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The One Piece of Advice Every College Graduate Needs to Know

06/02/2014 06:14 pm ET | Updated Aug 02, 2014
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When you graduate college without 100 percent knowing what's next, it's really hard and really scary, and sometimes people laugh at you -- and sometimes you laugh at yourself. "You spent HOW MUCH MONEY on college?! You were a FILM STUDIES major?! You took INTRO TO DANCE senior year?! Have you heard of a little thing called the Recession? You're competing for jobs with 2,000,000 other 22-year-olds with bachelor's degrees from liberal arts colleges and no hard skills; you're so screwed. THE BUMS WILL ALWAYS LOSE MR. LEBOWSKI, THE BUMS WILL ALWAYS LOSE!"

The truth is that you are not screwed. No one ever tells you this at graduation, but it's okay not to know exactly what you want to do with your life. There is not only one answer or one career ladder. You most likely do not have one calling or one life purpose. Over the last 30 years, I've had numerous different "callings," from being Big Bird to being a sportswriter to making movies -- and I'm currently doing none of those things. In the nine years since graduation, I've had eight drastically different jobs, lived in six cities in two countries, and gone down four different career paths. What matters is not whether or not you feel lost (cause everyone feels lost). What matters is what you do when you feel lost.

When most people feel lost, they get nervous and start to feel pressure from all sides, which usually means they end up either taking a job that makes them miserable or go to law school because they don't know what else to do -- and then graduating with even more anxiety (and $150,000 of debt).

Or, they do what I did two years ago when I was stuck in a quarter-life crisis: spend a lot of time on Facebook comparing myself to others and overdosing on FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). At night, I scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed and saw all my friends' lives unfolding and I was jealous: I wanted to be wherever they were, doing whatever they were doing.

I'd think to myself: "Maybe I should move to Thailand? Maybe I should go to grad school? Maybe I should work for a nonprofit? Maybe I should work at a charter school? Maybe I should open my own food truck (even though I don't know how to cook). Maybe I should go WWOOF on an organic farm (even though I don't really like the smell of compost). Maybe I should get married and have kids (even though I don't even have a girlfriend!).

I'd lie in bed, unable to fall asleep. The choices besieged me. I felt helpless, alone and depressed. It was only when I started to look at myself instead of my newsfeed that I gained some clarity on how I wanted to spend my days.

The truth is that all of us are figuring it out, even our friends whose Facebook grass looks really green. I can't count the number of conversations I've had with 20-somethings working well-paying, impressive jobs at notable corporate law firms, management consulting companies, government agencies, investment banks, nonprofits and smaller companies, who are miserable at work and in life because they are not being challenged and they are not at all invested in what they do every morning at 10 a.m. I know quite a few self-employed (read: broke) artists who speak with awe and intrigue about how cool it would be to work for Google and get free food and kale smoothies all day long. And I've met just as many Googlers who say they hate their job and want to be an artist.

The point is not just that the grass is always greener, but that very few people have taken the time to figure out who they really are.

When I was going through my quarter-life crisis, it was daunting to realize that I was 28 years old and I still hadn't figured out who I was. Sure, on paper, I had everything figured out: I had a job, a nice apartment, great benefits, and when people at happy hour asked me the requisite, "So, what do you do?" they were always impressed. But the truth was that I hadn't yet discovered why I was here.

If you're feeling stuck or unsure of the future, turn off Facebook and stop worrying about what others think. Instead, start re-discovering yourself. In the same way a company does research and development for a new product, do R&D on yourself. Who are you? What do you love about yourself? What do you care about? What do you value? What value do you provide to others? What are you good at? What do you want to be good at? What makes you come alive? What impact do you want to have on the world? Why are you here?

Over 70 percent of Americans are disengaged at their jobs. Do not be scared if you don't know who you are or what you want. Instead, find out. Ask the right questions. Experiment with opportunities that align with your interests. Try a job or internship to see if it's the right fit. Try launching your own project or initiative to learn about entrepreneurship. Challenge your assumptions and try something you've never done before. Discovering what doesn't energize you is just as valuable as discovering what does.

If you embrace this period of uncertainty with openness and exploration, you'll not only find a job, but build a meaningful career you believe in.