Discuss: Some Advice for the Graduate

May 17, 2013

Earlier this month, I was speaking to a local sorority about smoothing the transition between college and “the real world.”  During the Q&A session, one of the young women asked me a question: What is the one piece of advice that you would give your 21-year-old self?

The answer: Don’t quit.

Like many women, the first two/three years of my post-graduation experience were rocky.  Managing finances, learning how to be a good employee, carving out a path for my career–it was all a bit more difficult than I imagined it would be.

I was almost completely alone in a city far from home, and I spent most of the first year thinking that I had made a big mistake, shaking the couch cushions for grocery money and thinking I’d never make it.  I cried.  I lost sleep.  I thought daily, maybe hourly, about packing it in.

Quitting would have been easy.  I had few connections to D.C..  I wouldn’t have been leaving good friends or a job behind.  It would have taken me half-a-day to pack my belongings, get on a plane and go back to what was familiar and easy.  But I didn’t.

I’m one of those women who doesn’t regret the mistakes she made, I regret the things that I didn’t try.

Had I left D.C. at that moment, I would have forever been a quitter.  I would have always wondered, “What if?,” and I wasn’t prepared to spend the rest of my life in regret.  If I was going to leave D.C. and give up this dream, then I was going to do it because I chose to leave, not because succeeding was too hard.

So my advice to the women graduating this weekend is that the first few years are always difficult.  Having big dreams and achieving them isn’t for the faint of heart.  There will be days when you’re sitting at the bottom of the well thinking, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?”  But if you can make it past those days, there are always better ones ahead.

You are stronger than you think.  You are capable of great things if you are willing to put in the work.  And if you get to a place where your “big dream” no longer feels right for you, then leave because you choose to do something different, not because the path to achievement was too rocky.  Don’t give up on your graduation-day dream, unless you find a new one that you want more.

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  1. Laura says:

    My advice would be something along the lines of trusting your own instincts. Not that I was always right (I wasn’t!) but I did understand my own preferences and ways I wanted to live my life in a bone-deep way that my bosses and colleagues who tried to give me career advice just couldn’t. It’s hard, I think, to shift from a “teachers are always right” mindset into one where you respect your bosses and coworkers, but you are an adult and get to decide your own preferences and where you will draw lines. I stayed way too long in jobs that weren’t a good fit for me, because I thought there was something wrong with me, rather than realizing there was a mismatch that would never really get better. Trust your own instincts, but don’t act like a jerk, is my advice, I guess.

  2. Valerie says:

    All college graduates need to hear this, especially women moving to new cities to work in tough fields. Thank you, Belle. I remember everyone at my graduation excitedly congratulating us, telling us that the world was ours to conquer, etc. etc. insert hyperbole here, when all I really felt was panic. I know college itself is an accomplishment, but it’s good to acknowledge that there will be bumpy years afterward that *will* get better with time.

  3. Joanne says:

    Thank you. I really needed to see something like this right now. I just graduated Law school in DC and I am terrified out of my mind, doubting my choice in life, hoping I make it out in the end. I got a tear in my eye! Please know that you have been my number one inspiration for years, not only in fashion but from your life path and choices. Thank you for making a difference!

    • An says:

      Joanne! Right after graduation is a panick-y time for many, many law school grads, no matter what the people around you say. Do what you need to do to get yourself in a semi-calm mindset to study for the bar — and this is different for everyone. Don’t forget to breathe and go outside. Get a megachill part-time job that doesn’t eat too much of your time or make you tired if you need some extra food $$ or need a structured place to clear your head. Visit a friend with a pool and study by it. Exercise if you’re feeling fidgety. Do what YOU need to do.

      Good luck!! You’ll be done with the worst of it soon.

  4. j says:

    I completely agree with your advice Belle, but I’d go one step further and remind my 21 year old self that I will make big mistakes, but there’s always a way to get back on course to make your dreams come true.

    I say this because I did quit: I quit my NYC Big Law job during my first year because I thought I was in love. The relationship didn’t work out and it took a little time to get back on course, but I did it. So even though I remember people telling me that quitting would close certain opportunities forever, that’s not really true. There’s always a way to get back on course and to fix your regrets.

    • Belle says:

      Absolutely. Nothing is final until your dead as my Grandpa used to say. You can always try again if you dedicate yourself.

    • A says:

      I really needed to hear this! I’m currently in a job I really like (no clear path for growth here, but lots of opportunities in general in the DC area I would like to pursue) or moving back to my home state to (hopefully) get married to a man I really love. I’m still not sure what decision I’m going to make, either one will be really hard, but it’s nice to know that even if I make the “wrong” one, that doesn’t mean my life is over.

      • Belle says:

        Not even. You can always come back. It does get harder as you get older to start over, but it can be done if that is what you really want.

  5. K says:

    Belle,

    One of my colleagues has been telling me similiar things since I arrived last January (after graduation) to work at a lobbying firm and it has helped me push through rocky times. She is proof that if you are willing to put in the time and hardwork and not feel that you are above doing grunt work, things will pay off. As always your advice is exactly what I needed to hear! Thank you!

  6. anona says:

    I am absolutely missing something here: the question seemed to be what advice would you give your younger self that you did not know at the time.

    How does your advice (which is what you did) relevant?

    Shouldn’t the answer be something you wish you had known or done differently?

    • Belle says:

      I guess what I’m saying is that I thought my post-grad experience was unique, it wasn’t. Most people feel this way. I wanted to quit, was adamant that I was going to quit, and had other people tell me, “Hey, it isn’t just you, you have to stick with it.” So perhaps the advice is more, you may think it will be easy, but it will be hard, so don’t give up.

  7. Erica says:

    Thank you for this post! I’m one of those graduating women you’re speaking to. Leaving family & friends behind and moving to DC in a few short months to start what is hopefully the beginning of my dream career. Very excited, but still very scared. But I won’t give up. Thanks for the encouraging reminder.

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