Lies, Poverty and Values: What You Didn't See Coming

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By Michael Ball '99

It's going to hurt; it always does.

But that's not the point. The post-graduation struggle to find work, friendship, happiness, free beer -- or any of those other perks college handed you with a wink and a nod -- is one of the most important transitions you'll ever make. Never mind the dog-and-pony shows that on-campus recruiters host, or the highbrow opinions of your ivory-towered professors, or even the admonitions of your paranoid folks (unless, of course, they're rattled enough to stop writing you checks). This is a knockdown, drag-out, tooth-and-nail fight that you're going to wage right inside of your own heart and mind -- probably at the expense of most of your night and weekend minutes, and the patience of the people who once called you "fun at parties."

I know, I did it. (I had to write a book just to get through it). And, like everyone else, I thought I was the only one dealing with these sorts of issues: Frustration at my IQ-draining job -- which, mind you, was with one of the prestigious Big Five (now Four) consulting firms -- the absence of new social outlets, little free time, even less free money, and a complete inability to figure out how to fix any of it. Kind of makes you nostalgic for the days when you could guess what was going to be on the midterm just by looking at the professor. (Or the questions he carelessly left on his desk during the office hours nobody was supposed to show up for.)

But, no, I was in good company -- right in line with everyone else who shook the dean's hand, waved hi to mom, and suffered through college's final hangover the next morning. And it's not something a low-interest credit card or a couple of Friday-night friends can get you through. It requires, instead, finally coming to terms with your values, your priorities, what gets you up in the morning. Generally having little or nothing to do with your undergrad major, your "value-added skill sets," or what any of your educational-loan cosigners may have to say, this is that dark and lonely place you need to sit cross-legged in for a while until you get comfortable there.

And it's not just for the sake of being self-actualized or finding more sophisticated ways to pick up on people in bars. Understanding what kind of work fulfills you as a person, rather, is the stuff that makes for happy lives, happy families -- well distanced from the hair transplants and German sports cars that most men need when they realize they're going to die in 25 or so years, and haven't accomplished a thing of actual worth.

Not that you're going to find it, necessarily, in an entry level job. (In fact, the odds of you doing that would make even Vegas blush.) But it's absolutely the place to begin that earnest search to find the career you were made to do. And what better a time? You've probably got no spouse, no kids, no mortgage, none of the trappings of success that keep most people hopelessly anchored to whatever lifestyle they've bought into. Don't get me wrong -- we all want a warm home, a leather-trimmed sedan, a safe school for the offspring and all of that; just not yet.

Now's the time to be exploring, introspecting, dipping your pinky-toe into all of the different pools out there to see what the water is like. Forget about the pay (especially after taxes), forget about the name brands, forget about what kinds of $12 specialty cocktails your friends are wasting their livers on. This is about finding what works for you, as an individual, as a unique human being with an important set of values and needs that you're responsible for getting met.

I'm one to talk, right? Before I hit 24, I had already put in time with a Fortune 500, two of the Big Five, and a high-profile Silicon Valley start-up company. If the name wasn't impressing you or the money impressing my 401(k), I frankly wasn't interested. That is, until I found myself in the grips of a depression that even the guys in lab coats over at Pfizer didn't have a pill for.

Because your first couple of jobs, plainly put, are going to suck. Some of them really, really badly. (Especially the ones that they recruit heavily for.) It's about photocopying and filing and placing catering orders and dealing with "seagull managers" (the ones who unexpectedly swoop in, make a lot of noise, crap over everything, and then leave). So to make all of the pain and anger count, it has got to be going toward something you care about, or at least think you might care about.

Right or wrong, it doesn't matter, it's beside the point. What matters is that you're taking the steps to find your passion-that you're eschewing the money and the status and all of the other accoutrements that won't be of any consolation when the alarm goes off on a cold, rainy Monday morning.

Everyone fails (especially successful people, and almost always at the entry level). Even after writing and publishing my book, I still don't get to stand in the short line at Wells Fargo. So what? I've done something I care about, that's important to me. It's far more than most of my old colleagues can say, and certainly worth more than their sexy business cards and sexless nights at the office.

So as you stumble half-stupored into this brave new world, understand and accept the fact that you're going to get slapped around a bit. The comforting auspices of college have made you soft and complacent, and it's time to callous yourself up to some of the harsh realities of earning a paycheck. But when you do it by following your heart -- no matter how much easier said than done -- you'll be on the path to your lifelong fulfillment, success and happiness. Plus then you get to put some freshly degreed greenbean like you through his paces one day, and how much fun is that going to be?

Michael Ball authored the critically noted book, @ the Entry Level: On Survival, Success, & Your Calling as a Young Professional, and is the founder of Career Freshman Co., a counseling organization for twenty somethings.

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