Contrary to what my college self thought, I was totally and undoubtedly unprepared for the real world. The truth is that I didn’t really know anything about the real world. With the exception of my guilty pleasure of watching seven strangers live out a few vodka-soaked, regret-filled months, the real world seemed like a place far, far away. A place that graduated alumni would pull me aside and say, “You know, it’s not like this in the real world.” But as I bought that rack of beer with my last few dollars in my checking account, I thought to myself, “No, I’m pretty sure I saw this in an episode of the real world.”
A few months after college, I beat the unemployed-after-graduation statistic and got a job. I posted the Facebook status, received loads of congratulatory comments from people I hadn't talked to in years, packed my college furniture and moved to the big city. I had the gear: a new S'well bottle that was perfect for those water cooler conversations I would be having, a new wardrobe perfectly balanced between professional and casual and ideal for those work-to-social events that I would be attending. I was ready to go, and I had no idea what I was doing.
Think about it. College sets you up for getting the best career in your field of training. But I was in no way trained for the real world. I felt like a kid who had a black belt in karate but got my ass beat by some street fighter kids. I had all this training but no real life experience in using it. I had no idea what a 9-to-5 job was like. (It’s like waking up for an 8 a.m. class -- except you don’t get to leave until eight hours later and it’s every single day for the rest of your life.) I was thrown into this world of weekend warriors and no-eye-contact morning commutes, this world where my happiness no longer depended on who I was dating or how many punches I had left at the dinning halls. It depended on pleasing my boss, and getting to work on time, and finishing a project correctly.
One day, as I got another email criticizing something I did wrong, I realized that I missed college but not for the reason I thought I would.
I thought I would miss the constant socializing and utter lack of responsibility. I thought I would miss being on campus and sleeping until noon. But no. I quite liked having a routine, meal planning and drinks after work, and having my own apartment in the city made me feel like I was Carrie Bradshaw. (Except my apartment is much smaller. How on Earth did Carrie afford that studio with two windows and a walk-in closet on a writer’s salary?) I missed being the best at my major.
Now hear me out before you angrily close your browser window, scoffing about another “spoiled millennial.” I worked my way up in college. I became a writer who that wasn’t Pulitzer Prize-worthy but was good enough. By my senior year, I was excelling in my classes, stepping into leadership positions and finally finding confidence in my writing. Senior year, no matter your major, is a time where everyone realizes that they actually know what they’re doing. Trips to your professor’s office hours go from frantic begging for extra credit to in-depth conversations about the field you both now love. By graduation, I was at the top of my game. I walked across that stage, careful not to trip over my own feet, and grabbed that holy piece of paper. I looked at the rolled-up diploma in my hand and saw the countless all-nighters, the rushed deadlines, the As on the tests I thought I had failed. I saw the positions I earned, the awards I achieved. I even saw the night I had such bad writer’s block that I went out and bought a pack of cigarettes because I thought it would make me a tortured artist. (It turns out it only perpetuated my writer's block and had me walking into my class the next day smelling like the inside of a casino.) That diploma was my proof to the world that I did it. And I did it well. I was on the top of the totem pole in my mind. Sure, I was unemployed, but I was on top.
Then when I got my job, I fell, tumbled and rolled my way all the way back to the bottom again.
When my boss hired me, he asked, "What was your major again?" And as I proudly explained that I was a media arts and design major with a concentration in journalism, I could see the precious worlds float right over his head. I wanted to shake him and explain just how hard I worked. I wanted to sit him down and take him through the projects and (good parts of my) transcript. I felt like a little kid holding up a crumpled finger painting, waiting for my parents to notice.
But that's the thing -- you reach the top of the college totem pole to earn your place at the bottom of the one in real life. Your new boss won't be blown away by the name of your major or your proudest moments from college. They will be blown away by the tough and impressive work you ultimately do for them. And that is going to take time. Graduation presses restart on your life, designating the moment when you begin earning your keep all over again. And that might be the toughest of all post-grad lessons to learn and accept.
For all of you approaching the end of your college experience in the spring, and even those of you who graduated a month ago and now find yourself in this new moment of crisis, don't expect to be the best again right away. Remember what it felt like to be at the top of your game, cherish that memory, and then work your ass off to achieve it again. We will all make it to the top of this new totem pole... eventually.