I was a December graduate, meaning that my commencement weekend was filled with snow storms, winter coats and holiday decorations. The night preceding my commencement ceremony consisted of decorating my cap with a bunch of fellow education majors followed by a (bundled!) drunken night out with my remaining on-campus friends and sorority sisters. I nursed a hangover for most of the ceremony, anxiously tapping my foot and waiting for my name to be called, just hoping that I wouldn’t trip or fall while walking across the stage.
Because I was an education major, I still had a month of student teaching remaining when I “graduated”, meaning I wasn’t quite yet home free; I was still technically enrolled in school until the end of January, tied down by my incomplete student teaching portfolio and final capstone. On the one hand, I was so, SO happy to be finished with school– to be done with the stress and the sleepless nights and the commitment to student organizations, and finally able to do what I want to do. On the other hand, however, I was still grateful to have another month to work my front desk job at the student union, stay in my apartment, and enjoy the holidays with a bit of normalcy before jumping into the unknown.
From 2012 to 2016
Almost four (!) years have passed since I graduated from college. Thinking back, I remember secretly hoping that at this time, I would be traveling and/or living abroad. However, definitely didn’t foresee myself where I am today: financially independent, living and teaching in France for the third consecutive year, having traveled to 25 countries, and being, for the first time ever, completely, 100% accepting, confident, and happy with myself and who I am as a person.
So, as I see my Facebook and Instagram feeds fill up with photos of graduation caps and gowns and of proud parents or siblings dedicating Facebook posts proclaiming how proud so-and-so is of so-and-so, I can’t help but to think back upon my commencement speech, as well as the countless other you-are-special-and-individual-the-future-is-in-your-hands speeches I’ve heard. And while I’m no expert on investing in 401K’s or buying a car or purchasing insurance, I have learned a few things about life:
- Career Jungle Gyms are Better than Career Ladders. This is one of the best pieces of advice I read in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Back in the day, a young graduate started at the bottom and climbed their way to the top. He/She spent their career working at one company, in an entry-level position, and eventually they gained experience, were promoted, and found themselves at the top of the ladder just before retirement. Newsflash: The real world no longer works like that. The average American has something like seven different jobs throughout their careers. And these jobs don’t often entail climbing a ladder– more often than not, it involves scrambling across a jungle gym. Sometimes, jungle gym careers entail crossing the monkey bars to a different opportunity in a different department, or to a similar position in a different company. Sometimes it includes going down the slide– returning to school for a bit to get another degree or certification, only to climb up the top of the jungle gym. Sometimes it includes jumping from swings to poles to tunnels and beyond- trying a bunch of different things in order to build experience and expertise across many different fields.
- Quitting is For Winners, and It’s Okay to Be Selfish. I once was the person who took pride in the fact that I never quit anything; I stuck with things, even if I didn’t enjoy them. I kick myself now, because I realize how stupid that was. Today, thankfully I realize that the only person who can make me happy is me. I have the ability to teach people how to treat me– and it starts with how I treat myself. I am truly beginning to realize the power of choices, and the importance of changing situations which make me unhappy. Saying, “No” to people, opportunities, and things which don’t interest me is empowering. I’m trying to take better care of myself, because when it comes to my health, my career, and my overall well-being, it’s okay to quit and be selfish.
- It’s Okay to Breakup with Friends. Just as it’s important to end toxic relationships, it is equally as important to end toxic friendships. Some friends are just simply not meant to be forever-friends. If you are choosing to spend time with a person who brings you down, or with whom you are no longer proud or happy to be around, break up with them. Equally as important, if you are broken up with by a friend, accept it, move on, and strive to be better.
Send Thank You Cards. I’ve never been more grateful that my parents used to force my siblings and me to sit at the table after Christmas and our birthdays to write thank-you cards for our gifts. I used to think it was boring and pointless, but now I am so thankful to have never broken that habit, because I see how much a small gesture can mean to someone. And although I chose not to make any New Year’s Resolutions this year, I did commit to trying to send a birthday card to every one of my friends/family, as well as keep up with post cards and thank you cards for any and all occasions. In a virtual world of emails and Facebook messaging and Whatsapp, a snail-mail card goes a long way.
- Being Busy Does Not Mean Being Successful. I feel like this is one of the worst things about American culture. We like to compare our busy-ness and brag about how much we worked or how little we slept or how much you have to do. I’m officially over it, and I’m not impressed. In fact, nobody cares. Having free time, work-life balance, and doing things that you want to do (even if that includes just sitting on the internet) is important. Being busy does not mean being successful. It just means you’re obnoxious.
- There is no Straight Line or Definition to Success. Once you hit your twenties, the straight line you were always told to take into adulthood becomes squiggly and mixed-up with other squiggly lines. Everyone kind of does their own thing, whether that be getting married, buying a house, and having kids; going to school part time while working dead-end jobs in order to not go into debt; changing careers and moving cross-country; getting divorced, paying off debt and starting over; quitting a stable job to live and teach in France for three years. All of those pathways are successful, and are incomparable to one another. Life is so much more fun when you stop comparing yourself and judging others for their choices and chill out a bit. You do you.
- Know How to Handle Your Money. Honestly, there is nothing sexier and more attractive than someone who has their finances under control– someone who responsibly pays their student loans and files their taxes and doesn’t live above their means. This doesn’t mean you have to constrict yourself to a lifestyle of never going out or doing anything fun, but know what your budget is and what that entails. It will only help you in the long-run.
- You are Indispensable at work. Someone will always be able to replace you at work, so if you feel you are not enjoying your job or being treated fairly, speak up, negotiate, and make your voice heard. Additionally, use ALL of your vacation time (without feeling guilty!) and do your best to find a good work-life balance. Finally, if you are fed up with your current career, search for new challenges and opportunities. On an opposite stance, if you are laid off or fired, ask why, and strive to do better.
- Wear Sunscreen and Your Retainer, and Remove Your Makeup at Night. I know, I see this literally everywhere, but sometimes it takes a really bad sunburn and acne breakout at 26 years old for it to finally sink in. I’m hoping that it’s not too late to save my facial skin and start adopting new habits. Additionally, I am the only adult I know who continued to wear her retainer into her twenties, and as a result my teeth are still beautiful and in place!
- Travel. Travel. Travel. Never stop. Enough said.
- Be Kind to Yourself. Learn to Love Yourself and Your Body. I’ve spent most of my life hating myself– my body, my hair, my shape, my weight, my size, my height, the works. Thankfully, I’ve learned that one’s size and appearance does not determine a person’s worth and dignity. I don’t “owe” anybody anything in regards to the way I look or dress or spend my time. Hating myself is such a waste of time, because life is so much more fun and enjoyable when you like what you see in the mirror. You are (much, much!) more than a number on a scale.
- Confidence is sexy. Always.
- Learn How to Be Alone. Go to the movies. Eat at a restaurant. Travel to a new city. Live on your own. Turn off your phone for an entire day. Stay single for awhile. People who are comfortable with themselves are the most fascinating, attractive, and fun to be around.
- Go With Your Gut, Because it is Only then that Most Things Fall Into Place. As important as it can be to listen to your parents’ or friends’ advice, only you know what is going to make you happy. And typically, you always know what decision is the right decision to make. Listen to your gut. It always knows, and usually when you listen to your gut, decisions come easily, and things have a magically way of working themselves out and falling into place.
- The Best is Yet to Come. High school is not the best years of your life. University is not the best years of your life. The best is yet to come.
On that note, congratulations to all the recent high school and university graduates. I wish you the best of luck in your futures!