Jim Grey Avatar

      I do wish high school offered more practical education on things like how to budget, how to deal with banks and insurance, how to manage a household.

  7. Richard Scholl Avatar
    Richard Scholl

    One big difference between today and when I grew up is the difference in opportunity to have a job. My first job was delivering afternoon newspapers while I was in 5th grade in the mid 50s. In high school, I had jobs at school (e.g., working in the cafeteria) and summer jobs. Those opportunities taught me what today’s youths call “adulting”. So I had acquired experience relating to earning a living and being a responsible employee prior to going to college. That type of experience was fairly common then. In college, I intentionally pursued a career-oriented education-electrical engineering, in my case. That, along with a graduate business degree (obtained in “night school” ) provided the tools I parlayed into a useful career. The downside of that process is that I missed out on the advantages of “being educated”, in the sense of a liberal education. There have been both advantages and disadvantages to that. As a result, I believe that my generation had advantages in getting “real world” experiences outside of formal schooling largely via work experience as a child, and that those. experiences guided me later in both choosing a field of study in college, and subsequent career paths. Because of changes in work opportunities for children, coupled with changes in relative cost of college education,and other social changes that have occurred, subsequent generations have had a different mix of opportunities, which appear to not always have been beneficial.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That experience was common in the 70s and 80s too. I think the shift to suburban living changed it. My kids would have needed to be driven to jobs if they had them, until they had a license and a car.

  8. Joe shoots resurrected cameras Avatar

    Hell no college didn’t prepare me for life. Especially as I graduated right before COVID hit. I got a construction job and am living in short-term housing until I figure things out. Seems like my life is over.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I know it’s hard, but life is long. Good opportunity will come.

  9. Rick Avatar

    I don’t know about preparing me for life, but grad school was transformative for me. I experienced more personal growth in that two year stretch than just about any other time in my life.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That’s interesting! What do you think it was about grad school?

      1. Rick Avatar

        I think it was the combination of a need for growth at that time in my life, plus making some good friends there in our cohort, and being a part of a high quality program of study. It was actually fairly competitive to get in, although I didn’t know it at the time. Since my own self confidence wasn’t the best before that point, I probably wouldn’t have even applied if I had known their acceptance rate. All I know is, I left there a lot better off than when I arrived. That was 21 years ago, and I haven’t looked back since.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Well, you are fortunate to have landed in that program then!

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