10 Things Every College Grad Should Know Before Entering the Real World


Attention Class of 2012: Here are the 10 things you need to know before you enter the real world:

1. At first, you'll suck at what you do.

Millenials grew up in an age of positive reinforcement: Coaches gave us trophies for showing up, parents told us we could do or be whatever we wanted, and guidance counselors guided us toward subjects in which we were already talented.

So for many Millenials, entering the real world – and negotiating the complex issues it presents – is something of a rude awakening. Almost any job you take (assuming you can find one) will demand that you learn and apply new skills. Doing so will be difficult, time-consuming, and at times demoralizing. This process is normal, and so is the anxiety it evokes.

The trick - and this is one I'm still learning - is to keep doing the work, seek out guidance, and have faith that things will turn out OK.

2. Hating your job won't get you a better one.

In his recently released recording Live at Carnegie Hall, comedian Louis C.K. put this better than I ever could.

Referring to disgruntled 20-year-old employees, C.K. said, "They just think that if you stand there and hate it, someone will go, 'Oh, well then let's make you a director, that's how that works. Clearly you're better than this.'"

Of course it doesn't work that way, and you're not better than that. Too many Millenials, though, feel it's alright to withhold a positive attitude toward work until the perfect job comes along. They fail to realize that even the job of their dreams involves grunt work, and that getting good at doing things one doesn't particularly want to do – especially at exerting effort even when the reward is distant or unforeseeable – will be useful in any field.

3. Your 20s matter.

Members of the millennial generation are marrying later than their parents did, staying in school longer, and struggling to find their respective niches in the world of work.

A number of researchers, reporters, and commentators have used these trends as evidence to write late adolescence off as a time of "emerging adulthood" or years of odyssey.

While it's interesting to ponder the causes of our generation's apparent desire to delay adulthood, it's also important for us to keep in mind that the 20s are a formative time. In an alternately fascinating and terrifying book - The Defining Decade - the psychologist Meg Jay debunks the notion that a person's third decade of life is disposable.

She writes: "The twenties are an up-in-the-air and turbulent time, but if we can figure out how to navigate, event a little bit at a time, we can get further, faster, than at any other stage in life. It is a pivotal time when the things we do – and the things we don't do – will have an enormous effect across years and generations to come."

Jay maintains that individuals who let their 20s pass without charting a path toward a satisfying family, work, and financial life often regret their negligence in later decades. As a 20-something, I lack the hindsight to say whether she’s right. I will say, though, that she pretty well scared me straight.

4. You need to know how to handle money. 

Late last year, Chris Rock appeared on Alec Baldwin's podcast, "Here's the Thing." When Baldwin asked Rock what worries him about raising kids today, the comedian's answer was clear: "I care that they're good with money."

Rock continued: "When I say 'good with money,' I just mean, you got two dollars and you spend one, and you put a dollar in the bank. I don't mean that they have to run Microsoft or flip money and buy houses … I just mean, 'can they handle their own money?'"

It's a vital skill that too few Millenials have.

5. Investing for the future is mandatory, and you should start now.

Pensions are gone. Unions are vanishing. Social Security benefits will endure, but the amount you'll receive – just like the amount your grandparents collect now – will be meager.

If you want to retire, let alone do so comfortably, you'll have to start investing, and you'd better do it now.

For example, let's say Jill invests $300 per month into a mutual fund from the age of 21 until she's 62. She'd have invested approximately $150,000 during those years, but if her investment earns an average return of six percent per year, she'll end up with about $670,000.

Now let's say Jake waits a few extra years – until he's 26 – to start investing, but he puts away more money: $400 per month until he's 62. By 62, he'll have invested more than $177,000: significantly more than Jill. But even if his investments perform just as well as Jill's did, he'll end up with slightly less than $650,000.

Jill will have invested far less money, but because she started a few years earlier, she'll have ended up with significantly more.

6. Debt will kill you.

In an often-cited survey, 75% of the Forbes 400 – the richest individuals in the world – said the key to building wealth is getting out of debt and staying out. Full disclosure: While I've seen this statistic on approximately a million personal finance sites, I've been unable to verify the primary source. Still, it sounds about right.

If you're skeptical about that survey, though, here's some advice from a 2008 blog post by Internet mogul and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban: "Save your money. Save as much money as you possibly can. Every penny you can. Instead of coffee, drink water. Instead of going to McDonalds, eat Mac and Cheese. Cut up your credit cards. If you use a credit card, you don't want to be rich." As of this writing, Cuban ranks #171 on the Forbes 400 list.

Even if you don’t care about being rich, you should care about getting out of debt. Big monthly payments limit your choices when it comes to where to live, where to work, and when (if ever) to retire. Debt will push you into corporate jobs and make it almost impossible to give back to your community and society.

7. You must learn to sell.

In high school, my classmates and I sold candy to friends and relatives to raise money for things like the prom and graduation events (OK, and band trips).

I hated it.

My lack of skills, the prospect of rejection, and the humiliation of having to ask for money formed a kind of dread I usually felt only before a math test. Which, interestingly, is another endeavor at which one's ability can be measured in a peskily objective way.

Now, my job at a nonprofit has me spending a big chunk of time selling my organization's merits to potential funders.

And it's a good thing, because sales skills are vital. Even if your job requires neither fundraising nor interaction with clients, you'll have to sell yourself to potential employers, sell your ideas to colleagues and convince your superiors every day that you're worth keeping around.

It's true in every field. Frank Kern, a well-regarded marketer, told Michael Ellsberg in The Education of Millionaires (Portfolio, 2012) that, "no matter what you're doing, even if you want to be a ballplayer, a rapper, a movie star – nothing happens until something gets sold. Ever."

8. You'll have to grow accustomed to uncertainty.

This month, millions of college graduates will face a rather terrifying prospect: having to pay for rent and food with money they themselves earn. Supporting oneself removes the shelter that shrouded adolescence and places our new, grown-up responsibilities in stark relief. It's OK to freak about this at first. I know I did.

What's not OK is avoiding this reality by living for long periods of time with one's parents. Too many in our generation find refuge in their old bedrooms or their parents' basements. The problem is that managing your life while living with your parents is like bowling with bumpers. Yes, you're going through the motions of working and paying bills, but the prospect of real failure – which would otherwise motivate – is absent.

Granted, it's hard to tell a debt-ridden, unemployed 20-something to go apartment hunting (and it would be hard for him to find a place), but I'll do it anyway, if only to emphasize how important it is to leave the nest and relish the uncertainty that has become a fact of modern life.

9. It takes years to become an 'overnight' success.

When I watched the coverage of Facebook's initial public opening, I struggled to fend off a sense of jealousy. With the same tools I had – a computer and the Internet – Mark Zuckerberg founded a company that is worth upwards of $100 billion. What was I doing that was so important in 2003?

My sense is that the pang of regret I felt was common among those in my age group who suffer from a similar degree of self-delusion (there are a lot of us). The truth, of course, is that Zuckerberg and his counterparts at other successful, Web-based companies spent thousands of hours honing the skills that enabled them to create their companies. Anyone can devise an idea for a great project, but executing it and bringing it to market takes a special blend of skill and tenacity whose results can sometimes resemble luck.

Seeing other young people succeed so fabulously and publicly is bound to create a sense of jealousy or, worse, entitlement. When I find myself feeling this way, I try to remember that any impressive endeavor – a great book, a great album, or even a great website – most likely came from years of practice.

While it's fine to strive for significant and notable success, it's also wise to note that achieving it takes time.

10. You must appreciate life’s simple pleasures.

This is one I struggle with, but I have it on good authority that there's more to life than work.

I've recently gotten to know a seasoned entrepreneur named Vincent Forgione. In Forgione's decades-long career, he's run textile companies, restaurants, a nightclub, a home-theater installation company, and a successful business consultancy.

He's also a former English teacher. In talking to him, I realize the appreciation he's gained for art, literature, and reflection has served him in ways he couldn’t have imagined before entering the business world. He learns about the human condition – which helps in sales – from Moby Dick and Othello. He seals the deal with a potential client by sharing thoughts on great books.

Most importantly, he takes in simple pleasures and encourages others to do the same. Last month, he told me: "If you can't appreciate the way the light refracts off the dew on a bed of magnolias, you're not really living."

In a world that fetishizes gadgets and apps, we could all stand to stop and smell the magnolias.