Entering the “Real World”: Taking a Stoic Approach to Starting Your Career

When I graduated in 2014, I had no idea what I wanted “to do with my life.” I knew (late in my college years) that I wanted to work abroad, but that was the most specific vision I ever had for my adult life.

Many, maybe even most, graduates walk across the graduation stage into similar uncertainty about their future. This uncertainty can be paralyzing; after years of life being planned out for you,  from grade to grade, knowing exactly what the next step in life is, college graduates walk across the graduation stage into the unknown of adult life.  Presented with infinite directions and no inner passion or compass telling them which way to go, they freeze, unsure how to determine the “right” next move.  

Luckily, this freedom doesn’t have to be paralyzing.

During no other time in your life are you burdened with less commitments than in your early 20s. Thinking about your career, this means that you can take risks or accept unique opportunities that you might not have the luxury of taking later in life.You are poised to take on any interesting, challenging or unique opportunities that come your way.

While your friends and classmates make their way to graduate school or what they think is their dream job, how should you — lacking a definitive sense of direction —  approach your first attempt at post-graduation employment?

Pick a Direction, and Go For It

Picking your “life’s passion” out of college is nearly impossible. Splitting hairs over which job you think will ultimately be best for your career is not only futile, it is limiting. At 22, you have very few skills (at least, that is what many employers think), you know nothing about how any industry really works, and you know very little about yourself. With so many unknown variables, what hope is there that you are going to find your dream job on the first try?

Instead of trying to read the tea leaves to find your “true path,” I suggest another strategy: seek the most challenging and most interesting job you can find at a company or office where you feel you will be able to contribute the most and you throw yourself into it.

living abroad working abroad
Use your lack of obligations out of college to your advantage when looking for your first job.

Yes, your first job out of college may not be your “dream,” but at 22, your first “real” job isn’t meant  to be a dream come true. It is supposed to help you get a foothold on adult life, provide some good learning lessons, and provide a chance to test the waters of an industry.

Armed with a Bachelor’s degree, you can find a job that is challenging, that gives you professional experience and that pays the bills. And early in your career, that is all you can ask for.

Imagine: out of college you get an offer to work for a company in an industry you never originally considered being of interest to you. Despite this, you accept the job.  You work hard in your entry level position, and meanwhile you start poking around the industry and realize that, while your original position isn’t that interesting to you, someone in your office has a job you think is cool. You continue poking around, getting involved with their work little by little, and eventually find your way into that area of the company or industry.

For those lacking an inner passion, there are a few benefits to taking this approach:

  1. As you poke around your industry you are employed and not stressed over not finding “the perfect job”
  2. By already being active in your industry through your first job, you can begin exploring and networking to see what other opportunities you might like within or outside the industry.
  3. You have a chance to get real work experience and can begin identifying the aspects of your industry/employer/work that you enjoy and don’t enjoy, helping inform your future job searches.
  4. You can see firsthand the jobs you might like to have in the future, meet the people who do them, and figure out what qualifications/experience are required (do you really need a masters to hold that particular position?).
  5. You are employed and getting professional experience while you figure things out, allowing you to take your time and not feel the mounting pressure of unemployment and unpaid bills.  

It is simple advice rooted in the old adage any action is better than inaction. In the current job market, you may not be able to land your dream job right out of college. But armed with a Bachelor’s degree, you can find a job that is challenging, that gives you professional experience and that pays the bills. And early in your career, that is all you can ask for.

Broaden Your Job Seeking Horizons

Talking to people about what they were going to do after college around the time of my own graduation in 2014, the following conversation popped up surprisingly often:

Me: What do you want to do after college?

Classmate: Ummm, I am looking at X Company doing Y-Position at their office in Z-city.

Wow. That is specific.

It is conceivable if you are a computer science major that being this specific about where you want to work after college is possible, but if you are graduating with any type of a non-technical degree, you might find having a list of requirements for where you will accept work makes your job search needlessly difficult.

living abroad working abroad
Be willing to go far, wide and adventurous for your first job out of college.

But more importantly, why? Why needlessly limit your options? After college, your only advantages in the job market are your flexibility/availability and your youthful energy. Your leverage over other potential candidates is in your freedom to yes. Job offer in Pittsburgh? Yup, take it. Chance to work abroad in a foreign country you have never been to? Snag it. Boring office job offer in Akron? Do it.  Being picky is for your 30s. Your 20s are a time to try new things, take chances and experience and learn as much as you can.

There are lots of years to move to the suburbs and complain that your neighborhood grocery store no longer carries your favorite brand of non-fat yogurt.  In your 20s, take advantage of your flexibility and do something interesting out of college. There is really no better time for it.  

Be a (True) Stoic

Striking out on an unknown path is exhilarating, but can also be stressful. The thoughts of whether or not you are doing “the right thing” or as “successful as you should be” can easily creep in.

Internalizing the Stoic ideal of only concerning yourself with the aspects of life that you can control can be a reassuring perspective to hold during those first years when you are figuring things out. Life is random and at times unfair, and effort exhausted trying to control life’s randomness is effort wasted. Not only that, grasping at clouds trying to achieve some sense of control can blind you of opportunities that you may have otherwise noticed.

You can, however, control your work ethic, your effort to learn new skills, and how you treat people.

It is the ultimate cliche, but after college, if you work hard, learn as much as possible, are willing to do challenging things, and are generally nice to people, you will find your way. You can’t control if a boss gives you a promotion or if your “dream job” comes along.  You can, however, control your work ethic, your effort to learn new skills, and how you treat people.

The best part of removing the pressuring of finding your dream job is that any job can become your dream job.  Without the pressure of finding a “true” passion, you are free to explore all and any opportunities. You can evaluate your first few positions without comparing them to an imaginary “dream job.”  

It is incredibly empowering to say “yes” and not have to worry about if it is “right” or if you are “passionate about it.” You can simply sit back, take the best offer you get, start your journey into adult life and, ultimately, your career, and let the rest of the pieces fall into place.   



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Aaron Horwath Written by:

Since graduating from the University of Portland in 2014, I have worked abroad. Currently, I live and work in Da Nang, Vietnam as the Head of Global Training at an international technology company. Through my blog, I share my experiences of working abroad to give others a glimpse into international life and help them decide if working internationally is right for them.