What I Wish I’d Known

I’m a pretty recent grad (albeit, from two degrees — I just couldn’t get away!), but I like to think that I’ve learned and grown a fair amount in the last few years. So when Trent at The Simple Dollar challenged his readers to answer this big question (What single piece of advice do you wish you had heard when you were about to graduate college?), I paused for a few moments to reflect on what I had learned “lately”.  Here’s what I came up with…

You have choices — more than immediately appear — and the good news is that there are no mistakes.

Now, I admit, it’s a bit esoteric and may not be very clear what I mean at first blush. I think a lot of the specific advice you hear for new grads can be wrapped up in this statement: “Travel before getting a job”, “Never stop learning”, “Don’t choose a job just for the money”

But there’s more to it than that. This isn’t just about an approach for new grads; it’s an approach for everyone to learn to take. It’s not an approach that I’ve fully mastered in my own life, and to be honest I’m not sure I ever will fully master it. But it’s a direction and a philosophy that I’ve found valuable, simply because it does allow me to grow, learn and develop within it.

So with that in mind, let me break it down a bit for you, and maybe show you what that statement means for me today (which, of course, may have evolved further by tomorrow!)

You Have Choices

It’s easy to point to times of significant life change (like college graduation) and point out all the opportunities that lie ahead. We get images of new horizons, broad open paths, and infinite possibilities.

The truth is, new grad or not, you always have new horizons, open paths, and infinite possibilities ahead of you. Why? Because you are always the ultimate authority in your life. You are the one who controls your destiny, because you are the one that can make the choices.

Don’t like your job? It is your choice to stay in it or to leave. Swimming in debt? It’s your choice to continue spending or start repaying. Out of shape? You can choose between watching TV or doing some jumping jacks.

You always have the choice to change your life. Even if it doesn’t seem possible right now, that doesn’t change the fact that it ultimately is your decisions that shape your present and future. Even refusing to make a choice is still making a choice — the one that says that the status-quo is okay.

If you’re unhappy with where you’re at, you do have choices. The only thing that can prevent you from taking advantage of this is you.

More Than Immediately Appear

In some ways, it’s easy to see the choices in front of you. Apple or orange? Walk or drive? Stay or go?

Sometimes, there are even so many choices that it can seem overwhelming — like there are so many possibilities, you don’t know which way to turn.

I experienced this when I graduated; the feeling of “oh my God, now what?!?” My problem wasn’t that I didn’t recognize that I had choices, but that I felt like I had so many options that I couldn’t just pick one. Did I want to do more schooling? Travel? Work for myself? Or for someone else? And in what industry? Something tech related, something more people-focused, in an office, out in the field, … so many choices!

I ended up drifting from thing to thing for about a year before ultimately realizing that my problem wasn’t too many choices; it was that I had another choice, but I had disregarded it out of hand.

For me, the ignored choice was to not just pick one thing to do “for the rest of my life,” but to take advantage of my many loves and passions, and pursue them all. Not necessarily all at the same time (although some fit nicely together), but to not to fall into the trap of believing that I couldn’t continue to explore new things as they interested me.

The reason I hadn’t initially thought of this is because it’s counter to societal norms. In our culture, we focus on the one “thing” you want to “be” for the rest of your life (the sign that you’ve “grown up”). “What do you do” is a question that implies a single answer — but what I realized is that just because it wasn’t common didn’t mean I couldn’t make a choice to pursue a widely varied life.

Eliminating choices is a good thing to do, but sometimes, it’s also valuable to realize that you do have more choices than initially appear. Thinking “outside the box” can sometimes be just the thing you need to set you on a new course.

There Are No Mistakes

Ah, but going outside of the “normal” set of choices can be dangerous, right? After all, aren’t these well-established ideas “well-established” for a reason?

There’s a saying, “common sense is rarely common, and seldom sensical.” While that isn’t true in all cases, that doesn’t preclude the possiblity that doing something differently will turn out alright.

But even more than that, simply making the choice to try something will ultimately make you happier in the long run — even if that choice doesn’t work out the way you thought.

The reason is that making decisions allows our brains to live with and adjust to the resultant new realities. The outcome is that the simple act of making a choice can make you happier. Even if the choice made appears to be the “wrong” one, research shows that our minds are so adaptive that in only a very short amount of time after making a decision, we can be happy with the decision (I’ve written a fair amount about this aspect of choice before, so I’ll just leave it at that for now).

Ultimately, making mistakes is how we learn. If we never lost our balance, we wouldn’t know how to keep it. As I’ve noted before, “there are no mistakes, just opportunities to learn.”

Does It Make A Difference?

Would the advice — you have choices (more than immediately appear) and the good news is that there are no mistakes – have actually “changed my life” if I were to receive it when I was about to graduate — either the first or second time?

To be honest, I’m not actually sure. It certainly is the biggest thing I’ve learned since then. Understanding that I ultimately make the choices that determine the direction of my life, that I don’t have to be constrained to the obvious or normal path, and that any mistakes I make along the way serve to make me stronger and happier has made a massive difference in my own life.

I don’t know that just “hearing” this advice would have impacted me in the way that learning it by experience and trial-and-error has. But maybe, it will resonate with some of you, and help you see things in a different light.

What say you?

5 thoughts on “What I Wish I’d Known

  1. Hi!

    I’m “Samantha,” the girl who wrote in to The Simple Dollar. I was blown away to see all the advice that started pouring in!

    I just wanted to thank everyone personally. I think that the current environment is one of cynicism and distrust – it’s really nice when something like this shows that there are lots of wonderful, thoughtful people in the world. Thanks so much for taking the time to write!

    Your post is insightful and inspirational. I really enjoyed it!

    By the way, I just want to mention that I’ve recently started a blog of my own – http://www.alternativelivings.blogspot.com. It’s all about ways to earn money outside of a traditional 9-5 job (as a college student, I’m very interested in this subject :) ) Please feel free to drop by, I’d love to keep in touch!

  2. Thanks for the comment — and you’re very welcome :-) I agree that it’s nice to be able to share and show that cynicism and distrust don’t have to rule the day. I find that the more you’re willing to give, the more similar people you will also encounter. Good luck as you graduate!

  3. I agree, wholeheartedly, though maybe I should say 99%-heartedly. I feel the same kind of excitement, freedom and wonder at how much we really can achieve by choosing to behave in certain ways. However, I don’t believe one should apply a sort of categoric “you always have a choice” pep-talk-type attitude to every circumstance. There are situations in life when all the available choices genuinely suck. Or when something completely out of your control happens and you should allow yourself to feel the victim for a while, purely for self-preservation of sanity. Because the “you always have a choice”, if meant categorically, can seem like “you should always be in control”. And attempting to always be in control, always puts responsibility for absolutely everything on your shoulders, which sometimes can be rather damaging.

    Now, having argued for some caution about your message, I will once again say, that bar the above considerations, what you’ve written above, has been more or less my life’s motto. I’ve never just accepted that things “just have to be this way”. In some cases, my decisions may have even seemed rather extreme, but for me, it was a case of opening up a giant Pandora’s box rather than trying to follow other people’s expectations, tradition or any of that jazz.

  4. @Nukapai — Good caveat. I can see what you’re saying about the categoric suggestion that having a choice implies also having control.

    I think there’s also value in realizing (as you implied) that you have a choice in how you react to a situation (even if you can’t directly affect the situation at the time, for whatever reason). It is a perfectly valid choice to feel like a victim for self-preservation, and an equally valid choice to move on when you’re ready. Either way, you get to choose your reaction, because that *is* always something you can control.

    Thanks for the great comment!

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