What I Wish I Knew When I Graduated: It’s OK to Make It Up As You Go

I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life when I graduated. Actually…that’s a lie. I had thousands of ideas of what I wanted to do, I just had no direction.

It all happened about a year ago on one sunny May day in Washington, DC. I was in the middle of leading a bicycle tour of the Jefferson Memorial in the National Mall (I was working as a city tour guide at the time). After having spent about an hour spewing out all the information and fun facts I knew about the city’s landmarks, I decided to give the guests (and myself) a break and let everyone roam free to check out the memorials for about 15 minutes.

The second I was left alone, the panic started all over again – I was two weeks away from graduating with a BBA in Marketing and Event Management and I had no idea what I was going to do. Now, this was no sudden epiphany for me – I’d been asking myself the inevitable “What do I want to do with my life?” question since September. But as gradmageddon (#SoClever) inched closer and closer, things only got realer and the stress kept piling up.

Now, I don’t know if it was the sun, the act of gliding by the soothing Potomac River on my bike, or Thomas Jefferson’s noble and wise gaze looking towards me and my future, but a sudden thought came to my head – I don’t care what job I’m doing, I just want to do something creative. Now, to others this might have been like any other passing thought, but to me this hit me like a truck traveling at a 42,786,987,259.86 miles per hour. This was my gradpiphany (#SoClever:TheSequel).

I didn’t know what kind of creative path I wanted to take, and honestly, it didn’t matter to me. It’s hard to explain, but something about this just felt right. I immediately closed up the tour, took everyone back to home base, and grabbed my personal bike. I went back down to the National Mall, found a tree, parked my bike, laid under the tree and called my best friend. Word vomit ensued; I cried, I laughed, I was hysterical, excited, terrified, confused, yet invigoratingly clear about my life. During that conversation, I decided to move to New York City. Looking back now, it’s all a bit of a blur, but one thing is for sure – something about this just felt right.

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I didn’t have a job, let alone a plan, lined up when I moved to the city but I was lucky enough to snag an assistant job at an advertising agency within a couple of weeks. Income: check.

As for figuring out my life’s calling, I decided that the best thing for me to do was to dive straight into different creative worlds to see first-hand what the work was about. So, I started going to all sorts of events in the city; from graphic design, to illustration, to tech and startups, I just focused on meeting people and hearing as many stories and experiences as I could.

Through these conversations, one thing really caught me by surprise: some people have incredibly interesting stories. I naturally gravitated towards the individuals who started off in totally different backgrounds and made the most out of their experiences to get to where they are now. These people didn’t spend their undergraduate years taking courses that were relevant to what they’re doing now. When they graduated, they weren’t any more composed or prepared than I was – if anything, I got a couple of congratulations for knowing that my direction was to find a direction (apparently that’s quite the milestone). Some people had a series of 2-4 jobs before they found their true calling, others had to go through 2-4 careers before gradpiphany got to them.

There were a lot of stories, directions and experiences, but one thing rang true for everyone: if they were to do it all again, they wouldn’t change a single thing (maybe they would have skipped a bad date here and there, but that’s a totally different blog post).

Every person kept telling me about how each past job and experience allowed them to learn a skill that benefited them in the long run, helping to build them up to where they are now. A lot of people also mentioned how coming from different backgrounds enabled them to stand out and gain a competitive advantage over others who have been working in the same field for their entire career.

The consensus: it’s perfectly ok, if not encouraged, to make this whole “life” thing up as you go. Allow your experiences, not your thoughts or perceptions, to build your path for you.

It’s been a year since I’ve graduated and I’m the first to say that I’m still in the process of defining a clear direction for myself and defining my own “dream job.” But I’m having a blast with the process. I’m meeting new people and exposing myself to all kinds of stories and life paths, allowing me to learn more about myself every day. I’m happy with where I am and excited with what the future will bring, even especially if I have no idea where it’s going to take me.

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I’m also the first to admit that the process can also make you feel hysterical, and like the universe is about to explode into itself, and it’s on you to cut the wire that will save it. So to that, I offer you some key nuggets of advice that you can use as your “strings to sanity” (world, call me #TermCoiner) to help keep you motivated as you carve out your own path.

Make every experience count. What can you learn from this job that can give you a competitive edge in another job or industry? Make every skill a transferable skill. As Sallie Krawcheck, former head of Merrill Lynch and Smith Barney, and owner of the professional women’s network 85 Broads, says, “Keep a running note of what works and what doesn’t work for you, what you like and what you don’t like, what you’re good and what you aren’t, the work styles that suit you and what doesn’t, where you passions lie and what leaves you cold.”

Stay open to opportunities. Dare to say yes to new things – you’ll be surprised by what you learn about yourself.

Never stop exploring your interests. These will lead you down the clearest path to uncovering your true passions. Plus, they have the power to take you further than any major, internship, or job.

Get involved with the community. Meet people and hear their stories; these are the things that you won’t learn no matter how many classes you take.

Be kind. Because good things happen to nice people and everyone likes people who are kind. It’s science.

Fake it till you make it. Take it from me, you’ll feel like you’ve made it every single day…even if just in your head. ;)

Relax. It’s the hardest part, I know. But what’s the point of making the journey worthwhile if you don’t let yourself enjoy it? Sleep in late, eat more chocolate, go out on a Tuesday. Youth should not be wasted on the young just because we don’t have our entire lives figured out at 22.

What’s the biggest realization you’ve had since graduating college? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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