So, Fresh Grads — Time To Slack Off? It Might Change Your Life

Luke Stedman of Australia rides a wave to win ...
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I liked this piece in The New York Times a lot, advocating some serious downtime post-graduation. But I wonder how many can afford it (student debt?):

After graduation, I spent five years wandering around doing nothing — or getting as close to it as I could manage. I was a cab driver, an obsessed moviegoer, a wanderer in the mountains of Colorado, a teacher at a crazy grand hippie school in Vermont, the manager of a movie house (who didn’t do much managing), a crewman on a ship and a doorman at a disco. The most memorable job of all, though, was a gig on the stage crew for a rock production company in Jersey City. We did our shows at Roosevelt Stadium, a grungy behemoth that could hold 60,000, counting seats on the grass. I humped amps out of the trucks and onto the stage; six or so hours later I humped them back. I did it for the Grateful Dead and Alice Cooper and the Allman Brothers and Crosby, Stills & Nash on the night that Richard Nixon resigned…

“So, what are you doing after graduation?” Thirty-five years later, a college teacher, I ask my students the old question. They aren’t inclined to dissimulate now. The culture is on their side when they tell me about law school and med school and higher degrees in journalism and business; or when they talk about a research grant in China or a well-paying gig teaching English in Japan.

I’m impressed, sure, but I’m worried about them too. Aren’t they deciding too soon? Shouldn’t they hang out a little, learn to take it slow?

I spent four months traveling alone through Europe when I was 20 and it changed me forever, as I knew (and hoped) that it would. I had no student debt (Canadian universities, today, are still only about $5,000 a year in tuition for citizens) and some savings and some assignments and some money from my Mom.

I had never been so lonely — or so adventurous. I began in Lisbon, traveled through Portugal, Spain, Italy and France. Workaholic even then, I sold 10 freelance stories to Canadian newspaper editors.

But I still had some wild moments, from being taken home by an odd Frenchman missing a few fingers to his wife and kids to the unbelievable hospitality of a German Reuters stringer in Barcelona who invited me into her home, alone with her kids, after barely an hour’s acquaintance. I learned to trust myself and others; when and how to ask for help (and when to tough it out); that being the only woman amid 55 men on Easter Sunday in Evora’s town square was very, very weird. (In rural Portugal, women were only acceptable, and remained unharassed in public when accompanied by their husband, father or child[ren.])

I still have powerful memories of that journey: writing a letter to John Cheever with a question about his collected short stories I was reading en-route (he wrote back); being really sick on a train going from Venice to Barcelona; suffering a major attack of hypoglycemia one night in Lisbon and, speaking no Portuguese, trying to buy aspirin; meeting a young couple heading home from France to Lisbon for their marriage that weekend.

They needed a wedding photographer — and I became it — wearing a lovely dress I had just bought in Florence a few days earlier. I still remember breakfasts around their mother’s table (yes, I stayed with them as well!) being asked why codfish at 8:00 a.m. wasn’t something I devoured eagerly.

I’m not sure what else I could possibly have done in those months that could possibly have provided such delicious and indelible memories. Such a long solo journey also proved my interest in European affairs and working on my own, skills that won me a life-changing Paris-based journalism fellowship barely five years later. Who knew?

I met a young man a few years ago who wandered, literally, for about seven years after dropping out of college. He worked all over the country doing odd jobs, for a while as a short order cook. His parents, wealthy and focused on material success, were horrified; his Mom, a church friend, made his intriguing peregrinations sound insane and misguided. When I finally met him, he was fun, funny, smart, warm and interesting — and, at 29, finally went back to (and graduated from) Cornell. Whew!

His younger sister had — natch — become a corporate lawyer, just like Dad. Guess who won all that family’s approval?

If you’re about to flee campus for the last time, what plans do you have for the summer — or next few months? Are you planning to do anything fun or quirky or go off traveling? Would your parents be horrified if you did?

Parents, how would you feel? Have any of you had such post-grad adventures?

7 thoughts on “So, Fresh Grads — Time To Slack Off? It Might Change Your Life

  1. Bad, bad advice. The driven go straight for their goals while the slackers vacation. When hiring I don’t think highly of anyone who didn’t work for a period of time in order to find themselves or have fun. In reality we are a Global Economy and your are not only competing against individuals from around the world. They are not skipping a beat, why should Americans?

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    Thanks. This is interesting as Americans continue to have the fewest vacation days of all industrialized nations and every survey of workers consistently finds them wishing for more — without jeopardizing their jobs or incurring the wrath of people like yourself.

    What possible harm is there in enjoying a break from the grindstone? I know the costs of being driven.

  3. megflynn

    As two-year-old college graduate, here’s my thought: I wanted to take the summer after school off and do nothing – no tests, no papers, no deadlines. I’d do just as I pleased, including travel, and I’d worry about getting a job in the fall, which had been the time for 16 yrs of my life to buckle down and get back to work.

    Then I got the opportunity to graduate a semester early, so I did to save money. It was January and I had three choices.

    I could take three months and do nothing to give myself a break, possibly travel. Or I could get job as quickly as I could so I’d be covered when I was booted off my parents healthcare and have incme when my student loans started coming. Or I could go back to school for a higher degree, defer my loans, keep healthcare, but be stuck locked out of the “real world” everyone was telling me about and, again, sign my life over to professors.

    Whether or not traveling the world for months have wonderful experiences is desirable isn’t necessarily the question; if pressed, I’m sure most graduates would be interested in that in one form or another. But for myself, my classmates, and my friends, that simply wasn’t an option. Maybe it could have been if we’d planned it right: avoided the high-tier, private, liberal arts American colleges everyone said would be crucial to getting that first interview and saved up all our money from our summer jobs to pay for a ticket. For most, however, the suggestion is moot.

  4. Caitlin Kelly

    meg, this is exactly why I posted — and offered the link to this essay. I found it ironic to read it in the NYT, which devotes acres of newsprint annually to deciphering the Rosetta Stone of gaining acceptance to, let alone paying for, fancy, costly colleges.

    A few thoughts on this:

    1) Some Americans are choosing Canadian schools like my alma mater, U of Toronto (Canada’s Harvard, the most competitive to enter) and McGill or UBC or Queen’s (whose MBA program is very highly ranked) where even foreign student tuition is $20k a year, not $35 or $45k a year. Or they try St. Andrews in Scotland for the same savings and a foreign experience.

    2) If travel isn’t in the cards, a great program may make study abroad workable; one friend’s daughter,at McGill, has been in Kathmandu, studying for credit, for the past four months. I can’t imagine anything cooler.

    3) It does beg some fundamental questions about the value of stepping off the treadmill. Now that health care reform is in, maybe this issue is less challenging — loan payments not so much.

    I agree that staring at an Everest of student debt is daunting. I had none, so felt free in every way — and with no pressure from parents to buckle down right away to some professional graduate program — to wander off and enjoy some adventure.

    That’s also me. I don’t like formal education much and none of my family graduated college as youngsters or went to grad school. My brother, who’s got an amazing international career going already, still hasn’t finished his undergrad degree. So we tend to see a degree probably very differently than many/most.

  5. robin27

    I turned my SAT scores into a full scholarship at a respectable state school then spent three years after graduation just being. I managed a bookstore, painted houses, wrote and directed children’s plays, tended bar, got my heart broken, broke a heart (or two?), learned how to pay bills, learned how to get a 2nd job when the bills piled up, and asked about a thousand different people about what they did and whether they liked it.

    I went back to the same sensible state school, got an MBA (enjoyed a heckuva internship in Mexico while I was at it) and turned my “sensible” degree into a great job where I can wear flip-flops to work if I want to.

    Maybe I’m just crazy lucky, but I don’t think you have to be top-tier ‘this’ and nose-to-the-grindstone ‘that’ to find a successful career AND have a fulfilling life at the same time. It’s a shame we tell our kids that. I hope I’m able to see the big picture when my future kids want to spend 6 months building houses in the jungle or try four different jobs in one year just to see what they like. Life takes time to figure out.

  6. Caitlin Kelly

    Indeed! Thanks for sharing a great story. I wish we heard a lot more, and more often, in the media about people like yourself. It seems the focused and “driven” from birth to a specific goal are most rewarded and lionized — but I wonder what their rate of burnout is.

    I knew what I wanted. But a lot of people don’t and how else to figure it out than by roaming around a bit?

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