Graduation advice: be willing to fail

In the last 24 hours, I have had three reminders that we are in graduation season. The first was an email from an old friend of mine, who has just finished a masters degree. We knew each other years ago. She found my blog through Facebook and found herself wandering around my website, reading my CV and seeing where life had taken me. She wrote to me about how she felt like she had gotten a bit disconnected from her own interests, and her passions, and how seeing what I have done with my life reminded her of them and inspired her to get back to the basics.

It was a kind gesture of her to share these thoughts with me. I struggle with knowing whether or not to publicize my rather bizarre but certainly busy life. I know I have a number of privileges. I've made some good decisions, but I've also benefited from certain structural opportunities and in some cases been just down right blessed. I sometimes worry that sharing my experiences with other people could be alienating or frustrating to some who don't have the opportunities that I have. Her email suggested the opposite, that being more open with others about my own life can assist rather than discourage. This was an encouragement to me.

The second reminder was an op-ed in the NYT this morning, the graduation speech that a former professor would give if given the chance. He had four pieces of advice: 1. "Earn Everything" 2. "Don't be a 'city doll" or in other words, don't be jealous of those who can ignore step one and land a sweet gig right after graduation, 3. Actively attempt to help the poor, and 4. "Think for yourself."

Many people feel they are situated to give advice to college graduates, but few offer something new. Although these points aren't all that radical, they struck me as unusual and well-timed graduation advice. Who is not jealous of the friend who lands a sweet job right out of school, and begins earning huge sums of money to do relatively meaningless work? It is appealing at some level to have work that stays in the office, and lots of money to play with after hours, and real weekends and evenings where you are not always working. Nevertheless, now that I have, in a sense, "arrived" at the job I have been headed towards for a decade, I can say with honesty that I'm glad I had no money in my twenties, that I traveled and consumed huge amounts of information and that I did not find myself in my first real job until the age of twenty-nine. Now I have a job that sends me to Morocco for my summers, and allows me to counsel students in a critical moment of decision making, and pursue my intellectual interests. In sum, I'm starting to be far enough from graduate school poverty to feel like it was a good decision.

This position seems confirmed by a third article from VOX "How Wall Street recruits so many insecure Ivy League grads." The article looks at a variation of the city doll, the investment banker who has come out of an Ivy League school. The article is an interview between Ezra Klein and Kevin Roose, the author of a new book about investment bankers. Roose suggests that people who take jobs as investment bankers are people who fear taking risks and want economic stability above all else. Becoming investment bankers for a few years allows them to postpone making the difficult decisions about what to do next.

(The article also talks about people for whom investment banking is a good thing: those who have a reason to be there, or those who just love the industry. I'm interested more in the people who go for reasons to avoid risk. The article argues that the industry can really destroy these people by eliminating their ability to think creatively).

Back to the idea that some people become bankers to postpone difficult decisions, though. This argument interested me a lot because I am frequently concerned that undergraduates go to graduate school (or law school) for exactly this same reason: they want to delay making a decision about what next. They want someone to hand them a checklist that says what the next step is (study for the GRE, take the LSAT). They are afraid to fail. What the NYT op-ed was saying though, was exactly that. Go and fail! Try a few different things. You will be a much better human being, and long term you may even be more likely to be successful because of what you learn through failure.

Putting these three things together, I'd say that it can really feel like you are headed in the wrong direction when you are in the midst of failure. I considered leaving graduate school on multiple occasions. Many of you know the many other life paths that I have considered. So I guess I'd say, in conclusion, if you are very concerned that you have taken a risk that didn't pay off, you may be in a better position than you thought you were. And if you have taken the easy way out, avoiding making adult decisions while seeking the privileges of adulthood, you may find that you are very unhappy. Both are difficult roads, but the light seems brighter at the end of the first tunnel. I'm glad that I took the path of risk.