Tips for the high school class of 2016: Get on with your lives

So you think your job or your college major will make you a success? Think again! It's trite but true; as you plan out your future, plan to live, not just to exist.

Graduation Cake Guy by David Goehring | - licensed under creative commons

WASHINGTON,  May 17, 2016 — Congratulations. You’re on your way to a new stage in your life, moving up and moving on. You’ve passed a milestone. Savor the moment. Then move on. If you’re typical of your age group, you’re impervious to good advice and I’m wasting my time giving it.

That’s okay; my advice has been ignored by people who paid a whole lot more for it than you are. It doesn’t hurt my feelings. It does, however, make me sad to see people making the same mistakes year after year.

Every year, different people and the same old mistakes. But sometimes people listen. So here’s some advice. Ignore it if you like, but if you do, you’ll either be sorry or your soul will be so crushed that you’ll be beyond caring.

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You’re more than your major or your job. 

You meet someone at a party. “What’s your name? What’s your major? What do you do?” “John Doe. Accounting.” After a couple of years of that, you’ll feel like you’ve summed up your life and your prospects with those three words. Or even with just the last one.

Do you play the saxophone? Do you enjoy reading Russian novels? Do you do card tricks or play with dogs or write poetry? Then you’re much more than an accounting major. You don’t just do accounting. Your major is what you do at school; it isn’t who you are. When you graduate, you’ll be much more than an accountant—if you allow yourself to have a life.

So have a life. Work hard at school, but work hard at something else, something that you love. It would be a tragedy to graduate and discover that you’re nothing more than an accountant.

Love your major and your job. 

My advisee stared unhappily at my office floor. “You didn’t do too well in financial accounting. You passed, but are you sure you want to go on with the sequence?”

Student: “I’m an accounting major. I have to.”

Professor: “You don’t have to be an accounting major.”

S: “Accounting is a good job.”

P: “No it’s not. If you enjoy it, it’s a wonderful career. If you don’t, it’s wage slavery. Do you look forward to spending 40 years as an accountant? When you graduate, will the only think you look forward to in your job be the chance to retire?”

They say that if you love your job, you’ll never work. If you don’t love it, every vacation will be like a desperate, furtive affair in a loveless marriage. You’ll rush through it, fearing its end and dreading the return to your miserable life. They exaggerate, but not by much.

S: “But I love art! I can’t make a living at art!”

P: And doing a job that you hate is living? No, it’s an existence. Not everyone who loves art can pay a mortgage by selling paintings or pottery. You might want to consider blending your love of art with something more marketable.

Did you know that there are university programs in the business of art?

Have you considered studying art restoration, or appraisal, or managing museums?

Have you considered product design? (What, you don’t think that cars and headphones and desk lamps are also art?)

The point is that even majors that seem utterly useless often have connections to the money economy. What you end up doing may not pay well, but ask yourself, how much is it worth to you to enjoy going to work every day? Would you pay for the privilege?

Go with what you value and what you enjoy, and don’t worry about how others judge your success. “Success” is a tricky word, and its ultimate measure will come when you look back on your life as you prepare to leave it. Your house and your bank account won’t be important at that point.

You won’t look back at your life and say, “gee, I’m so glad I bought the Rolex.” If they mention the Rolex in your obituary, your watch was more important than you were.


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Don’t be confined by a college major. 

More and more universities offer students the option to design their own majors. You fill out your program with courses that meet certain requirements, but beyond that, you design it to give you the skills and knowledge that you want. That may sound like a scary proposition. Don’t employers want people in particular majors? What if you design the wrong kind of major?

Think of a typical college major as a preset mode option on a camera. You can shoot in macro mode or portrait mode, and the camera chooses the shutter speed, aperture and ISO. Then you let the camera process the image according to an algorithm on a chip to create a jpeg file.

But you can opt instead for manual mode, choosing all the variables yourself, then process the raw file into a jpeg according to your own taste and vision. That gives you the flexibility to compose and shoot the picture exactly as you want it.

The preset modes are safe and will usually produce a good image, but if you want great, not just good enough, you’ll have to take control of the process yourself. When you design your own major, you’re opting to take control of the picture. You aren’t on your own; you have advisors to help you. And don’t worry; as long as you complete a major, most employers don’t care that much what the major was, unless you want a job as a chemical engineer or an accountant. You’re limited only by your own imagination, drive and ability to sell yourself.

Remember, when you’re in the job market, you’re the product, not your major.

You don’t have to go to college. 

Why are you going to college? To get a good job? Because your parents expect it? Because you’ve read that a college degree raises your lifetime earning potential?

Don’t give much thought to what others expect. They can’t live your life for you.

When your parents are dead and gone, you’re the one stuck with the life they chose for you if you let them choose. Love and respect them, listen to them, but then remember, you’re about to be an adult, and you’re the one who has to live with your choices.

A college degree does raise your earning potential on average, but not all degrees are equal in that regard. Some programs will actually reduce your net potential by taking you out of the job market for years, then burdening you with debt to pay for the degree. They have a negative return on investment.

Some other routes can be hugely lucrative. As I pointed out to my wife one day, we pay our plumber more per hour than our daughter’s orthodontist. Maybe we should encourage our kids into plumbing. Become a plumbing contractor, and huge financial riches can be yours.

If you enjoy a job, you’re more likely to excel, and whether you’re a carpenter, an accountant or a graphic designer, excellence is often a path to financial success. Not always—there are no guarantees in life—but even if your financial success is less than you wished, there’s a great deal to be said for enjoying your job, a point that we can’t make often enough.

So, you don’t have to go to college. Go to a technical school or into a trade or apprenticeship program. That isn’t second best, and it doesn’t reflect badly on you. My former students have become physicians, lawyers, research scientists, but also truck drivers, carpenters, sommeliers, martial arts instructors and adventure tour guides.

They didn’t choose those careers because they couldn’t do better, but because they discovered what they really wanted to do after they didn’t find it in college.

They are hugely successful on their own terms. If you’re determined to go to college, consider (strongly!) taking a “gap year” to build low-income housing, learn to weave or throw pots, or even work at McDonald’s. That year will give you a chance to think about your goals, learn a bit of self-reliance, and to go to college with a maturity and preparation that your classmates can’t match.

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Don’t worry about retirement. 

“Say what? You must be joking!” Well, maybe exaggerating. You may have read that you’ll need about $2 million in your retirement funds to have a comfortable retirement (that number keeps going up, too). So you need a job that will let you save enough that, at reasonable rates of return, you’ll end up a millionaire.

That leaves open the question, how old do you want to be when you retire?

If you think that the fun begins with retirement, you’ll want to retire as soon as you can, and you’ll need more money. On the other hand, if you’re having fun at your job, you may never want to retire.

Jane Little, an 87-year-old bassist for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, died on Sunday, on stage, during a performance. She’d been with the orchestra for 71 years. She could have retired decades ago, but she loved her job too much to walk away.

A job that you love is the best preparation for retirement. Have I pointed out yet that if you love your job, it isn’t work? If you love your job, vacations are a way to regroup, a useful and enjoyable change of scenery, but not the point of your labor.

And retirement isn’t a reward, but a necessity that you’ll put off for as long as you can. You’ll set the pattern for your life now. There’s luck involved, and so you have to be prepared for your plans to fail, and to fail again and again.

You may end up with work that you hate. As an adult, you have to learn to bear that eventuality with strength and dignity. But that’s different than planning that future for yourself and laying the groundwork for it.

Choosing a school and a major and a job for reasons that you don’t value is bringing a life of disappointment down on yourself. If after 20 years on the job you look back and can’t remember why you did it or tell the days apart, you’ll have failed, and that’s true no matter how successful you look to the rest of the world.

So, congratulations and good luck. Now get out there and build and live a life. You’re precious and unique, and you were meant to live, not just survive.

Don’t ever forget it.


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James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.