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Forget platitudes: Real advice for graduates

Dress nice, watch out for mice and accept the random nature of the world. By Paige Ferrari

It’s hard to believe that only two years ago I was sweating through my synthetic graduation gown, arms filled with gift copies of Maria Shriver's “10 Things I Wish I'd Known Before I Entered the Real World.” My graduation speaker, a once aspiring presidential candidate, advised us to suck it up when the job market inevitably kicked us in the teeth. The graduation photographer told us to “move along and smile.” Everyone else told us to relentlessly pursue our dreams — though I had a funny feeling that, for my family, this did not extend to my lifelong dream of moving home and hiding under the covers for all eternity.

Like most graduates, I was inundated with lofty advice: “Reach for the Stars.” “You Are The Future.” All of it was appreciated. Some of it will surely come in handy the next time I face an abstract moral dilemma or forget the lyrics to a Whitney Houston song.

In retrospect, however, I could have used a little less “integrity, integrity, integrity,” and a little more advice along the lines of: “Don't microwave aluminum foil.”  So, in the spirit of graduation season, a time when anyone with some kind of a diploma and a pay stub can offer advice without sounding completely presumptuous, let me offer the graduates of 2006 some nuts and bolts advice, torn from the pages of my brief (and sometimes rocky) post-graduation life:

1. You clean up real nicePeople who have spent the last four years on a campus, college graduates in particular, don’t initially recognize that the world is not entirely made up of 18-22 year olds. When you are surrounded day in and day out by people in your age group, you take it all for granted: your relative firmness, the intactness of your teeth.  In short: you are soon to be tossed into a world of people with decades of experience on you. Your only advantage is that they are older and not nearly as good looking. 

Unfortunately, if you’re like me, you will be tempted to treat the busy parts of real life like the week of final exams — an excuse to come into the office with a ponytail, shower shoes, a few dabs of zit creme and a shirt covered in sweat and chocolate stains. Bad idea. This is the time when you can still trade off your looks. Do it, before that ship sets sail. Additionally, I don’t care how firm you are, there is no reason to dress up drawstring pants, and no excuse for a tracksuit unless you are a cast member on “The Sopranos.”  

2. Don’t buy that ... really ... don’t
I know the gold-plated spinning tire rims look good now, but when you get home and realize “I don’t even have a car” the purchase will just seem silly. I made very little money fresh out of school, but very little money was still much more exciting than no money at all. I have a box  I call the “box of irrational exuberance” filled with tchotchkes I bought with my first paycheck: underwater digital camera, grass-scented candles, hair extensions, dry-erase markers, a pedometer and an electric menorah (a truly baffling impulse purchase, seeing as I am not Jewish). 

Though it may seem overly simplistic, I adopted a rule to curb my spending: If you’re tempted to buy it, wait 24 hours. If it’s ridiculously expensive, give it 24 more. After 48 hours, if it is still ridiculously cool, buy it. Just, for the love of god, don’t put it on credit. Anyone who reassures you that your $2,700 bill is nothing to worry about because “carrying a balance builds credit” has more money and job security than you, and should probably be kicked in the shins. 

3. Mind your crumbs
This seemingly simple piece of advice could have really changed my life. You see, for all her wisdom, Maria Shriver never mentioned that the real world is full of rodentia. In college, my mind was almost always occupied with academic meditations, often on man’s search for self, or Virginia Woolf’s use of the semicolon. Post graduation, however, I found all my emotional and intellectual energy turned to developing new ways to bait and slaughter mice.

The mice in my apartment were crafty, and they were emboldened by my reluctance to wipe down the cutting board after a snack. We quickly became locked in a daily struggle for control of the kitchen. My roommate, similarly traumatized, and similarly opposed to wiping down the cutting board and thus “letting the mice win,” often joined me on late-night mouse-hunting vigils. 

We would stay awake, eyeing the glob of peanut butter on the sticky trap, waiting for a pair of beady little eyes and greedy little paws to give in and get stuck. After I’d dispatched mouse number nine without even a hint of a gag reflex, I looked in the mirror and beheld a new inhumane me. I was immune to the suffering of cute mammals, transformed from mild-mannered literature major into the mouse community’s most ruthless predator. You don’t want to see yourself this way. If you value your humanity, wipe down the cutting board or get yourself a cat.

4. Don’t take it personallyIn preparation for my first job interview, I edited and re-edited my resume, bought “Job Interviews for Dummies,” practiced positive body language in a mirror, and devoted hours to researching my potential boss. When I actually got the job it was sweet validation. Hard work had paid off. Someone had seen my untapped talent!

It was a few months later, I believe on a casual Friday, when my boss mentioned off-hand that I had beat out the other candidates because I had a “nice sweater and pretty hair.” That’s when I first stood face to face with the truly random nature of the universe. For all my preparation, my job — and presumably other opportunities I chalked up to hard work and perseverance — came down to weird coincidence, in this case a stranger’s preference for blondes and pastel merino v-necks.   

On the plus side: all the times I felt dejected, convinced that my failure to land a job was due to my skimpy resume, or because I blinked too much, or because my hands smelled like mouse poison, I now regard as honorable battles lost to a worthy competitor with prettier hair or a nicer sweater. I find the idea surprisingly affirming, like limitless opportunities are only a hot oil treatment and a trip to the mall away.

So, go forth graduates. And if you find yourself wearing drawstring pants, shin deep in mouse carcasses, with all your money invested in a surefire pyramid scheme: relax. Take it from a recent graduate, reborn through experience into relative thrift and cleanliness: There is always time to get it right and, never mind the doomsayers, getting it wrong truly is half the fun.