College: Four Years Later

This is intended for recent graduates who are finding themselves lost in the shuffle as they adjust to the real world, but has advice that is applicable to everyone. Your mileage may vary.

I graduated from Vanderbilt University with a B.S. in Computer Science in May of 2008. I was a Cum Laude student and a member of Sigma Nu (a fraternity.) I rebuilt the student embodiment of IEEE & ACM back up from scratch into a meaningful, attractive organization inside Vanderbilt’s engineering school, and did it alongside some really wonderful and amazing people. I helped rebuild Sigma Nu, lived in the house for a time, and met fantastic people who will be some of my lifelong friends.

The four years I spent in school were life-changing for me and completely reshaped me into a much more confident, balanced person than I was going in. I have few regrets.

The four years after I graduated have been disorienting – I’m not in a structured social environment anymore where everyone is new and eager to make friends. I have conference calls at nine in the morning. I need to renew my auto insurance. I have three weddings that I have to go to this Summer and I’m 90% sure I won’t fit into my old pair of dress pants.

I’m fortunate that I live in a country where I don’t have to worry about clean water or getting my head cut off, but that first world self-assurance doesn’t make the transition to adult life any less jarring.

The most bothersome part about being an adult is a moment that occurs 1-3 years after you don the cap and gown.

Here, I’ll set it up: you got your first job or two and have busted your ass nonstop trying to build a life, income, and home for yourself. You haven’t gotten blackout drunk with your friends “because it’s Tuesday night” since graduation. You haven’t done any travel beyond seeing family and maybe a small trip here and there. You’ve grown apart from many of your college friends as you all went your separate ways, both geographically and professionally. You’ve settled into some routines that give you some sense of control over things, but you still aren’t really cooking for yourself or exercising enough (as your mother will tell you.)

With that picture in mind, here’s the moment that brings it all home: during the course of a regular day, maybe when you’re at work or just coming home, you rediscover a piece of your personal history directly from the time when you were at college – and you start thinking about what’s elapsed between then and now. And a wave of private humiliation starts to well up inside you… my life is a lot smaller than what it used to be, isn’t it? Not going out there and changing the world yet exactly are am I? And my, what a boring person I’ve become!

It’s the moment where you realize that you’ve unknowingly started to cast a boring mold for your future – and you start to mourn all of the ambition and optimistic hopes you held when you were in college. You start to doubt the path you’re on and wonder, sometimes out loud, if you completely wasted the years of your life after college. You worry about sounding like an entitled, whiny bitch if you complain about it to anybody save your absolute closest friends, and thus deal with your torment in private.

Relax. Everyone goes through this – you’re not alone, and it’s scary for everyone too. It doesn’t mean you’ve screwed up or made poor choices, and there’s no point in worrying about that anyway since you only live once. Heed the moment for what it really is: your sub-conscious telling you “initiate adulthood, phase 2!”

Adjusting to adulthood isn’t easy – if it were there wouldn’t be any coming of age movies and Workaholics wouldn’t be hilarious.

College doesn’t prepare you for the ambiguity of real life – it gives you some of the tools and weapons to figure that out yourself in an economy where people are valued based on knowledge (rather than the ability to wield a shovel.) It takes a few years to figure out “where the bathroom is,” if you pardon the metaphor, before you can really go on to do the stuff that you were born to do.

The moment is a call to arms, crafted just for you. It means you’ve figured out what it takes to survive outside of the corner room in your parent’s house; you’ve got some money and some workplace experience; and you’ve a certainty that things are not where you want them to be. And you have no obligations to anyone or anything, save some manageable debt and a lease that expires in 7 months.

The moment means the time to make your life the way you imagined has come – don’t screw it up. Quit your job and start a company; go traveling; marry that girl you’ve been dating steadily for three years; take up surfing; whatever your dreams are, do what it takes to realize them.

This won’t be the last time you have a major moment of “oh shit what am I doing?” either – take them for what they are: indicators that you’re ready to advance and change. Go do what it takes to be interesting and optimistic again now that you’ve conquered the banalities of adulthood.

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I'm the CTO and founder of Petabridge, where I'm making distributed programming for .NET developers easy by working on Akka.NET, Phobos, and more..