Sunday, May 27, 2012

Life After College: Deleted Scenes

I am giving a talk (MP3)on Tuesday on making the transition to life after college. Whenever I have to give a sapiential[1] talk I try to collect as much wisdom as I can to have the best possible chance of putting together something that is mildly true and helpful, despite the fickle nature of my observations and the fleeting competence of my synthesis. In this case, turned to friends who have been out of college a long time and know what it took to complete the transition, and friends who have been out of college for < a year, and could give me visceral, real-time insight on the real and pressing challenges of the transition. They provided way more value than I could fit in the talk. So I put much of the rest of it here. And, so, in no particular order, here are my friend’s thoughts (in addition to a couple quotes by people I don’t know and my ubiquitous midrash) on the transition.

Banality of Adult Life

“It took me a while to come to terms with (the idea that) I do not have to do it all right this instant. In college everything has to be done right this instant, you are working within a 10 week time limit on everything.” -Gail

"Harold had spent the years before college graduation in upper level seminars discussion on Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and the problem of evil.[2] He spent the years after graduation operating a cannon copying machine. It became obvious to him, as he stood there trying not to be hypnotized by the cruising green light of the machine, that he had become information age cannon fodder...his cohort seemed to exist mostly to provide fact checking and sexual tension." – David Brooks[3] - The Social Animal

Toothpaste for Dinner:

The little trivialities of adult life seemed more problematic to me than paying back student loans or furnishing an apartment. – Joel

This actually reminds me of the David Foster Wallace commencement speech.

“the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.” -DFW

I totally agree that the transition isn’t rendered problematic mostly by the monumental aspects of the shift (first day of work, moving to a new state, interviewing for a big job, etc) it is rendered problematic by the mundane aspects (e.g. not coming home to your roommate who genuinely cares how your day went, sitting in a the same chair for 8 out of 9 hours in a row[4], having access to the internet on your work computer). And it is rendered problematic by the loss of concrete measures of progress, success or failure:

Shift in Evaluation Metrics

It was really hard for me to transition to not having the measurement/approval function of grades in real life. Other sorts of evaluations that come with jobs, marriage, parenting are much less clear than many (even, admittedly sort of arbitrary) grading. Living on grace rather than grades is kind of mysterious. - Tiffany

I think the biggest lesson I had to learn in my 20s was how to live without the expectation of a major transition happening every 12 weeks. (That system) came pre-loaded with stuff to keep you busy and metrics for measuring your success…Figuring out whether you're a success or a failure is a lot more nuanced than it used to be. –Dave

The problem, as Dave and Tiff suggest, is not that we lose a legitimate metric of evaluation, but that we spend most of our young life chasing a ghost…a phantom…an apparition. And upon leaving college, it dissolves before our eyes leaving us wondering what we were chasing. Grades provide us concrete information on our value…but it is false information. The shock of losing the affirming nature of grades (or the freedom of losing their degrading nature) points to the depth of the idolatry they generate. But it doesn’t make the transition less disorienting.

Sparkle Deficit

The Difficulty of Adult Relationships


Try to find a community that you can really plug in for those deeper friendships. Maybe that's something structured, such as a home group, but maybe it's a group of local friends that you collect around you. - Corrie

I hate to say it, but I eventually had to abandon the formal home group model (at least in the parent-of-toddler life stage) in favor of a group of guys who meet every Friday for lunch or beers and read something together that mainly just affords an excuse to share our lives.

Life after college is very different. "Post college" is a mixed bag of young professionals, people in grad school, unemployed people looking for work, married couples, etc. This includes the friends you graduated with. It's nothing like college where everyone is in the exact same place as you in life and is experiencing the same things. So making friends is a totally different experience. –Monica

College is a season of life. Not every season looks like college, surrounded by friends and peers your age. -Mike

At the heart of a lot of the comments was the nature of developing friendships in the context of sudden and growing relational heterogeneity. For all its emphasis on diversity, undergrad is one of the most homogeneous collections of people that any life stage affords.[5] And the reason diversity does not come naturally to us is because we are desperately tribal creatures (an insight both Christian and academic anthropology share). But personal and spiritual growth often requires transcending age, class and cultural barriers in some of our relationships.

One thing I’d add here. The surest way to assure a first date doesn’t turn into a second date is to spend a lot of time talking about former relationships. This is true with friends too. I have had the experience of trying to connect with new, potential friends, post-college only to be repeatedly informed that I am not as “real”, “genuine”, “available”, etc… as their college friends. This was, undoubtedly, true. But repeated reminders of how I am disappointing did not draw me deeper into the relationship. Think fondly of your college relationships, but don’t hold the new ones to that standard…especially early on.


The dating pool is harder to find - relationships in general take more work. -Julie

“for the first time in our lives the arbitrary lines for when to get married are gone. (College relationships have) a minimum of 2-3 years because (of graduation). Well, once that grad date passes, if you meet a girl, you could marry…next week…” -Adam

Adam went on to point out that this increases the importance of pacing romantic connection, which, you can imagine, is especially difficult given the loneliness of the transition.

Find a Church…
...But Make Sure you Also Find a Theology of Church

Set your alarm on Sunday mornings, no matter how late you were out on Saturday night. It will be dreadful at first, and then after a few weeks, you’ll find that you like it, that the pattern of it fills up something inside you. - Shauna Niequist – Author

“they will continue to treat me as a visitor so long as I am wishy/washy or inconsistent with the community stuff. So if you find a church soon and want to get acclimated, go to the hangouts, get involved in a bible study, find a way to serve, "JUST DO IT" and that is how you will begin forming real relationships -Natalia

Find a church and get involved ASAP. You need support where you are. Skype and the phone are amazing and wonderful…but support and accountability where you are is really critical.-Monica

Church is important…Realize church will be different than (a campus ministry). It won't all be geared toward you. -Adam

The faster you get plugged in somewhere with a support system, the easier it is to face any difficulties that may come your way... –Gilda

A lot of people waste so much time trying to ‘find something real’ that they never figure out what is actually real. I say in my talk, ‘find a good church…no, forget that, it doesn’t exist, find a tolerable church and learn to love them.’ But mostly, if you can embrace not only the new time scale not only of life but also of community and spirituality, you might just unlock new reservoirs of truth and beauty.

If there's one thing I want to impress on the 20-somethings in my church, it's that they don't get to see some of God's best re-creative work unless they commit to their family, their community, their church for the long-term. And engage with God in the process of bringing that change about… I don't think there's anything as beautiful or heart-stopping as watching the Spirit take up residence in a person, place or group, and gently rebuild it over years and years. -Dave

Be willing to start at the bottom

One of the things I hit in my talk, that energetic, gifted, talented college ministry does not transfer to the church. You usually have to ‘start at the bottom’ serving in the church. This sounds like a simple call to not be proud or arrogant…to get over yourself. But it is more complex than that. A lot of students find that when they go from providing essentially pastoral care for a group of people to handing out bulletins or working in the nursery, they feel substantial guilt that they are wasting their energies and talents and ‘selling out.’[6] This requires us to develop our theology of grace (what actually gives us value) and followership (trust is not a right, it is earned).

Another note on ‘starting at the bottom’…this is true unless you join a church plant…understaffed churches tend to be meritocracies…they tend to put people to work without concern for age (and sometimes, without concern for gifting or talent – which sometimes works out well because often gifting and talent can only be recognized in the context of being thrown into something hard).

Taking a year off

Nothing was more controversial among those who read my talk than my critique of ‘taking a year off.’[7] Amanda and I have noticed that it is pretty rare to go directly from undergrad to grad school (even though many Davis grads will eventually decide to go to grad school). ‘Taking a year off’ is part of the culture here. Here is the bombastic thing I wrote (but re-wrote before I gave the talk):

Why are you “taking a year off” at 23? 23 is arguably the most energetic, potential filled year of your life. Why are you ‘taking it off’!?!?! If you need a year off… take it at 45…but 23? If Dan (the college pastor) came to me and said ‘I need a year off, I’m burnt out’ that would make way more sense to me than a college senior…but I hear it from them again and again…and not from Dan…because he’s a grown up. He knows how precious each year is and tries to squeeze each one for maximal kingdom value and momentum. You will NEVER have more energy or capacity than you do right now. Now is the time to do the ‘hard thing’ whether it is grad school, or peace corps, or a missions, or an impossible internship, Or take a REAL, sustained shot at a dream. Years in your early 20’s – before you have kids - are incredibly precious in retrospect. You WILL wish you did more with them.

The problem with that is that ‘taking a year off’ has enormous semantic range. Some people mean ‘I want to get serious vocational experience to build my resume, refine my research topic or decide if I love this vocation enough to invest 3 years and $100k in grad school.’ Others mean ‘I really want to spend a year serving in an orphanage in Africa before I go for my MBA.’ Obviously, those aren’t ‘years off’, but that is the language that has arisen around them. Those are intentional, wise, ways forward.

The other problem is that some (especially in this economy) find that all of the opportunities they pursued evaporated before their eyes. They find themselves taking ‘a year off’ by necessity. The year after college that unfolds for them is not selected but inflicted. And my simplistic, bombastic take on ‘a year off’ is more than unhelpful, it is hurtful.

But what I was trying to deconstruct is that the early 20’s is a time for fun and youth and enjoying the lack of responsibility. The reason crotchety old people like me find that so offensive is not because we miss being young…it’s not because we are bitter that we didn’t do that[8]…it is because we have seen enough years melt away to realize that they REALLY matter. You only get a few of them. And what you do with the years between college and kids will determine a lot of what the rest of your life looks like. So it is important to do anything you can to hit the year after college with all the momentum you can muster.

"Don’t go “find yourself.”  That’s stupid.  People don’t find themselves, they shape themselves.  Either actively or passively but they do.  People that go to Europe for a year don’t “find themselves,”  they just get shaped by some European people and culture instead of American people and culture.  Statistically you are at the most impressionable time in your life. You can’t help that and that’s not a bad thing.  It’s a natural thing (and a necessary one).  The question then you’ve gotta ask yourself and decide is, “who will I allow to impress upon me?”  Find some people who you want to be like, spiritually, practically, emotionally, etc. and hang around them.  Let them shape you." -Adam

Don’t Romanticize the Past

“Don’t romanticize the past. When I think of Davis, I think of senior year: Margarita Mondays, laying on the quad, knowing where everything was, being invited to so many activities on the weekends I had to say no to most of them. Then I moved to Madison and all of that changed: I had nothing to do on the weekends and no friends to do it with, and if I did, I wouldn't have been able to find it. But what I really should be thinking about is Davis in year 1… I think it took me a year or even two before I had truly close friends in CL… Now, that still wasn't as hard, but I definitely was lonely, somewhat lost, etc. This thing just takes time. If I stay in Madison for 4 years, I'm sure I'll love it here too and consider it home- I just don't yet--- but I'm starting too.-Adam[9]

We've almost been married/graduated for 4 years now and it's only been in the last year that we've found people we consider to be friends. –Kate

Friendship takes time. Intimacy requires accumulated shared experiences (which are rarer if you aren’t living in such close proximity). So you can’t compare the relationships of your first year out of college with those of your 4th year of college. Remember how lonely and alienating that freshman year was. And remember what it took to develop those intimate relationships. Do it again. The only way you will have deep friendships 4 years out of college is if you start immediately.


You’ve got to learn to budget. The financial world gets real and learning how to budget your money correctly is key. - Adam

Only a couple of the students mentioned money, but I will. This transition is an amazing opportunity. Because many college students are used to living on almost nothing…and will suddenly have substantially more than nothing. It is difficult to cut back on your standard of living. It is much easier to keep it from growing…or at least mitigate the rate at which it grows. The longer you can live on college expenses, while you make professional money, the more you will be able to save for the financial strains of a family and the more generous you will be able to be. Try to carefully pace the growth of your standard of living. Try to make choices so your expenses grow more slowly than your income. And then save and give.


Talk about work as worship. Talk about how every job includes things you don't like, even ministry jobs (especially?). Having the proper motivation for work (and domestic life too) is key or you'll just wanna quit. You're going to spend the best hours of the best years of your life working. You're going to spend more time at work than you do with your wife in your lifetime. How and why you work is a BIG part of living as a disciple of Jesus. -Adam

I will talk about this. But I have much more to say on it…to the point that it will get its own post.

This post was written while listening to the Bison station on Pandora


[1] There are two types of talks I give at our college ministry: 1) exegetical and 2) sapiential. I prefer the former because it outsources the responsibility for truth to a more reliable source than my deeply flawed understanding of people and reality. But sometimes, living a responsible, kind, caring Christian life in the modern world requires thinking about a topic that ancient texts do not weigh in on directly. In these cases, the Christian scriptures call us to ‘seek wisdom’. So some talks end up being sapiential or wisdom talks. Here’s the problem. I’m not that wise. So, in general, I do a lot of reading and interviews to try to stockpile second-hand wisdom on the topic of interest. This is generally how my dating talks go (see the series from January and February) and it’s how this one went.

[2] Harold is, apparently my kind of guy. Tolstoy and FD are my two favorite fictional authors.

[3] I know there are some people who will hate Brooks reflexively based on his political affiliation and some of his curious recent commentary on economics. But this was a really good book (which will show up in a future post and my year end reading list) and I generally find Brooks helpful and nuanced even when I disagree.

[4] This was one of the hardest aspects of the transition to me. In grad school I’d work for 2 hrs at my desk, move to a study lounge for 2 hours, move to a computer lab for 2 hrs, read in the union for 2 hrs and then go home and work for a couple hours. Sitting at the same desk and staring at the same wall all day was deadening.

[5] You could argue that 20-year-olds of diverse culture, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, belief systems, and gender – that go to the same undergrad - still have way more in common with each other than they do with the 28 year old software developer who has been laid off for 3 months, the 32 year old stay at home mom, the 40 year old stock trader, the 46 year old migrant worker, or the 67 year old retired grandmother.

[6] Now it is easy to write this off as pride, but there is also a certain measure of guilt that Christians can feel if they know they are underutilized. There is a balance here in Christian spirituality. We are urged to be self skeptical about our abilities and not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought (which psychologists tell us, is a natural and ubiquitous human inclination). But we are also called to be careful not to waste our lives. This is the tension of followership. We need to simultaneously actively reject arrogance and advocate for potential contributions we could make.

[7] Old people tended to love it, while recent grads warned me that it was potentially hurtful. It took me a while to sort out how they were both right.

[8] My regrets are not that I worked too hard in my early twenties…it’s that I wish I worked harder…and I kind of worked my ass off.

[9] I ended up making this the last cut from my talk, and it was the hardest cut…because it is really wise.


Landon said...

Oh my gosh, if these are the cuts, I'm all the more stoked for Tuesday!

Joel said...

This was so good that by the end I forgot that they were the parts that didn't make it.

Chris said...

Can't wait for the post on Work, especially in light of Joe's talk on Sunday.