Life after school: Advice for new graduates

On Tuesday evening I gave my first-ever presentation about personal finance. I spoke to a group of about 70 graduating seniors from Western Oregon University. My talk went okay. It wasn't terrible, but it certainly wasn't good. It's a start. I learned a lot, and I'll do better next time.

I was the fourth and final speaker of the evening, though. Before I talked about personal finance, three WOU alums spoke about life after college. While my talk might have been mediocre, theirs were outstanding.

Brian Reick

The first speaker was Brian Reick, who described his experience moving from job-to-job. He began knocking on doors right out of school and eventually found work. But the job wasn't perfect, and neither was he. He was fired after only two years. This experience taught him a couple things:

  • A job is not a marriage. It's not “for better or worse”. It's only for better. If it's not working out for you or the company, then move on.
  • Treat your time as an investment. It's more important to invest your time wisely than to invest your money wisely.

Later in his career, Brian found himself working in a job he didn't like. He made a promise to himself: “I told myself that if I wasn't happy with my job one year from that day, I'd leave. That was the best decision I ever made. After a year, I knew it was time to go. It was more important for me to be happy than to chase dollars.” Two other life lessons Brian shared were:

  • The people you work with are more important than the company. You want to work with people who have high integrity, people you can trust. It's nice to work for a great company, but it's better to work with great people.
  • Don't rationalize your decisions. As you move through your career, don't stay in situations that make you unhappy just because you think you're obligated. Take some calculated risks.

Ron Clark

Next we heard from Ron Clark, a Portland lawyer. Ron shared three major points:

  1. What you studied in school does not matter. Students should major in subjects they enjoy. They should pursue learning. One of Ron's colleagues is a brilliant lawyer who has a degree in music. He knows a judge with a degree in pharmacology. Your degree does not matter.
  2. Self-discipline is the common denominator among the successful. In order to get into college and to earn a degree, one must exercise delayed gratification. This doesn't end after school. Delayed gratification and self-discipline are necessary for continued success in life.
  3. Be willing to do grunt work. By doing the entry-level jobs, you're building skills necessary to move up. As you progress in your career, find things in each job to be passionate about.

Celia Kimbrough

The third speaker was Celia Kimbrough, a professional photographer. As a single mother, Celia applied for the interpreting program at Western Oregon University. She was one of 72 applicants for 16 spots. She didn't get in — she didn't let it bother her. “I've failed at a lot of things in life,” she says, “but they've made me who I am today. It's okay to fail.” The important thing is to be working toward something, to have a goal.

Still, you should always keep your mind open for other options. Don't be so locked into your goal that you miss opportunity knocking on the door. Sometimes life will lead you in directions you don't expect. When she didn't get into the interpreting program, Celia pursued a degree in Natural Sciences. She wanted to be a teacher. But then life led her in another direction, and now she owns a successful photography studio.

You've got to find your passion,” Celia says. “I changed my major six times. That's okay. Everything you do leads you to the person you're becoming. As long as you have some goals, you'll be fine.”

Celia stressed that it's important to think about the sort of life you want to live. Some of what she said reminded me of Tim Ferriss' notion of lifestyle design, building your life and career around what you want to do. Entrepreneurship has allowed her to construct a fulfilling life.

“What's important to you?” she asked asked the students. “Make your choices based on that. I wanted to be excited about what I do every day. If you're complaining about what you're doing, then try something else.

J.D. Roth

To conclude the program, I gave a short presentation on personal finance. Again, this was the first such talk I've given, and it was pretty rough. I actually tried to stress some of the topics Get Rich Slowly readers suggested last Monday:

  • Develop a basic budget. It doesn't have to be fancy. Whatever you choose to do, make it a goal to set aside 20% for saving and investing. This sounds like a lot, but if you can start the habit young, it'll be easier. (And will yield greater returns in the long run.)
  • Avoid lifestyle inflation. As your income increases, it's tempting to increase your spending in proportion. The more you can resist this urge, the more successful you will be with money.
  • Do what you love. A low-paying job that leads to future prospects in a career you like is better than a high-paying job in a career that doesn't move you in the right direction. Never stick with a shitty job. It's easier to change jobs now than it will be in five or ten years.
  • The less you spend, the more flexibility you have. When I graduated, I bought a new car and developed credit card debt. I had to take any job I could find because I was tied to monthly payments. When my friend Sparky graduated, he had a lot of freedom. His debts were minimal. He traveled the U.S., taking whatever job struck his fancy. He spent time in Mexico. He spent five months traveling southeast Asia. He was able to do these things because he didn't have expensive obligations.

With my speech, I handed out a one-page guide to personal finance, which contained supplementary material.

Conclusion

I felt pretty geeky during this dinner. When the first speaker began, I pulled out my pad of paper and started jotting notes. I couldn't help it. Though these talks were ostensibly aimed at the graduating seniors, there was plenty of valuable information in them for anyone.

I was surprised and happy to discover that one theme seemed to shine through in all four presentations. Money's a great tool, each of us said, but it's not the only thing in life. It's not even the most important thing. We each in our own way stressed one point above all: It's more important to be happy than it is to be rich.

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Samantha
Samantha
12 years ago

These speakers all seem to have great advice, however I take issue with Ron Clark’s first point of “What you studied in school does not matter.” This may have been true back when he was just graduating and getting a job, but it is definitely not the case now. These days, you pretty much NEED a specialized degree. I know many of my friends who majored in things the liked, but that weren’t really practical for the job market. Most of them are now working in retail stores… jobs they had previously in high school. My boyfriend is a math… Read more »

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
12 years ago

It’s far more important to be happy than to be rich. For some people, being rich makes them less happy because it doesn’t get them what they really want, which is inner peace. Introspection and doing what you love beat all.

Polly
Polly
12 years ago

Amen!

AND…I’m sure you did just fine! As Celia Kimbrough said, it’s all about becoming who you are today.

I don’t consider any of the past events of my life to be deterimental. They all led up to the person I am today, and I’m a pretty good person.

Thanks for being so diligent about your blog…it has made ME a better person!

JB
JB
12 years ago

I’m sure your speech was a lot better than you thought it was! Thanks for taking notes from the other speakers… the brief summaries you gave you here made them sound very interesting.

Curt
Curt
12 years ago

Investing in your education is very serious, and a lot of people are finding it hard to get a job if their education is not in a growth market. You can’t just get a degree in basket weaving because you love basket weaving. The return on investment (ROI) is not good. If you want a college education, it’s very important that you pick a program that has a good ROI – otherwise don’t go to college. It’s ok to love basket weaving, but get a college education is something else and then pursue basket weaving (or whatever it is that… Read more »

Little Miss Moneybags
Little Miss Moneybags
12 years ago

I so agree with all of this. My degree is in radio; I work in book publishing. I absolutely love what I do. I love pretty much every minute of every day I spend at work, and the rest of my life has really fallen into place because of that.

B Smith at Wealth and Wisdom
B Smith at Wealth and Wisdom
12 years ago

JD-You had the opportunity to change the lives of those students. If I could have started out knowing about debt/budgets/investing I would have avoided so much pain.

And taking notes isn’t geeky. You showed the other speakers the highest level of respect and appreciation. It sets you apart and the info will help you grow.

Kelly
Kelly
12 years ago

Great article; I wish I’d heard this talk when I finished college.

It was a great opportunity for these graduates to hear all of tricks you’ve learned by living them, and now it’s up to them to decide whether or not to act upon them. For those who were really listening that 1 page guide will set them on the right path. Even those that didn’t get the message last night will hopefully remember this talk sooner rather than later and be able to come back to the resources you gave them when they’re ready to make that commitment.

The Restaurant Blogger
The Restaurant Blogger
12 years ago

All the advice listed is great advice for any new grad. I have given advice over the years to people wanting to know how I got to the stage of soon to be restaurant owner. Here is some points I believe really work: 1.Make sure you enjoy what you are doing because it will not be fair to you or the company. 2.Keep all of your options open since unexpected opportunities will come. 3.Keep in mind sometimes you have to make sacrifices in the beginning to be at a stage where you want to be. That’s doing some entry level… Read more »

gousalya
gousalya
12 years ago

JD – Congrats on your first speech. From your writing I think you did more than fine. Did you ever think about going back to school on a part time basis? Your perspective on that would be interesting!

Croc
Croc
12 years ago

I have to agree with Samantha – Mr. Clark’s advice about degrees is misleading. I’m sure his lawyer friend and the judge didn’t get their jobs because of their music and pharmacology degrees. I’m sure the lawyer and judge got JDs from accredited law schools and passed the bar exam. Perhaps Mr. Clark is talking about the fact that to go on to law school your bachelors degree field is less important. But I’m sure he wasn’t recommending that our lawyers and judges have golf management degrees as their primary source of education and professional training, was he? I suggest… Read more »

Penelope
Penelope
12 years ago

I agree with the speaker that said what you study in school does NOT matter. If you have friends working in retail, they are doing their part of “climbing the ladder.” A person can’t expect to walk out of college and into the perfect job. Its unrealistic. If you have to work menial jobs to make ends meet then that’s what you have to do – that doesn’t make your degree in basketweaving worthless. It means you must be creative in applying what you learned. A guy with a math degree can’t find a job because its too general? That… Read more »

Vin
Vin
12 years ago

I really agree with the “job is not a marriage ” line. Another bullet point I have heard in the past that is a good thing to keep in mind is that life is too short to be miserable 5 days a week.

Frugal Dad
Frugal Dad
12 years ago

I loved your “shitty job” advice! So much easier to exit a bad job before wife, kids, mortages and lifestyle have one foot permanently nailed to your cubicle. And congrats on your first speech! Wish I could have heard it live – any YouTube videos floating around out there?

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

@Samantha and Croc

I think I wasn’t clear in my re-capitulation. Clark was saying that you shouldn’t let your degree limit your options later in life. If you want to go to law school, then go to law school, even if your degree is in music. Don’t let your degree make you feel boxed in to certain options. Don’t limit yourself…

TosaJen
TosaJen
12 years ago

Congratulations on the presentation! I’ll bet you’ll have a lot more of these kinds of opportunities now that your blog is getting press.

Given the economy, you’re hitting a sweet spot — very exciting.

Cole Brodine
Cole Brodine
12 years ago

I also have to disagree with the “your degree doesn’t matter” statement. One thing you might notice about all those people with the varying degrees… they are all LAWYERS who have a LAW degree. You undergraduate degree really doesn’t matter as much when you have a law degree. I’m an Engineer, and I can tell you, my degree REALLY matters. I would never have gotten a job as an engineer without an engineering degree. My wife has a history degree, because that’s what she loved. She makes less then half of what I do, and is going back to school… Read more »

The Financial Philosopher
The Financial Philosopher
12 years ago

Logic and science both say that the human brain is not good at predicting our happiness or unhappiness. We mistakenly align our goals with with false rewards that we believe will make us happy. Not only are we poor predicters of happiness but we mistakenly make plans based on those rewards. Most teenagers (and their parents) push toward the degree that will bring them the most money or give them the greatest “advantage” in the business world. The degree does not matter. What matters is learning about ourselves, forming relationships and discovering what we would like to get out of… Read more »

Katrina R.
Katrina R.
12 years ago

It is always nerve-wracking to speak in front of people. I’ve found practicing a LOT works. You’ll feel more comfortable with time. If you get intimidated, give yourself permission (or just remind yourself) to be passionate about your subject instead of worrying about how well the other speakers are doing or any other flavored doubt.

I bet you were better than you think.

Andy
Andy
12 years ago

Nice job! Even if it didn’t go as well as it could have, it is good you did it. I am going to be finishing my MS in Accounting in about a year, so all this advice is great for me.

DollarDreams
DollarDreams
12 years ago

Hi JD,

I am one of the ‘ Long time reader, first time writer’. I read several personal finance blogs, but you are my favorite blogger! I really like how you give credit to others and inspire people like me.

Great post. Really liked how you summarized other speaker’s thoughts. I wish I had this knowledge when I graudated from college. But better late than never I guess, I am 29 and have gotten in a decent financial condition this year than I ever was ! Thanks to you and other bloggers!

Keep up the good work.

Tootie
Tootie
12 years ago

I loved hearing these life lessons. You’re right – they apply to anyone of any age!

And your speech sounded great, too! So don’t sell yourself short. (I think I just made a financial pun there without meaning to 🙂

Kate
Kate
12 years ago

J.D. — Thanks for the clarification on the “degree does not matter” statement. Your restatement sounds like something I could agree with, but I didn’t agree with the original statement (I did agree with the other stuff the speakers said). I graduated from a very good college in Dec. 1990 with a B.A. in religious studies, because I found it interesting and had been told all my life that if you were smart and had a liberal arts degree, the world was your oyster. I found it very hard to get a good job; my first year out of school,… Read more »

Benoit
Benoit
12 years ago

It’s interesting to see that most presentation that I have heard about life after school are always from the point of view of progression through life as society dictate. After finishing HS, I got into a very good business school but after the first few classes, I knew it wasn’t for me. I quit and spend the rest of the year working at the student run radio. I had a good time but after a while, it was time for something else. I tried many jobs with just a HS degree in my hand. One day I realized that I… Read more »

Chris
Chris
12 years ago

I agree with Cole. I also have an engineering degree and most jobs I’ve had you HAVE to have an engineering degree to even be considered for the job. I do think you have to be realistic, and not just pick “Ethnic Studies” in college, hoping to get a good job.

Serendipity
Serendipity
12 years ago

Your honesty and openness about your performance is a great example of why I love this blog. Having said that, I’d bet that you actually did a pretty great job.

stuporglue
stuporglue
12 years ago

On not enjoying your job, I noticed that Brian basically gave the job 1 year to prove itself. This is a lesson I’m trying to learn still. I quit several jobs while in college because I didn’t enjoy them. Now I’ve graduated and employed full time, but the first several months on the job weren’t enjoyable. Now that I’ve been here 8 or so months, I’ve learned the product and procedures better and am enjoying work a lot more. I’d have missed out on this if I had quit during month 4 or 5. — On being a manager, title’s… Read more »

leigh
leigh
12 years ago

Public speaking is something that does not usually come naturally. I’m only good at it because in the past 4 years I’ve given probably 30 talks. Talking about your area of expertise is not the hard part- you can do that with a stranger at the bus stop. It’s the public speaking in front of large groups that usually holds people up. Get some more practice and it will come so much easier, trust me. 🙂 Undergrad majors in my field are helpful, but if you have a specialized degree, that is what will what defines your career. Most of… Read more »

Sybbis
Sybbis
12 years ago

This kind of advice is hard to give because you have to have some nuance, but who really wants nuance? We want clear answers. We don’t want to hear that sometimes your degree subject matters and other times it doesn’t. Or that sometimes you can make a living working doing what you love, other times you have to work to pay bills and do what you’re passionate about in your spare time. 🙂 But I think it’s good advice overall, a person just has to have some judgment about when it applies and when it doesn’t. There are very few… Read more »

plonkee
plonkee
12 years ago

As a maths graduate, I’d like to say that we are extremely employable people, with useful and well-respected skills. The only difficulty I found was choosing which of the many well paid fields that I wanted to work in after graduation. I also think that it basically doesn’t matter what you study at college, you can still have a great life and be happy. Even if you’re a basket-weaving major or an engineer. It’s better to do something that you’re good at and love that doesn’t obviously lead into a well-paying job than to pick a subject you don’t like… Read more »

Samantha
Samantha
12 years ago

@ plonkee- Is your degree as master’s or bachelor’s? Also, I noticed that you used “maths.” Are you British? I was speaking from a U.S. job market standpoint. There are plenty of math-based careers, but they usually require some kind of special training in engineering, electronics, computer science, etc.

Rachel
Rachel
12 years ago

My comment would be for someone who was just entering college as an Undergrad: 1) It doesn’t matter where you go to college – an expensive Ivy League school doesn’t make your degree better. NO ONE WILL EVER ASK YOU WHERE YOU WENT TO SCHOOL. 2) Your GPA doesn’t matter. Yes, you should try to do your best – but if you come out of college in your interviews NO ONE WILL EVER ASK WHAT YOUR GPA WAS. Now, I’m sure these might be a little different if you are getting ready to go to graduate school or medical/law school… Read more »

leigh
leigh
12 years ago

Rachel:

Your first point is less true for graduate students, but the second point is true for those of us who are doing research.

I went to an unknown state school and wound up in a top tier university for grad school, because that’s where the name counts.

Debbie
Debbie
12 years ago

Great article. I really like your site a lot. This is my first time commenting. I would love for you to write a post on what you learned about public speaking and how you plan on improving the next time.

Peter S.
Peter S.
12 years ago

Rachel, 1) It does not necessarily matter where you go to college but there are certain school that have really good programs. This should be a consideration if you know what you want to study. Also, while I am sure I could have gotten a good job upon successfully graduating from any college, the one I went to certainly helped secure the job offer I ended up accepting. People DO ask you where you went to school, but it does not matter all that much. It’s what you do when you get on the job. Every job I have had… Read more »

m
m
12 years ago

I disagree about the college major not mattering comment as well. Maybe it’s less or not important when one goes on to get a grad degree–then, sure, the final degree is presumably what’s most important. But, in many cases, that undergrad degree matters A LOT, and can be the difference between having easy entry into one’s desired field and facing barriers to entry that may be either much harder to overcome without the right degree or possibly even impossible to overcome without the appropriate field of study. *** OK, just saw your clarification–many commented on this so maybe an update… Read more »

DollarDreams
DollarDreams
12 years ago

Hi JD,

I found very good article on MSN which is in the same line as this

http://articles.moneycentral.msn.com/Investing/HomeMortgageSavings/WhyGenerationYIsBroke.aspx#pageTopAchor

Shanti @ Antishay
Shanti @ Antishay
12 years ago

Congrats! I’m sure you did well 🙂

The page you handed out is AWESOME and full of the useful stuff kids need. Thanks for making it available! I’m going to send it to my sisters 😀

Mike
Mike
12 years ago

Actually, it sounds to me like you gave out some good advice. Your tips are very practical and down-to-earth. I think if I got the chance to talk to those kids, I’d like to tell them that they don’t actually have to have a job (at least not a 9-to-5 one at someone else’s company)! Many graduates are interested in becoming part of someone else’s thing and never think about starting their own. I didn’t, either – and I’m not sure why. Maybe because no one ever suggested this to me! I also agree with Rachel that the school you… Read more »

Saravanan
Saravanan
12 years ago

I always feel that money plays an important role in being happy and it provides you the freedom to do what you want.

“Money can’t buy happiness.. but somehow it is more comfortable to sit and cry in a BMW car than on a pavement”

plonkee
plonkee
12 years ago

I’m English with a first degree in pure mathematics. In my entire time at university I took 3 courses outside the maths department, one in French, one in Astrophysics, and one in Manufacturing Engineering. Some of my friends at University have gone into finance (where they are very well-paid), others are analysts in water, transport, toy manufacturing, supermarket retailing, and other sectors, yet more work in areas allied to engineering and technology – it’s usually easier for mathematicians to learn the application on the job, than for others to learn the maths on the job. Naturally, YMMV. The biggest problem… Read more »

JerichoHIll
JerichoHIll
12 years ago

Rachel,

For graduate studies, where one goes to school does absolutely matter. Especially if you want to teach at the university level afterwards

sally
sally
12 years ago

Samantha, has your boyfriend looked into becoming an actuary? That’s a popular career path for people with pure math majors and it’s pretty easy to get started. Having a very specialized degree makes the job search easier, because it’s obvious what jobs you will apply for, but a more general, ‘academic’ degree can also work out well in the job market, especially if you realize that learning and gaining credentials does not stop the day you get your diploma. I’ve been very happy with how a psychology/economics major has allowed me to work in a lot of different fields and… Read more »

Shirin
Shirin
12 years ago

Here are another $0.02 to add: I’m graduating from a prestigious university this June with a degree in a subject that I enjoy learning (Biology) and a passion for working in something on the other end of the spectrum (Retail analyst/Fashion Merchandising). My obvious skill set from my degree lines me up for laboratory research and graduate school – something very heavily pushed at my university – but that isn’t what I want to do. But instead of feeling bad about being an odd sheep, I researched what it was I wanted to do and the various paths that one… Read more »

seawall
seawall
12 years ago

JD I am *very* impressed with your handout, and your level of preparation. I am certain that your talk was well executed – perhaps you are a bit hard on yourself because it was your first presentation. I think it’s great that you are reaching out to students in schools – this is where good financial bearing should be taught, and alas few schools do so. And if you want to do more public speaking and if you are looking for a great place to practice your skills, then look no further than Toastmasters there are chapters all over North… Read more »

Missi
Missi
12 years ago

J.D.–definitely great advice for recent grads.

If you’re interested, this could be a good resource for anyone still in school, or just out of school, that is concerned about personal finance:
http://www.playbook.thehartford.com

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

Huh. Whaddya know? I just got my evaluations back. All of the speakers were highly rated by the students, including me. They found the content useful. Maybe I should try this again! 🙂

BillinDetroit
BillinDetroit
12 years ago

JD, congrats on the evals. Teaching is the most rewarding job I have ever had. NOTHING else has even come close. That said, school administrators (as a class) suck and I will never stand in front of a classroom again. But I do occasionally give public presentations and, to be quite honest, the best of them are the ones I never even heard. Funny … sometimes ‘something’ takes over and I give a really, really good talk. But, even as I am stepping away from the podium I could not tell you what I said. I’m glad you had this… Read more »

Miles
Miles
12 years ago

Get rich slowly indeed, but while you’re waiting make money fast. Namely I embrace your ideology, but encourage all entrepreneurs to try to succeed while saving. The overall theme of the presentations was ‘money isn’t the most important thing’, is this a prepare to fail attitude? I don’t think being poor makes anyone happy period. I too applaud your public speaking and agree trying to comfort a crowd by saying money isn’t everything is a better seller than ‘never say die’. The presentations seemed to be biased by people who hadn’t specifically chosen one course over their life and came… Read more »

Attagal
Attagal
12 years ago

hei hei..this has really helped me out coz of late i have been suffocating with some decisions that I have to make about my career and all..thank you!

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