- Go live somewhere weird. You will never again be so unencumbered, or so willing to live in a terrible apartment. Even better if it’s a foreign country.
- Find someone whose work you adore and write them a letter, asking to be their intern. Eventually they will hire you and pay you actual money.
- Write thank you letters.
- Don’t wait for opportunities to come to you—make your own luck.
- Take down all the pictures of you playing beer pong on Facebook. Keep a real diary instead, with complete sentences.
- Spend a year or two saying yes to everything. Yes to driving cross-country. Yes to that terrible internship. Yes to drinks with the sweet kids you meet at that art opening even though you have to get up early for your terrible internship tomorrow.
- Take chances and don’t feel like a failure if you still are figuring it out one, two, three, four, five years after you graduate. You have time, I promise.
- Realize that nearly everything you learned in college (unless you were pre-med, pre-law, pre-business or a CS major) will probably not really apply to the real world or getting a job.
- Meet as many people as you can and do as many different things as you can, while making a living. This is the best way to figure out what you like doing and want to be doing for the rest of your life. Also accept that it will probably be a while before you have your dream job, so just take as many different kinds of jobs as you can, especially if they intrigue you in any way.
- Work in the service industry—wait tables, sling drinks, make pizzas, shelve books, fold overpriced lingerie, whatever. You will treat people better, learn how to read people better and generally be a better person for it.
- Become a regular someplace. Someplace you go in the daytime, not a bar (although that’s nice, too.) But I’m talking about at your bodega or your coffee cart. Don’t just show up regularly—smile and learn the person’s name. Make small talk. Flirt nonsexually. (This in and of itself is a good skill to learn.) You will get free shit, and gossip, and an understanding of what the market economy really turns on (free shit and gossip, obviously).
Even if you don’t actually ever eat the two-day-old donuts or take the advice your coffee cart guy gives you, it will make you feel like someone likes you and doesn’t care if you’re killing it at work or wearing the shoes that everyone in your city is wearing. Your best friends from college have probably moved somewhere completely different, and you might feel like no one would notice if you died. This is not true. Your coffee cart guy will notice if you miss even a day, and this will make you feel more a part of wherever you are living than wearing the right shoes.
- Make the world better by not making the world worse. I was at my brother’s graduation yesterday and it struck me how the speakers kept dropping the phrases ‘make the world a better place,’ ‘change the future,’ ‘it’s a journey, not a destination.’ And I guess they’re right, everyone aspires to ‘make the world a better place.’ But you don’t have to do it by creating world peace. You can do it by just not making the world worse
- Get away from what you know. I didn’t know much when I graduated. Still don’t, really. But I knew enough to get far away from school, my hometown, and everyone I’d just hung out with for four years. My advice: Do what it takes to do that. Like, soon. Find somewhere cheap, find a cheap way to get there, and go. Spend a month or six or 12 or 24. I promise, all the important people and things and places will be there when you get back.
- Don’t take the GRE. Grad school is almost certainly a racket.
- Take everything you can. I don’t mean this as some sort of carpe diem-inspired metaphor. I mean, before you leave your campus, take as much as you can: furniture, lamps, carpeting, dishes. College tuition is rising faster than the uselessness of Congress. Even if you didn’t get a good education, you can at least reduce your IKEA budget significantly.
- Eliminate your rich friends. The economics of actual living, especially in this economy, require you to manage your costs more aggressively than at earlier points in your life. This is harder if you keep your rich friends around. They are not like you. They can drink whenever they want and have no concerns for happy hour pricing. They can eat at restaurants all the time. And they will suggest you join them for these activities all the time because they aren’t real people. They are androids sent here from a just world where everyone has a chance to realize their dreams, and they shit bricks…made of gold. If you are the rich friend, activate your empathy subroutine, and pretend you’re not.
- Join a local organization comprised of more than recent college grads. It could be a reading group, volunteer organization or terrorist sleeper cell. I just want you to make an effort to break out of your bubble. Most of your professors didn’t teach you anything usable, and your friends don’t know anything yet. You’ve had enough classroom learning. Hang out with some people who’ve paid rent, birthed a baby or yelled at a city councilor. You will be better for it.
- Don’t take a high-paying job just for the money. You will spend an insane amount of your life at your job. So instead of taking a job for the money, think about how much money you’d pay for the privilege of having a job that doesn’t suck. When I got out of college, I was making around $25,000 writing and doing odd jobs on the side. I might have been able to land a boring corporate job paying $75,000, but I viewed myself as paying $50,000 for the privilege of doing something I enjoyed.
- Get a job abroad. When I finished university, I bought a one-way ticket to London and worked bartending and fashion gigs before eventually returning to the United States for grad school. I learned more about myself and life in British pubs and fashion events than I did in some of my classes.
- Don’t marry your first love.
- Careers are dead. Aim for a lifestyle and choose paid activities that support it.
- If you’re an aspiring writer, dancer, poet, or singer, learn a widely marketable skill like accounting, coding, graphic design, or law. Very few people are able to fully support themselves solely by their creativity— especially during the early days. Be yourself, and choose a life that sounds interesting. Regardless of industry, the most motivated, engaged, and excited performers are the people who really love their job.
- Read. After being force-fed lists of required texts, take this opportunity to binge on books you would actually enjoy. Revisit the classics you discovered in high school. They will make more sense now.
- Commit. The world is a tough place no matter what you are doing. Focus on what you truly want to do as a career and don’t get distracted by whatever job may be paying your bills in the interim. The last thing you want is to be the most successful person at a job you hate and fantasizing all day about doing what you love.
- Balance your determination with a healthy amount of down time. You will have a long life—don’t feel rushed to figure out what it is that you need to be doing. If need be, take time off between college and the working world and get to know yourself. Find hobbies and make yourself happy, so even if you never are able to find a career that thrills you on a daily basis, you will be able to have personal happiness. Personal internal happiness is more valuable than anything else and it is something that no one can give or take away from you.”
- Know that you will screw up. I don’t mean you will be a late bloomer, spend a few years sorting your priorities out, or suddenly discover that the real world can move much slower than the pre-college fast track. I mean you will outright destroy something. Maybe you send an email worded in just the wrong way; maybe you sabotage a personal relationship you can never get back; maybe you develop strange hobbies. Your life will be worse, or at least less rich, than it could have been. There is no lesson in this; there’s no great truth to be found about accepting the hand you’ve been dealt or learning from mistakes. There will be things you wish you had done differently that simply cannot be sugar-coated.
Contrary to what you’ve heard, you’ll get second chances and second acts. But that’s not the same as do-overs or scraping a positive out of a negative. You will very likely make a mess of your life, or be unable to shape it in the first place. All you can do is wait for the next upswing. Maybe you will land on your feet, maybe you won’t. In the real world, actions have consequences. (That is the difference between what came before and what comes next, no matter how certain or protected you may be.) I wish I could save you the trouble and pain; it would be wonderful if all the wasted time and spent energy could be restored to us at an appropriate time. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. So when it happens, just remember: You are alone, and it is as bad as it feels. It is senseless and useless and there’s no moral to the story. It’s just part of what happens. Something else will happen next.