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Being a work-in-progress in the post-college world

Hello, newly minted college graduate. How are you liking real life? Scary, right? Especially for a young adult.

Gone are the days when a parent could make a decision for you. And you’ve got some big decisions to make. To start making.

That’s the thing to remember about decisions. They really do affect the course of your life. At the same time, they’re never final and absolute.

What kind of work will you do? Where will you live? How will you live? Who will you love? What sort of person will you be?

All these are questions that you have to begin answering. And each answer you come up with will begin to define you as your own person. None of these questions, however, will ever be fully answered.

From the moment of your birth until your death, you’re a work in progress.

Let’s say, for example, that you get married. Okay, that settles the question of whom you will love, right?

It’s not that simple. A marriage or any relationship — a friendship, being a parent — is something that’s constantly evolving. When a couple weds, each partner makes a choice to love the other. But that’s a choice that has to be renewed daily, even hourly.

Love, at its best, is a habit. It’s a choice that has been made so many times in the big things and the little things that it becomes routine. Love is as simple as carrying out the garbage. And as risky as being open and honest and vulnerable, exposed in all your you-ness. It’s never settled by a simple “I do.”

But talking about marriage is jumping the gun. There are a lot of other decisions you’re going to have to start making first.

Such as your work.

Talk about scary. Getting a job is hugely stressful. You’re putting yourself out there, over and over, to prospective employers. Your whole life is reduced to the thin sheet of paper containing your resume. If you’re lucky to get an interview, you feel like a performing seal. Then, you wait and hope for the call-back that, many times, doesn’t come.

This is a moment when you have to believe in yourself. You have talents and skills. You need to find a job in which you can exercise at least some of your abilities.

As human beings, we like to work. Really.

We’re programmed that way. We like to feel that we are doing our part in keeping the world turning. We get pleasure when we do a task just right, whether it’s crafting a software program, or toting up a column of figures, or swinging a sledgehammer.

You owe it to yourself to move heaven and earth, to pound on dozens of doors, to endure the hells of repeated rejection, to finally hear “You’re hired!” from an employer.

Let’s be clear: You won’t get a perfect job. You probably won’t get a great job.

Don’t be afraid to start at the bottom of the bottom. Don’t be picky. Waves of immigrants over the past two hundred years — including your ancestors, maybe even your parents — have come to the U.S. and have done all the worst jobs America had to offer. And they have built solid, happy lives.

Does this first job bring in a lot of money? Probably not. First jobs don’t. But it will give you a feel for of one sort of occupation and one possible career path. And it will give you a sense of purpose in the world.

That’s a great feeling.

You want to make enough money to keep body and soul together. For a young adult, starting a first job, your income may mean you have to live with a roommate or two or three, and it may mean that you’re eating a lot of macaroni and cheese out of a box. That’s to be expected.

What you’ll find is that you’ll adapt your expectations to your income. If you don’t have enough savings to visit friends in Albuquerque, you won’t visit your friends in Albuquerque. If you can only afford to eat out once a week, you won’t eat out more than once.

This isn’t something to be concerned about.

As long as you have a roof over your head and enough food to keep you from starving, the challenge of living within your budget is a kind of a life test. It feels good to be able to face that challenge and succeed. To have your own place and a relatively full stomach.

And here’s a final bit of advice:

Don’t. Move. Home.

Patrick T. Reardon

This essay originally ran in the Chicago Tribune on July 18, 2012:,0,2660505.story

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