9 Things Two Professors Wish You Would Understand About the Real World


Editor's note: This post was co-authored by Lisa Wade and Gwen Sharp

Happy graduation, seniors! What’s next? Below is some out-of-the-box advice for new grads from the two of us. 

1. Find a job you like.

College graduates are often told “follow your passion,” do “what you love,” what you were “meant to do,” or “make your dreams come true.”  Two-thirds think they’re going find a job that allows them to change the world, half within five years. Yikes. 

This sets young people up to fail. The truth is that the vast majority of us will not be employed in a job that is both our lifelong passion and a world-changer; that’s just the way our global economy is. So it’s ok to set your sights just a tad below occupational ecstasy. Just find a job that you like. Use that job to help you have a full life with lots of good things and pleasure and helping others and stuff.  A great life is pretty good, even if it’s not perfect.

2. Make friends.

Americans put far too much emphasis on finding Mr. or Ms. Right and getting married. We think this will bring us happiness. In fact, however, both psychological well-being and health are more strongly related to friendship. If you have good friends, you’ll be less likely to get the common cold, less likely to die from cancer, recover better from the loss of a spouse, and keep your mental acuity as you age. You’ll also feel more capable of facing life’s challenges, be less likely to feed depressed or commit suicide, and be happier in old age. Having happy friends increases your chance of being happy as much as an extra $145,500 a year does. So, make friends!

3. Don't worry the slightest about being single.

Single people, especially women, are stigmatized in our society: We’re all familiar with the image of a sad, lonely woman eating ice cream with her cats in her pajamas on Saturday night. But about 45% of U.S. adults aren’t married and around 1 in 7 lives alone.

This might be you. Research shows that young people’s expectations about their marital status (e.g., the desire to be married by 30 and have kids by 32) have little or no relationship to what actually happens to people. Go with the flow.

And, if you’re single, you’re in good company. Single people spend more time with friends, volunteer more, and are more involved in their communities than married people. Never-married and divorced women are happier, on average, than married women. Don’t buy into the myth of the miserable singleton. 

4. Don't take your ideas about gender and marriage too seriously.

If you do get married, keep going with the flow. Relationship satisfaction, financial security, and happy kids are more strongly related to flexibility in the face of life’s challenges than any particular way of organizing families. The most functional families are ones that can bend. Partnering with someone who thinks that one partner should support their families and the other should take responsibility for the house and children is a recipe for disaster. So is being equally rigid about non-traditional divisions of labor. 

It’s okay to have ideas about how to organize your family — and, for the love of God, please talk about both your ideals and fallback positions on this — but your best bet for happiness is to be flexible. 

5. Think hard about whether to buy a house.

Our current image of the American Dream revolves around homeownership, and buying a home is often taken for granted as a stage on the path to full-fledge adulthood. But the ideal of universal home ownership was born in the 1950s. It’s a rather new idea. 

With such a short history, it’s funny that people often insist that buying a house is a fool-proof investment and the best way to secure retirement. In fact, buying a house may not be the best choice for you. The mortgage may be less than rent, but there are also taxes, insurance, and the increasingly common Home Owners Association (HOA) fees. You may someday sell the house for more than you bought it but, if you paid interest on a mortgage, you also paid far more than the sale price. You have freedom from a landlord, but may discover your HOA is just as controlling, or worse. And then there’s the headache: Renting relieves you from the stress of being responsible for repairs. It also offers a freedom of movement that you might cherish.

Think carefully about whether buying or renting is a better fit for your finances, lifestyle, and future goals. This New York Times rent vs. buy calculator is a good start.

6. Think even harder about having kids.

One father had this to say about children: “They’re a huge source of joy, but they turn every other source of joy to shit.” In fact, having children correlates with both an increased sense of purpose in life and a long-lasting decrease in individual and marital happiness. Having kids means spending a lot of your short life and limited income on one source of joy. It’s not a bad decision. But it’s also not the only good decision you can make. We want to think we can “have it all” but, in fact, it’s a zero-sum game. You have only so much time and money and there are lots of ways to find satisfaction, pleasure, and meaning in this life. Consider all your options.

7. Listen when people point out your privilege.

One of the hardest ways to be wrong involves saying something that is inadvertently prejudicial. When someone points out that something we said or did was racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, classist or otherwise, we often feel attacked.

Remember, though, that if someone bothers to engage with you on this kind of issue, it means they think you’re worth it. It’s really easy to write someone off as racist; it’s much harder to start a dialogue on the issue. If they do the latter, it’s because they’ve decided that you’re a good person who’s worth their time and energy. Instead of launching into an explanation for why and how you can’t possibly be prejudiced, ask “Can you tell me what you mean?” and listen listen listen.  

8. Remember: If you change your mind, you're still right.

For some reason Americans feel ashamed when they discover they’re wrong, so much so that we often refuse to admit it or go on the counter-attack. Being told we’re wrong, though, is really great!  It means we have a good chance of not making that mistake in quite that way again. That doesn’t mean it feels good, but it is a very good thing to learn how to accept that we’re wrong —  and, trust us, you will be, lots and lots of times, about many different things — without treating every correction as a threat to our very identity. The next time someone corrects your facts, logic, or point of view, say, “Hey thanks!”

9. Make allies and, yes, change the world.

C. Wright Mills one said that sociology was both terrifying and magnificent. It is terrifying because it teaches us that our lives are not ours to determine, but are subject to cultural norms and institutional forces over which we have very little control. It’s magnificent, however, because once we can see the system for what it is, we can agree to change it. In other words, we’re stuck in a system not of our own making, but we’re in it together.

When you come across an unfair workplace, an unjust law, a biased educational practice, or some other injustice, know that — with the right allies, hard work, and a little luck — you may just have the power to change it.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Gwen Sharp is a professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter.