College Graduation & Working Abroad: Advice from a Few Great Thinkers

With graduation season coming up, I started thinking about my own graduation back in 2014.

One of the of the hardest parts about graduation that I remember was the pressure to make the “right” decisions heading into post-graduation life and the “real world.” Should I travel first? Should I teach English in Japan? Should I play it safe and get a job in Portland? Am I even going to be able to get a job? It was hard to know what the right decisions were, and I watched many of my friends wrestle with the same questions and uncertainty about the next big life step.

Now that I am almost three years into a crazy post-college path, I wanted to share some advice that I have found helpful when making big life decisions. Hopefully, whether you are planning to head abroad after college or still formulating a plan, a few of the quotes below will help provide a little boost of wisdom to your decision making process.  

On Finding Work/Life Balance

The more things a man is interested in, the more opportunities of happiness he has, and the less he is at the mercy of fate, since if he loses one thing he can fall back upon another.

The Conquest of Happiness, Bertrand Russell

Learning how to diversify your interests after college can be a bit of a challenge. In college, you are constantly surrounded by people your age, there is an endless schedule of social events, and there is a club for every interest. Though college life is centered around the courses you are taking, most people are involved in a variety of groups, sports, clubs or jobs which help balance the weight of courses.

The difficulty with transitioning into post-college life is that in the absence of all the extra-curricular opportunities that college provides, it is very easy to let life become one dimensional, centered around your job. Life can become an endless cycle of waking up last minute, going to work, coming home (or going to happy hour), eating dinner, watching Netflix, and sleeping.

Bertrand Russell

Not only does this schedule not offer a true chance to step away from work and refresh your mind by engaging in other interests, it makes your work your only indicator for how life is going. If work is going well, than life is going well. But if work is going poorly, then so is your life.

Using your job as a life barometer is risky because there is only so much of a job you can control. Mean co-workers, unreasonable bosses, and office politics are all independent of you. Allowing your job to decide how satisfied you are with life places your satisfaction with life outside your immediate control.  

That is why Bertrand Russell suggests diversifying your interest. Developing hobbies or passions outside of work not only provides a more rich daily experience, they also provide counterweights to your work life. If work is going poorly, but your volunteer work or band is doing well, you can find solace in that.

With a diverse set of interests, the significance of each individual part of your life is diminished and balanced with the others, and the greater the chance something in your life is going well at any one time. Among all the other stresses of post-graduation life, having multiple interests and passions leaves something to always look forward, a light at the end of the tunnel to take comfort in and satisfaction from.

On the Opinion of Others

One should as a rule respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways.

The Conquest of Happiness, Bertrand Russell

People lose sight of the fact that their life is their life. As you begin to think about what your next step out of college should be, it is easy to start trying to balance what you want for your future with what your parents want for you and what your friends are doing and to start comparing if you are as “successful” as your classmates, or living up to other people’s expectations.

Weighing the desires of your parents and the perception of your friends equally with your own goals and aspirations is a problem for a simple reason: your parents and friends don’t have to live your life. You do.

Your parents or friends can say you should do this or you should want that, but they don’t have to live with the repercussions of those decisions. It is easy to say you should get a Masters degree when you aren’t the one doing the studying. It is easy for your friends to say you should travel poor for two months in Asia when they don’t have to worry about finding you a job afterwards. Listening to advice from others is fine and well, but you have to drive this car everyday, so you better make sure you like it.  

And the truth is, no one really cares what you are doing anyway. Imagine you have some amazingly lucrative job like working at Goldman Sachs. Who cares? Your parents don’t care, they love you irrespective of your job. Your friends will think it’s cool for like 10 minutes and then you will be back to being the same person to them that you were before. Whose opinion is there to be so worried about? You are the one who is going to be working 80 hour work weeks, so you better be sure that is the life you want.

Once I started thinking of life in this way, I found it so liberating. Isn’t it freeing to realize that, to any rationale extent, no one is paying attention to what you are doing? Whether you are a Regional Manager or your startup is doing well or you are teaching 8th grade History, no one is really paying attention. They have their own bills to pay, they want to lose weight, they have marital problems, or whatever it may be. And that leaves you to do with your life what you please.

That is why it is important around graduation to really consider what job or career path or life you want for yourself.  You will never be as happy following a path of crumbs laid by someone else as you will be forging your own way. Don’t fall victim to the “unnecessary tyranny,” of others; you have to live with the life you chose for yourself in a way no one else does, and that means your opinion should weigh far heavier than the opinion of others.

On the Power of Perspective

It is not what things are objectively and in themselves, but what they are for us, in our way of looking at them, that makes us happy or the reverse . As Epictetus says, ‘Men are not influenced by things, but by their thoughts about things’.

Wisdom of Life, Arthur Schopenhauer

I find this quote reassuring to think about, even if achieving the actual mindset is difficult. Schopenhauer explains that life’s events come at us with no objective value or meaning; they only carry the weight that we assign to them. It is up to us to decide what level of energy, emotion, and value to place on any given event.

This means, for one person, not getting their dream job is a crushing blow, but for another, it is simply seen as a challenge to overcome, or the opening of other doors of possibility. A breakup is either a heartbreaking event, or a moment to reflect and be hopeful about what the future has in store. Every event has only the amount of value and significance that we assign it.

living abroad, working abroad
Arthur Schopenhauer

If you are conscious of this power you have over your perception of events, you can begin to live with the mindset of wanting to gain new experiences rather than with the hope to simply avoid failure. If you perceive failures and struggles as necessary learning experiences on the path to future success, and you see success as success, there is nothing to fear. And that can be powerful.

Having this mindset allows for fearless exploration. You can say “yes” to opportunities you may have otherwise declined because you are not hampered by fear of failure, and instead motivated by the potential learning experiences an opportunity may provide. Though far from perfect, I have tried to implement this in my own life, and it has lead to more interesting experiences and opportunities than I would have ever imagined for myself.

On Finding Solitude

For the more a man has in himself, the less he will want from other people — the less, indeed, other people can be to him.

Wisdom of Life, Arthur Schopenhauer

There will be many times after college where you will find yourself alone, especially if your first job is in a new city or abroad. The idea of being alone can be a terrifying prospect, especially for a recent graduate who just finished four years surrounded by friends. It is the reason many people turn down otherwise incredible opportunities; being far from the people they care about is too high a price to pay, even if the opportunity is everything they could have wished for.

Schopenhauer’s solution is to empower yourself with a sense of solitude in the absence of people. This doesn’t mean not valuing others, it just means that you are able to reach a place of contentedness with yourself. It provides the peace of mind that no matter the situation, you can find satisfaction in life because your source of satisfaction is internal.

Experiencing solitude and manufacturing feelings of satisfaction internally provides an incredible sense of independence. You can follow your whims wherever they take you without the fear of loneliness and your happiness is no longer subject to others people’s schedules, moods, and problems. Ultimately, by severing the ties between your own happiness and other people, you gain greater control over your sense of satisfaction in life and that control is in itself a critical source of happiness.

On Fear

There are more things, Lucilius, likely to frighten us than there are to crush us.

–Letter 13 in Letters to a Stoic by Seneca the Elder

Every decision immediately post-college feels like a big decision. It feels like you are setting a course for life and that every move seems consequential to future success.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

However, if you talk to anyone who is older (especially older millennials) about their career path, you will often find them describing a winding and ill-defined path full of setbacks, restarts, do-overs, second chances and random moments of luck.

The truth is, there are no “right” experiences (though there are certainly “wrong” ones) out of college. What is important is to start experiencing as soon as possible, and the more challenging the opportunity the better. The failures you think are lurking in the depths of uncertainty are mostly smoke and mirrors. At 22 or 23 years old, there is no better time than to jump in the deep end and test those failures to see if they are as potent as you perceive them to be.

Likely, they are not.


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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.