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15 Real World Lessons I Wish I’d Learned Sooner

“Welcome to the Real World. It sucks. You’re gonna love it.”- Friends

I’m the oldest child in my family, including both sides of cousins, so in many ways I am a trailblazer, whether or not I want to be. My youngest sister Rachel is on the verge of graduating high school in May and is considering her next step, whether that be college or a gap year or a job. This has given me the chance to reflect on the past five years and makes me wonder what I could have done differently. It’s also been a year and a half since my graduation from college and I am no closer to figuring out my future than I was then, but I never could have imagined the adventures that would come next. Here are the lessons I’ve learned that I wish I could have told my 18-year-old self, peppered with a few suggestions from my friends, family and blog readers.

  1. You don’t have to go to college to learn and train in your field. When approaching my high school graduation, I thought college was the next obvious step. I never saw any other option. I had a friend who went to beauty school to become a hairdresser since she knew which field she wanted to enter. I wish I would have known that I would feel as aimless after college graduation as I did after high school graduation. Also read: US Colleges are Overrated and Overpriced, Matador Network 
  2. Gap year does not mean slack year. I looked disdainfully at the big bulletin board at my high school, with names of graduates who didn’t have any plans for university. Gap year is like a bad word in America. It doesn’t have to be one party fueled trek around the world. Spending the year doing AmeriCorps or City Year would have been a great way for me to gain some direction before committing the next four years of my life to my chosen field. Many of these programs offer you money at the end of your commitment to go towards college. I’ve never heard of anyone regretting taking a gap year because school will always be there, but the chance to see the world without financial restrictions won’t be. Also read: 10 Good Reasons to Take a Gap Year Before College, Matador Network 
  3. Study what you are passionate about, not what will get you a job. I can’t tell you how many people I know who studied business or accounting because they thought it would promise a job. When the economy fell apart, that degree, let alone any degree, didn’t promise anything, including that minimum wage job you turned down in search of the “real thing.” I studied political science because I enjoyed the classes and the lively debates, not because I planned on running for office.
  4. Jobs can teach you more than the classroom. While studying journalism in college, I enjoyed my classes, but I learned significantly more interning at my local newspaper. There’s only so much you can learn from books. Not only did my writing improve, but I learned how to work with copy software and how to interview and track down a story. Also read: 10 Well Paying Jobs That Don’t Require a College Degree, Matador Network 
  5. “Real” jobs are overrated. I always assumed that by the year after my college graduation, I would have a full-time job, working at an embassy or a newspaper. Once I finally got to that point and had to suffer through unread resumes and awkward interviews, I knew I wasn’t ready to be tied down like that. Who wants to be unhappily chained to a desk when you could be working part time and traveling the rest of the time? Also Read: Adventurous Kate’s Advice for Recent College Graduates,
  6. You probably won’t marry that person who is your entire world right now. You’ll grow up and have different goals and interests. Don’t settle just because it’s comfortable. Today he or she may be “the one” but next month they could be a complete stranger. It’s not a happy truth, but there’s no way of knowing if your futures will be together.
  7. There’s nothing wrong with having no direction. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Embrace your twenties. Travel. Try a new hobby. Get a job you may not make a career out of. Also read: 25 Things Not to Do Before Turning 25, Matador Network
  8. Take risks. Do something that scares you. What do you have to lose? Spontaneity is the spice of life, so take that road trip with your friends or apply for that internship you think is out of reach.
  9. Give back. Don’t take for granted how fortunate you are to live in a country where you can choose your future. Volunteer where you get the chance.
  10. You won’t miss much. Studying abroad and traveling in general are isolating. You may feel like you’re missing out on your life back home when you see friends’ Facebook updates, but for the most past, everyone goes on living their lives while you’re gone. You may miss some parties and a few life events, but if they’re really your friends they will be the same upon your return. Also read: Study Abroad: What Are You Waiting For?, Matador Network 
  11. Find a mentor. For any field, you need someone to look up to, to pass on their wisdom and learn from.
  12. Learn how to manage your money now, not later. While five years ago, credit card companies would let you sign up without any sort of credit history, today it is more difficult than ever. I applied for at least five credit cards before my trip abroad, just for emergencies, but I wasn’t qualified because I don’t make more than $25,000 per year. I’m glad I didn’t get once sooner because I would still be paying it off, but it’s a sad statement about how many young people are currently in student loan and credit card debt.
  13. The end of school doesn’t mean the end of learning. Since graduating from college, I’ve learned lots of random skills, like making cocktails and speaking phrases in German and torching crème brulees. I am constantly reading, trying to acquire more knowledge.
  14. Nothing is as bad as it seems at the time. I remember thinking that when my boyfriend of three weeks broke up with me, it was the end of the world as I knew it. I couldn’t imagine anything worse, but then one day it wasn’t so bad. Over the years I’ve been able to look back on these “my life is over” moments and it seems like no big deal.
  15. Don’t settle. No matter what. Not for the guy or girl you are dating, despite the fact that you don’t see a future, not the job you have to pay for the apartment you didn’t want, not the life you settled into. You deserve nothing short of the best and it’s never too late to change your mind.

I got so many great responses on Facebook, I knew I had to post them here too.

  • Anne: Don’t date someone just because they’re interested in you and you feel like you have no other choice. Don’t wait to drink and have fun. The earlier you learn how to drink responsibly, the more time you’ll have to actually enjoy it. The main key of responsible drinking is moderation. Learn your limits. If presented with the option to do something spontaneous or try something new (from a road trip to a karaoke bar), take it. Whether you love it or hate it, at least you’ll have a good story and you won’t regret the missed opportunity.
  • Lisa: Nothing is as bad as it seems in the heat of the moment.
  • Megan: Don’t settle. Whether it is in relationships or any life experiences. Don’t settle for anything less than you deserve. Also to read He’s Just Not that into You. It would have made my life so much easier when I was 18.
  • Jon Michael: calm the fuck down. stop taking adderall. stay away from bitch X. learn to let go. Don’t take yourself seriously.
  • Scotti: College boys don’t want relationships. Period. Knowing that probably would have saved me a lot of trouble but I don’t think you can know it until you learn it yourself.
  • Sherry: forget what your parents think you should be, or what society expects, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid to fall on your arse and pick yourself up.
  • Amy: Be yourself. Trust your instincts. Enjoy life!
  • Addie: You dont know everything, so just go with the flow.
  • Erik: Eat Better. Travel More. Accept Everyone. Embrace Everything.
  • Annette: Don’t worry so much. Live a simple life. Create memorable experiences. Try everything.
  • Sarah: Don’t hurt people you love, communism really IS bad, don’t assume you know what youre going to be doing for the rest of your life. You’ve got no idea.

What lessons would you tell your 18 year old self? Leave them in the comments!

This post signals the beginning of a new theme here on Caroline in the City: figuring out how to navigate the “real world.” I’m going to interview people who have found a way to combine travel and career. I hope you will keep on reading, whether you’re about to graduate from college or you’ve been in the real world for decades.

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15 Responses to 15 Real World Lessons I Wish I’d Learned Sooner

  1. autumnsarah1 August 22, 2011 at 5:05 am #

    I would tell my 18-year-old self to steel herself for a hard job market but to keep pursuing what she loves. Or maybe I’d just tell her to become an accountant. That would have probably been wiser.

  2. Lauren (@LaurenFritsky) August 22, 2011 at 5:17 am #

    “There will be a global financial meltdown 10 years from now that will change your entire concept of work, career, money, security, life milestones, status and travel. It will be one of the best things that ever happens in your young adult life because of the changes it will spark.”

    • carolineinthecityblog August 22, 2011 at 12:53 pm #

      Even if I had known I don’t think I would have done anything differently! It’s not like I had any money in the first place lol.

  3. Grandma August 22, 2011 at 2:48 pm #

    Believe me, the older you get the more you come to appreciate what’s REALLY real in your life and you’re on that pathway! Love ya!

  4. Erik Smith August 22, 2011 at 9:08 pm #

    Fantastic Article. You are a good sister. Just being the youngest gives her an advantage, since she can learn from you and your sister. I’m the oldest of three and our youngest, my sister, has done us all proud. She definitely had lots of lessons in how not to do things! (and some on how to do things, too)

  5. Spencer Spellman August 23, 2011 at 2:06 am #

    Do what you want. Growing up in the south, for me it was more about doing what you “should” do or is expected of you then making your own path. It took a lot of mistakes and doing life that way to figure out that’s not what I should’ve been doing. Easier said than done.

    Great post Caroline. Love posts like this!

    • carolineinthecityblog August 24, 2011 at 1:11 pm #

      Completely agreed. I should have a husband, house and at least a cat with a baby on the way by now.

      • Amy Eubanks August 24, 2011 at 8:09 pm #

        No you shouldn’t. I am too young to be a Grandma! I love the maturity you are showing these days both in life and in your writing. Keep being true to yourself!

  6. Brenda August 27, 2011 at 3:46 am #

    If only the 18 year olds actually listened to you. You are so insightful. oh! and I love that pic of you and Sara. I wish you were both 18 again!!

  7. Rebecca September 7, 2011 at 9:26 pm #

    Ohmigod, can so relate to #14. That seemed to be MY LIFE when I was in college. I wrote it all down and I totally love looking back years later at stuff like that. Has helped me out tons in the present to KNOW that what I am still flipping out about now will seem like nothing in a week.

    Love posts like this:).

  8. Dawn January 11, 2013 at 3:45 pm #

    Dawn you are you. You know what you want and you know what you need. Please don’t hold back. Please don’t let the time pass while you silently wait for others to validate you. You are more than you allow yourself to be. This is all I wish and ask.


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