You also just spent four years doing what everyone said you should, but now you’re broke, unemployed, and nobody responds to your job applications.
You’re probably angry, and rightfully so. You went to college. You studied difficult subjects. And you worked hard, because despite the rhetoric about “lazy millennials”, the truth is we’re a focused and hardworking group.
You deserve better, right?
Well, you’re learning firsthand that college is hardly a ticket to “the good life”. And you’re not alone. When Gallup surveyed 30,000 graduates from the past decade, only 38% strongly agreed that higher education was worth the cost. A recent study even found that the demand for college-educated knowledge workers has slowed. As quoted in the Washington Post:
“Having a B.A. is less about obtaining access to high-paying managerial and technology jobs and more about beating out less-educated workers for the barista and clerical job.”
But I get it: it’s a tough pill to swallow.
Of course when you voice your frustrations, people start to blame you. They say you should have seen this coming. They call you entitled, spoiled, and make ridiculous generalizations. Often times the negativity comes from the same folks who told you to go to college in the first place.
Or perhaps your situation is slightly different. Maybe you had a job after graduation, but now you’re looking for another and nobody wants to hire you. It’s as if nothing you’ve done matters.
But here’s the good news.
This is not the end of the world.
In fact, it’s not even that big of a deal. Or rather it is, but not for the reasons you might think.
The Silver Lining
When most folks go to college, they choose a path that reflects the best thinking available to their eighteen-year-old selves. It’s doubtful whether they understand the economy–much less themselves.
There’s a lot of pressure to commit to something right away. We ask students to declare a major upon arrival–a decision that’s probably more about pleasing parents, impressing peers, and making money, instead of careful, deliberate soul-searching. And nobody wants to be that gossiped-about, “indecisive” person who changes majors three times and has to stay for a fifth or sixth year.
Sometimes college works out; sometimes it doesn’t.
But despite the rhetoric about college being a time when we “find ourselves”, for many it’s just a series of steps along a predetermined path. A semester spent as a tourist “studying abroad” is frequently offered as an example of a transformatice experience. So it’s no surprise that when students graduate, they often pursue what Professor William B. Irvine refers to as enlightened hedonism–society’s default path, a pursuit of “affluence, social status, and pleasure”. Many also fall victim to hedonic adaptation as they chase goals and acquisitions that, once obtained, quickly become the “new normal”–leading them to pursue more without ever learning to become content with what they have.
As Mr. Money Mustache explains:
A most striking example of this was a 1978 psychological study that evaluated the happiness levels of recent lottery winners, and recently injured paraplegics relative to the general population. As you’d expect, the lottery winners were pretty upbeat immediately after their win, and the paraplegics were pretty pissed off. But within just two months, both groups had returned back to the average level of happiness.
“That’s Impossible!” , I thought. “How could this be!?”
Well, it turns out that when a person jumps to a new level of material convenience, he loses the ability to enjoy the things he previously thought were pretty neat. A cold Bud Light was once a true delight after a work day for the lottery winner, but after the win he quits the job and takes up high-end scotch, poured by a personal butler. Both serve the same purpose, and the pleasure is about the same. Similarly, when moving down the hedonic scale, either voluntarily or involuntarily, we can learn to appreciate simpler things with just as much gusto as we would have appreciated more expensive things. I truly love the sound of the wheels of my bike slicing through the quiet wind on an open road, just as much as I enjoyed the whirring sound of the gear-driven camshafts and the rich tuned exhaust note of my old VFR800 motorcycle.
Of course most people probably don’t know what they want. According to Professor Irvine:
Many people will have trouble [deciding what they want]. They know what they want minute by minute or even decade my decade during their life, but they have never paused to consider their grand goal in living. It is perhaps understandable that they haven’t. Our culture doesn’t encourage people to think about such things; in deed, it provides them with an endless stream of distractions so they won’t ever have to.
But you’re lucky.
You failed, and now you have the opportunity to do this right.
Being broke and unemployed is a great time to engage in some serious soul-searching. If you play your cards right, you’re going to come out of this better than ever.
I’ve Been There Too
I’m talking from experience here.
Although I landed a great job with Teach For America after graduation–only one other from my university was accepted that year–I struggled for seven months after my commitment ended. My plan had been to enroll in law school, but I discovered that it was just a surefire way to get buried in debt with low job prospects. Screw that. I’d just left a prestigious job, I had a successful–albeit stressful–experience, and I accomplished a lot in two years; but nobody wanted to hire me. Not even for jobs that paid as much or less than I made in high school.
Most infuriating, however, was nobody even responded to my applications. Even in situations where I had the experience they asked for: not one peep. Just the bullshit rejection emails.
So I lowered my expectations. I applied to everything and anything, and I managed to get a few interviews. On one occasion, I interviewed three times for a $14/hour job at Grandview University’s print shop–including once with one of their vice presidents, who apparently had nothing better to do. I even knew how to run their equipment. A few weeks later, however, I got the rejection email.
It took seven months to find something and many more years before I actually landed a job that I enjoyed.
So I get it. You’re in a bind. But as someone who’s been there, there’s a right way to do this.
So what do you do?
Well you obviously need to get a job if you’re broke. Any job. You can also keep trying to get a respectable position in your career of choice–and there are better people than myself who can tell you how to do that effectively–but you may have to suck it up and temporarily do something that seems “beneath you”. It’ll probably feel embarrassing at first: it’ll bruise your ego, you’ll see people you know and get that judgmental look, and strangers will treat you worse than you’re accustomed to.
But you can handle it.
There’s no shame in doing what you need to survive. Nor is there shame in working a job that others look down on. I often think of a lesson from Cato, a senator from Ancient Rome. He had a habit of dressing in unfashionable clothing in order to remind himself that there’s only shame in things which are truly shameful. If someone looks down at you because you bag their groceries or take their order for dinner, then that’s a problem with them–not you.
In the meantime, take the opportunity to think long and hard about what kind of life you want. I’m not just talking about the size of your paycheck. What kind of lifestyle do you want to live? Do you want to devote time to hobbies and intellectual pursuits? Do you have an idea for a business and need time and resources to get it going? Where do you want to live? What do you need to live well? Is having a family important to you, or are you ambivalent?
The answers to those questions, and others, will determine where you set your sights. So what path will get you there?
And perhaps more importantly, what can you do right now to experience tranquility in your life?
It’s wonderful to set goals, but there’s a catch: in doing so, many folks fall into the trap of sacrificing happiness, tranquility, and the enjoyment of life for a future that may or may not exist. Sometimes the effect is to remain miserable in the present. But when people reach their goals, what happens is not some state of nirvana where all is well and they bask in the glory of their achievement. Remember hedonic adaptation? It’s a cycle from which few escape.
Take Care of Yourself Right Now
Put down the bottles, eat out less, and cut back on going out to the bars. Netflix and video games? Take a break. They’ll be fine without you.
If you haven’t already noticed, many people neglect self-improvement in their twenties.
They get fat, they get busy with their jobs, and they neglect to engage in continual, self-development. Just take a look at Facebook. How many people do you know who spend hours posting mundane, meaningless things? All the recipes and decorations from Pinterest, the “sky is falling” news stories, and the silly images with words written in Impact. As Seneca said, the problem is not that we’re short on time, but rather that we choose to misspend what we have.
To be fair, there’s a narrative in our society about “you worked hard, and you earned it”. Many folks feel justified in doing nothing with themselves–as if that’s the prize to be won from a long day’s work.
But you can do better. You’re not tethered to a career at the moment, remember?
Get in shape. Go outside and run, buy a bicycle, learn to rock climb, download MyFitnessPal and monitor your food consumption until you learn better habits. Educate yourself about nutrition. Hell, try a few fad diets so you can understand why they’re all bullshit. Are you single? Well, let me tell you from experience: it’s a lot easier to get a date when you’re fit and healthy.
Read for enjoyment. Fiction, non-fiction…whatever. You just spent four years being told what to read. Now you decide. Read a book or two a week, or choose carefully and take your time so you actually get something out of it.
Pursue your hobbies or learn new ones. What do you like to do for fun? Whatever that is, do it. Write that book, join a local club, participate in an amateur sporting league. Try something new. Step out of your comfort zone and join a local cycling club with your new road bike. Find a group on Meetup.com and endure the awkward introductions–it might be worth it.
Be social. While Thoreau has much to teach us about the value of isolation, the truth is that we’re social creatures. There’s a reason we punish the worst prisoners with solitary confinement. But it’s tough to be social when you’re an adult. Many graduates lose friends after college since they move away, get busy with their careers, start families, and get in relationships. Most adults have a lot of acquaintances, but very few friends. So get out there and meet new people. Strike up conversations when you feel the urge. And if you take the time to pursue hobbies and interests, then you’ll find this is easier than you think. I’ve met a lot of people through my local cycling group.
Start that business. After working a few shitty jobs, you may feel differently about the prospect of always working for someone else. And there’s never been a better time to pursue self-employment. Wages are stagnant, pensions are all but gone, and companies rarely value loyalty. There’s even talk that we’re transitioning to a “gig” economy where part-time jobs and contract work will take the place of steady employment. Maybe that’s the push you need to get out there and do your own thing.
Develop a philosophy of life. Determine your grand goal for living and the strategy for obtaining it. Consider practical philosophical questions and read widely, challenging yourself and encountering new ways of looking at the world around you. Try out various worldviews and find what works and doesn’t work.
Above all: don’t waste the time that’s available to you right now. But that’s easier said than done.
It Took Me a While
When things didn’t work out, I got angry. Really angry. I was bitter, frustrated, and I felt like I’d been screwed even though I struggled to articulate how. I’d worked hard in college. I sacrificed a lot for involvement with student organizations and misguided political causes. When others were out drinking and having fun, I was in my room studying and working. Why did this happen?
I spent a number of years extremely depressed.
And as I looked around, so many others seemed fine. The guys in high school who struggled to pass classes were suddenly buying homes, starting families, and driving new cars. Some of my peers from college were now on the university’s promotional material.
But I got over it.
The problem was never my external circumstances. It was me.
My life was a mess. I’d gotten fat, spent my free time pursuing escapism with Netflix and video games, and I’d deferred my goals and aspirations for an ever-receding “tomorrow”. I’d stopped developing as a person. And instead of asking what kind of life I wanted to live, I sat around feeling sorry for myself because I no longer had an impressive job.
I knew I could do better.
So I lost the weight. I became active with endurance sports and found new passions. I obsessed over the question of “how to live” and kept reading and searching. I even worked up the courage to ask out my girlfriend–who I’d wanted to take out for years. And I discovered that although I made less money than I believed I should and didn’t have the suburban house, new cars, and other markers of “success”, I didn’t care. Those things don’t determine whether or not I’m living “the good life”.
I’m in a great place now. I’m satisfied with my current path. I get to travel around the country for work, I have time to commit to my hobbies and interests, I’m in a great relationship, and I’m actively pursuing my goals. Life’s good.
And as I look back, I attribute everything to going through some seriously shitty times.
Had everything worked out as planned, my life might not be so good. I could’ve been married to a woman I’d grown apart with years ago, facing the dilemma of staying unhappy or losing my house and getting stuck with child support. Maybe law school would have worked out. I could have been another overworked and burned-out lawyer. Or perhaps I’d be another guy blindly running on that hedonic treadmill.
So What Does This Mean For You?
You’re going to be fine if you play this right.
So you’re broke and you didn’t get the shiny, prestigious job after graduation. So what? There’s real opportunity in struggle. Take the time to focus on yourself and move forward with deliberate, careful decisions. Devote time to self-improvement. Solidify–or even create–a personal philosophy, an answer to the question of “how to live”. Ask out the cute girl at the bookstore, get out of your comfort zone and make some new friends. Improve your health and get in shape.
Start living your life with purpose.
You’ve been freed from devoting decades or years to a path that you chose when you were a naive, starry-eyed college freshman. Don’t screw it up.