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Cognition

What I Wish I Had Known When I Graduated College

Last week, Greg Storey and I attended the Senior Exit Review at Texas State University. We were both blown away by the quality of work and were incredibly jealous that these students got to learn so much about the web in college. It made me think back to when I graduated and how confused I felt about, well, everything. Looking back at what I’ve learned since then, I came up with the following list of what I wish someone had told me at the time:

1. It’s tough for everyone.

By the time I graduated from film school, I realized that working in the film industry for the rest of my life wasn’t for me. Four years and all that debt for nothing. Sorry, Mom and Dad! After throwing my education out the window, I got a job as a nanny. I enjoyed the day-to-day of hanging out with six-year-olds (ask me anything about Sponge Bob), but I felt like a failure. It seemed like all my friends and classmates had jobs with salaries and health insurance, while I was playing Mary Poppins.

Recently, I talked with some friends about the year of purgatory after college. It turns out everyone felt lost during this time, even those with “real” jobs (they all hated them and quit). Now that I have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I can tell you that it’s okay to feel lost. Travel. Take a fun job like nannying or giving museum tours or fixing bikes, because when you’re 40, you probably won’t want to. Even if it feels like you’re not learning anything or advancing your career, you are. You will be better at whatever you end up doing because of this time.

2. Ask for help.

During this period, I got a crazy idea: maybe I could make websites. But, I hadn’t majored in it and didn’t have any friends doing it, so I didn’t know where to start. At the time, I read Jason Santa Maria’s blog and emailed him to ask if we could get coffee so I could barrage him with questions. He graciously agreed and spent an hour giving me advice about how to become a web designer. One of the first things he told me to do was to read Designing With Web Standards. I did, and the rest is history.

We’re lucky to work in an industry full of incredibly nice people who like to teach and help each other. Don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed to ask for things. Here’s a little secret: people really like helping. You’re not bothering them by getting in touch—you’re giving them the opportunity to pay it forward. (And when they respond, don’t forget to be nice, patient, and appreciative.)

3. It’s okay to quit.

Shortly after meeting with Jason, I took a job as an assistant at a publishing company in New York. They treated me well, I liked my boss, and I got along with everyone I worked with, but my heart wasn’t in it. After a few months, I started to understand the “9-to-5 blues” that I had heard adults complain about. I spent about a year debating whether or not to stick it out, and eventually decided to quit. This decision forced me to take on some freelance design work, which I ended up loving.

I often think back to this great podcast about the upside of quitting. The sooner you stop doing something you don’t love, the sooner you can be moving towards something you do. Life is too short to do something you’re not passionate about.

4. You’re in the right place, at the right time.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably interested in doing internet-y things. This industry moves fast. The great part about this is that everyone—no matter how long they’ve been at it—is constantly learning as they go. There is a kind of “Wild West” attitude with everything we do. We’re all venturing and discovering new things together, and it’s really fun.

This constant state of flux also means that there are no true experts. You are just as likely to write an amazing plugin as a web veteran who has been working for 25 years. You can meet really smart people on Twitter. You could start a blog and publish your thoughts for anyone to read. No matter where you live, you can join the community and the conversations. At no other time in history has this been possible—take advantage of it!

5. You’ll be fine.

Yesterday, after the wonderful Artifact Conference, I asked around about what other advice people would offer to someone graduating college. The resounding answer was along the lines of “be nice and work hard.” I couldn’t agree more. Whether you end up working in the web industry or doing something completely different, if you do those two things, you’ll be well on your way.

You’re in the lucky position of having time on your side, with your whole career ahead of you. Don’t worry if you don’t know what you want to do right now. You’ll figure it out in time. Take it easy and relax—you just graduated, and you deserve it.

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