I remember a year ago today pretty well. It was in the middle of what was called Senior Week--this hazy compilation of hours spent perpetually drunk, the sort of thing that force-fed the notion that it’d be socially irresponsible not to end college with a bang. (Note that this whole thing was organized by administration types, so only one bang. Not four. You should obviously strive for four.)
Not that I mean to compromise any of that clear awesomeness with too much goddamn negativity (apocalyptic drinking with your best Bros is definitely not the worst), but the whole thing was very much like what people do for four months before ultimately breaking up with their girlfriends--despite the wistful and sincere statements, it was clear that we’d all, in our own little ways, outgrown college. Not necessarily by choice; by the end of your senior year, you’re basically standing in the same place, having the same conversations with the same people. The social equivalent of hitting on a girl for too long and running out of cool, edgy things to talk about...anything stands out there long enough, its gonna get stale.
Graduation occurred, I went through alcohol withdrawal for a week, and then I #started here. Then a year occured, I wrote this column every week, and I opened up a google doc and started writing this article. My intention here was to be all like “look at me, I’m experienced the real world I know now a bunch of shit.” Then I realized doing that was just about as douchey as that smirk Daniel Tosh does right before he’s about to tell a joke he’s particularly proud of. And while Tosh gets away with it, the rest of us shouldn’t. Being a big deal seems like something that should be earned.
Truth is we’ve all learned things, and all want to talk about how fucking smart we now are as opposed to an earlier point in time. It represents a personal growth. (Remember the moment you turned 7, how you didn’t waste a second bashing your six year-old shithead self to bits?) I’m not trying to argue that the year after college represents some sort of saintly epiphanic progression that automatically puts you in position to furrow your eyebrow, slightly lean back in your chair and suddenly improvise incredibly profound conclusions. The beauty about being 23 is that while you're finally old enough to know everything, you’re still too young to actually know anything. But what I am trying to argue, is that this “9th Semester”--the year following college, if you're a dense carton of curdled milk and didn't figure that part out by now--CAN'T be the one you snooze through. Because in the grand scheme of things, it's infinitely more valuable than George Bluth’s Banana Stand. (If Ja Rule and Sean Paul have taught us anything, its that topical pop culture references, no matter how tremendous they may be, will always be fleeting.)
Big time opinions and statement, but here’s why, college graduates, the next 12 months of your life matters a lot:
You Get to Start Playing the Game
College is there to give you an education and stuff, but increasingly not the education that everyone talks about when they mean “education.” Its really just a place to learn how to socialize on a more mature level, and meet the sort of people that, based on where you’re going to school and how well you’re doing, will deal with for the rest of your life. Smart person David Brooks calls this practical knowledge, or “the ability to be assertive in a meeting; to disagree pleasantly; to know when to interrupt and when not to; to understand the flow of discussion and how to change people’s minds; to attract mentors; to understand situations; to discern what can change and what can’t.”
When you take that statement and remove the need to be intellectual though, he’s basically talking about the qualities of people on campus who managed to matter--respected campus leaders, fraternity Presidents, the kid who tripped balls all day and night but somehow commanded the most interesting conversations. The girl who wasn’t smart but connived her way into getting a letter grade higher, or the dude who gamed the system by taking a schedule that got him a 3.7 without having to do more than 45 minutes of work per semester. People who figured out how the college bubble operated, and positioned themselves accordingly. A quality that, increasingly spells success in this "real world."
Sure there are few jobs that are more skill oriented and trade-based (doctors, specialized engineers, computer coding, certain areas of finance), but we’re increasingly living in an idea economy. A world where finite skills may get you to the floor, but playing your hand properly will get you to the ceiling. Many careers and industries nowadays operate as this weird, only slightly altered version of House of Cards. Properly manipulating to the top, however you do that best--killing ‘em with kindness, letting your work ethic speak, letting your buzzword game speak, whatever. The kid that didn’t do shit but got a 3.7 is the kid that can easily be successful nowadays--He makes analogies to Mad Men, he does the “right” things on the weekends. He’s self-aware enough to not take anything seriously. Which is just his defense mechanism for taking everything seriously.
Your first year is your exposure to all this. It takes awhile to get acclimated--I’m assuming it really takes a few years, at least. But you start learning what it takes, what you’re made of. Discarding half the shit you held dear, necessary, or valuable seems like its the first step. Norms and rules are more like general guidelines.
No One Gives a Shit
No matter what you make think of your institution, colleges are somewhat invested in you. They want their school to have awesome alumni that they can brag about on the info session packets. They want a good retention rate. And most of all, they want your money. So while it may be a big step, there’s still this institutional safety net we all, at least on some level, fall back on.
Postgrad paths sometimes include fellowships, teaching programs, etc., but the difference with most every business and/or job is that the business is invested in the business--in making money, in perpetuating an idea, etc. You’re ALWAYS a commodity, and you’re technically always replaceable. The only reason this doesn’t happen more often is that hiring someone is generally a big investment, and reneging on that investment often costs $$, brand credibility, connections, stress, and "I've become what I've always dreaded"-induced insomnia. But not because YOU are particularly awesome. No one gives a shit about you--they give a shit about your value. There’s a huge difference between the two.
Looking Like You Know What You’re Doing and Knowing What You’re Doing Isn’t That Different. To a Point.
There’s this line in American Beauty from Real Estate King Buddy Kane that goes “In order to be successful, one must project an image of success.” This is of course is great advice--if you’d like to be a complete tool. It’s also the primary reason why people on Facebook and Twitter use hashtags unironically.
But there is some truth to Buddy's mantra. In 2013, you’ve gotta project an image that you know what’s up. A lot of this goes back to the first point, but oftentimes acting like you know what you’re talking about isn’t too much different. There is of course a limit to pretending; people who know what they’re talking about will eventually see right through you, and its not the best way to gain long-term respect. But a head nod here, a pertinent phrase there, and people are suddenly looking at you differently. This kid cares enough to verse himself in something that seems important, so he must be important. Creating illusions will always be invaluable--the only difference between you and your neighbor is the perception that you are somehow better than them. And yes, this is something that a lot of times could easily decided by simply looking at the evidence. But not all the time. For every job, audition, or proposal there’s going to be someone else just as good, someone who wants it just as badly. You somehow have to convince “them” otherwise. And “them” don’t give a shit about you. Making them seems like a fun game, though.