Priceless Life Lessons I Learned While Paying $40k for College

This past week many high-school graduates and 20-somethings are beginning or returning to college, and as the millennial generation surges forward through the spotlight of youth and into adulthood, I imagine many wonder what I have wondered: Why is this important?

The old traditions of success in America are, in so many letters, dead. They aren’t buried, unfortunately, but they’re very much dead.

No longer is it adequate for a bright (read: high-scoring) student to plan their entire lives out at a time when everything about them is changing. The old adage of “Work hard. Go to school. Get a degree. Get a career,” no longer exists. So what are young people to do?

Students in 2015 must confront the reality of a difficult economy, exorbitant expenses for courses and supplies; and somehow, at the same time also pursue a magical life dream that they should’ve been formulating and meticulously predicting since grade school.

The good news is, that last part is complete nonsense. The bad news?

We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.

Planning your life out is good, but exercising control is better.

During my senior year of college I heavily questioned this deep, archaic mentality that our culture has adopted of, 1. Pressuring young people into planning their lives out before they ever have a chance to experience it; which then leads to, 2. Aggressively outlining an inverted timeline of milestones for what success is.

It will confound me for the rest of time why we ask kids as young as 10 years old questions like, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

You aren’t your occupation, and no kid will ever be able to realistically explain why or how they want to work toward a job in something they enjoy.

Later, when they’re teenagers, people ask, “Where do you want to go to college?” (See any patterns from that old adage yet?)

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Then, college hits — and everything goes out the window.

You don’t introduce yourself by saying, “Hi, I’m Office Worker,” so stop saying that’s who you are.

For a more expanded (and frankly, mind-blowingly fantastic) expansion on this, go spend 20 minutes and watch this lecture by Ken Robinson on TED.

The fact is, the older you get, the more you need to realize that there are so many things outside of your control. Not just in the realm of life emergencies, but life as a whole.

Make good decisions when you study, find joy in the things that might seem mundane, and always remember that when your plan doesn’t go accordingly:

You can control how you respond.

No matter how hard your circumstances get, you have the power to choose how you will react to the hardship that life throws at you. One of the biggest hardships is likely going to be finding a good paying job in an over-saturated economy.

After all, work hard, get a degree, get a job — right?

Not exactly.

The American Dream is dying a slow death.

A career, a spouse, a house (with a white picket fence,) and a dog to play with two and a half children. That is the statistical nuclear family embodiment of what the American Dream was about two generations ago.

Today, each person has their own slightly different understanding of what their, “American Dream” exactly is, but mine went something like this: If you work hard enough, you will be able to produce enough wealth that you will be secure from harm and acquire anything you desire… if you work hard enough.

I realize I speak from a position of privilege, and I do enjoy many freedoms and liberties that other parts of the world can only dream about… but I think in the last 50 years, something got confused between the right to try, and the right to succeed.

No dream, American or otherwise, can realistically connect you to a world that is entirely dependent on your own effort.

The United States’ Constitution promises many things. Freedom of speech, religion, of assembly… but it does not promise freedom from hardship.

It especially does not promise you a calculated result that says, “X=Y*3” where X is security and fulfilled dreams and Y is hard work.

If obsessing over calculations of wealth is what your American Dream equates to, your dream is very feeble.

In fact, “hard work” isn’t even about years or decades logged any more.

The average length of time someone spends at a career position in the U.S. is less than 4.6 years, according to the Department of Labor; 20-somethings only stay in a job an average of 1-3 years. 

Job security, then, like the American Dream promised, is now a ghostly afterthought by most who are going through college. Will this change? Maybe…

I honestly believe the American Dream needs to be buried and replaced with a new goal. The Gen Z cohorts must follow in Y’s footsteps of working to live, not living to work. Maybe America will then be the comeback kid and brush itself off, but that will require several demolitions of old thinking.

The biggest obstruction rooted in old thinking that college students and recent grads currently face is the seemingly eternal gambit of certification.

Certification is a game, what matters is cultivating an attitude of learning and risk.

“Don’t apply for a job unless you’re good at it.”

I lived under this strong, unspoken academic perpetuation well into high-school.

That is a great way of thinking if you never want to accomplish anything.

As a devil’s advocate, I will say there is a conscientiousness that everyone needs to have when considering their own abilities. The people that don’t are enveloped by the timeless stereotype of salesman — pushy, overconfident, irresponsible — rude.

That’s what I grew up trying to be aware of, and to my detriment, I went too far in the wrong direction of being overly cautious.

The older you get and more independent you seek to become, the more you will need to pursue an attitude of entrepreneurialism and self-advocacy.

Entrepreneurialism, by nature requires taking risk. Thank God there isn’t a piece of paper that says you are or aren’t entrepreneurial — it is an attribute of a person.

“And here is the bestest most cool person ever certificate. Person also smells nice! Hire them.”

If you don’t do this already, start learning to learn now.

The sooner you start learning to learn in the most effective way possible (actual learning, not being a knowledge sponge) the better suited you will be for life.

Jobs that don’t require a degree and pay well are very rare; even more rare is the opportunity to work in the field you study.

It’s riskier to do nothing than put yourself out there.

Learn by failing sooner and more frequently.

This seemed extremely idiotic to me my freshman year.

Coming from a world (high-school) that placed such incredible emphasis on performance, grades, tests, quizzes, and overall “right” answers, the idea of intentionally taking risky options with a probability of failure was madness.

It took me about a year before I started to realize that most of the material I was learning in classrooms (and paying thousands of dollars for) didn’t actually benefit my life in any way.

Then I realized that the most meaningful lessons, like the ones that make a person wise, are gained by experience.

For instance, I learned the hard way as a production assistant that Apple computers don’t merge pasted folders with duplicate filenames. I almost blew two days of emotional video interviews with single mothers receiving scholarship grants, and had to politely ask the department engineer for help recovering a blank directory.

I’m not trying to immortalize stupidity or advocate for intentionally bad decisions. I am saying with 100% confidence that risk is a necessary part of life.

College is the best place to fail.

If you’re currently a traditional student, you have the largest cushion to break a fall than at any other point in your life. I must stress the fact that every person is different, John may not have the grants or scholarships that Jane has, but they’re both in college.

If you’re like John or Jane and don’t have a mortgage, outstanding debt from previous education, or the responsibility of kids, your flexibility in the here and now is infinitely higher than their Gen X counterparts.

Don’t get stuck waiting for the “real world” to arrive.

The “Real World” doesn’t exist. Right now is the real world.

Admittedly, I still occasionally catch myself saying something like, “When I get a real job,” or, “When I make real money.

The thinking behind those statements is two-fold.

The first half says, “Until X happens, this present effort/accomplishment doesn’t matter.”

The second says, “I’m invalid until I prove to myself otherwise.”

To the first I say: Horsecrap. Good day, sir. You will never have another chance to live the current date. Do not diminish the value of the present.

Out there, there’s a world outside of Yonkers.

To the second, I would like to point out the absurdity of chasing personal value in performance. As someone who used to live, breathe, and almost die based on his performance, I cannot imagine a more fickle and potentially destructive measurement of self-worth.

Sure, it’s great for getting stuff done — but that’s about it. Every time you make a decision based on how well you are performing, you are setting yourself up for perfectionist, workaholic tendencies that will swallow you whole if you don’t stop.

So as tempting as it may be to measure your value as a person against your bank account or latest accomplishment, don’t do it. Trust me.

Enjoy the now, spontaneously make memories, and don’t hold other people to this broken mentality.

Job titles mean nothing about someone’s personality.

I used to think that a person’s title was reflective of their ability to lead others well, initiate meaningful conversations, and organize components to meet a goal.

I was pretty darn wrong about that on all accounts.

Long story short, in college I had some great bosses; some pretty awful bosses, and some that were so bad I couldn’t understand how they got the job they had.

One of the awful ones had a pretty high-ranking title, big window adorned office (you know, so everyone could see what a great person they were — duh!), and layers of management around them.

Behold the archons of health, wealth, success, and a bunch of other materialistic stuff that doesn’t define a person.

Problem was, they couldn’t take input to save their life.

Their ineptitude eventually culminated to a point where another branch of the university indirectly asked what the hell was happening to preclude such terrible decisions made by the department I worked for.

The more jobs I worked, the more I realized that people’s personalities always take precedent over their titles, not the other way around.

Which, when I think about it, makes a lot of sense. People aren’t hired for their skills alone, they are hired for a multitude of factors.

How well someone works in teams, their ability to relay important information, and their emotional maturity in response to stress — these are pretty large factors that you don’t get a certificate for.

Life has few correct answers, so consult the experience of those who’ve gone before you.

Hopefully I haven’t left a smoking crater where your self-worth previously stood (if so, I apologize and I hope that it is rebuilt very quickly and in a much more secure place).

So what the heck do is there to do now?

If I were to identify the biggest thing I learned for free while going to college it is this: Perspective is powerful.

The way you perceive identity, your value, and your life is one of the most significant things you can acknowledge. Your worldview is the proverbial lens through which you see the world — and how you look at it will impact everything about you.

Seek out a mentor who will always give you genuine, contrasting perspective.

Although I didn’t realize it immediately at the time, my college pastor gave me more advice than I ever asked for — even some I didn’t ask for. His intentionality in building me up and offering his wisdom to me with no punches pulled helped make me a better man.

The reason why wizards are never late is because they know that time doesn’t control them — I learned something similar from my college mentor (who coincidentally also had a beard and journeyed through mountains).

Whether you go on to become a CEO of a Fortune 500 company (good job, by the way!) or work multiple part-time seasonal jobs for what feels like way too long, always have people in your life who will willingly offer a second perspective.

Ideally a mentor is ten or more years older than you and have already passed the stage in life that you are currently experiencing. There’s no website or quick route to success for this, because finding a mentor is about relationship.

Relationships take time, and that’s okay.

Take the time, invest into other people, and enjoy the ride. There are no U-turns.

Enjoy the down-time till midterms, only four more months till Winter break!

Written by Peter J. Farrell

Peter J. Farrell is a writer who, while exhibiting meticulous care on his more extensive writing work, has not yet taken the time to provide a mere sentence or two for his bio. We'll assume he is therefore too cool for bios, and therefore, very cool indeed.