Red Alert at 22 — First Steps and Small Decisions Matter

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“I took this job for just a year when I was right out of college.  That was thirty years ago.”

“This was just a position I took until something better came along. I was 22 and in the 10 years since, nothing has come along yet.”

My message for those entering the real world is that those first steps out of school matter. The journey has begun and it’s a glorious journey. No longer are you dealing with major decisions like taking English 401 or Psychology 301. You are dealing with decisions that can shape a life. I know because at 22, I sat on the ocean in a lifeguard roost and tortured myself over with those life decisions.

The decisions all come at once when you still might be recovering from commencement hangovers. So be careful and make choices based on what you know and what you can imagine. Most importantly, make the decisions. A few examples of life-forming decisions many are facing at that magical age of 22 best described as “things”:

  • The Career Thing: Sure, everyone will have 10 careers during a lifetime but first steps really do matter when it comes to careers.  How you spend those first few years after college could have a bearing on your future. It’s better to have travelled than to have watched Seinfeld re-runs for a few years. For some careers, (like with big-time consulting firms) it’s tough to get in unless you start right out of school. The first job can dictate a career.
  • The Location Thing: Going home may be easy but it’s a big world full of exciting adventures. Don’t miss that opportunity to be a new person in a new place. More importantly, don’t get stuck. Where you spend your 22nd year could dictate where you spend the rest of your life.  Choose carefully.
  • The Love Thing: What about that college sweetheart? Will he or she be the one who got away — or the one who I am glad I got rid of? How does one know? If I knew the answer to love-related questions I would tell you, but I don’t. My message is that it is one of the many big decisions a 22-year-old faces. It’s torture but the decision will shape a life. Everyone knows this one.

One simple way to look at decisions is to create a numerator and denominator.  We do it all the time and don’t realize it. For example, if I leave to go skiing on Friday night with all that traffic (the numerator), is the enjoyment of the skiing worth it (the denominator)? If the equation is way out of whack, don’t go skiing. Or, if I can make a bundle of money in New York for the next five years (the numerator) but I hate big cities and my family won’t join me (the denominator), that’s an equation that will lead to disaster.

So what about me at 22? The same big decisions were right in front of me.  Did sitting in a lifeguard stand staring at the ocean for a few months prepare me for all the decisions about careers, location, and love? Maybe. It was a job that had an end, so I knew I had to do something on the career front, and I did. Graduate school beckoned, and it prepared me for a life in consulting and higher education.   The location decision was always dictated by my interest in warm weather. That interest was keenly developed on the beach. It’s as simple as that.

The romance decision might be the most difficult of all for the 22-year-old. My summer on the ocean at 22 was not very helpful in that category so I have no advice other than some things are meant to be. Some things are not.

Advice for the 22-year-old is simple:

  1. Learn how to make decisions. Make them.
  2. Know that those seemingly small decisions at 22 can impact a life.
  3. Maintain a sense of adventure in all you do. Take risks
  4. Spend zero time on the couch wishing you were still in college.

And enjoy the ride.

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