What I Wish Knew When I Graduated From College
19 life lessons I would tell my 21-year-old self
Every May, actresses, entrepreneurs, authors, and other public figures share their hard-earned wisdom with college grads. Some commencement speakers deliver encouraging advice, touching on themes like resilience, fear, and hard work. Some toupee-topped politicians plagiarize speeches from fictional blonde lawyers. To each their own, right?
Anyway, it made me think back to my own college graduation in 2010. Exactly seven (!) years ago, I was graduating from the University of Virginia with a degree in English. I was hungover and sweating it out on a hot day in May. I was excited and nervous and a little sad and honestly, not thinking all that much about my future.
What do I wish I had known then? What would I want to tell my younger self, sitting on the UVA Lawn in a plastic chair? There’s so much I could say, but let’s be real: Even if an older and (slightly) wiser 28-year-old Locke had told 21-year-old Locke all this back in 2010, I wouldn’t have listened. I had to live it and learn it for myself.
So, even though I’m no Oprah or Sheryl Sandberg, I figured I’d share some life lessons I’ve learned over these post-grad years.
1. You are so young.
I know you hate to hear that, but you really are. You have a completely clean slate on which to create a life for yourself. You can start from scratch. You can go anywhere. You literally have the world at your fingertips (thanks, iPhones!). I don’t think many 21-year-olds can grasp the reality of that—I know I didn’t.
2. There’s no rush to start your career.
Notice I said start a career—not get a job. I worked in a clothing store the summer after I graduated. And you know what? I wish I had sold bathing suits for a few more months. Or traveled around Europe (cheaply). Or moved to a completely different part of a country and worked as a waitress or bartender or tennis teacher.
Instead, I was itching to move to New York City and start a career in ~media.~ Not that it was a bad choice, but it would have been cool to explore more options before I committed to the 9-to-5 life full-steam ahead. Making money is important, of course, but having a year’s worth of weird and wonderful experiences is invaluable.
3. Being someone’s assistant is actually a fantastic first job.
Not many of us graduate from college wanting to be an assistant — let alone an intern. Well, I was both! And both were awesome experiences — honestly, maybe two of my best jobs ever. I learned a ton about how the corporate world works, I saw how successful women do it “all,” and I made connections I wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. If you find a good boss you admire and look up to, you’d be lucky to work as their assistant.
4. Social media is about to change everything.
Holy cow, the media landscape has changed in the last few years. I’m not even that old, and Instagram or Snapchat didn’t even exist when I graduated from college. I started in print media, and since then have had jobs that revolve entirely around social media. Things change. It’s a fact of life. Hold on tight, and try to be flexible—and open-minded—about how those changes may affect your career path.
5. Never stop learning.
OK, sure, it’s pretty darn nice not to have homework or take tests anymore. But in a world where we’re more distracted—and probably dumber—than ever thanks to our little handheld screens, it’s important to keep learning. Keep reading. Keep listening to podcasts. Keep taking classes (especially when they’re paid for by your employer!).
6. Find a way to help others.
In Oprah’s commencement speech at Agnes Scott College, she said, “Having a closet full of shoes doesn’t fill up your life. Living a life of substance can. Substance through your service.” Clearly, I can’t say it better than Oprah.
7. Watch what you drink.
College was a lot of fun. But living in your own apartment — and making your own money — is even more fun. (Trust me.) There’s nothing like living in New York City in your early 20s, but there’s also nothing more terrifying that not remembering how you got home the night before—or worse. Take better care of your body—it’s the only one you’re going to get.
8. Networking is important.
The value of a face-to-face connection more important than ever these days. Ask more people to coffee. Go to more events. Talk more IRL, not just over email. It’s how you’ll get noticed, get hired, and get ahead.
9. Health insurance is important too. (Ugh.)
All that crap your parents dealt with when you were younger is your responsibility now. (Ugh.) Health insurance, renter’s insurance, 401(k)s, stocks, taxes: It’s not fun, but you have to figure it out. And you better do so before you get stuck with an $800 dentist bill. (MAJOR ugh.)
10. You’re not going to marry that guy.
Or the next one, or the next one. Don’t put *so* much time and effort and thought and emotion into those early-20s relationships. More likely than not, it’s probably fleeting. And if not, it wouldn’t have been so damn difficult.
11. Spend time pursuing your own interests.
This is a hard one to admit, but I do wish I had spent less time hanging out in bars right after college—and a lot more time discovering my own passions. My advice: Stop worrying about what’s going to make you seem “cool” and do what makes you happy. Life is a little bit of a popularity contest, but in the real world (unlike high school), what makes someone “popular” is being an interesting, well-rounded, successful person—not spending the entire weekend getting drunk and watching Netflix.
12. Success will not come overnight.
You can’t expect opportunities to fall into your lap. You have to work your a** off. Listen to Gary Vee. I know patience is hard pill to swallow, and I’m still wrapping my head around it. I even have this quote [<<] taped on my fridge to serve as a daily reminder.
13. Learn how to manage your time.
Speaking of time, learning how to schedule your days when you’re working from 9 to 5 (or later) isn’t the easiest thing to do. You’ll find yourself spending a lot of time sitting at a desk, and not as much time running errands, going to the gym, or just hanging out. Productivity is a hard skill to learn, but you can learn it—just check out the crazy amount of content that people write about it.
14. Your metabolism won’t stay that way forever.
You’ve gained — and lost — the freshman 15. Great. Now, welcome to the office-worker 10. Before it becomes the office-worker 20, learn how to cook healthy meals. Find a fitness activity you’re into. And don’t overdo it at the office candy bowl.
15. Learn how to handle the little things.
…before they pile up and become big things. Pay your bills, pay rent, take out the trash, empty out your fridge, clean out your drain. These can all turn into much bigger messes if you let them go for too long.
16. Save your money for experiences, not things.
I spent a lot of money taking weekend trips out of the city those first few years after college. And I’m glad I did. I think we should all spend less money on things and more on making memories. That summer weekend at the beach with friends will bring a lot more value (and fun) to your life than a fancy dress you wear three times.
17. Everyone gets lonely sometimes.
You are not the only one who feels like a loser who has no plans on a Friday night. You are not the only one who feels like crap when the person you like doesn’t text you back. You are not the only one feeling homesick on a holiday when everyone else goes to visit their families. We all get down and feel alone at times. Next time you do, try reaching out to someone else—they may be feeling the exact same way.
18. It’s OK if you don’t know exactly what you want to do.
Real talk: I’m 28 and still not sure what I want to do with my life. Right after college, I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and well, I did it. But now I’m realizing that it’s OK to change your mind. It’s OK to spend time exploring and learning about other options before committing to a path. Look back to #1: The world is your oyster—and still is, no matter how old you are.
19. Just breathe.
And when thinking all that becomes too overwhelming (I’m right there with you!) return to your breath. Breathe in, breathe out. It’s all going to be OK.