“There is no guidance or set path after college,” says redditor u/InvictaVox in a thread on r/AskMen about growing older. When you’ve been spending most of your life in school, graduating one grade a year, you get used to steady forward progression. You might be able to hold onto that feeling at your first job. But in your early 20s, if you’re one of the lucky people who hasn’t yet had a major setback, you’re probably headed for your first.
From the age of 5 or even earlier, you enter a long program with a road map, laid out into years and semesters and modules. Sometimes you get a few choices within that road map; if you go to uni you get many choices. But you’re still on rails.
The educational system is set up to virtually guarantee progression for most who navigate it, including entrance to at least a university, if not your desired uni. For many people, it’s not until graduation that you’re finally at the full mercy of chance and timing.
Having a plan for your early adulthood, while admirable, is not the solution. It can be part of the problem. The solution is to be open to surprises and shocks and disappointments, and to keep forefront in your mind that temporary failure is not permanent failure.
Your first job search may turn up nothing remotely related to the career you want. If you do get a good job, you’re likely to leave it on someone else’s terms through a layoff or firing, and you might find yourself in a second job that doesn’t at all feel like forward progression from the first. You might find yourself still interning at 23, your skills undervalued or irrelevant, now that your success is measured by how much money it makes someone else, instead of actual benefit to the world.
If you’re lucky enough to get financial support from your family, you’ll feel like a failure. If you’re not lucky enough, you’ll have to take mediocre — or terrible — jobs that eat up the time you wanted to spend on your steady climb. And you’ll have to find new ways to get back on track, or to find a new track.
Even if things go well, you might fuck it up. For example, I didn’t have much of a plan for my post-student years, and then I got incredibly lucky. Before I even graduated, I scored a high-profile job as the founding editor of Valleywag, a now-defunct part of the Gawker Media blog network (which had recently launched Lifehacker). By the end of the year, I’d been fired. I immediately got interviews with several companies interested in hiring the “Valleywag kid”, but I thought I could hold out for the perfect opportunity. I spent the next three years unemployed and freelancing, quitting jobs the moment they bored me, always broke, borrowing money from friends and paying my rent late.
I’d accepted my early success as the next step up on a steady climb, and I refused anything that felt like a lateral move or a step down. My success at school gave me a huge ego and sense of entitlement that set me back for years.
That’s what I hope you can avoid, if you know that things are going to be hard. Your first setback will shake you, but the more you expect it, the better you can cope. Usually I’m not a fan of “late bloomer” stories — Harrison Ford was a struggling actor and part-time carpenter until 30, and so on — because they can teach the wrong lesson. But the right lesson is that successful people were often very unsuccessful at first. So when you hit the wall, be ready to eat shit, and do not think that means failure.
You’ll have to find your own way to internalize that lesson. But I can suggest one way: a series of fantasy novels. In my 20s, I wish I’d had the Magicians trilogy, a “Harry Potter for grownups” that uses magic as a metaphor for adult life. Gifted young magic-users graduate from a secret university, then find their skills woefully inadequate for the challenges of the “real world.” They’ve suddenly turned from students into adults, their authority figures helpless or vanished. They encounter an imminent physical threat — they can’t handle it. They encounter the ennui of privileged, unchallenging life in the normal world—they can’t handle that either. But they sacrifice; they grow; they learn to become adults. They find a path that satisfies, even if it wasn’t the one they wanted to be on.