To the approximately 4 million college students graduating this month: congratulations, and welcome to the jungle.
And to the approximately 3.99 million of you who don't have jobs lined up and are starting to panic: don't. You don't know it yet, but you may be about to start the most interesting year of your life.
I've been there. I graduated college in June of 2002, shortly after both the "Dot Com" and "America Being Invincible" bubbles had terrifyingly burst. True, employment numbers were not as bad as they are now, but I was also a film major. I had my heart set on becoming a video editor either in Minneapolis or Chicago, my only two homes until that point, but no editing companies in Minneapolis or Chicago were hiring in 2002. I know, because I called every single one of them. I found a graveyard shift job as a stock-footage organizer at a news company, and was promptly laid off. I found a 12-hour-day, coffee-fetching gig at an advertising company, and was promptly laid off. I ended up as an office building security guard and a bouncer. One of the other bouncers worked by day as a mortician, and we commended him for finding the only two industries that are truly recession-proof: booze and death.
It was the most depressing Minnesota winter I've ever experienced. My parents (in whose house I was of course still living) were sympathetic, but I felt like I was letting them down. I was angry at the world, for promising me success if I only went to college, and then switching the carrot. But mostly I felt like a disappointment. I knew what I was "supposed to be doing," and I was failing at it.
Then one day, something clicked over in my brain. If I couldn't start my career, I thought, I should at least do something I'd never be able to once I had a career. Something ridiculous. Something that 60-year-old Me could tell my grandkids about, as a partial explanation for why my student loans still weren't paid off. My "something ridiculous" was to borrow my parents' beat-up blue van and drive to all 48 contiguous United States.
I scraped together graduation checks and what meager savings I had, ignored (for now) my eighty grand of tuition debt, and set out with a cooler of PB&J's and a two-foot road atlas. I drove from Minnesota to Maine to Florida to Washington to California and back, zigzagging to pick up Texas and the Dakotas, doing whatever I'd always wanted to do in every state. I stayed with friends where I had them, but most of the time I slept in the car. I ran into problems, strangers, and had a LOT of time alone behind the wheel to think.
The trip was not easy. I often had to get outside myself and do things I wasn't comfortable with. I'm not the Bear Grylls of the American Highway, and sleeping in a car for seven straight weeks is tough, especially on dark back roads (I vowed not to take any Interstates) where any drifter can come up and stare in your window. I became incredibly lonely at times, and of course there was the overpowering guilt of turning my back on everything I was "supposed to do". And then there were the physical setbacks that inevitably pop up on a seven week road trip: car breakdowns in the middle of nowhere, trouble with the police for accidentally sleeping outside a daycare center, and at least one swim in a snake-filled river in search of lost car keys. One morning I woke up on the roof of my car in a strange park in Idaho and realized I hadn't seen anyone I knew in six days, hadn't showered in seven, and that I was almost out of money and had no idea where I was. And that was the moment realized I was the happiest I'd ever been.
This is not an origin tale about how I learned my path was to become a wandering Buddhist monk or something, but I did learn that maybe I didn't need to be a video editor in the Midwest. In fact I learned a lot of things about myself I didn't know, and a lot about what else is out there that I didn't expect. It's hard to see these things when you've been staring down one road your whole life. Sometimes it takes being forced outside yourself to open your eyes.
I'm 30 now, and the road trip is still the best thing I've ever done. Heck, looking back, even being a security guard, bouncer and coffee-peon were three of the most interesting jobs I've ever had, for better or worse. I'm not rich and famous, but things have mostly worked themselves out for me, just as they will for you. In the meantime, I did a lot of amazing things I never thought I'd do, all because there was a recession on and I couldn't find a real job. Maybe "what you're supposed to do" is just live the heck of the life you're facing at the moment, whatever that life is. There will be time for your career - in fact, you're going to spend most of your life doing it, as hard as that may be to believe right this second. Maybe now's the time for something else. Something ridiculous.
Smile, kids. Your graduation checks can last longer than you think when you spend them on PB&J's.
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