My youngest is 21 and just graduated from college. I’ve always written the kids a letter at their milestones, which always induces eyeball-rolling and groaning. I was preparing to write my son his graduation letter, but his big sister beat me to it. Hers is much better than any elderly advice I may have (see “cheesy,” below) and will definitely be heeded more than mine. Here’s what she wrote, from her 27-year perspective.
Congratulations on graduating! I’m going to pull a Mom and write you a super-cheesy letter about it.
It’s been five years since I was in your shoes, and I’m definitely older, but I’m not sure how much wiser I am now. I do have lots of stories, though, and some advice that you can take or leave:
1) Things tend to work out and people end up where they belong, even if it’s unexpected.
I had my dream internship summer before senior year, and they offered me my dream job to work in Africa on their health care initiative. I coasted through senior year while my friends stressed about jobs and interviews. Come spring, I checked in and things weren’t as rosy as I’d thought. No start date or time frame or any real guarantee about the job, just a lot of vague promises.
Naturally, I freaked out. I went from being the one who had it all together to the last one of my friends still looking for a job. I started applying to every random job posted on the Duke career network. And I ended up at the Advisory Board Company (ABC) in D.C. Two years later I did a Princeton in Asia fellowship in Hanoi, lived in Thailand for two years, and the rest is history. So in the end, I got what I wanted.
And in retrospect, working at ABC gave me amazing bosses, mentors, and first-job experience. It also allowed me to save money to volunteer for two years.
I know that during senior year job stress is the worst, and everyone’s trying to land their dream job at 22. I don’t actually know anyone who succeeded. But finding your first job is like finding the right college — everyone stresses about choosing the perfect one — in the end you’ll probably end up where you belong and you would most likely be successful in many different places. So, don’t worry, be happy!
2) Do things that scare you. Avoid sticking with things that are safe and comfortable.
All of my best experiences have been pretty scary — first I moved to Vietnam, where I knew all about the job but nothing about the people. Then I moved to Thailand, where I had to hitchhike out to my post on the Burmese border and walk half a mile before I encountered someone who could point me in the direction of the school.
Those are pretty extreme examples, and you don’t have to move halfway around the world to push yourself. Take an art class even though you have the bad art gene, make a short film with your friends even if you’ve never used a video camera before . . . everyone has that thing on their list that they want to try. Try it. Unless it’s pig’s head soup. I’ve already tried it and it’s as bad as it sounds.
The flip side is avoiding the security of a comfortable routine. This is actually called a rut. Unless you’re really just doing what you love and doing it over and over. But usually it’s a rut and you want to get out of it.
3) You have so much time! The choices you make now will not lock you into the rest of your life.
I had no idea what I wanted to do when I graduated. I was really into global health, but it turns out the global part was more interesting to me than the health care part.
I’ve had a lot of life plans that change by the minute: medical school, business school, and now my new thing is teaching. And that’s OK. We’re going to be working epic 50-year careers until we’re in our 70s, so there’s no need to make your first job your “career.” Or your second, or your third.
4) Continue your education. In a fun way.
I love to read. And I have to nerd out for a minute and force you to read a few books at the top of my list: “The Power of One,” “Ishmael,” "Everything Is Illuminated.” And “The Count of Monte Cristo’’ (1,200 pages but also a page-turner). But it doesn’t really matter what you read as long as you keep reading. If your job offers you free tuition, take a class. Somehow, my consulting job paid for a screenwriting class. I learned a lot about voice and plot and character building — all very relevant to research and relationship building with clients.
I know you love history. I don’t. I can’t recommend the right books, but I hope you read them. If you don’t read, then take classes or listen to music or go to lectures. Just keep learning.
5) Boston is the best. You’ll go other places, but keep that in mind.
“The Departed,” “The Town,” “Good Will Hunting.” Any Dennis Lehane book. Southie, Fenway Park, the Border Café. It really can’t be beat. I’ve lived in some pretty different places, but always known that I’d end up in Boston. You will, too. Don’t worry about the winters — we’re liberals up here and we all know global warming is a real thing. Your biggest threat should be a Scott Brown reelection.
That’s all the pearls of wisdom in this oyster. You will probably have a longer list by the time you’re 27. But for now, just enjoy being 21. That’s probably my best advice.
Much love and see you firstname.lastname@example.org.