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The Five Worst Mistakes You Made as a New Grad

It is college graduation season once again. Tens of thousands of intrepid young men and women are preparing to venture into a brave new world in which playing beer pong at one a.m. on a Wednesday night is no longer considered a point of pride. And while nine out of ten grads will be walking away with at least some debt (the average student will owe $25,000), a college education remains a valuable albeit increasingly costly investment.

As the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin said during his commencement address, “time shifts gears right now and starts to gain speed.” In time for her looming ten-year college reunion, Anya Kamenetz, the higher education reporter for the Washington Post, looks back on the five worst mistakes she made as a new grad:

1. I thought I was done learning.

As a former literature major, I dreaded anything having to do with spreadsheets. But after interpreting international education studies, writing columns on consumer finance and even splitting bills with roommates, I conceded that Excel is actually pretty useful. I also had to become conversant in classical economics, presentation skills and WordPress for my job. . . .

2. I chased relationship drama.

You can be with the right person for you even if you’re not in a rush to settle down. I learned that the hard way when I dumped my long-term boyfriend and tried to play the field. Today, nothing in my life is more central to my happiness than my husband (yes, that same boyfriend) and our baby daughter. . . .

3. I thought “disorganized” equaled “creative”.

I was the kid with a backpack stuffed with overdue library books, and I chose a career that wouldn’t require pressed suits and 8 a.m. conference calls daily. I thought being laissez-faire was the sign of a mind attuned to higher matters. That changed when I got back from a two-month backpacking trip to find a $42 unpaid credit card bill had gone into collection — I’m still paying the consequences on my credit report. . . .

4. I listened to greed more than my gut.

When I was just starting out, I got a tip from a friend on a freelance writing job. The work (writing encyclopedia entries) was easy and interesting, and the pay sounded great, but something seemed a little off about the man who was hiring me. Long story short, I signed a contract, wrote more than 10,000 words and never saw a dime. . . .

5. I started to let inertia take over.

Neurologists say the human brain continues to grow and mature significantly up until the age of 25. And sure enough, it took me until about that age to realize that any improvements to my body, mind and life would require some conscious effort: I started working out regularly, met with a therapist for a year, and worked some de-stressors like yoga into my life. After graduation, there aren’t as many advisors around to help you.

Some new grads may have already landed their dream job (or what they think is their dream job). Others will end up toiling away in the basement of Mead Manor, occasionally sneaking up to the surface to ensure their vitamin D deficiency doesn’t require hospitalization. All will undoubtedly make mistakes and confront unforeseen challenges.

Via Meadia would like to solicit the opinions of its faithful readership. What did you learn after graduating? What advice would you give to your former, just-graduated self? Let us know in the comments.

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  • Kenny

    What advice would you give to your former, just-graduated self?

    1. Work hard and do not expect fairness in all instances. Justice is a fine concept but true justice will only be found on the other side of the grave.

    2. If you can, find a mentor. All organizations are political and without guidance and protection, you might get eaten alive by the sociopaths even regardless of exceptional performance on your part.

    3. There’s ‘form’ and then there’s ‘substance.’ To be successful, you need a mix of both. The proportion of the mix depends on your field. If you’re in, say, engineering or science, you need more substance than form, obviously. If you’re in fashion, advertising, government, etc., the mix is more towards the form side of the equation.

    One aspect of ‘form’ is dressing well and being neatly groomed. In other words, appearance counts, so don’t be a slob even though the majority of your college profs might have looked like that way.

    4. Be honest in all your dealings even if honesty temporarily puts you at a disadvantage. Hard times are coming and nobody is going to tolerate a liar, a cheat or someone who reneges on commitments.

  • Cicero

    Don’t be wedded to one career. I’ve met many happy people who started out as something (journalist, business person, eco-animal-climate Messiah) who ended up switching to something else when the right opportunity came along. That’s a very uncontroversial statement, but it took those people serious courage to switch. I’m not saying flit around for decades, but when you’re young, you can afford to make some mistakes with your work-life.

    I would also echo the sentiments in the quoted article on “playing the field.” Date, date broadly, yes, but don’t blow your 20’s fooling around and end up 32 with a string of broken hearts and people you’ve hurt.

  • Art

    It is not true that nine out of ten students graduate with at least some debt. Mark Kantrowitz says that 40% of students graduate with no debt, although that goes down to 33% if you only look at students who graduate with a four year degree. The media has pushed the student debt problem way too far by focusing on the extreme cases.

  • Anthony

    My advise to my former, just graduated self: everyone is not as excited about your success as you are – though they may not let on; once you become aware of said fact don’t take it personally and continue to engage life (in all its surprises, disappointments, joys/pleasures, and forms).

  • Corlyss

    1. My boss was not my mother and the workplace generally resembles a family only to the extent that the latter was dysfunctional.The more you know about interpersonal dynamics and can use that break the patterns established in the family environment to find new patterns for the workplace the better off you’ll be.

    2. Leadership doesn’t depend on the position you occupy on the org chart and, because of that fact, leadership must be studied and learned. Leaders may be born but they are also created out of observation, skill, necessity.That goes especially for leading without the authority. The informal organization within a unit demands leaders beyond those with the express authority to lead because often leadership does not come from those with the authority. Finally, good leadership training at all levels creates good followers as well as good leaders to can step up when the formal structure breaks down.

    3. Men and women communicate differently. Learn and use the differences to become a more effective communicator with both sexes.

    4. I should have started exercising and stuck with it after I left high-school, not 35 years after I left college.

    5. Learn how to enjoy quiet and solitude as a counterpoint to frenetic activity. Sometimes you should just sit. Meditation is great for this but it’s not the only way to be still.

    6. This too shall pass.

  • Bart Hall (Kansas, USA)

    After graduating in the hard sciences (1971) I learnt that the world of ideas is most definitely not the same as “academia,” which seemed petty, impractical, and often nasty. Even after a couple of MScs it *still* took walking away from two different PhDs to figure that one out.

    By age 30 I knew for sure that I’m happiest putting my mind to work through my hands — ever since I’ve earned my living as a farmer and carpenter.

    Find an intellectual passion (or two) and pursue it with both diligence and delight. It will make you a vastly more interesting and satisfied person.

    Because “love” is a verb, not a feeling, the important thing is not choosing the right partner, but learning to BE the right partner for someone else. The other person consequently does not have to serve as the source of your passion, but instead can flourish as its recipient.

    Soak up, enjoy, and treasure the special situations and assemblages of people in which you find yourself. They don’t live or last forever, but rich memories can sustain you when times are tough.

    Finally, be open to the unexpected. It was never in my plans that at age 63 I’d have a 15-month-old daughter, but she almost instantly became one of the very best parts of an already-quite-satisfying life.

  • BillH

    No matter the major, become a military pilot. Things happen fast; workday is over before you know it. Job success max performance, min office politics. Initiative and ingenuity rewarded. Built-in self discipline. Not as much imposed discipline as you might think. (23 years as one.)

  • MW

    LISTEN. God gave you 2 ears and 1 mouth for a reason. Use them accordingly.

    Engage in lifelong learning. You didn’t learn much useful in college. Your education has only just begun.

    Be humble. You know a lot less than you think you do.

    Be honest — always. It will pay off in the long run. Don’t compromise your principles for a short-term gain. You will regret it later.

    Stick to it. Success doesn’t come easy. It requires dogged persistence over many years. Real life isn’t measured in semesters.

    Take time to be still every day. Constant activity is bad for your soul and causes you to engage in a lot of unproductive activity.

  • Brett

    What advice would you give to your former, just-graduated self?

    1. Leave with a destination in mind, one that you’ve been thinking about for a couple of months. It may not pan out, but at least it’s something that will prevent you from simply drifting into menial employment.

    2. Act fast. As soon as you graduate, your “freshness” starts to decline. In a year or two, you’ll have neither the advantages of new grads nor the advantages of experienced workers, and if you spent it working menial jobs, you’ll regret it.

    3. Exercise, and get more sleep.

  • James Banks

    My advice would be not to worry too much about what your future career will be. You’ve just devoted four (or more realistically six) years to pursuing a particular career, but, truth be told, no matter what job you have there will be some things you like about it and some things you don’t like. I’ve managed to scrape together a living–at various times–as a soldier, teacher and writer (both technical and journalist) and can say that none of these conforms perfectly to the life to which I had always aspired in college, but that doesn’t matter, because your life should not be solely oriented toward how you make your living. Marrying the right person, being a devoted parent or honoring your mother and father rightly as they advance in years is more important than whether you become a financial analyst or securities lawyer. This might mean being slightly mediocre. But mediocrity is underrated. One of the reasons why there is so much suffering in the world is because it is full of people are dedicated to ideals, but never gave a second thought to the actual people whom they saw, spoke to or lived with on a daily basis. Given the suffering that the majority of world has suffered, and continues to suffer–from weather, starvation and disease–living in a society where anyone can grow up to have a caring spouse, a lawn with a white picket fence, 2.5 kids and maybe a dog actually isn’t so bad.

  • stephen b

    I agree w/BillH above, although I became a USAF navigator…certainly not as cool as a pilot, and no set up for a glamorous career vaulting TSA screeners enroute to that cushy airline cockpit, but…it did set up an EngLit major for a post military job as a flight test engineer.

  • vanderleun

    As a writer and editor it took me many long years to realize that of all the courses I took in high school and at the University, the course that would make me the most money was…. touch typing.

  • Douglas Levene

    1) Think strategically. Have a plan about where you want to be in ten years, and what you have to do to get there, and be ready to change that plan multiple times.

    2) As they say in D.C., if you want a friend, get a dog. True friendship happens in the workplace, but it’s not the norm. Don’t mistake colleagues with whom you are friendly as friends. You will also run into people who don’t like you, who mean you harm, and/or are willing to climb over your back if that helps them. Don’t be naive. On the other hand, when you do find a real friend, stick with him.

    3) Stay out of office politics and don’t gossip.

    4) If you find yourself in a job where you hate going to work in the morning, find another job. Life is too short.

    5) The first judge I clerked for advised his clerks to keep six months’ salary in the bank so you could always quit if you had to. It’s a lot easier to adhere to ethical standards if you know you can walk away.

    6) The hardest thing is to find work and a workplace that you love. If you can do that, life is good.

  • Some Sock Puppet

    What did I learn after graduating?

    That no one in authority knew anything about what they claimed to know about, but that they were very happy to take your money and give you a very hard time.

    That no job description was accurate at all and no experience you had meant a thing.

    That the Iron law of bureaucracy is very much in effect and you are Sisyphus.

    So to heck with what everyone tells you, go figure it out for yourself and change the rules. Because the game IS rigged and it doesn’t have to be the only one in town.

  • MichaelM

    “”6. This too shall pass.””

    This is amazing advice on a level that, I don’t think, any of us realizes, not even those of us who share it or second it.

    No religion has to offer a wisdom more valuable than impermanence. I am, in a sad way, lucky that my mother died when she did because it taught me that nothing, absolutely nothing, is to be taken for granted, from a very young age. I don’t really understand it, and I cannot really bring it into practice in my own life in a way that reflects the deep truth of this phrase, but change is the only really durable knowledge we have to deal with.

  • WigWag

    My biggest mistake after graduating from college was not throwing the television in the garbage right away.

    My recommendation to new graduates is to buy a Kindle if you don’t already one. Then download Harold Bloom’s “The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages.” Ignore everything you may have read at Via Meadia about Dr. Bloom. Then spend the rest of your life methodically reading the classics Bloom identifies as integral to the Canon.

    If you do this (and have just a little luck) you will have a wonderful and enriched life.

    To start, go here,

    and here,

  • j s

    Learn how to not spend cash reflexively. It’s hard. How many times have you taken out cash, then spent it much faster than you thought you would? It seems like every dollar bill has “Spend Me” printed all over it. Here’s how to change your thinking about it.
    Establish a household budget and stick with it. In addition, take out $100 cash and put it in a piggy bank at home, or in the pages of a book, or something similar where you have easy access to it. But Don’t Spend It. Make that money off limits. Pride yourself on not spending it, because it’s hard. Opportunities will arise every day. If you ever really need to spend it on something critical, like your bank account is empty and you need bus fare to get to work so you don’t get fired, replace it with the first dollar of your next paycheck.

    Every paycheck, add another bill to your cash. If you’re doing well, add $100. If you’re struggling, add $10. Whenever the money feels like too much cash to have around the house, put all but $100 in a savings account so you’re back to $100.

    One of the big mistakes people make about money is that having cash on hand becomes a mental signal to spend money. You have a $20 in your pocket, so you go out and spend $20 without even thinking about it. You didn’t need to, but you had it so you did.

    Keeping and saving small quantities of household cash is a way to break the association between having cash on hand and accelerated spending.

    That’s the advice I would have given myself in my 20s. I lived paycheck to paycheck until my 40s. I did this, and all of a sudden I became solvent and my constant depression over money problems was gone.

    I’m not saying it will work for everyone but it worked so well for me that I feel it’s worth offering as a suggestion to others.

  • Boritz

    Cost Benefit Analysis is never performed honestly outside of the classroom. In real life managers assume one of two stances:
    A) I want these benefits at all costs
    B) I don’t want to pay this much. I don’t care what the benefits are.

    If a CBA must be produced as part of the game watch for it to be fudged to support a predetermined stance.

  • James C Brown

    Read Via Meadia. No matter how old you are because the comments section + main articles will do you some good. 🙂

  • Kevin Gould

    Five wise things I did after college.

    1. I finished college and got a job. I didn’t hang around school longer than I had do, despite my comfort with the academic environment and my mastery of that skillset.

    2. I picked a career with unlimited promotion potential. I joined the Army, first as an enlisted intelligence specialist, then switched to the officer track nine years later. I’m now in my 20th year and I’ve had pay raises every single year and done significant work for the nation.

    3. I stayed married. Marriage works if you work at it and learn to live with someone else.

    4. I stuck with the career even when it was hard. I didn’t bail at the first sign of discomfort, the first bad boss, the first difficult field exercise, or the first combat deployment.

    5. I studied my peers and learned what it took to get promoted and then I did that. Even when the regular job kept me busy or kept me late, I completed the professional development requirements early, stayed in shape, and checked all the blocks.

    6. I got along with everyone. Life is a skill that requires getting along with difficult people. You don’t have to have the last word, you don’t have to prove you’re right all the time and you don’t need to stoke conflict with your peers. Just get along with others and you’ll move along. Cooperate to graduate.

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