New Grads: Being Lost Is Good for Your Career

Last Updated May 26, 2011 3:13 PM EDT

It used to be that graduating from college was a sign that you had entered adulthood. But really, let's get serious. It also used to be thought that a bar mitzvah ushered in adulthood, and we now all know the bar mitzvah thing is really just a sign that you are starting regular wet dreams.

So let's debunk the college grad thing: Today college graduation is just a stepping stone to the time of life when you will feel the most lost. Forget all that solemn advice about what to do after college; that was appropriate in another era, when people in their 20s were considered adults. Now that period of life is called "emerging adulthood." A New York Times magazine piece popularized the term to describe this new stage of life between adolescence and actual adulthood. The idea took off so quickly that the writer got a book deal offers just days after the piece ran.

Which just confirms what we all know: college graduation does not mean the entrance into adulthood. It is more like pre-adulthood. If life were Alice in Wonderland, which maybe it is without the pedophile undertones, then life in your 20s is falling through the rabbit hole.

Here are five things you should keep in mind after you graduate from college.

1. Being lost is good.
The great thing about adult life today is that there are no more rules, no more paths. There are lots of opportunities and not a lot of trodden paths among those opportunities. The way to figure out which opportunities are best for you is to learn more about yourself. The way to figure out who you are and what you want is to try new things.

What does this process look like? You, spinning your wheels, having no idea where you are, making everyone around you worried sick that you're a failure. But what if you don't do this process? You will not learn enough about yourself to understand how to navigate hard choices. There are no clear paths. There is no one who can run your life but you. There is no way to find yourself before you accept that you're lost. (And, parents, stop worrying your kid is lost.)

2. Change jobs. A lot.
You will change jobs eight times before you turn 30. If you are the statistical norm. This is a good thing. Daniel Gilbert at the Harvard psychology department has spent a lifetime showing how humans have evolved to be terrible at predicting what we'd like. It's what keeps us focused on finding food and a mate, over and over again. So since we're terrible at guessing what we'd like to do, we have to just try stuff. And we have to accept that we'll be wrong most of the time.

People who change jobs build their skills and their network faster than people who stay in jobs in the name of loyalty or sticking it out. Job hopping in your 20s creates long-term, stable careers.

3. Skip graduate school.
Graduate school only benefits people who absolutely cannot live their life in fulfillment without doing a job that requires a graduate degree. For the most part, this applies to very few people. In general, graduate school does not increase your earning power. Graduate school is merely a tool to elongate the process of being treated like a child by teachers who tell you what to learn and then reward you for learning what they want you to learn.

Do you love to learn? Get a job like the rest of the adult world and then read after work. You can learn whatever you want in the eight hours a day you do not need to work or sleep. And anyway, the most important skill to develop as an adult is how to support yourself. They don't teach that in grad school. Get that skill in your 20s, and you'll feel better about yourself than ten PhD's would make you feel.

4. Move home with your parents.
Among generation Y, more than 70% of college grads move back with their parents at one time or another. If you can stomach your parents, or some other adult who owns a big house, move in with them. If you don't need to pay rent then you will have flexibility to take jobs that pay low but open high-reaching doors to you in the future.

Living with your parents gives you flexibility to turn down bad jobs which puts you on even footing with people like Paris Hilton and Jared Kramer who were born into wealth and connections. A key career stepping stone is to revisit your old twin bed.
5. Be nice.
Your network is going to be the most important thing in your adult life. It'll determine who is available to you to work with, to marry, and to gain support from when you're down. The Framingham Heart Study shows that who you choose to hang around is the biggest influencer of what you will be like - fat, thin, happy, sad, healthy, obese, etc. So be nice. All the time.

Be nice to other people, be nice to yourself, be nice to your mom and to your enemies. If you are nice, you attract nice people and nice people are happier, more successful, and have more self-knowledge than everyone else. Adult life is not a competition for money or a big house or a big title. Adult life is a collaboration to figure out how to make the world a nicer place.