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Finding Yourself: The Case For Taking Time Off After Graduation

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Going to college today isn't like it was when your parents went (if they went) a generation ago. For one thing, getting in to college is a much trickier game today than it was a generation ago. Everything has gotten more competitive - and with that, the experience itself has become much more fast paced and goal driven.

For many of us, college is a moving sidewalk that takes us in as children and deposits us, four years later, into the world - where we are immediately bombarded with the relentless message that it is time to get started building a life, finding a spouse, settling down, and becoming "responsible" members of society. And many of us dutifully accommodate that expectation, coming out of college and going right on, with our heads down, to the "next big thing," or in order to "make someone proud of us," to "live up to expectations," or whatever it is.

Whoa there, doggie. Hold on just a minute.

Nobody believes in the power of goal setting or longitudinal thinking more than I do. It might surprise you to learn that I am also one of the most vigorous proponents of taking some time to explore all of your possible options after college before you make a real commitment to the "next thing," whatever that is.

"Wow," you might be saying. "That's a pretty stark contradiction. . . . First, this guy has me setting goals and designing a strategy for my major, my core curriculum, and even my summers off . . . and now he's telling me to explore something different after graduation?"

That's exactly what I'm telling you. And it's not a contradiction at all. If you've done college "right" - which is to say, milked the experience for all it's worth by taking as many courses as you could responsibly jam into your schedule; salting your free time with lectures, extracurricular activities, and sports; and spending the wee hours bonding with your roommates, classmates, and new friends"you're going to make the turn into senior year pretty exhausted by it all.

And then you need to write a thesis. And worry about finding a place in the world where you can actually get paid enough to survive or, in the alternative, apply to graduate school and postpone that inevitability a little bit longer.

Or for some of us, much longer.

Slow down! Why is it that so many of us are in such a hurry to "get started" on a career track at twenty-one or twenty-two?

"Money," you say. "I've just incurred all this debt, and I need to start paying it back."

Or . . .

"Responsibility," you say. "Once you graduate from college, it is time to go out into the world and start doing something with your life."

Or . . .

"My parents," you say. "They helped pay for college, and now they're expecting me to go get a job and act like an adult."

Okay, so start paying it back. Go out and do something that will allow you to start doing that. I'm not suggesting you should take a one-way trip to Jackson Hole, take up permanent residence in the ski dorm there, and drink yourself into oblivion every night. I'm not saying you should go down to Key West with your acoustic guitar and become a burnout.

All I'm encouraging you to do is to slow down in your haste to grow up.

"Are you living your own life?"

Well, are you? Or are you trying to measure up to an older sibling or doing what you think your parents want you to do?

"Are you listening to your inner voice?"

Is your inner voice telling you that you want to become a chef and open your own restaurant? If it is, then for the love of God, don't go to law school! That's a recipe for misery!

"Are you following your heart and your intuition?"

Well?

When was the last time you sat down and asked yourself, "If I could invent my world and make it perfect, what would I be doing for a living?"

What would you be doing?

Teaching? Then why the hell don't you go do it now, instead of enduring twenty years of misery on Wall Street and a divorce before you do it?

Founding a nonprofit? Then go DO it. I interviewed a candidate for admission to Yale last week who founded a thriving nonprofit organization when she was fifteen years old!

Want to be an artist or a musician?

Then go do it.

Don't live someone else's life. Life your own life. Do it now, before you have kids and a mortgage, and it is much harder.

So where are you in your thinking? Do you know for certain that you want to go to law school? Are you absolutely sure? Even if you are, do you feel mentally and physically ready to start down that road next fall? It's an incredibly grueling intellectual experience that requires you to be at your mental, psychological, and physical best in order to perform optimally.

Ditto for med school.

You think Wall Street or one of those management consulting firms is going to be any easier? Think again.

A master's or Ph.D. program? Same deal. Huge commitment.

Starting your own business? Hah! That's the biggest commitment of them all.

Now imagine trying to accomplish one of those things in a state of mental exhaustion and with only a halfhearted commitment to it. We see it all the time, and the story almost always ends the same way. You end up miserable, you underperform in comparison to your true ability, and then you shortchange yourself in the opportunity department.

And for what?

All in the name of haste - of hurrying to grab the next brass ring.

Permit me another story.

I came to my choice of major late in the game, and for that reason, my last two years at Yale were jam-packed full of activity. As I hit the turn into senior year, I was so busy working on my thesis and trying to fulfill course requirements that I missed all the off-ramps into life that many of my classmates were taking. At some point in there, a lot of people were interviewing for those Wall Street and management consulting gigs - the two-year commitments with the big paydays that everyone seems to lust after.

Funny how very few of my friends who were in such a hurry to rush off into that world actually stayed there.

Then there were people all around me freaking out about the MCAT and the LSAT. Trying to write their senior thesis, take courses, do test prep, and apply to med school or law school all at the same time.

It was madness.

If I hadn't had my head down, and if I had seen an advertisement for an LSAT prep course at around that time, I probably would have taken it - and might have applied to law school directly.

That would have been the biggest mistake of my life, because I wasn't ready to go to law school at that point. Not even close. But I don't think I would have known that then, so I'm thankful for my good fortune in missing the bus on that one.

Anyway, the rest of us blissfully ignorant people trudged on with our coursework, enjoyed a more leisurely pace in completing our senior theses and senior projects, and, I think, really enjoyed our senior year of college as a result. I can re­member spending hours and hours in the library with my roommate Joel reading source materials for our theses - and marveling at the true pleasure of learning for learning's sake. Without the pressures of deciding what we had to do with our lives right now, we were liberated to steep in the academic environment of college, to make our own schedules, and to revel in the experience.

As I mentioned, I took a couple of elective screenwriting seminars and got hooked on writing.

The rest, as they say, is history. But I would never have had the time to take those classes if I was pushing hard to enter graduate school that fall. My schedule would have been blocked full of musts, leaving no time for shoulds, wants, or wishes. And that would have been a tragedy.

When it came time to graduate, I knew I was going back to Belknap for the summer, but I had no idea what I was doing after that. I loved writing, and thought seriously about packing up the car after camp and driving to Los Angeles to try to make my way as a writer out there. And then I thought about the thousands of other people who did the same thing every year, only to burn out or wash out a decade later with nothing to show for themselves. That choice, I thought, was a little too seductive and a little too high-risk for me.

I was unresolved about psychology as a vocation; although I had enjoyed my coursework immensely, I didn't know if a lifetime of research, writing, or clinical practice was what I really wanted to do. Applying to Ph.D. programs in psychology would require taking the GREs and then embarking on the lengthy, expensive, and extremely time-consuming task of completing applications and interviews. It was a commitment I didn't feel ready to make at the time.

I started thinking more seriously about law school, and resolved that when the summer ended, I would drive out to my aunt and uncle's camp in the Adirondacks and hole up for a couple of months to prepare for the LSAT and, at the same time, get to work on a screenplay. I knew I would take the LSAT in the middle of October. And I had no plans after that.

By late September, after a month of daily running and concentrated study for the LSAT in a distraction-free environment (no TV or radio and only a party-line phone!), I was hitting my target scores on my practice LSATs, and felt ready. I think there is a lot of value in using this "total immersion" method to study for the LSAT or the MCAT, by the way, as a number of the mentors in Law School Confidential and Med School Confidential agree. In any event, it was nice to have the opportunity to do it that way.

Around that same time, my college thesis adviser called me with news that she had just received a grant to study the prosocial teaching effects of Barney and asked me to come back and act as the national coordinator for the research. The school-year-long position gave me a real opportunity to evaluate psychology as a possible profession, gave me chance to do some traveling, and provided an income stream to pay for room and board in New Haven and get me through the rest of the year. And, of course, it gave me the chance to learn more from Dr. Singer!

Although I will never again be able to be in the same room when Barney is on television, the year served its purpose. After working on this grant for the year, ad­ministering the tests across the country, and collecting and analyzing the data, I realized that a life in academic psychology was not a perfect fit for me. I spent a terrific year with my adviser, lectured on some of my thesis research, and applied and got into law school.

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