Lessons for New Grads — From Someone Who Learned Them The Hard Way

When I graduated, I was like a lot of my fellow recent grads — optimistic and energized. After 22 years of training, you’re shot out of the cannon headed towards the real world. Armed with your degree, encouragement from your commencement speaker, and advice from your community you’re ready to take it on. Well, the trajectory I expected and the one I found were quite different. Turns out there’s a lot they don’t teach you about the “real world” (despise that term).

Experience is still the best teacher. You can read all kinds of advice, but it’s often not until we experience them ourselves that it sticks. Our mom’s told us the stove was hot, but it’s only when you get burned do you learn to never touch it again.

Unsurprisingly, we look to successful people to learn from. We want to replicate their success and want to know their secrets. That’s why universities pay huge fees to have CEOs, celebrities, or journalists to speak to their students. While there’s a benefit to be gained from that, those few are the outliers. Through luck or skill, they managed to avoid the pitfalls that others might’ve fallen into. In other words, you’re much more likely to end up like the average Joe than the rock star, and it’s worthwhile to learn from them, too.

I graduated from college 5 years ago and have made all kinds of mistakes that I’ve learned from. I’ve also gotten some things right and have doubled down on them. I want to share these with you.

I can’t replicate the experience for you. I want to reiterate that, there’s no speech or blog post that is going to prepare you for your life, you have to live it. I can only hope that you might take this advice and take action on it in your life. So here it is.

Your most important ability is to choose what you pay attention to.

You have to focus on what you can control. There are so many things in our life that are out of our control that cause us stress. I am not able to control carbon emissions from industrial cattle ranching, though it can stress me out. That is wasted energy. What I can control is what I choose to eat, and how I try to teach others about that choice. That is positively-applied energy.

We think we have more control than we do. We don’t always control our time, so much of it is biological or demanded by work. We don’t always control our bodies — where we place them and what we do with them. You could always be imprisoned.

The only thing we truly have control of is our attention. What you choose to pay attention to, when, and how.

When we graduate, we go from a structured environment where our attention is directed to an open-ended one where we get far more choice. What choices you make in this regard will shape your life. Our attention is finite and valuable.

Will you choose to pay attention to social media and the time-suck that it is? Or will you choose to pay attention to more mentally nutritious content? Will you choose to pay attention to the news you have no ability to alter, but puts you in a bad mood? Will you choose to divide your attention at work and make no real progress?

What about your thoughts and emotions? Will you ignore them or pay attention to their sources? Will you pay attention when people are talking? Or will you tune them out while you think about what to say?

People who fail to control their attention float through life and never really live it with any intentionality. Constantly distracted, they remain in the shallows, like a sailboat that circles around the harbor. Without reflection, they don’t know themselves and struggle to improve.

Do better than that and be mindful of what you do with your attention, it’s all you’ve got.

80% of self-help can be reduced to this:

I’m not one to seek out help from others. If I can do something on my own, I will. For years, that took the form of reading all kinds of self-help books on how to be the best version of yourself. There is a lot of bad self-help out there, and there’s some good. Let me save you some time and put it into a concise statement.

Spend some time getting clear on what kind of life you want to live, what does that look like? Identify habits that will get you closer to that vision (exercise, cooking, studying, socializing, etc). Using the motivation from this, cultivate the discipline to keep to these habits.

Habits are key. Motivation is fickle, but discipline is not. A good habit takes away the sparse decision-making and motivational energy you might’ve needed without it. Studies have shown that it can take between 3–12 weeks for a new habit to be cemented. Motivation gets you started, discipline takes you the rest of the way.

Ignore quick fixes like exercise boot camps, juice cleanses, eating challenges, etc. They don’t work because they don’t create lasting change. It’s okay to fail some days, and it’s okay to change your goals and habits. It’s not okay to give up early or fail to start. Habits provide compounding value. You’re young, so the potential for their future reward is HUGE. Take advantage.

The opportunities you take are more important than the opportunities you miss.

It is easy to focus on what you don’t have. The job you missed out on, the jobs your friends have, the programs they got accepted into. Life is not a race, though it may feel like that sometimes. If you spend your energy focusing on what you don’t have, you may fail to take advantage of what you do have, which is a real shame. Comparison is the theft of joy, and joy is too precious of a thing to lose so easily.

Because of this situation, it’s going to feel like you missed out on a lot. Scratch that, you have missed out on a lot. Whatever job you end up in, may very well feel like something you don’t want to spend your time doing. Whatever your situation, make sure to focus your energies on the opportunities in front of you. All you can do is your best, so forget the rest.

Don’t take your opportunities for granted — they are hard to come by. If you have to do customer support, be the best customer support rep they’ve ever seen and find other ways to demonstrate your value. That is how you take control. Ruminating over missed chances gets you nowhere.

Hard decisions, easy life. Easy decisions, hard life.

I did, and still do struggle with avoidant behavior. When there’s something stressful, or I fear might “expose” me in some way, I can stick my head in the sand. This is a temporary fix that ends up harming me in the long run. I made the easy choice. The better approach is to make the hard choice and face whatever consequences may be head-on. Trust me, it’s better that way. Then you at least have some control over the situation.

You’re going to have some difficult decisions to make. Jobs, relationships, money. Do your best to make them after careful thought. Deciding to stall is still a decision, inaction is an action — just one that doesn’t get you anywhere.

The easy (read: lazy) decisions can feel okay in the short-term but are harmful long term. Since you’re young, that “long term” is especially long. It’s easy to eat the fast-food instead of the salad, it’s easy to pay for the Uber instead of walking home. The list goes on. It’s hard when you’re young, you don’t have the experience yet to make great decisions, but make them, all the same, you should.

When you take accountability for the hard decisions you make, you start to take active control of your life. When you shun them, life takes control of you and it’s not pretty.

Understand and manage your emotions.

I could just make this section “google ‘emotional intelligence’” but that wouldn’t be all that valuable. (You should do it, anyway)

If you are like I was, you don’t think you’re an emotional person, at least not in a bad way. No, you’re cool, rational, and in control. Unfortunately, that naive place is the worst place to be. People who are unaware of their emotional behavior are difficult to be around.

Emotions are part of what makes us human, and they exist to help us navigate complex social networks. Fear and anger are useful emotions, sometimes, so it’s good to have them and listen to them. However, feeling emotions and acting on them are two different things. That is emotional intelligence.

As you enter the adult and professional world, having a grasp on your emotions and understanding others is an invaluable road map to navigating this messy place. If you get ahead of this as a new grad, you will be worlds beyond your peers. There is simply no job where knowing how to interact well with other people is optional. No matter the company culture, there are office politics to handle, managers to convince, and pitches to be made.

This is usually one of the critiques of new grads — they don’t “get it”. That “it” is understanding the dynamics of the workplace. Those dynamics are driven by emotions (pride, jealousy, anger). Learn to notice them in yourself and others and your life will be far easier.

College is a little cruel. You spend all this time and energy getting in it, and more to get out of it. The whole time, “preparing you for adulthood” is the message. Then you get there and feel like they left out a whole lot of valuable information.

Don’t get me wrong, the responsibility, social skills, critical thinking, and hard/soft skills you (hopefully) gain in college are helpful. It’s not really their fault the world changes so much and everyone’s path is so different.

Nonetheless, it’s up to you to make the most of it. That’s the most exciting part of it all. It’s hard, but you have the opportunity to sculpt your life out of stone. So chisel away my friends, you don’t have any other choice.

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Thomas Sloan

Thomas Sloan

Hi. I’m Thomas. I like to think about thoughts, and then write for clarity. Not everything here is a fully formed belief. Let’s talk :)