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Three Key Pieces Of Advice For Recent College Graduates

May 14, 2013

I’m going to let you all in on something you all probably already know:  I don’t have it all figured out.

Knowing that, it is nothing short of an honor that a blog reader whose daughter recently graduated from college reached out to me asking if I’d sit down with her daughter and provide some advice about going forward after college.  While I surely don’t have it all figured out, over the last seven years (I cannot believe it has been that long!) since graduating from undergrad and four years since graduating from law school, I’ve been taught some hard lessons.  And it is hard lessons from which advice is born.  So, here are three pieces of advice that I would offer for recent grads, with the hope that they can save themselves from some of the struggles, troubles and pain I’ve encountered over the last seven years.

1.  Timing is not everything; the time we have is

I graduated from an anomaly of an undergraduate institution, whereupon with only a bachelor’s degree, most of my friends landed six-figure paying jobs.  I then made the terrible economic decision to put myself into debt and go to law school.  As luck would have it, I graduated from law school in a recession.  What that meant, is there were only a handful of six-figure paying jobs for entry-level attorneys when I came out of law school.  Needless to say, I did not land a six-figure paying job out of law school.

I beat myself up for nearly two years after law school.  I was miserable in my job and more often than not, second guessed my decision to attend law school.  I was weighted down with student loan debt, attempting to live a lavish lifestyle in southern California and probably making less than I would have had I just gone straight to work after completing undergrad.

During this time, both of my parents said the one thing that a person going through a personal crisis doesn’t want to hear:  “Just give it time.  Things will get better.”

Upon receiving this advice, I’d always counter with some snarky comment about not having time, that I wanted to get on with my life, and how I worked so hard to do things the right way so I could lead my life the way I wanted to.  I was a pretty miserable person to be around during these bursts and I wasted a lot of energy being that miserable person.

At some point, I ran out of the energy necessary to be miserable.  As I came to learn, being miserable is exhausting.  It consumes you.  It eats you up.  It destroys you.  As someone whose always been known for an optimistic nature (heck, I won the Optimist Club’s speech contest in 8th grade) and ability to laugh off everything (I’ve been told more than once that I have a nervous habit of giggling after much of what I say), I didn’t recognize myself for some time.

Slowly, though, grace came back into my life.  The universe sent a man into my life who might be the most optimistic soul I’ve ever met.  On top of that, he had dreams grander than mine and he believed with his whole heart that he would achieve them.  He’d wake up in the morning excited about the possibility that day held.  He drove to work believing that he could achieve anything he set out to do.  He was positive about where his future was taking him, even if he had to stumble sometimes along the way.  Seeing the way in which he led his life slowly allowed grace to re-enter mine.

It was with that grace that I realized that you don’t wake up and stumble upon success.  It was with that grace that I finally succumbed to the understanding that it is in fact about the journey, and not the destination.  It was with that grace that I finally decided that even though my life didn’t play out as planned, I deserved to be happy.

Life has changed a lot for me since God put that guy into my life.  I wake up everyday thankful for the opportunity to work on getting to where I want to be.  I thank God when things don’t work out my way, because chances are, His way is better.  I look at the meagerness of my paycheck and think back to that guy’s saying of, “I like working for peanuts–it keeps me hungry.”

Most of all, though, what I’ve realized is that timing isn’t everything.  Rather, the time that we have on Earth is everything.  Recognizing that this very moment is all I have has forced me to live more intentionally.  That intentionality in turn, has led me to focus on the things I can change.  That focus has restored my happiness.  Happiness, like time, is everything.

2.  Be the captain of your own ship

Because the time we have on this Earth is everything we will ever have, how you use that time is crucial.  The best use of that time is to proactively create opportunities that will drive you to where you want to be.  I call this being the captain of your own ship.

My misery for the first two years after I graduated law school was caused in large part by me not finding the career opportunities I wanted.  My misery ceased once I woke up and realized I was the captain of the Alicia Ship.  In a moment of clarity, I realized I had the power to chart the course my ship sailed and in exchange, create my own happiness.

The point here, is you cannot wait for the perfect time to do something.  If you have a plan, wish or dream in your heart, it was put there for a reason.  That reason is to act upon it.  You cannot wait for the universe to align perfectly, the right job offer to pop up, or to be fully financially stable to make your move.  Because we know that timing is never perfect, but that time is everything that we have, you must sail your ship forward.  As the captain of your own ship, you need to pick the time when the water is steady enough and when you can see far enough ahead to set sail.  If you don’t go, you will sink.

Society tells us to be careful to an extreme.  Mothers of people my aged plastered “Baby on Board” signs across their minivans in hopes that drivers near them would do what they were already supposed to do:  drive carefully.  Children no longer roam streets freely on their bicycles during summertime, because we are worried for their safety.  We routinely walk through metal detectors and endure pat-downs at things like sporting events all in an effort to protect ourselves from unknown harms.

There is a difference between being careful and tying your ship to the dock forever.  Being careful is making wise financial decisions before starting a business.  Tying your ship to the dock is never starting a business because it is too expensive.  If you wait on life’s dock forever, you’ll see a lot of nice sunsets, but in the end, life will pass you by.

I was having dinner a few weeks ago with a man who has been a journalist for over 20 years.  He was so kind to me and said I have the world at my fingertips.  I told him about a great opportunity at my doorstep and shared my frustration over something I need to do to fully secure the opportunity.  After noting that frustration, I said, “Everything happens in its own time though.  If it’s meant to be, what needs to get done will find a way of getting finished.”

His response was so perfect.  He said, “Alicia, you are the way.  Now is the time.  Sometimes you need to speed up time and bring things to yourself.  This opportunity is at your doorstep for a reason–for you to take it.”

I love that he said that, because it reminded me that you cannot get too complacent with how you sail your ship.  Even when waters aren’t rough, you need to look ahead and do what is necessary to traverse through life the way you want to.  And sometimes, that means making bold decisions, taking reasonable risks and charting a new course.

3.  Prioritize your passions

By now you have probably heard the adage, “Choose a job you love and never work a day in your life.”  These days, Americans spend more time than ever at their jobs.  Given that time is everything we have on this earth, I am an advocate for using that time wisely.  And a wise use of time is doing something you’re passionate about with it.

The biggest mistake I made in my early life was worrying too much about money.  I made educational decisions based largely on the financial payout they would provide after graduation.  I went to an engineering school even though my heart was never truly in engineering.  At a young age I chose law school because I knew I’d be able to make a good living as a lawyer.

Choosing to direct my life’s path based upon these factors meant that my passions were withheld.  For as long as I can remember, my passions have been sports and writing.  There is nothing I enjoy more than watching a good game, and I’ve been told a time or two that I tell a good story.  However, my younger self didn’t see a way in which I could pay my bills by pursuing these passions.  So I didn’t pursue them.

I’m a religious person and I believe that we all have a purpose to serve on this planet.  I believe that by the end of your life, you will have fulfilled your purpose.  Sometimes, it takes the misery of experiencing the process of recognizing what your purpose is not to finally push you in the direction of prioritizing your passions.  I truly believe that I would not be where I am today–devoting myself to pursuing a career that melds my passions–had I not experienced the misery I did earlier in my career.  God–or for non-believers, the universe–finally got me  back on the course my life was charted to travel.

Some days I wonder what my life would look like now had I been brave enough at 18-years-old to actually pursue my passion rather than a paycheck.  Every now and then I catch myself thinking about the ways in which my life would be different had I set out at that age to be a writer.  I question whether I’d be further ahead on this journey and what opportunities I would have experienced.  I’m not one to dwell too much on the past, so I don’t spend much time considering this.  Rather, I just give thanks that I realized sooner rather than later that a life without passion is meaningless.  I’m grateful that after a couple of years of pain, I found the strength to pursue mine.

Deep down, I believe we all know what we are meant to do with the life we’ve been given.  The best way to figure it out, I’d say, is to think about where your mind goes when you daydream.  What kind of picture do you paint for your life when there are no boundaries for it?  What are you doing?  Where are you living?  Who are you with?  Those are your passions.  And you need to put them first.

There is so much I have experienced in the last seven years that have molded me into the person I am today.  I didn’t think that life could get any better than it was when I was 22-years-old.  I was surrounded by friends, fun and young love.  While things got rocky for some time, I can look back at age 28 and say that I am a better person today than I was then.  I can also say that my life has unfolded in far better ways than I imagined.  The process of becoming the woman I have become over the last seven years has prepared me to face bigger challenges and chart tougher courses as the time of my life marches on.  Because after all, that time is everything, and every possibility–should you seek to find it–is wound up within it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Don Robley permalink
    May 14, 2013 3:39 pm

    If you haven’t already, check out this TED video on 30 not being the new 20. I think that there are some unique parallels between your post above and those in this talk. Having just turned 29, I am too in a period of reflection on whether or not my life has changed for the better since graduating with you at Mines. I can honestly stand behind your statements about how being miserable with ones situation can be so draining, but the only way out is to pilot our ships on the journey we know we should be on all along. I had to make a change in my life and it was tough because sometimes the outcomes of a change are never going to be certain – such as they are in math(something we both can appreciate). My excuse for waiting this long was that “the time isn’t right”, and “what if it doesnt work out”. It turns out that changing my career direction was the best decision that I’ve ever made, and I feel more connected to my destiny and happiness now. This is a fantastic post. Thank you.

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