'I Just Graduated ... Now What?': A survival guide for those with no clue what lies ahead
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In "I Just Graduated ... Now What?," Katherine Schwarzenegger offers some compassionate advice for those looking to enter the workforce for the first time and culls together a chorus of anecdotes from notable contributors like Eva Longoria, Anderson Cooper, John Legend and more about the travails of answering the eternal question, "So now what are you going to do?" Here's an excerpt.
“Oh s__t! I just graduated . . . Now what?”
That was the overwhelming thought running through my head on the day I walked across the stage and received my diploma in communications from the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California. As I said good- bye to my friends and teachers, I felt terrified about closing the chapter and opening a new chapter in the real world. There were no feelings of great elation or relief among the many hugs and cheers. Instead, there was a feeling of total panic and paralyzing fear of the unknown. Picture a frozen smile on the outside melting into panic on the inside. Of course I was happy to be done with school, but I was in an unexpected state of shock. Every hug and congratulations on my graduation was complete with the question “What’s next?”The ink wasn’t even dry on my diploma!
I know life is riddled with tough questions whose answers we don’t always know off the top of our heads. And the reality is, we will face these kinds of questions for most of our lives. It started when I was a junior in high school. It seemed everywhere I went, people asked me, “What did you get on the SAT?” “How did you do?” “Have you applied to college?” “What college are you planning to attend?” “Where are you going?” “What schools did you get accepted to?”
Before being accepted to any colleges, I remember feeling lost and unsure because I didn’t know where I would end up after high school graduation. Rejection letters came, and so did acceptance letters. The University of Southern California was always at the top of my list, so as long as I was accepted, that would be my school of choice. After a lot of anxiety, USC accepted me. When I made my decision, I thought I’d gotten a reprieve from the annoying “What’s next?” questions, only to have them start again my junior year of college. “What will you do when you graduate?” “Did you get a job yet?” “Where are you going to live?”
The closer graduation got, “What are you going to do now?” seemed to follow me wherever I went. I had been in school for so long, always going, studying, working, and volunteering. I was that annoying perfectionist who challenged myself to write a book, while in college, about women’s body image, something I and every girl struggles with. To say I spread myself thin doesn’t begin to describe how I felt during that time. In fact, at the beginning of my senior year, I felt like I was on autopilot. I planned to move to New York, get a job working in television, and continue my go-go-go mentality.
But as my graduation neared, I began to hear a little voice inside me telling me, “Slow down, stop, whoa, take a beat, what are you doing?”
I was like, Huh? Who is that?
What the . . . ?
I had never done that.
I am the kind of person who thrives on staying busy. I had my first job working in a boutique when I was fifteen and have always enjoyed working. I’d always had a clear vision of what my future looked like. From my earliest memories in elementary school, I plotted my course through middle school, high school, college, and beyond— right into my thirties. (Trust me, I am not the only person who does this. Most girls have their wedding planned in high school, right down to their dream husband, dream house, dream baby, and dream career that allows for all of this to happen! Guys I’ve spoken with have their own version of this too!) I could envision every aspect of my life that whole time, but I never planned on this confusing doubt, uncertainty, angst, and fear after college where for the first time in my life, there was absolutely nothing to see.
As graduation approached, this tight-knot feeling about my future grew. Tums became my best friend. Luckily, my other best friend is my mom. We are very close and can talk about everything in an open and honest way. I told her how I was feeling confused and lost because I wasn’t sure about my next steps. I shared my fear about the unknown. Throughout my entire life, everything had always been planned out and there was always an order for what would come next. But now for the first time, there wasn’t any concrete plan for what I was “supposed to do” next, and that terrified me. So when I told my mom that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after graduating, instead of putting pressure on me, she eased my stress by telling me it was okay to take a beat. She suggested that I might just pause for the summer and revisit the “now what” question after Labor Day.
“Pause. Now there’s an idea,” I thought.
The idea of “pausing” wasn’t something I could really wrap my head around. I honestly didn’t even know if I could actually do that. I knew that “pausing” wasn’t something I felt I was programmed to do, but I wanted to explore it. Every time I told my mom I was worried, she assured me that she felt the same way when she graduated and that this fear happens to a lot of people—in fact, it happened to her. When my mom graduated from Georgetown University, she told me that she was also scared. She said that every time someone asked her, “Now what?” she beat herself up over not having THE answer. My mom even told me that she would make up stuff and began telling people she was going to law school even though she had no plans to go, just so they would be quiet. She made up this excuse just to keep people from asking her the question. Knowing she went through the same thing helped me in my search for my answer to the question.
In fact, my mom took this concept of pausing and made it her theme when she gave the commencement speech at my graduation from the Annenberg School at USC in May 2012, in which she offered the following advice to all of us listening that day:
. . . I know right now everybody’s asking you those same questions: “What are you going to do after graduation? Do you have a job? Where will you be working? How much are they paying? Where are you going? Where will you be living? Who are you seeing?” Oh, my God—so many questions!
And here you are: sitting there ready to hit the Fast Forward button and find out the answers. I get that. I was just LIKE you: I lived on Fast Forward.
But today, I have one wish for you. Before you go out and press that Fast Forward button, I’m hoping—I’m praying—that you’ll have the courage to first press the Pause button.
That’s right: the Pause button. I hope if you learn anything from me today, you learn and remem- ber . . . The Power of the Pause.
Pausing allows you to take a beat—to take a breath in your life. As everybody else is rushing around like a lunatic out there, I dare you to do the opposite.
I, like my friends who were all sitting in the room intently taking in her message that memorable day, realized that what my mom was encouraging us to do was the absolute perfect advice. She spoke about how the question “What are you going to do?” follows us our whole lives. It comes in many forms, but it’s always there. No matter what you do, or how much you accomplish, there will always be someone there to ask you, “So what now?”
“When are you going to get a promotion?” “When are you getting married?”
“When are you going to have a baby?” “When are you going to have another baby?” And so on . . .
The reality of having to face the “What’s next?” question for the rest of my life was overwhelming. At the time, I could barely figure out my plans for the weekend, let alone the next phase of my life, so after graduation, whenever someone asked me about my plans, I simply responded with, “I’m pausing.”
It worked like a charm every time! No one questioned it. If anything, I think people were so shocked by my response that they didn’t know how to follow up with anything else but, “Oh, good for you.” Most people nodded in confusion or just told me how cool it was to realize that right now is such an important time to sit back and reflect. I actually got kind of a kick out of watching people’s reactions when I told them about my pausing plan; it was clearly not what they were expecting to hear from me.
The pausing response quickly caught on with most of my friends too. They all began calling me to say they were using the “I’m pausing” line, while their parents were calling my mother to ask, “Are you crazy, telling these kids to stop and take a beat?” Some people couldn’t understand the value in taking a moment to figure things out. My mom explained what she meant in her speech:
. . . It’s really important to pause along the way and take a break from communicating outwardly, so you can communicate inwardly, with yourself.
PAUSE—and take the time to find out what’s important to you. Find out what you love, what’s real and true to you—so it can infuse and inform your work and make it your own. . . .
And if you don’t have a job yet and someone asks you, “What are you going to do?” Just pause, and be aware of this fundamental truth: It’s okay not to know what you’re going to do! It’s okay not to have all the answers. You don’t have to be like I was at your age and beat yourself up for not knowing.
It’s okay to go with the truth and tell people, “You know what? It’s a tough job market out there. I’m not sure what I’m going to be doing. I’m pausing, I’m open, and I’m looking at my options.”
. . . I didn’t invent this stop-everything and pause idea.
Jesus fasted for forty days and nights in the desert. Henry David Thoreau went to Walden Pond. Anne Morrow Lindbergh went to sea. Buddha, Gandhi, Mother Teresa—the greatest and wisest have often stopped and withdrawn from active lives to journey within themselves. The wisdom they garnered there and shared with us has impacted the world.
Now, I know I am lucky to come from a family who could support me in my summer of “pauses” while I found my way. I decided to move out of the apartment I was sharing with my best friend before graduation and move back home. My parents had recently separated and I wanted to move back home with my mom and my siblings. I hadn’t planned on moving home after college, but a big part of me loved being around my family, so the idea of moving back home with them didn’t sound so bad. Still, although my intentions were good, it felt like a step backward for me. You spend your whole life taking the proper steps into adulthood, and there I was, a college graduate, living at home with my family. Most of my friends had their own apartments and were living their own lives, and I was struggling and conflicted with my decision— big-time.
My parents weren’t forcing me to go out and get a job right away, but they made sure I also knew that they weren’t the type to support me sitting around doing nothing as my job. They understood and supported my need to stop, think, and discover what it is I am looking for. Besides, I definitely inherited their strong work ethic, so I don’t think they thought I was being a slacker. They could see I was just confused. As it turns out, I wasn’t alone. Almost all of my peers were feeling the same way.
This universal feeling got me thinking, “There should be a book out there with advice and tips from people who have been there, who can relate to how so many of us feel because they have been in the same position, and can help recent graduates answer the ‘Now what?’ question.” After all, it’s a different environment for those of us who are graduating. The job market and the economy make things really challenging. So many kids are graduating with huge student loans looming over their heads and great uncertainty about how they will pay them back without a job.
Many of us feel like it’s difficult for our parents to understand our generation. They don’t understand the different career opportunities we have today or that we don’t want to go to work at one place for many years and end up unhappy with our career choices. In fact, a recent survey of working people showed that a whopping 70 percent weren’t happy in their jobs, with the main reasons being cited as a difficult boss and no room for growth. Today, my generation is lucky enough to choose what kind of job environment we want to work in and the kind of life we want to live, all because our parents’ generation worked so hard to give that to us.
There’s a perception that the moment you graduate from college, you are officially ready to enter the real world. I think that concept is unfair and unrealistic. Sure, there’s a lot of posturing that you are self-assured and secure with your plans when in fact, most people aren’t. A lot of people talk about the jobs they have lined up, the great opportunities that exist out there, and how they plan to seek them out. And for some, that may be true. For the majority of us, though, it’s the furthest thing from the truth. We all decided to go to college as the next step after high school in order to prepare ourselves for life in the real world. We spent four years of our lives going to classes and being prepped for real-life situations so by the time graduation came around, we would feel ready to deal with life head-on. But not so fast!
Whenever I heard my friends talking about the jobs they had planned after college, it made me feel worse about myself because they seemingly had their lives together and I felt I didn’t. Since I had no plan in place after graduating, I was forced to give up my comfortable view of myself as someone who had it together. This was a really painful and challenging realization. Sacrificing who I thought I was became a big deal because I usually have a strong sense of who I am, and the idea that I would have to change that didn’t sit well with me. For the first time in my life, I was the planner . . . with no plan. Worse, I had no idea where to start. All of a sudden, there wasn’t anything I felt a calling for, and though I was very proud to have accomplished so much leading up to graduation, I felt like I needed a time- out to really consider my options.
The one question that kept creeping into my mind was “How can you make a plan when you don’t know what you are planning for?” The funny thing about being able to see things in your future is that first you need to be able to have a vision for what direction you want to go.
I was stuck, and I couldn’t budge. So June came and went.
Then July and August passed too. I got more stuck.
I had given myself a “pause” expiration date of early September—right around the time most kids are going back to school and people get back into the grind of things. I wasn’t exactly sitting around doing nothing, but I had a constant nagging feeling, which never seemed to dissipate, that I should be doing more. I appeared busy: going to meetings, doing research on possible jobs that would interest me. I spent most of that time asking myself some tough questions about what really makes me happy.
While promoting my first book, I realized how much I loved doing television work and wanted to continue to explore the TV world while I was in college. I had done some freelance work on television, for Extra and Entertainment Tonight and knew that I loved doing that, but for whatever reason, I wouldn’t allow myself to turn that into my career yet. It was almost like I couldn’t clearly envision that for my future. I was interested in political and lifestyle stories. I love the talk show format and even had the chance to co-host Anderson Live, the syndicated daytime talk show, in the fall of 2012. That was the closest I came to finding my passion during these months. I knew that the general direction I wanted to go was to someday be in front of the camera, perhaps doing a talk show, or create some type of lifestyle brand that inspires others in my generation to be their very best. I began questioning whether staying in Los Angeles was the right direction or whether a little time in New York might help give me some distance from my familiar, comfortable environment. I had stayed in New York for three months when I did an internship for Dove after my freshman year of college and when I worked for CNN the following summer. I had a pretty good idea of what being away from home felt like, but the commitment to make the permanent move paralyzed me with fear. To be fair, moving to New York without a job wasn’t an ideal situation to be in either, so that held me back too.
Even though I lived away from home during my college years, USC was in close proximity to my parents. On any given day, I could be in our family kitchen within an hour. I will admit, I went home often throughout my college years. I am one of those kids who actually enjoy spending quality time with their family and thrive on being around them. It’s one of the reasons I decided to go to school so close to home.
Although I was active, I was still pretty hard on myself, believing that others were judging me for not having it all figured out. Even if they weren’t saying it, I felt as if people were thinking, “What is she doing and why isn’t she doing more?” That voice in my head made me feel embarrassed and got me down. In retrospect, I can’t say that anyone was really thinking that about me—except, perhaps, me.
By the time November rolled around, I was in full-on depression mode. Not having school to fall back on felt totally unnatural and really uncomfortable. I’d lost all of the dreams about my future, which felt like it had been put on temporary hold. I’d gotten to such a low place in my life that I didn’t want to work out (something I used to be passionate about), and I’d stopped dreaming of having my own place because I was still living at home. I wasn’t dating, was being completely antisocial, and felt as though I had nothing substantial happening in my life that made me feel good, and no project I could sink my teeth into and call my own. It was the first time in my life I had no energy; I actually felt lazy and had zero motivation. This was definitely the darkest time of my life. I felt super sad about everything—especially my future.
In an effort to help me get out of my funk, my mom took me to meditation classes and even to a horse whisperer. She finally decided that both of us should go to a Tony Robbins seminar called “Date with Destiny” that was taking place in Palm Springs in late November. Date with Destiny is about understanding why you feel and behave the way you do. The six-day seminar promised to teach us ways to live a happier life filled with love, passion, and success moving forward.
When my mom first suggested this, I said absolutely not. I told her I wasn’t experiencing a midlife crisis, and I had labeled those seminars as being for people who were in much more confusing periods of their lives but were motivated to learn. After some convincing from my mom, I told her I would go. Although I initially agreed to go to “support” my mom, I can now admit that these tools were exactly what I needed to kick-start the next phase of my life.
Although I was able to attend only two days of the six-day Tony Robbins seminar, it was a life-altering experience. Most people there were a lot older than me and going through very challenging times in their lives. Tony spoke a lot about the stories we tell ourselves, the things we say, think, or feel, whether they’re true or not. He also talked about how most people make up excuses to avoid facing the truth. That message really resonated with me. I’ve never been an excuse maker and have always been frustrated by people who are. In a way, I had become that kind of person, and that realization wasn’t good, but it was definitely freeing.
Tony doesn’t sugarcoat anything—he just says it like it is. I have a great appreciation for that trait in people, even if what they have to say is often very hard to hear. When Tony spoke to different people one-on-one in front of the hundreds of attendees in the room, I learned something valuable from each person’s experiences and how Tony broke it down to find a reasonable and logical resolution.
During my time there, I had to look at my life in a way that I had never done before. I had to go deep in my head and heart to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and what I was going to do differently to get there. By the time my mom and I left the seminar, I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders and that I was seeing things from a whole new perspective. I was a different person. I felt clear in my head and confident that even though I didn’t have a step-by-step plan for myself right away, I was getting close and I needed to trust that I would get there.
When I had the chance to meet with Tony afterward one-on-one, he called me out on my frustration and what he referred to as me carrying around a “masculine mask.” Ouch. He said this façade was the reason I felt annoyed all of the time, which was creating toxicity in my life, instead of letting my softer, more feminine side shine through. What I realized was that being pissed off and frustrated about things happening around me wasn’t making things any better. It made me feel powerless. It certainly wasn’t having a positive impact on the relationships in my life that were making me angry. If anything, my attitude was mak- ing those relationships worse. Tony explained that I had to take off this mask and change my energy from negative into positive so I could draw the things I really wanted toward me instead of pushing them away. It was definitely time to leave my negative emotional baggage behind, and I decided then that I would not be bringing it back to Los Angeles with me! When I returned to L.A., somehow I felt happier and lighter, like I had left all my worries and struggles behind, and I was ready for a fresh start.
I am a huge believer that everything happens for a reason. After my Date with Destiny experience, I was certain that I would start working in early January. I vowed to stop being sad and feeling sorry for myself because it’s not really who I am. When I got home, I decided to make my first vision board to help me create a picture for my dreams so I could actually see all of the things I really wanted in life. I included a house, a wedding photo, a picture with a family in it, a picture of the ocean, and a picture of a group of people having a fun dinner, along with pictures of Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, and Tyra Banks because I want to be the next generation’s talk show host, just as each of them were for their generation. I cut out a TV and wrote the word Youth on it so I would always be able to relate to my generation and focus on our needs.
It finally dawned on me that if I was feeling this uncomfortable moving forward after college, lots of other people were most likely equally confused, stuck, disoriented, and terrified too. We find ourselves confused when we don’t know how to go about navigating the real world after college. We think that by spending four years of our lives in school we will be properly prepared, but we’re not at all. I decided that the best way to slay my fear and help others at the same time was to face it head-on.
I came up with the idea to interview other people about their experiences out there in the real world and ask them for their best advice on managing the unknown. I thought, “If I can pick the brains of some of the most brilliant thinkers and business leaders about how they found the courage to walk their path, face adversity head-on, and overcome rejection, fear, and bad choices, then I can make a giant leap into my own future without making the same mistakes along the way.” The funny thing about struggling is that when you tell people how alone you feel with your struggles, you end up finding out that they once felt the same way and yet managed to find a way out. I figured if so many people were feeling this way now and so many successful people had felt that way in the past, why not shed light on the issue and talk about it?
I wanted to know what they would tell our generation, and I was curious about the lessons they learned along the way that helped make them successful. I thought I could compile all of this information into a book and share my findings with others who are feeling the same way I did.
Not getting a job right out of college felt like the low- est point in my life, but what it really did was force me to learn so much about myself. In retrospect, I wouldn’t have changed a moment, because those low experiences brought me to the here and now and to writing this book.
For most of us, life after graduation may be the first time we have to financially support ourselves, budget our finances, take on real responsibilities, and create a life out- side the safety of the cocoon we felt protected by during our school years. Perhaps like I did, you think everyone else has got it all together while you don’t.
What I’ve learned from the interviews is that all experiences are good experiences, even the ones that don’t feel good in the moment. Sometimes the wrong job can open the right door; every situation has potential.The only thing you have to lose by not getting out there is opportunity.
Millennials have been plagued by stereotypes such as being too tech-obsessed, entitled, and lazy. Many people think we don’t have a strong work ethic or the persistence necessary to succeed.This perception of the millennial generation is so rampant that companies such as Merrill Lynch and Ernst & Young have hired consultants to teach them how to deal with us. Ask anyone in middle management today what their biggest issue is in finding solid young employees, and they will immediately say, “Their sense of entitlement!” It appears that our generation comes off as if we really don’t want to work that hard.
I am not afraid of working hard, and for the most part, neither are my friends and our peer groups.The definition of hard work hasn’t really changed so much as the venue in which we can accomplish things in less time because of technology and ease of access to information—something our parents’ generation didn’t have.While I started out believing that my generation’s work ethic was really no different from the ones before us, I’ve come to realize that in many ways it is. I believe the millennial generation brings a lot to the table. Despite the notion that we don’t want to work or have unrealistic expectations, there are those in the workplace who see our resourcefulness as an asset and who understand that the tools we bring to the table will not only help bring their businesses into the next millennium, but are critical to their success because we know how to get things done in a new and more efficient way.
According to a UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and YEC study, millennials are highly ambitious, with most placing a tremendous emphasis on finding jobs with their best chances for career and personal growth. Hiring an employee who is active in social media greatly increases a company’s digital reach. Millennials switch their attention between media platforms such as laptops, smartphones, tablets, and television on average 27 times an hour. Not only do millennials multitask far more than previous generations, they value social media freedom, device flexibility, and work mobility over salary when accepting a job offer.
Most of us don’t see the path toward our future as an easy one because the current statistics tell us it’s not. Those of us looking to enter the job market will face a harder time finding jobs, let alone the career we were looking for, but it doesn’t mean you can’t work toward your dream. In fact, for many, statistics show that you won’t zero in on the job that is right for you until at least age twenty-six or twenty-seven—the age at which many sociologists believe people transition from young adult into adulthood.
In 2014, millennials will make up 36 percent of the workforce, with that number increasing to 46 percent by 2020. Companies that are growing will come to depend on this generation, the most diverse ever to enter the mar- ketplace and who place their highest value on joining a company where they have the opportunity for personal development, career growth, and then financial stability. This means that whatever you choose to do in the future, you are an important asset to the right company.
Writing this book began as a resource to help me figure out my next steps. It morphed into the most incredible learning experience I could have ever wished for while navigating my own path toward a fulfilling and meaningful career.
Some of the people I interviewed were just entering the workforce, while others have been in it for many years.
Some have only an undergraduate degree, while some have a master’s degree in business or other areas. Others never went to college, or did go but for whatever reason did not graduate. The advent of social media and other technology as a primary platform for business is why I also wanted to talk to young entrepreneurs who are the real difference makers in today’s society. They each started with an idea and were willing to pursue it despite people telling them it couldn’t be done. Each of their real-world experiences and insights illuminated the process of what it takes to make it out there, in the job market and in life. Most important, almost everyone I spoke to shared their experience of feel- ing lost and confused after college or at some point in their life. Hearing their stories made me feel so much better about my journey.
The most common advice that came from almost ev- eryone I spoke to was to find a job you’re passionate about doing, which is usually easier said than done. If you can create a career built on passion, your chances for success, fulfillment, and longevity are far greater than if you take any old job simply for the paycheck. Amazingly, everyone had something different to offer—which helped broaden my perspective on what’s really important when weighing my various options. Though there have been many takeaways from interviewing everyone in this book, for me, one of the biggest has been embracing the opportunities we have. Hard work and struggling are an important part of the journey, but we can get there. There are so many different types of jobs that simply didn’t exist in previous generations. For example, my mom didn’t have the abil- ity to say she wanted to start a “lifestyle brand” when she graduated. For her to achieve that goal, she would have needed to work for a major corporation and carve out a niche for herself instead of creating it through social media and other creative outlets available today.
Writing this book also helped me narrow down what I want to do and then understand the steps I would need to take to get me there. Since I began writing this book in January 2013, I’ve taken a leap of faith into my future by creating my own lifestyle website, a place where I blog about current issues, interests, and ideas that feel relevant for my generation as well as exploring my career in tele- vision. I have never been busier and couldn’t be happier with the outcome of my efforts or the journey that led me here. I finally have purpose, passion, and great pleasure in the work I am doing back in my life.
We all need to get to a place of being comfortable with ourselves and how we are choosing to live our lives. I haven’t met a single person who doesn’t still feel over- whelmed by the “Now what?” questions we will experi- ence for the rest of our lives; sadly it is endless. I do hope that by reading this book, people will become more aware of the nagging question and learn to handle it without feeling that they should be doing something more. Know- ing that so many people have had their own unique way of finding their path in life is encouraging.
I am so pleased to share all of the information and lessons I’ve learned through the interviews that follow in this book. Each story of their failures and successes, their perseverance and fortitude, and their strength and courage inspired me to get out of my rut and into the game. It took some time to discover my path, but in the end, it was truly worth it. And I am just beginning. I am aware that I will never stop “figuring myself out” and trying to understand the future.
So if you’re feeling confused and uncertain about your future and career, it’s okay. Pause. Take a beat. Look at it as finishing one chapter in your life and starting another. As you read each person’s amazing journey in this book, I hope you will pause. Each person who contributed to this book agreed to participate because they wished they’d had a book like this when they were starting out. Based on their stories and experiences they each share, take comfort in knowing that it’s okay if you’re feeling like everyone else has their life together and you don’t, because the reality is that they probably feel the same way. Everyone finds their way on their own time. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself for the road that lies ahead and don’t worry if you don’t have all of the answers right away. They will come, so be patient and enjoy the process.
Reprinted from I JUST GRADUATED…NOW WHAT? Copyright © 2014 by Katherine Schwarzenegger. To be published by Crown Archetype, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company.