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4 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Graduated College

4 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Graduated College

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Full disclosure: I graduated college a LONG time ago. The year was 1975 to be exact. Gerald Ford was President of the United States, gas was 44 cents per gallon, and the Cold War was on. The Vietnam War was still raging, and some kid named Bill Gates was founding something called Microsoft in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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My first job as a teacher in a rural school district in Virginia paid me $5,800 a year…that’s right, a YEAR! I was paid in 10 installments, so my check before taxes was $580 per month, and my rent was $180. I split that with my roommate (until she moved out). I managed by eating yogurt for lunch every day. (I could buy 5 for a $1.00 on special every week.) My dad would occasionally give me a $20, and eventually, I got a second job to help supplement an income that wasn’t enough to pay my bills on its own. My second year out, I took a comparable job teaching in a neighboring district and got a $4000 raise. I thought I had died and gone to heaven!

Now that I look back on it, I realize just how narcissistic I was. I was 23 years old, and I was only barely aware of what was going on in the world because I watched the 6:00 news…there weren’t as many channels to watch, and all you could watch at 6:00 was the news. Imagine! What was going on in the “world,” however, had little to do with me…I thought. I was just trying to make it from day to day. I cared nothing about much of anything except my small little world and my even smaller daily routine.

Now that I am at the other end of my career, looking back, there are things that I wish I had known as I accepted my diploma in June of 1975, and as new graduates prepare to accept their diplomas, I would like to offer the following four bits of advice:

1. Get smart about money.

I grew up in a family that eked out a living on a family farm. Eventually, my mom went back to work as a nurse and my dad who was a savant when it came to fixing watches and clocks worked at various jobs from selling insurance to selling auto parts. We managed to have a decent standard of living, but nothing lavish. We went on annual vacations. We did okay in comparison to the other families in our community. But we never had enough money to need “a guy” to manage it, if you get my drift. As a result, the idea of putting money in retirement accounts never occurred to me until I was working as a young teacher and the guidance counselor in my building advised me to set aside $100 a month in a tax-sheltered annuity account. “By the time you retire, you will have $100,000,” she said. Wow! I admit, $100,000 sounded like all the money in the world. It was a struggle, but I found the $100 a month to set aside. I was a teacher, so there was no “matching program” going on. My school division paid into my pension account, but my tax sheltered annuity was on me.

Eventually, I did hire a financial advisor— “my guy”—but by then, I had lost years in potential savings and earnings because I didn’t start out right out of college. If you don’t know about money markets and tax shelters, IRA’s and annuities, learn about them now. Educate yourself about sound financial planning. Budget so that you can save for the unexpected eventualities in life…illness which can even hit a young person…accidents…and ultimately your retirement. You will thank me later for this one bit of advice.

One more thing…learn enough about how it all works that you know not to trust everything to your guy. The movie, The Big Short is a cautionary tale because it demonstrates how little people understood what they were doing before the bottom fell out from under the economy less than ten years ago. Don’t make that mistake. Take care of yourself by learning how to and then take responsibility for caring about your money and understanding how money works.

2. Find mentors who can teach you about life both at work and personally.

I know, because I can still remember, that when you are young, you think you know it all. On top of that, you have a tendency to discount anything and everything your parents or anyone ten years older than you say about life in general because they seem so irrelevant. If you are 23 years old, anyone over 28 seems “old” to you. You are eager to strike out on your own. You want—and deserve—to be independent and make your decisions. You aren’t a kid anymore!

Having said that, you could benefit from the wisdom of those who have gone ahead of you. They aren’t all old people who don’t know anything, and despite what you might think, they can relate to you and your experiences. They have experienced some of the inevitable pitfalls that you, too, will encounter.

Find a few people that you respect and admire. Ask them if they will be mentors to you. Ask them questions, and listen. You don’t have to take their advice, although mentors are less about offering advice than about sharing their experiences. A true mentor will share his or her own experience and offer the lesson they learned from it. They won’t necessarily tell you that you should react the way they did or didn’t. They will leave it for you to decide. Remember, though, there isn’t a person on the planet who hasn’t suffered some heartache, some soul-crushing defeat and some soul-lifting success. Listen to their experiences and learn from them.

3. Take care of your body like it was a temple…because it is.

I was 20 years old when I decided to take up smoking as a “cool” thing to do. I never thought I could get hooked. No one ever does. I wound up smoking habitually until I decided to quit at the age of 35. I have been a non-smoker for 29 years this year. My lung capacity has been damaged forever, and while it is a good thing that I quit, it would have been a better thing if I had never started. Using drugs isn’t cool either, no matter what your friends tell you.

If you haven’t started experimenting with drugs, please don’t. If you have already, get help now. You get one body for this lifetime. I know you feel indestructible now, but look around you at the people who are still strong and vigorous in their 70’s and 80’s. They are still strong and vigorous because they took care of themselves when they were in their 20’s and 30’s. Practice preventative health care measures. Go for annual exams, visit the dentist twice a year, and take time to exercise and keep your body limber. I am not exaggerating when I say your body is a temple, and it deserves to be treated that way.

4. Seek out new experiences and take more risks.

I admit I am not a risk taker. I naturally go for safe and predictable. I am not a world traveler, but I wish I were. I would love to see Stonehenge and the Pyramids someday. I plan to.

I wish I had taken risks and figured out how to do that when I was younger, however. When you can, travel. Experiment with different types of foods. Learn about different things by taking advantage of the many opportunities that abound all around you. The world is a big place. Don’t forget that it doesn’t revolve around you. I know that is hard to grasp at this stage in your life, but take it from an old lady. The world is made up of people and things beyond what you can even imagine right now. Be open to new experiences. Be open to meeting people who are different from you. Ask them about their experiences. We all have certain things in common…we all bleed, we have all been in love, and we are all often afraid of something.

There are more things that make us similar than there are things that make us different. Don’t be afraid of the differences, and don’t be afraid to take the occasional risk. Learn from your failures as well as your successes. The fact is that the most profound learning we do is from our most miserable failures. If you aren’t falling on your butt occasionally, you aren’t trying hard enough. No one who has ever made a profound mark on the world without having to first overcome some obstacle or challenge. No one. You learn nothing from playing it safe except to be afraid of making a mistake. Be willing to make mistakes and learn from them.

I have the luxury of looking back over my life to date and having few regrets. Not because I did everything right because Lord knows I didn’t. I accept, however, that my choices and even my mistakes have made me the person I am today and for better or worse, I am okay with that. I love my life now and look forward to many more experiences. I still plan to see Stonehenge and the Pyramids. I have a bunch of things on my “bucket list.” I also know that I don’t have an unlimited amount of time to get it all done. Life is fleeting. When you are only in your twenties, that sounds trite, I know, but it is true. The years start to fly by in a way that you cannot even imagine right now. Take my word for it, however. Trust me when I say that you should want to take advantage of every day and every month and every year as a way to live your life full out. As Marianne Williamson says, “Your playing small does not serve the world.”

If you are just graduating college, congratulations! I am confident that you have a wonderful life ahead of you. Live it to the fullest. Take chances, but plan for your future. Take care of your body, and learn from those who are ahead of you on the journey that is life. If I were graduating this spring, these are four things I wish I knew. They are my graduation gift to you.

This post was originally published at an earlier date.


Disclosure: This post is sponsored by a Work It Daily-approved expert. You can learn more about expert posts here.

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Kitty Boitnott Kitty Boitnott, Ph.D., NBCT is a former educator turned Career Transition and Job Strategy Coach specializing in working with teachers who are experiencing the painful symptoms of job burnout. She also works with mid-career professionals from all walks of life who find themselves at a career crossroads either by chance or by choice. Learn more about Kitty at TeachersinTransition.com.