Take it from this not-so-recent graduate—these can be the best years of your life. Or the worst
I have no regrets about my college years, at least none that I remember. As much as times may change—no internet, e-mail, or cell phones when I went to school, and much of our music was on cassettesone thing does not: College is a unique time in your life. In many ways it resembles something like the Camelot legend, a fair time that cannot last, or maybe even Band of Brothers, a very intense and insane period spent in close quarters with good people smelling bad… and then it’s over.
Point being, and you’ll hear this often from aging farts, enjoy it while you can.
Now, back to those regrets I said I didn’t have. Not regrets, per se, but there are a few things I wish I knew then that I know now. That’s a classic daydream, of coursethe ability to go back to a time of naivet with a killer arsenal of life wisdom and confidence and just dominate like LeBron James at a pickup game.
So give the following things some thought. You’ll be twenty years out of school in no time at all, wondering what the hell happened to… just about everything.
1. Don’t take young relationships so seriously.
I was a pretty healthy social animal in college (though some I knew would question the word “healthy;” more like “relentless”). And when you’re that, you encounter a lot. Sex is everywhere. Some guys found girlfriends freshman year and later married them. Some guys slept with 10 girls a month. But no matter how we handled it individually, myself and every straight guy I knew were constantly engaging the opposite sex. With purpose. The sexual/relationship dynamic was ever present in every situation.
I wouldn’t change that. But in retrospect, I could’ve been less… intense about it. When I would stumble into a relationship, that intensity caused my personal buttons to be larger and easier to push than usual. And guys, if you don’t yet know that women love to push a man’s buttons, well, they do. Like a hyper-texting 13-year-old with her first smartphone.
Chase the women. But as you do it… chill. It’ll make life easier, trust me.
2. Use the summer to make as much cash as you can.
I was fortunate to have my degree paid for by my parents. A vast majority of kids don’t have that luxury. But no matter your situation, now is the time to learn how to make money in short windows of time without using a bookie or a pimp. Even though dad wrote the tuition check, any other personal expenses were on me. So I worked full-time all summer long. That kind of sucked, considering I worked in a textile factory and started at 6am every day. I unloaded trucks, stacked 50-lb hanks of fabric, and pushed a spreading machine up and down long tables all day for barely more than minimum wage. This is not a regret. I learned a lot and made good cash. But I wasted so much earning power. I just didn’t know any better.
Here’s how I learned: During a typical summer, working those hours, I’d save up a couple grand that I’d have to ration during the school year on concerts, cheap beer, and other important stuff. Meanwhile, as my senior year starts, it comes out that one of my buddies is sitting on ten grand of summer earnings. And he was living large, drinking Michelob. “Who’d you kill for that kind of cash?” I asked. He and a couple friends started a house painting business for the summer.
Damn. Equal effort, higher margin. See, shit like that never occurred to my tiny lizard brain back then. And I missed out on Pink Floyd playing JFK Stadium in Philly because I didn’t want to spend the money. Man, they opened with “Echoes,” for Chrissake.
Maximize your earning power in short windows of time, guys. You won’t have to give up once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
3. The majority of your adult artistic tastes will be cemented in college.
I don’t know why this is, but it’s true, especially with music. I went to school during the transition from hair metal to grunge. So I was there when both Guns ‘n’ Roses and Nirvana broke big. The other musical monoliths of my college years: the aforementioned Floyd, The Alarm, and Neil Young. They still dominate my playlists today. Later on, I found the blues and jam bands. But looking back, I wish I’d listened to more Miles Davis and the Grateful Dead. Trust me, a very desirable breed of woman loves the Dead. And Kind of Blue is the greatest hangover record of all time.
Had I known these things, college would’ve been better.
4. Chase as many internships and real jobs as possible.
If you’re not in need of some specific professional training like engineering, or medical and law school, I question the value of a college degree. Classes don’t teach you much that’s of use in the real world. So as soon as you can, and as often as possible, get your ass into the real world of your chosen field. When it comes time to nail down a job after graduation, experience and networking are the only things that matter. That’s just the way it is. The biggest steps I’ve taken in my career have come from referrals. And once in the door, my experience and skill kept me there. This is not a time for self-righteousness about being judged on your grades, or character, or potential. No one cares. In fact, 99.9 percent of the resumes you send out will be ignored. Not rejected. Ignored.
You’ve never been ignored, have you?
Well, it’s a big world and you’re not special, so be prepared for that. The real questions are: Do you have experience to do the job, will you fit into the staff culture, and can you help the company make money? Don’t be cynical. Be useful. Get out into your field at a young age and be willing to do humiliating things to prove your worth.
Kind of like pledging a good fraternity. Speaking of which…
5. Question authority with authority.
I was president of my fraternity, and yes, we were very much the Animal House of the campus. We were on probation for 9 out of the 12 months of my administration (we were beer drinkers, the deans were not). And I learned something that has stuck with me more than any highlighted textbook passage. Bureaucracies that are based on a brand live in mortal terror of two things: A financial threat and bad publicity. Understand that and you understand what will be expected of you in an unspoken way when you enter the working world, be it corporate or government. But when you’re in school? Mess with that dynamic early and often. Drive those damn deans to drink.