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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

What I Wish I Knew When I Graduated College

This spring, colleges around the country are holding commencement ceremonies—the official process of pushing young adults out of the educational nest and into the real world.

I remember this stage of life vividly, and can’t think of a more startlingly disruptive rite of passage. When I transitioned from a full-time student to a full-time employee, I felt my entire identity morph into something new. From the clothes I bought to my bedtime, everything changed, and it wasn’t always pretty.

Like they say, hindsight’s 20/20, and it’s easy to reflect back on what I could’ve done differently that would have made this change less stressful. And while I can’t time travel back to being 22, I can share what I learned with you. Here’s a list of a few things I wish I’d known when I graduated college and first started working.

1. You Have to Grow Up

When I started my first job, I had a lot of friends who were still in school, and I struggled to balance my work persona with my former student identity. I wanted the best of both worlds: to stay up late and party, and to still be able to wake up and perform at the office.

After a few months I realized, begrudgingly, that this wasn’t going to work. Being prepared, attentive, and engaged at 8 AM, five days a week is simply not possible with a hangover (or even without a good breakfast).

So, amid chiding from my still-in-school peers, I started taking small steps toward more adult behaviors—like getting enough sleep and eating food other than pizza—which made it much easier to be on my game at work.

The biggest lesson here was that I didn’t have to totally change who I was overnight when I started working, but I did need to prioritize a little more. Gradual changes made this totally manageable, and within a few months I felt much more comfortable juggling my personal and professional obligations.

2. There are No Gold Stars

When I was in college, my grades every semester told me exactly how I was doing in different areas. I liked getting regular feedback and knowing exactly what I had to do to be successful.

But this all changed when I started working. No longer was I recognized for every achievement, nor was I evaluated by a simple, consistent system like letter grades. Extra credit? Forget about it. When I entered the workforce, I was working on all kinds of projects and tasks, at different paces, for various bosses. There was no clear path to success, and I realized that I was now responsible for paving my own way.

This was a bit of a rude awakening, but one that pushed me to grow dramatically. It also made me realize how important it is to have professional mentors. No, they didn't give me a grade every semester, but they did provide advice, guidance, and feedback when things got especially challenging.

3. Friends in Low Places

In college, I spent 99% of my time with my friends, roommates, and sorority sisters. I could choose who I wanted to hang out with, eat meals with, and socialize with almost all the time.

But when I started working, I was spending 40-50 hours per week with a lot of new people—and shockingly, I didn’t connect with, or even like, all of them.

This was tough. But I soon learned that just because the people I worked with weren’t exactly like my typical friends, they could still be awesome to hang around—and I could learn a lot from them. I started accepting the occasional offer to attend a happy hour or birthday lunch, and over time, I started to fit in with my surroundings.

Just as with family, we don’t generally get to pick who we end up with as co-workers. But, with a little work and an open mind, you’ll be surprised at how easy can be to build meaningful relationships at work.

4. When the Going Gets Tough, Life Still Goes On

Simply put, life gets a lot harder after college, and at the risk of sounding melodramatic, things never seems quite as carefree as you grow older. But no matter how rough things seem at first, a lot of cool stuff comes along with being forced to grow up (and not just cheaper car insurance). In addition to greater financial independence, the opportunity to be pushed and exposed to all new things is exciting. You’ll meet new people, try new things, enjoy life outside your comfort zone, and change and grow as a person.

Looking back, if I had known how much my life would change and all the obstacles I’d face after college, I probably would’ve packed up and moved to a remote island to avoid it all. Fortunately, I lacked a crystal ball, so I entered the workforce with rose-colored glasses and fancy new suits.

But despite all the ways I could have prepared and planned for my future, I think that the youthful optimism I had as a new grad was really all I needed.

New grads, remember: It’s not going to be easy, but it’s going to be awesome. And one day, you’ll look back on all of the craziness, and you’ll yearn to do it all over again.

Photo courtesy of Steven Depolo.