OK, so you just graduated. Where the hell do you go from here?

by on May 26, 2015

Some thoughts on graduation, education and building a career.

Over the past couple of weeks, my Facebook feed has been inundated with graduation status updates and photographs from family and friends.

As someone who has already graduated — and who will do it again soon, albeit with a Master’s degree this time — it made me think: what was going on in these young students’s minds? What were they thinking, as they stood in cap and gown, confronting the threshold of a new beginning? Were they excited, terrified or clueless at the prospect of what lay ahead?

The real world sneaks up on you

I remember feeling all three on my graduation day. As I walked down the aisle to receive my degree, I remember feeling cheated. I was startled to discover that the ‘real world’ (a phrase I have since come to despise and use only begrudgingly) had somehow snuck up on me.

Education was my safety blanket, a comforting shelter which had dictated the purpose and the rhythm of my life. For eighteen years, school had given me structure: it filled my days with classes, it gave me homework on the weekends, it gave me exams and summer vacations. It was a comfortable, familiar pattern that repeated over and over for nearly two decades.

And then suddenly, at 21, you find that the pattern is broken. You’re on your own. Have fun figuring out what the hell to do with you life. Good luck!

And then suddenly, at 21, you find that the pattern is broken. You’re on your own. Have fun figuring out what the hell to do with you life. Good luck!

John Lennon cheekily summed it up in his song ‘Working Class Hero’:

When they’ve tortured and scared you for 20 odd years
then they expect you to pick a career.

Lennon may have been tongue-in-cheek with that lyric, but it hides a grain of truth. And the truth is that we see education as a linear process — a cut-and-dried path with a career as the goal in the end.

The promise of a career

This eighteen year old journey is marked by checkpoints and milestones scattered across its path— GPAs and SAT scores, JEE marks and nationwide ranks, volunteer experience and extracurricular activities — all demarcated, always, with the explicit purpose of moving your educational career forward. Get good grades to get into a good college. Volunteer on weekends to make your application shine as a well-rounded student. Join the debate team.

You do one thing to move on to the next, and the summation of all your effort is leading up to one ultimate goal. The fabulous prize of a comfortable salary package. Perks and fancy job titles and corporate leases. Gym memberships and dental insurance and yoga classes. The rewards for all your hard work.

The promise of a career.

To be honest, it’s an alluring promise — a tempting prospect. Except when it’s not. Except when graduates, armed with their hard-earned degrees in hand, cannot find jobs. When young people barely starting into their adult lives are weighed down by monstrous amounts of debt.

An education

A degree is the stamp of approval of a student’s ability — a validation of their potential. This validation is their ticket into the workforce. And to be sure, it seems like a pretty fair deal. But we know that that’s not the whole equation. ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ is thrown around heavily in and out of business school classrooms. A degree doesn’t account for the state of the economy, or the changing state of industry, or the inequalities in the backgrounds and disparity of opportunities between students of different classes.

And most of all, a degree doesn’t account for an education, and an education doesn’t account for a career.

And most of all, a degree doesn’t account for an education, and an education doesn’t account for a career.

What we think of as a linear, one-track process as a means to an end, is anything but that. Education doesn’t begin in kindergarten and end in college. It is a continuous and life-long process, often times meandering and wavering and with a lot of back-and-forth.

Education is the unleashing of curiosity. It is tinkering, wondering out loud, and looking at the whole world, in all its myriad possibilities, as your blank slate. You can draw on it whatever you want — whatever interests you and sparks you intellectual curiosity — physics, literature, history, linguistics, anthropology, computer science, philosophy, history, mathematics, marketing, theater, engineering, psychology, artificial intelligence, graphic design, medicine. All is yours to learn and question and master and use.

Ultimately, a career does not begin where an education ends. They are undeniably fused and feed into each other. A solid education can — and should — help you begin your career. It is important to remember, however, that you dictate what that career will be. And a career is much more than just a 9–to-5 job. It is the collective progression of your professional and personal learning, experience and achievement. It is your life’s work. ‘Do what you love’ is a staple of commencement speeches, now almost an empty cliché that mocks young graduates in the face of what awaits them. Many are lucky to have a job at all, let alone a job doing what they love.

But an education can help us do just that — do what we love. It is our responsibility to stay determined and steadfast in the face of challenges. To go in pursuit of what it is you want do and pursue it, fearlessly and intensely. To master it, rethink it, reshape it. You studied journalism or publishing or or English literature in school. Don’t let others tell you that you picked the wrong major. There is no question that your industry maybe undergoing an upheaval of change, in some cases even struggling to stay afloat. That just means it is an industry ripe for a revolution. And revolutions are happening around us, if we care to notice. Look at Medium, for example. How can it change — and is changing — publishing? How does journalism fare in the age of Twitter and Facebook Instant Articles — and how can we make it better?

Be resourceful. Channel your passion into inventiveness. That’s the real goal of your education. To keep you on your toes and equip you with the faculty and tools to solve problems. Ultimately:

It is up to you to do with your education what you will.

My favorite advice regarding how to find your life’s purpose comes from John Green. Answering the question ‘What the hell should I do with my life?’ from a college freshman in a reddit AMA, John goes on to say:

You are always figuring out what the hell to do with your life, and then the decisions you’ve made are always be changed by circumstance: Your wife gets a job in Kuala Lumpur or there’s no one to take over your dead uncle’s junkyard or in your mid-30s you develop an intense love of astrophysics that sends you back to school.

In the end, a lot of what the hell you do with your life isn’t even about what you do for a job but whom you love, whom you marry, whether you have kids, and whether you find passions and have the ability to pursue them. College is part of that process, for sure, but it’s not the end of the line.

So when you walk and smile for the camera and receive your diploma, remember that it’s okay to feel afraid. It’s okay to feel lost at the prospect of a long dark road ahead. But we can all take comfort in the fact that you can decide what road to go by, that you have the power to shape it, take detours and combine different ones, and — if need be — even change the road you’re on. You are allowed to stumble, get up, and make your way through.

Good luck!

(Image: Sea of Blue by Ben Stephenson)

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