The 1-year checkpoint

This time last year, I was freaking out.  I was about to graduate from school and move out of Fort Collins.  The one place I thought I had locked-in for a full-time job after graduation had rejected me — they’d already hired someone else for the position.  That turned out to be one of the best things that’s ever happened to me, because I would have absolutely taken that job.  And that would have led to all sorts of problems.  I would have probably grown to depend so much on a substantial paycheck that it would terrify me just to think of losing that.  Traveling, starting up a company, working on side projects, doing whatever I want — those things would eventually seem unrealistic.  I would have been stuck.

These past few weeks have been pretty surreal for me, because I realized that the very lofty goals I set for myself 11 months ago have been achieved and beyond.  I even remember telling my parents, “This is not going to happen any time soon.  It will probably take at least a year, or a year and a half, but I can do this.”  And I did, even though I was extremely unsure of myself.  Anyways.

I know that a decent chunk of the people who read these posts are about to graduate from college.  A lot of you have no idea what’s going to happen, or what path you want to take.  This post will be my attempt to assuage any worries you might have.  And I’ll just say that I think this is one of the few subjects I’m qualified to preach about, because I’ve been through it and managed to carve out a different path that’s worked well for me.

So here’s what will almost certainly happen after you graduate.  You’re going to graduate and do absolutely nothing for a month.  You want to take a break after four years of college, so go for it.  Your friends will do the same.  A lot of them will do absolutely nothing for a few months.  But after that first one, you’re all going to tense up because you’re painfully unemployed.  Your peers will unanimously agree that yes, we all need to find a job that’s halfway decent (even though none of you will want or genuinely enjoy any of the jobs you’re looking at).

Your friends who don’t care or are stupid will use Monster, CareerBuilder, and Craigslist (I was one of these stupid people for a few weeks).  They will compete with hundreds of people for mediocre jobs that they won’t get.  There will be exceptions to this rule, of course, but not many.  Your smarter friends will search for jobs through their network (e.g. a friend’s dad, their cousin’s former boss, etc.).  Your smartest friends will travel.  The ambitious will start their own company.

Understand that you’re going to be hearing some very weird things coming out of your peers’ mouths.  The same people you were partying with a few months ago are now going to be saying things like, “I just got a job for Verizon Wireless!  They promote people really fast, so I think I could be a middle manager in six months!”  And you will smile and say, “That’s awesome!” even though you want to shake them and say “YOU ARE MAKING A TERRIBLE DECISION!  WHY DO YOU INSIST ON CREATING A LIFE YOU’RE GOING TO HATE?!”

Or even worse, they’ll say, “I’m going to apply to [insert state school] and go to grad school.  I don’t know what I want to do, so I might as well try to get my Master’s now.”  Again, this is painfully stupid in 95% of all situations.  They will put themselves in 6-figure debt, and their earning potential will not go up substantially because it isn’t a top-tier school.  Two years and $100K down the drain.

Unfortunately, there’s almost nothing you can say to these people to make them change their mind.  All you can do is lead by example, and hope that a few of them catch on.

You don’t have to walk down the path that everyone else takes.  If you haven’t realized it by now, there is no such thing as job security.  You’re fooling yourself if you think a steady paycheck will ensure a safe future.  The only real form of security is working on yourself.  Read as much as you can.  Put experiences under your belt that can open doors in the future.  Meet smarter people than you and do some free work for them.  These are the kinds of things that can help mitigate your risk against a bad job market.  And in the long run, you’ll be in a far better position than everyone else.

It’s also important to remember: this is the safest point in your career, because you have nothing to lose.  So even though I know you’ll feel compelled to jump into the 9 to 5 just to get some money, that tension is illusory.  Recognize that there is no rush for “the real world” when you’re 21, and that now is the best time of your life to do the stuff you want and craft a story for yourself that you’ll be proud of.  You don’t have to pick your career path anytime soon (I know I haven’t decided yet — you think I want to be a marketer for the rest of my life?)

Start working towards the paths you’re most interested in, put your heart into the ones you love, and go from there.  You’ll be fine.

Comments

  1. says

    You and I have discussed this at length, but I think it’s really admirable and tells a lot about someone like you, Jun, Monica and others that have taken the plunge. (Granted, Monica went the corporate route for awhile.) It’s an important story to share.

    And don’t lie about your career path. Start working on the Squeeze page we talked about.

    Everyone, Charlie is being modest. Our ebook comes out next week, it’s only $37.97 and tells you 14 ways to get RICH off of Twitter w/o doing any work. As a bonus we’re throwing in 7 ways to gain 1 million followers DAILY.

    Just make sure you enter the promotional code, #Imagullibledouche

  2. says

    Awesome post. This kind of thing can’t be emphasized enough—even people who are willing to make their own paths (like me) get cold feet and doubt themselves every step of the way. And when you consider how almost everyone—family, friends, potential employers—is pushing you to give in to the traditional approach, you have to find anywhere you can the supporting evidence (e.g. your post) that it will work out.

  3. says

    Excellent post. Sums up a lot of thoughts I have on the matter. I spent some time doing the safe tried and tested thing before I saw an opportunity to free myself from all of it. In just a week and a half I am literally packing a bag full of clothes and traveling to the other side of the world for 2 years looking to really have a proper crack at making my own path.

  4. Sam says

    Great post Charlie.

    The roommate, a guy much more qualified for any job than I am, was just bumming over missed internship opportunities. We’re both trying to figure out what to do with ourselves this summer. It’s good to see this kind of encouragement.

  5. says

    This is probably your best post so far. Awesome stuff man.

    When you spoke to your parents, what did they say to you about the path you had decided to take? Was there a lot of pressure from them to go the more conventional route?

  6. says

    @Andrew — I don’t have a great answer to that, because my parents have been supportive from the beginning. Even though they had no clue what I was doing or why I was doing it. They just didn’t get it, and they had serious doubts (that they kept to themselves) about whether it’d pay off.

    But that’s not to say I didn’t feel a lot of pressure to get a normal job. Why do you think I spent those weeks on Monster and CareerBuilder? My parents were emailing me multiple listings to apply for every single day. It started driving me crazy after about two weeks, and I told them to stop because I wanted to do things my way. It helped that the only listing that responded to my application was a pyramid scheme, so that basically proved that those methods were flawed.

  7. Ben says

    Great Post,

    The illusion that heavy education = instant success will come to an abrupt end for some people. Success is found on that road only by people who define success as 9-5 drudgery, which is the model used for the last few hundred years. It’s not bad (maybe a little), people just don’t know any better. The notion that if you don’t have a degree then you’re obviously doing nothing with your life is outrageously old-fashioned and I’m looking forward to the continued increase of respect for great freelancers.

  8. says

    A super-delayed comment on this but Charlie, I wanted to publicly acknowledge your influence on my decisions for this coming year.

    After working with you last summer, admiring your work ethic, and having some great conversations with you, I’m looking forward to learning from, learning through, and sharing many of your experiences.

    Good on you for writing this… and GREAT on you for doing it in the first place!

  9. says

    Hey Charlie–thought provoking post for me–as you know I’ve been leaning more and more toward corporate/working for someone else’s business for 1-3 years…

    I’m really, really curious what you think is useful learning inside corporate, and what is useless learning inside corporate?

  10. says

    @Jeff – My time in the corporate world is extremely limited, as you know.

    What’s useful to learn… How to run a business. How to deal with clients. What’s an acceptable rate for charging clients. Learning skills / getting feedback from co-workers who are more skilled than you.

    What’s useless… How to move at a snail’s pace and be okay with it. Inter-office politics. Compulsively checking email.

  11. says

    Hey Charlie,

    I LOVE this post, and I’m going to have to whip the gender card out on you.

    I’m three years older than you, and most of my female friends who are my age or older are STILL trying to duck under the cover of grad school, ‘safety’ jobs where they stare (hatefully) at foundation donor spreadsheets while simultaneously checking Facebook, or dreams of a beach vacation.

    The question for them, I think, is this:
    How do I start?

    You set goals.
    -How did you set goals?
    -How did you know where / how to benchmark yourself?
    -How did you translate the things you knew about your wishes, talents and own personality into a career vision?

    It’s my observation that these exercises are harder for young women than young men, maybe due to ingrained rule-following and attitudes toward risk.

    How can you train someone to think like you did? (Reading a blog post is certainly inspirational, but not entirely actionable)

    -Susan

  12. says

    Thanks for the excellent comment, Susan. All great questions which I’m still trying to work out myself.

    The stuff I’m working on now has happened within the course of a year, but the things that lead up to that work (and enabled my career path) have happened over the course of the last 8 years. The main thing that I think separates me from most people is that I’ll try anything that looks interesting, and then I’ll keep going further down the rabbit hole. You know those random ideas you’ll talk about with your friends, the ones where you’ll all say, “That’s such a great idea, we should do that.” Well, I actually DO it when I feel strongly enough that it’s a good idea. And I don’t quit after two days — I see it through or quit when I realize the idea is fundamentally flawed (this used to happen to me all the time, but I’ve learned from each failure). I honestly think that’s a huge distinguishing trait, because it’s easy to talk about an idea but it’s exhausting to execute. I’ve learned skills, built relationships, and gotten interesting offers just from being curious and trying different things. Curiosity + Execution + Not being afraid to look stupid or fail = Every personal success I’ve had.

    So how do you start? You do something small. Literally anything. It could be trying to set up your own ebay store, or spending a day outdoors with your friend’s high-end camera, experimenting with the various settings. People get into comfort zones as they get older, and that’s the problem. They’re mentally stuck because they hinder their own self-growth. And they’re unremarkable because they have no skills to speak of, and never cultivated a passion on the side.

    How did I set goals? Well, I actually only had one career goal last year: do work for Tim Ferriss. I set that because I knew it’d be a challenge and would require a decent amount of strategy just to build up enough credibility before I approached him. And while I worked hard towards this goal, other opportunities would arise along the way and I’d jump at ALL of them. Every single door that opened for me, I’d walk through. I had nothing to lose, and could always turn around.

    As far as benchmarks go… it’s really hard to say. It sounds horrible, but I just didn’t want to end up like some of my older friends in their late-20′s or early-30′s, who are really talented and awesome people with unfulfilling jobs and unremarkable lives. I paid REALLY close attention to their lifestyles and listened intently when they described how they got there, because I had a rough idea of what I wanted my life to look like within a couple years. And I knew if I emulated what they did, I’d probably end up with similar results. Not good.

    I largely ignored what people my age were doing. There’s no point in watching what 22-years old are doing with their lives when you’re 22. It’s more important to end up (or not end up) like certain people who are years ahead of you. They’ve been through the same stuff you are about to go through, so I’d rather learn from their successes and failures. Most people my age (and I’m including myself in this statement) have very little to offer in terms of experience.

    Honestly, the thing that’s been different from ALL of my peers regarding my career was my selection process. These were my requirements for people I’d work with:

    — They were entrepreneurs.
    — Their lifestyle, or parts of it, were things I wanted to have one day.
    — They were smarter than me in some way, and it was clear that I could learn a lot from them.
    — They were underrated.

    That’s it. Most people will work for anyone that gives them a decent paycheck, but that can lead to a dead-end job that zombifies your brain. I sought out employers like a trader looks for stocks: I searched for people who I thought were undervalued that were also doing great things that interested me. Even though some of the people I work for have had a lot of success, I still feel that all of them are on the upswing — they have not reached their full potential. And because I had skills of my own to bring to the table, and had specific goals or things I wanted to learn, they were more willing to take me on.

  13. Catherine says

    I found your post through a link in Ramit Sethi’s email newsletter and I must say I am very glad I read all the way to the bottom of the page and through the comments (something I rarely do). The questions Susan brought up and your response to her in the comments were VERY enlightening to me.

    The more I read on blogs about working for yourself, the more excited I become but the more confused I also get. But, your response to Susan about your experiences was very helpful. This is the type of detailed experiential information that seems to be lacking and that I have been desperately searching for in the blogs I’ve read. Who knew it was as simple as:
    “You do something small. Literally anything. It could be trying to set up your own ebay store, or spending a day outdoors with your friend’s high-end camera, experimenting with the various settings.”

    I have such a variety of interests and skills that I feel like I’m a jack of many trades but master of none. Therefore, I’ve felt I’m not qualified in any of them at least enough to put them to use. Not knowing where to start has been a handicap to me until now. I see now it is not so much the what but just do and see where it takes me! Thanks so much for your insight!

  14. says

    Hey Catherine,

    Thanks for the fantastic comment! I’m thrilled to hear you were able to get some use out of my response to Susan’s questions.

    It’s interesting because you bring up a very good point: we all feel overwhelmed when we ask ourselves, “Where do I even start?” Same thing can be said about personal finance. We all want to be rich and get a good financial infrastructure, but most people don’t know where to begin so they just put it off indefinitely. Instead, you have to start small and build up traction along the way. It’s better to start saving $5/week for ten weeks (start small) then it is to try and save $500 in one fell swoop.

    Starting small means that, if you fail, you’ll fail small. And you can pick yourself back up again quickly, learn where you went wrong, and then keep going. You can move up the ladder in literally any field if you just start small, realize that you’re in it for the long haul, and keep working on advancing yourself to the next level.

  15. emartinson says

    Charlie,

    This is great stuff… I wish I had this advice when I graduated, it might have made a difference. But this attitude can be extended throughout your career, especially if you are in the midst of a change.

    This is a great addition to some thoughts that Paul Graham has – check out http://paulgraham.com/hiring.html – the ideas there may not be AS relevent today due to the market, but they hightlight a very different way of thinking about making a living.

  16. Alex Hoenig says

    Charlie, this post is awesome. You read my mind. I have a couple of friends that just graduated (assuming you’re an ’08 grad like me) this past spring. I’ve been sharing the same insights with them. Sent a couple of them this blog post and all of them laughed at how spot on your observations are. You’re definitely a guy worth following. Can’t wait to see where you go–maybe take me with you? :)

  17. says

    Hello Charlie,

    I loved your post! I have two comments:

    1. I think that the greatest barrier towards following a different path than the default (apart from ignorance) is fear of other people’s judgement/fear of shame. Taking responsibility for your own actions by not following the default route may lead you into failure. In that case you will have no excuse to use for your failure, since it was 100% your own choice and idea. Shame on you to have such bad ideas! How can you be so stupid?

    2. I really liked what you said in a comment above above about watching older people to see what you should or should not do now, so that you end up (or not) like them. I think that several people think they do something similar, but they do not actually DO something about it. For example, even though they observe other people that have taken the same route as them and have ended up being unhappy and bored, they believe that this *magically* won’t happen to them! Or at least this is how they delude themselves. So I will quote Einstein -> Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results!

    Cheers!

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