This summer I took my kids to moms‘ college alma mater for the first time. We visited just days before the 10-year anniversary of my college graduation. There were some changes, but so many things looked exactly the way they had when I started as a student there 15 years ago. I began to think about all the things I’ve learned since college.
We only stayed on campus for a few hours but it was a really heartwarming afternoon for me. I thought of myself back then, when those dorms and apartments were my home. I had some sense that I would probably have a family one day but as I watched my five kids (three that I carried, and two bonus ones) run/crawl through the open field in front of the basketball arena, I was sort of overcome by it all.
How, in the span of 10 short years, had I launched a career, moved across the country, gotten married, had three babies and become a stepmom to two more? Life goes by gradually so you don’t always notice how far you’ve actually come until you are faced with a milestone or a place that causes your memories to come flooding back. I felt grateful and nostalgic and just a teensy bit old — all at once.
I started to think about the lessons I’ve learned since college and in this life-changing decade and how they’ve shaped the person I am today.
Here are the 10 biggest things I’ve learned since college:
Friendships change, but the best ones remain.
I recently attended a conference for the anti-aging skincare line I sell, alongside two of my college pals, and this life lesson rang truer than ever. We spent the whole weekend giggling about silly things, referencing old inside jokes, and creating new memories in the process. In between our carefree moments, there were some conversations about the seriousness of our lives today — about our kids, our marriages, our financial worries, our purposes in life.
On that same trip, I got to meet up with my childhood bestie. It was the first time we had physically been together in more than 20 years, but our bond was as solid as ever. Thanks to a Facebook friendship that covers the past 6 years we both basically knew everything about each other’s lives. Still, getting the chance to hug, and hear each other’s voices, and drink coffee on her porch in the morning was a very fulfilling, very amazing experience.
These are women who knew me “back when” and who love me more today as a result. We’ve seen each other through some tough and triumphant times. We’ve all had babies, and gotten married, and cycled through careers. We are all doing our best to cherish fleeting moments with our kids, and our parents, and our spouses. We are all different than each other, and certainly different than when we first became friends, but somewhere along the line we made the conscious decision to invest the time in remaining friends (even if that means simply “liking” photos on Facebook). Friendships change because the people in them change too. The best ones can span a lifetime though, and do.
Life is complicated.
I had such a clear-cut view of life when I was a young adult. The people who were successful, who were winning in life, worked hard and made good money and had nice things. Good people obeyed the law. Bad people were rude. Everyone could get an education, and land a great job, if they worked hard enough. As my life started to take shape outside of what little I knew about the greater world growing up, I started to realize that nothing is as simple as it seems on the surface. I’ve learned since college that life isn’t linear, but a series of detours that take you past new beautiful places you would have never mapped out. Success is measured in 1,000 different ways. Good people don’t announce it but show you their hearts in everyday ways. Life is complicated and so are people but both are really lovely.
A college degree doesn’t equal financial security.
I remember being in high school and longing for the day I had my degree, landed a real job, owned a nice house and drove a paid-for car. I’m still waiting for those last two. Some degrees are more statistically sound than others, but the truth is that anyone can lose their job at any time and for a variety of reasons. Even if you HAVE a job that requires a college degree, you may not make much more (if any more) than your peers without a degree. If financial security is a value for you, pick your job wisely and look outside the constraints of college. You may have learned since college that if you have a field that interests you, go into it based on that intrigue and know you may not make a lot doing it.
Loans aren’t free.
It may seem like the world is your financial oyster when you are signing off on student loan after student loan, ending up with enough in your bank account for tuition, books and some partying too. I worked all through my college career to help cover costs but I still took the “free money” offered to me. The money I was borrowing would be easily paid back when I had a job (see previous point) and the idea of children, and house payments, and the cost of simply living a comfortable life were all foreign to me. The money I accepted and squandered is still being paid back – a decade after I graduated. It’s hard for me to put a price tag on the education I needed for the career I love today – but I’ve learned since college had I understood more back then, I would have made post-college life a little easier on myself and gotten by on less (and paid back more early on).
Only you can make you happy.
I spent too much of my 20s looking for happiness in all the wrong places. Chasing jobs to make me feel proud of myself. Following my college sweetheart to Florida in hopes that we would finally commit to a life together. Putting on a happy face for my parents when I was struggling with the pressures of being a single, working mother with no family living nearby. I looked outside too often for approval, when really the only person I should have been trying to please was me. This “people pleasing” tendency is still a challenge in my life but somewhere along the way I’ve found a lot of introspection too.
It probably helps that my husband is an excellent example of being your true self, despite what others might think. He encourages me to be the same. When we were dating, I showed him a post I wanted to put up on a large national blog I wrote for at the time. I timidly told him I should probably “tone it down” first. He read it and told me to post it as is — that my voice was an important one, even if it meant some people disagreed. I have never forgotten that advice and try to incorporate it in my everyday life. We have learned since college that you can be kind, and open-minded, and steadfast in your own convictions all at the same time. Only you can find your happiness and own it.
Being “old and boring” isn’t so bad.
This past Saturday night I got my two youngest to sleep, pulled out some chips and salsa, and introduced the movie “Napoleon Dynamite” to my oldest daughter Emilia. In the past year her quirky sense of humor has really started to emerge, and I felt like it was time to get her opinion on an old favorite of mine. We laughed, and cheered, and pigged out on our snacks. It was the best night I’ve had in a long time.
When I was in college, every night was a contest to outdo the one before it. Parties to attend, bars to hit up, random adventures to take with friends. I look back fondly now but I carried a lot of anxiety during those years. I had trouble aligning the successful, responsible person I knew I wanted to become with the fumbling, invincibility-minded one I was in my early 20s.
When I look at my life today, I don’t miss those college days at all. I miss my friends and occasionally the lack of responsibility that I took for granted then. But I like my stage in life now. Being old and boring is actually pretty sweet in a lot of ways.
Don’t be someone you’re not. Own your uniqueness and stand your ground. Even if people don’t always agree with you, they will respect it. And if they don’t respect it, who cares anyway? At the end of the day, you answer to yourself. If raising a family and maintaining a healthy marriage are priorities in your life (as they are in mine), you consider how your actions will impact those people too. Your family will love the real you, though, and strive to be authentic alongside you.
Living really is in the moment.
We come from such a culture of looking ahead. When our babies are babies, we long for sleep. When they are toddlers, we long for the quiet of the school days to come. Once they are in grade school, we want them to read on their own, or answer their own math problems, or tie their own shoes. The oldest kid in my house is only 8 so I can’t really speculate beyond this, but what I’m finding is that this looking ahead — this constant yearning for the next thing — steals the joy from the present. I’ve learned since college that I should have enjoyed being an unattached, starry-eyed college student more than I did. I should have reveled in the nights awake with my older kids (the way I do now with my baby). I should have spent more time with my parents when I lived nearby. I’m not saying that I regret anything in life, but if I could go back 10 years and do this decade again, I’d enjoy it a lot more. The ups, the downs, the challenges — all of it.
Comparison is the thief of joy.
I spent way too much time as a college student pitting my own success against what other people had accomplished. Even as a young mother, I looked at the moms on Facebook who appeared to have it all together and felt bad about myself. At various points I’ve longed for a more glamorous job like a high school colleague, or a bigger house like a friend back home just bought, or kids who were better sleepers like my random Facebook acquaintances’ little ones. What I’ve come to realize just in the past year or so is that people are often looking at my life and thinking the similar things. I have a cool work-from-home job, a house within walking distance to the beach, and five smart, healthy kids. My life is incredible and I’ve wasted too much energy over the years allowing myself to feel inferior based on what little I know about other people’s lives. The life I’ve worked hard to build with my husband and children is a wonderful one and it can’t accurately be compared to any other family’s.
Success takes practice.
I’m really blessed to have reached a point in my career where I get to help other writers hone their craft. Whether I’m coaching a new blogger through the network I manage in Orlando, or helping a friend land some freelance work, I often get the same comment:
You are such a talented writer. It comes so easily for you.
I know it’s meant as a compliment but I can’t let it slide. I remind these friends, these colleagues, that I’m a “good” writer because I practice my craft. Every. Day. I have written nearly every day of my life since I graduated 10 years ago. I’ve written for corporate websites, newspapers, a pharmaceutical journal, parenting blogs, and lifestyle magazines. I’ve taken freelance work proofreading textbooks, digitally archiving classic sitcoms, and ghostwriting vampire erotica (true story). I’ve learned since college to push myself beyond what I know and am comfortable doing, and I’ve failed along the way.
But I keep practicing. I keep writing. I keep succeeding in the long run because I’m willing to put in the work to make it happen. This is all career based, but applicable to all areas of my life.
Some days I don’t want to “parent” and have no inspiration to be a role model to the smaller people in my life. But I put on that happy face, or stop to read that book for the 100th time, or decide to make that favorite meal when all I want to do is pour everyone a bowl of cereal (and sometimes that happens too, which is okay). I succeed as a mother because I keep trying, every day. I’ve learned since college that a successful parent isn’t one who has it all together, or who is always happy, or who never makes mistakes. A successful parent is a committed one who wakes up every morning and makes that decision to do it all over again, but better this time. Practice will never make perfect, in my career or family life, but it sure does make a positive difference.
What have you learned since college?
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