06/13/2013 02:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Now What? A Guide for Recent Graduates (and Other Seeking Souls)

By Alyssa Frank

For outgoing seniors on the brink of adulthood, wearing a full-length polyester gown isn't the only source of discomfort on graduation day. A diploma comes wrapped up in a jumble of expectations and pressures. There's a nagging feeling that you -- an early 20-something whose most "adult" possessions include a George Foreman Grill and a button-down shirt you've had since high school -- should have it all mapped out. But no need to panic. Contrary to whatever your anxious brain (or parental figure) is telling you, you don't need to know exactly who you'll be on March 13, 2033. Even if you tried to plot out your life like it's a Google Map route, the mercurial tides of change are bound to take you in a direction you hadn't expected. Figuring out who you are and what you want to do is more like a meandering, tangent-filled journey. And while we can't give you directions (your interests and values are your GPS), we can offer some helpful strategies for navigating the roadblocks. We'd like to pass them down; along with the message that it's gonna be okay! After all, the next leg of your ride is made for experimenting, screwing up, and modifying -- even if does mean you have to start waking up before noon.

Let's start at square one:

1. Explore your interests (not "occupations")

As speaker and author Kevin Carroll once told us: "You only know what you know." And what you know at this point comes primarily from being bunkered in books. You're probably finding it difficult to connect your knowledge of WWII economic output to actually landing a job and being able to buy pants for yourself. That's totally normal! Now that you don't have GE requirements to complete and a paper to start that's due in five hours, you can investigate what you truly enjoy doing. And it might have nothing to do with your major. Maybe you always wanted to do film or horticulture, but you were locked into poli-sci. Think about what tugs at you the most, and where your skills intersect your interests. Because, as we've learned from years of interviewing people about their lives, work doesn't have to be a perfunctory chore that only serves to pay the bills. When you do something you actually enjoy, you don't feel that violent urge to smash your alarm clock in the morning when it goes off for work (okay, it still sucks to leave your bed, but you're excited to get to work nevertheless).

Turning your interests into a livelihood might start with little steps: Volunteering at an organization that's important to you, like Hannah Song, who is now vice president of LiNK (Liberty in North Korea). Or, starting in the mail room at a company you love, like Mike Lazzo, now senior executive vice president of Adult Swim at Cartoon Network. If you're not sure what you love to do, create space from the daily grind to figure out what brings you joy. The bottom line is, there are jobs out there that combine your idiosyncratic interests -- we've just all been trained to cram ourselves into pre-assembled careers that are prescribed to us, rather than starting with what we like. It's entirely possible to go beyond the mass-produced options when you start with you.

Now, before you start thinking we're just a bunch of touchy-feely idealists peddling a fairy tale approach to life, let us explain. We're not saying a traditional path like a doctor, teacher, lawyer, etc. is wrong, and that everyone should become something like a bubble gum sculptor or manatee trainer. We just mean: expand your idea of what's possible. Like Elise Benstein (interviewed in the upcoming season of Roadtrip Nation). She's a scientist. But she's a Jelly Belly flavor scientist who has combined her love of sweets and science to create things like barf candy. Christina Heyniger, featured in the video above, is another example of custom-tweaking and transforming the beaten path. We tend to think of business consultants as suits in a board room, but Christina established an adventure tourism consultant company where she gets out in nature combining sports, travel, and business. The point is, we've seen people across the spectrum carve out niches in things that matter to them. Obviously, making a living off your interests takes time, effort, and skill to achieve success. But don't let your limited scope of what's "practical" scare you into settling for something safe and tepid. This is exactly the right time to:

2. Take calculated risks. NOW!

You're in that fleeting interval of life where one has minimal obligations and an unreasonably high tolerance for living off canned soup in apartments where sheets are used as drapes. Now is not the time to forfeit your dreams and start reenacting the plot to Office Space. You should be taking calculated risks dictated by your aspirations to determine whether a certain pursuit resonates with you. You don't want wake up at 42 like Pam Gaber and realize that you've been squandering the past 20 years on a safe path that never satisfied you. Once you're saddled with a mortgage and mouths to feed and a three-piece furniture set that matches your kitchen backsplash, it'll be harder to veer away from a dead-end track and start over. Pam did eventually find meaning halfway through her life when she switched from insurance to running a non-profit. But no one should have to wait that long. Taking a risk now might initially disappoint your family who expected you to take that comfy job with the 401(k) and the walls lined with inspirational posters of people climbing mountains. But no one else has to live your life. Which is why it's crucial to:

3. Shed the noise of expectation you're hearing

Everyone has an opinion on where you're going in life, and even what you ate last Tuesday. But that didn't stop you from devouring four Doritos Locos tacos, and it shouldn't deter you from chasing a pursuit that could really make you happy. We're not saying that all advice should be rejected. Some people -- especially your elders -- really do have a lot of sage advice to impart because they were alive when Doc Martens and high-waisted jeans were popular the first time around. But when you hear admonitions nudging you in a certain direction, it's important to filter it through a sieve of self-analysis. Ask yourself: "Does this advice correspond with who I am and who I want to be?" If not, let it roll of your shoulders. Ain't nobody got time for that.

The key is to decide for yourself what success means, and to use that personal definition as a shield against society's barrage of subjective opinions. This involves putting yourself under the microscope and honestly identifying what will make you happy. Maybe working long 60-hour weeks will never suit you, no matter the pay, and you'd be happier with a lesser salary spending more time with family. This perspective of success might conflict with your aunt's, who believes a walk-in closet is the mark of accomplishment. But, as badass monk Brother Stavros once told us (and no, "badass monk: is definitely not an oxymoronic term; check out his interview): "The biggest pitfall is to let society decide what your happiness is. To be really happy, you have to be counter-cultural, and have the bravery to do it."

Tune in to your truths, and don't be pressured to do something like go to grad school just because everyone on Facebook is doing it. In fact, before you do anything:

4. Look beyond the "image." Talk to people living your interests.

Oftentimes, we're too besotted with the packaging of something to open it up and peer inside. A business degree beckons with the prospect of a six-figure salary and travel. A psychology degree seems like the perfect way to help people one-on-one. But what are the quotidian realities of getting out of bed and doing that job day in and day out? As Zen Master Bon Soeng told us:

"People might have nice ideas. You should be a lawyer, a doctor. Being a lawyer or a doctor is an idea. Every day getting up and having to do what it actually means to be a lawyer, or a doctor, or a zen teacher, or therapist... that's the reality of your situation. Life isn't an image. It's actually the doing of it...Ultimately, if it doesn't feel like it connects to who you are and what you should be doing, you're the one who has to live it."

Talking to people who are doing what you're interested in is the best way to crack the veneer and expose the realities behind a certain path -- and life in general. A boilerplate description of a teacher online isn't going to convey what it feels like to help a struggling student overcome a hardship; or conversely, what it's like to not be able to use your lesson plan because you have to teach students facts to pass a scantron state exam. The people who are actually on the ground every day will give it to you straight. Ask them candid questions about their happiness quotients: Are they fulfilled? What do they like most about their job? What do they like least? Go beyond the career fair questions and mine their personal stories to uncover their struggles, triumphs, and lessons learned. Things can get deep and personally affecting when you open up and reveal your challenges, which will, in turn, encourage others to share their own.

Of course, even with introspection and research put in up-front, nothing will steer you towards what's intrinsically right like actually doing. So:

5. Try something. Then iterate.

The best you can do is dive into something, continually evaluate your happiness, and if you outgrow a situation, make adjustments that bring you closer in line with your ever-evolving self. Life is mutable, so you might end up in a totally different place than you initially planned. But the great thing is, if you can adapt in a way that's congruent with your interests and values, it'll probably be better than you envisioned because you will have stayed true to yourself. As video game designer Vicki Smith articulated with the logical sensibility fitting of someone who used to be an engineer: "I think sometimes you just need to stop wondering what you want to do with your life, and go out and do something. If you move forward, you'll find your way, because your way will be informed by who you are and what you like."

So, want the tl:dr version of this missive? Just listen to yourself. You'll know what to do.

To watch more interviews from the road, head to