This article originally appeared on USATODAY
I was a 24-year-old senior at Rutgers in the fall of 2000.
The product of a union between a college professor turned computer-based-training writer and a high school English teacher, I was completing a double major in History and English.
I had gotten into a little bit of trouble as a teenager, but I straightened out at 19 and promptly joined the Army.
My parents were divorced by then, but they were united in that neither of them offered suggestions or pressure about my post-college plans. Maybe it was because they were so thrilled that my ill-spent late teens were over, or perhaps it was that they saw that I was struggling with what to do next.
What I Didn’t Want to Do
Like Holden Caulfield and Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack’s character in 1989’s “Say Anything”), I knew what I didn’t want to do that next year (make the Army a career, work full time, settle down with my college girlfriend, go to grad school), but I had no idea about what I wanted to do.
I had spent most of my entire life to that point as a student … and now I would no longer be one. I doubted that I could wake up early on a regular basis and worried that I would not be able to hold down a full-time job.
And if I was able to keep a job, I was terrified that I would find it boring and uninspiring (reading novels about fascinating characters having adventures and studying historical figures does not spiritually prepare one for the drudgery of cubical life).
I was staring into a big scary void. I wasn’t depressed that winter, but I certainly was in a bit of a funk.
My father’s longtime girlfriend at the time told me that I was being “overly self-indulgent” and that I should just pick something.
To be fair, my girlfriend wasn’t pressuring me to settle down (we were a bit off again, on again). Additionally my Army National Guard contract wasn’t finished until February 2002.
Scared to leave college, I applied to a bunch of graduate programs without having a clear sense of what I would do with those degrees.
A Cross Country Trip
That summer, I drove across America with my long-term college roommate and we spent a few weeks in Alaska. We ate salmon and crab, rode a boat on the inner passage, hiked around Denali, and drove all the way to the Arctic Circle. It was memorable and glorious.
I received a graduate assistantship to the Bloustein School of Public Policy that fall. Ten days into the semester, the Twin Towers fell and I was activated to guard the Hudson River crossings.
Returning to class, I felt as lost as I had the previous winter. During spring break, I read a Michael Chabon novel and decided to up and move to Seattle. I had no idea what I would do there, but I figured that I would figure it out in a new place.
Seattle quickly morphed into Tokyo. I spent all of 2003 there teaching English to people as young as 12 to as old as 79. Right before I left, one of my best friends overdosed and died.
I spent many evenings wandering around Tokyo thinking of my dead friend and what I would eventually do. During this time I discovered that I adored teaching. I met lifelong friends from England, Australia and New Zealand. I traveled around Southeast Asia. Weekly I wrote an email column for my friends and family and read dozens of books. Living in Japan was one of the seminal experiences of my life.
Clarity Followed By Action
When I returned to America, I took a full-time job as a drug counselor. A few months later enrolled in full-time grad school to become a social worker. Eventually, I settled down with my college girlfriend (we divorced in 2014, but getting married to her was still a smart choice). I finished another master’s at Bloustein. A few years later I rejoined the Army and have made it a career.
If you are keeping score, I ended up doing all of the things that I said I wasn’t ready to do back in that winter of 2000. The key lesson is that I wasn’t ready to do them then. I had to grow into myself.
If you are graduating from college or grad school this year, this column may help you. If you are someone who needs direct advice, though, here are a few pointers:
- Pick something. Anything. Just don’t dawdle.
- Consider working abroad. I push many of my students to do that. Every one of them that studied or lived in a foreign country thanked me profusely for urging them to distant shores.
- Don’t buy a new car or get into any more debt. This will only hamper future decisions.
- Surround yourself with interesting people doing neat things.
- Only go to grad school if you know exactly what you want to do with that degree. Hopefully, some job or university will pay for your schooling.
- Don’t look for a great job, look for a great boss. They are the key to your work happiness and development.
- Avoid both partying and a staid routine (surfing on your phone, watching Netflix, hanging around the same people continually doing the same things).
- During a speech at a high school graduation many years ago, Bill Gates told them to “always wear sunscreen.”
- During my own college graduation, the speaker reminded us that “you have the right to remain silent”. An adage in Alcoholics Anonymous is the restraint of tongue and pen.
- Read biographies. They’ll inspire you.
Graham Greene wrote that until you’re faced with the disrepair of old age, the scariest year of one’s life is the lonely and confusing year immediately after high school or college. For many people, that’s true. It doesn’t have to be. Good luck, Class of 2017.