Ten years ago I walked across the stage at the University of Cincinnati with not a single clue of where I was headed next, except back home to Toledo, OH — not exactly the answer I enjoyed giving when people asked me, “What are your plans after graduation?”

The weekend of my graduation was one of the most amazing times of my life, but come the following Monday I was filled with so much trepidation about my future. I didn’t have job offers to shuffle through or plans to travel or even continue my education. I was very much in the thick of the job search and very anxious to land anything that would prevent me from being another college grad who moved back to her hometown and became mediocre.

Then the day I moved out of my apartment in Cincinnati, I received an email extending an invitation to interview for an editorial assistant’s job in New York City. The cliffs notes version is I took a 16-hour bus to the interview, landed the job, moved to New York in September 2007 and have built a pretty successful career as an editor here. The extended version is once I got to New York making $30,000 a year with $60,000 in school loans knowing not a single person and rushing to “climb the corporate ladder” ish got real.

I think about that time in my life as I watch videos and see pictures of college grads across the country cross the threshold, entering the so-called real world enthusiastically. I remember how unprepared I was for the realities of that world. And I think about the things I wish I knew, like:

  • Work will always be there. You’ll never get “ahead” on work so don’t sacrifice all of your personal/vacation/holiday/hanging out time for the sake of proving yourself.
  • The money will come. You can’t see it now as you cry on the phone with a Sallie Mae agent who thinks you can afford to pay back $800/month in loans, but you won’t always get shafted when it comes to annual raises and promotions. One day you’ll demand your worth and get it.
  • Keep something for yourself. Don’t give your job your all. Save some of your energy and some of your greatest ideas for your own passions and professional projects. It’s possible to do both and do them both well.
  • Get over your networking apprehension. You’re going to wish you knew more people when things get tough at work and you start thinking about an exit strategy.
  • Have more fun. This is the time of your life when you can actually function well on 4 or 5 hours of sleep, take advantage of the possibility of stumbling upon a new, unexpected experience and enjoy more late nights.
  • Travel. You have no clue what kind of life you can create for yourself. Expose yourself to other ways of living sooner rather than later.
  • They lied to you. The formula isn’t work hard in school + get a good job + retire like they said. This is going to piss you off once you realize it, but let it motivate you to create your own formula and not be limited to one path.

Some of these things I’m still reminding myself of, but it would have done me a world of good to know them a decade ago. What would you tell your younger self on graduation day?

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