When I graduated from college in 2004, everyone, from my professors to my family, was telling me how lucky I was to have this opportunity to go chase my dreams. They were all enamored by the possibilities and choices that lay before me, and urged me to keep my options open and follow my heart. They painted rosy pictures of my future life and talked about all the dreams that I would be able to live now that my life had officially begun.
Perhaps their own desires to be in my shoes and “do it all again” is why most of them gave me such lackluster advice. Because while they were indulging my hopeful fantasies, what I really need was a good shot of reality.
I’m a big believer that we subject our college graduates to a dangerous duality. On the one hand, we expect them to decide the first, critical steps of their professional futures at 22-years-old when most of them don’t have the tools to do so. And on the other hand, we protect their dreams and aspirations like they are precious jewels, refusing to subject their potential to any kind of real world caveats.
Telling a college student that their dreamy, dewy master plan may not work out, and that they need to prepare for failure just as they prepare for success, is like telling a kindergartner that there is no Santa Claus. (Sorry kids.)
We tell recent grads that they are the exception to the rule because we want to believe it. Also, many parents and professors place too much value on education because we want to believe that the degree and their potential is enough. As a result, most new college grads come out of school well-educated but with little knowledge about how a person advances in their chosen field. And in my experience, professional knowledge and familiarity with the industry is just as important as a good education and will actually make you more competitive in the professional market.
I’m not here to burst anyone’s bubble. I’ve made a career out of following my passion, but in my younger years, I didn’t balance that passion with reality, and it cost me. And every year, I see millions of college graduates doing the same thing. This blog is supposed to be a resource for young people who want to be staffers, work in government, or are just looking for some straight talk from young professionals who want to lift the veil on the post-grad vaudeville show.
My advice to new or soon-to-be graduates is to sit down, do some research, find a mentor (or twelve), ask questions and confront the reality of your life’s aspirations. The most dangerous thing that you can do is shoot from the hip on a dream, because if you don’t know the possible pitfalls, you will be less prepared to absorb the inevitable failures of life and prosper in their wake.
The dream is still achievable, but it is more achievable if you aren’t looking at it through rose-colored glasses. Few people find their passion in their early twenties or are successful by 25 or 30, careers take time to build and desires and plans change, so don’t anchor yourself and don’t get too comfortable in the gossamer hold of a pure dream.
I’m often accused by my one of my co-workers of bursting people’s balloon, but I believe that balloons are for toddlers and that terra firma is always the best policy. As Lauryn Hill once said, “Fantasy is what we want, but reality is what we need.”