Dear post-graduate reader writing from the future,
I thought it was time to address you directly. You get in touch with me, oh, maybe about once a week, you ask a litany of questions, and I vacillate between not replying to your exorbitant requests, writing the briefest of suggestions, and venturing lengthy answers. You’ve graduated from college, you say, and you’ve spent the past few years trying to sort things out. You’ve not had much success, and you’re not sure where your life is headed or what to do now. You’ve either written me a note reminiscent of the scroll that tumbles down the steps in the Wizard of Oz, or you’ve scrawled one sentence that reads as if it were shot out of a cannon. Either way, I won’t know much about you, but I’ll long to help you.
You see, I feel obliged to tell you something anyway, to impart some rough-and-tumble wisdom gained from experience and observation, knowing that most of what I say will sound unpleasant, cranky, and unlike anything you’ve heard from your teachers, parents, or professors.
Preamble aside, I’ll simply shoot from the hip:
- Avoid the knee-jerk reaction to go to grad school. All your friends will be doing it, but they’ve no idea why they’re doing it or what they’re in store for. They’re well on their way to wasting their lives. For starters, read these pieces here & here.
- Yes, I know I have a Ph.D. No, that doesn’t disqualify me from advising you not to go to grad school. Actually, I didn’t learn all that much about myself, the world, or life from inside institutional walls. Quite the contrary. No, few people get in touch with me because I have advanced degrees. Yes, I know you don’t believe me.
- Sorry to say, the career as a conception of a well-lived life is dead. You’ll have to get over it. It’s not coming back, and it wasn’t all that great for the 200 odd years that it was around.
- Take a second look at your concept of ambition. Then let go of it. Leading a life of ambition won’t do you or anyone else any good.
- Contrary to what you’ve learned so far, life doesn’t head in a straight line or in an upward-sloping curve. It heads in a zigzag. My friend Dougald Hine taught me this. See also: my own life. See also: the lives of fascinating people.
- If you’d like to further your education (and I think that’s a wonderful thing), consider alternative educational models. They’re popping up everywhere; you just need to put on some eagle eyes to spot them. Consider social enterprise. Kaos Pilot is doing some pretty interesting stuff. Consider apprenticeship models; these are making a comeback. Or the trades. By Matthew Crawford’s lights, the trades aren’t going away any time soon. And they beat the academic life, hands down.
- Become a generalist. Till now, you’ve been groomed to be a specialist. Oops. Society’s mistake. Time to turn things around and think in wide, broad, expansive terms. Plunge into topics you know nothing about. Go not for jumbles of scraps but for a synoptic view of the modern world. You’ll need it in order to navigate nimbly in the coming years.
- Manners matter. In your writing, avoid garrulity and diffidence. Speak concisely but also accurately about yourself. And others. Read Jane Austen. Read Plutarch.
- Work on yourself (ascesis) so that you’ll be ready to share a life with others when the time comes. At night, follow Pythagoras: “Where did I err? And what deed have I done? What duty neglected?”
- Seek out radiant examples of well-led lives. Get in touch with these figures. Figure out why their lives are going well. Paradoxically: follow their lead but also do things your own way (Sinatra).
- Read the Stoics. You’ll need courage, resolve, and resilience to get you through these unsettled times. I’m rooting for you.
Your natural inclination (though I doubt it’s all that natural) will be to reject or misunderstand much of what I’ve written. You’re awesome, you think. “Fuck off, you prick.” You’ll head to grad school or do your own thing or follow your something or others. For a while, you’ll kick the problems of life down the road because that’s what grad school is all about, really: keeping you from learning how to grow up. The ancients called this folly. And the truth is that you have a 10 year trial–give or take–before you. If you make it out intact and with your wits about you, then your life may go well. Sadly, most won’t make it out or will stumble through their 30s and 50s. We have a word to describe these people: tragic.
I wish all the very best to you,