You've graduated: Time to start making your own decisions

Welcome to WalletPop's series You've graduated. Now what? Our bloggers have a wealth of suggestions to help you find you way through that time of amazing transformation, from student to working stiff.

When I was a college instructor, I liked to make my graduating seniors read a story by Franz Kafka. Titled "A Little Fable," it went like this:

"Alas," said the mouse, "the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning, it was so big that I was afraid. I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into."

"You only need to change your direction," said the cat, and ate it up.


Being a somewhat sadistic soul, I used to enjoy watching my students' looks of terror as the story sunk in. Like the little mouse, they had arrived at college wide-eyed and frightened, desperately in search of structure. Some of them had found it in their majors, others had found it in ROTC or sports teams, and still others had found it in extracurricular groups. Regardless, over the four or more years that they had spent at school, they had discovered some way of defining themselves and their lives. Now that they were comfortably in a groove, however, they stood before the final trap, the one that they had to run into.

Graduation.

In the course of the next year, my students would have to find a new set of walls. Some would go to graduate school, where they would be at the bottom of a new hierarchy. Others would go to work in a large company somewhere or perhaps join the military, the Peace Corps, or Americorps. Many of them would end up on yet another organizational chart, in which their name would be plastered on a branch, somewhere below their boss and somewhere above their underlings. Maybe some of my students ended up becoming artists, journalists, small business owners, or just bums. Perhaps some of them defined routes for themselves.

One thing is for certain: when college is over, there isn't a clear-cut path. After finishing up his Master's of Engineering degree, a friend of mine confided that he didn't really know why he had followed the path that he had followed. In the beginning, he told me, he had pursued an engineering degree because a high school teacher had told him that he couldn't. Afterwards, he had gone for a Master's because that seemed to be the thing to do. Now that he had his advanced degree, my friend wondered how he had ended up where he was. He told me that he now planned on taking some time to find himself and decide what he really, really wanted to do.

A couple of weeks later, he was hired by a huge engineering firm. I don't think he ever questioned his path again. While some people would look upon his subsequent success as a victory, I sometimes wonder what he would have done if the path hadn't been so clear and the rewards hadn't been so obvious. In the end, there's a lot to be said for savoring the choices as they come, not merely running along the ever-narrowing corridor to the final trap.

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