Monday, June 12, 2006

Graduation Thoughts

This weekend's newspaper was full of stories about graduation, commencement speeches, etc. (It also contained a Money-themed NYT Magazine, but I haven't even had time to read that yet, let alone write about it!) So I was thinking about where I was at financially when I graduated from college, and what advice I would give to that younger self.

I did have a job lined up when I left school, one that paid almost three times the minimum wage of that time. But it was just a part-time food service job. For a couple of months I was packing "meals on wheels" lunches for senior citizens, and then I had a management position in the same facility. This was not my desired career path, but I thought I could deal with it for a while since the money was decent, and I thought I'd be able to get another part time job doing something more interesting. But the problem was that I never found that second job. I answered a couple of classified ads and went on one interview, but otherwise I think I got bogged down and just didn't know how to really pursue getting work. I still had access to all the resources at my university, but I think I went to the career center just once in all the time I was there-- I remember flipping through a looseleaf binder with some job listings, and that was it. I never tried to talk to anyone and was just clueless. I think most college graduates are a little more together when it comes to knowing what they want to do, but for those who aren't, I would say, talk to someone. Anyone. Ask for advice. Cast a wide net and ask for information about career paths that might be available to you. If someone offers help, follow up on it. I really didn't do these things. After a year of dead-end part-time work, I was starting to build up some credit card debt and felt like things weren't working in the city where I was living, so I moved back home to live with my parents for almost 2 years.
On one hand, I think it's lame for adult children to live with their parents. But on the other hand, sometimes it's probably the best solution. It enabled me to get out of debt and build up enough savings to get my own apartment and I have been financially independent ever since. The first couple of months were tough, as I was unemployed and felt like a total loser-- I got a bit depressed and just sat around the house a lot, reading until the wee hours and then sleeping late. (Advice to younger self: yes, live with parents rather than going bankrupt, but make sure your life has structure. Stay productive even if you are unemployed.) But I would go into the city to look for jobs, and I read the classified ads and attempted to do some research at the library. (It's funny to think how different that time might have been for me if all today's internet resources had been available.) But I still had trouble figuring out what kinds of options might be available to me-- I went looking for things I was already familiar with: waitressing, retail stores, and the employment office at a university (where I flamed out on the typing test.) I ended up taking the first job I was offered, making slightly more than minimum wage as a clerk in a bookstore. That led to my career in publishing, so in some ways it was a lucky move, as I've always enjoyed what I do, for the most part. But it did mean quite a few years at a relatively low income level, so it may not have been the best financial move. If I could have done it all over, again, I would have cast a wider net. I would have talked to neighbors and friends of my parents, asking them about their work and what opportunities might be available to me.

It's funny-- so much of what graduates hear is all about "following your dreams" and for most people like me, i.e. people from middle- or upper-middle-class backgrounds who graduate from liberal arts colleges, the dreams are there and then somewhere along the way, you figure out how to afford them (unless your dream was investment banking all along.) But for me, college was a very confusing time and everything I thought I had dreamt about suddenly seemed impossible, or not worth dreaming about, so I graduated feeling like I needed to get a dream before I could follow it. So I just kind of skipped ahead to the "affording it" part and focused on making a living. But in some ways, things have circled around. In my 30s, I found myself with enough money and time to spend on some of those early, doubted dreams, and elements of my career started to resemble some of the vague desires I'd had when I was a student.
I don't know if you ever hear this in a graduation speech, because it might sound like too much of a downer, but maybe this is the real advice I'd give my younger self: if you feel like you set aside your dreams because you had to make money, don't let it get you down. If there is something you really love doing, you'll come back to it later in your life, and you'll be glad you focused on building financial stability first.
I'm not trying to say that every college graduate should become a lawyer when what they really want to do is play the banjo. There will always be people who SHOULD pursue that dream of playing the banjo, or making sculpture, or acting, for the benefit of the rest of us. But if you're the person who loves playing the banjo, but not enough to want to make the sacrifices that most professional banjo players have to make, that's okay: it shouldn't feel like a defeat if you work a 9-to-5 job and then hack around on your banjo all weekend.
Following your dreams and following the money aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. But even when they are, the choice doesn't have to be seen as picking happiness vs. unhappiness, with no turning back. Things can work out in surprising ways.

Well, thank you, class of 2006, for listening to my attempt at inspirational words that will put a spring in your step as you bound into the future. This must be some kind of delayed dream gratification in itself, as I was never the valedictorian or any kind of class speechmaker. You're just lucky I didn't sing "The Wind Beneath my Wings."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for being so honest about your past. It is quite refreshing to read your account of how you got where you are now versus the large prevailing attitude in the pfblog community that is condescending to the "clueless" post-college grad and finances. I think that many grads are going through exactly what you went through; you've shown that everything can work out in the end.