Real World, New Rules

“After I finally learned the ropes, they changed all the rules.”

This statement, from this Humans of New York post, is a no-frills, boldly honest declaration that defines so many life experiences. It sits there and bides its time, waiting patiently as you struggle to adapt to the circumstances you’re in. At some point you do adapt, and then, and only then, does it pick its moment – and bam. The old rules no longer apply, and new ones sneakily take their place.

As I am currently coming to terms with the results of such a transition-filled experience, this quote resonates with me in an especially relevant way. Let me explain why…

Almost three years ago, I graduated from college. As some of us have been, I had been in some kind of school program for the last seventeen years of my life. Understandably, I got used to it. I knew my role. Every year, I was a full-time student, given an even more definitive title, such as a freshman or senior. My primary aim was simple: get good grades; and my secondary aim was even simpler: have fun. I am sure everyone’s experience is different in a number of ways, but that was mine, especially in college. It was so… clear-cut. So simple, in its objectives. So self-contained and rewarding. No bills, no work commute, no additional responsibilities. More than that, no knowledge of what it was like to have bills, a work commute, or additional responsibilities. Just me, school, and a straight line strung tight between us.

And now, there is work. Work is a place where your “personal” and “professional” lives are often divided, so much so that some people go to lengths not to mix them. And yet, in college, school is your work, and your classmates are your colleagues, and you hang out with them just as much as you study with them! What’s more, work generally does not involve the same kinds of deadlines (and thus, resulting feedback) as in school, and there is no pre-established timeline or end date. It just goes on… forever. Or until you retire, which is a pretty long period of time for those of us who have only had practice wrapping our minds around four years of college. It is true, too, that there are usually no tests or quizzes or teachers in work, not in the same way as in school, where hints to pre-existing correct answers can nudge you in the right direction if you desperately need to ask.

In college, too, I knew how to work smart. I knew when I could skim the details of a reading assignment or problem set, but I also knew when I needed to sit down for hours on end to learn a concept back-to-front. It had taken me seventeen years, but I had finally managed to figure out the perfect blend of efficiency and effectiveness to make my time studying all that much more worthwhile. (As a side note, see this incredibly interesting Effectiveness vs. Efficiency square chart in this “Why Hard Work Does Not Pay Off” IMProfitsBreakthrough article by Norbert Orlewicz. Also, keep an eye out for a future blog post on the interesting concept of not working just for the sake of working, i.e., the “work smarter, not harder” mindset.)

And now, there is work. A “standard” 9 to 5 job is eight hours a day, and taking naps or recharging breaks is not commonly talked about. Everyone surely takes breaks when he or she needs one, but we are a far way from having “taking frequent breaks” be as standard of a phrase as “having a 9 to 5 job.” No, it’s really an odd concept to me to have a pre-set range of times that you need to work in. It doesn’t seem natural. Apparently, it’s not: according to this Huffington Post article on “The Origin of the 8 Hour Work Day and Why We Should Rethink It,” it is “purely a century old norm for running factories most efficiently.” The author Leonhard Widrich poses instead, “Manage your energy, not your time.” In addition, this Entrepreneur article called “Here’s Why the 8-Hour Workday Doesn’t Work” provides four useful tips to managing such a workday.

It can be a challenging transition, school to work. In a little part of myself, I feel misled. Tricked. I suppose I can only wish in hindsight that I knew better, but at the same time, it’s what we teach kids nowadays. Namely, that school is how the world works! But it’s not. The world is less planned, less linear, more unpredictable. More… just more.

It is worthy of note that working involves great aspects too. Work does not have homework, not in the way that school does; it is a new, exciting, open-ended phase of life, and attitude is everything in this respect; and work allows you to make money, which undeniably counts for something, after all. For another positive take on this, see this great Elite Daily article on “3 Reasons Why The Real World Is Better Than Going Back To School.”

As it is, I still (and probably always will) get a bit wistful when I think about college. I enjoyed the fluidity of my personal and professional lives being one and the same. I enjoyed wearing the clothes I wanted, the clothes I felt most comfortable in. I enjoyed the freedom of managing my own time, although it was always centered around my school schedule, of course. All in all, it was awesome – because my experience was genuine. It was real. As so many people say, I can look back and declare, overall, that it was an amazing time of my life. I didn’t want it to end.

But life goes on.

Now, I’m sure there are people who hated school and love work, and are reading this with confused looks on their faces. Well, everyone’s different, right?

Truly, I think a big part of why transitioning to the real world was so hard for me had everything to do with adapting. I’m usually not someone to think years into the future, and it just didn’t click that work would be so different from school. I get so used to a certain way that changing it, for me, is especially challenging. For a relevant topic, see my post on Change. Interestingly enough, I studied abroad in college, where the school system was different, and I stand by the belief that if I had grown up in their school system, I would have liked it more, and ultimately, preferred it.

Moreover, perhaps I need to be a little less hard on myself. It took me at least the first half of college to adapt to it, so when I started my first job, why did I impose such strict restrictions on myself to adapt to “the real world” right away? Which, arguably, is an even bigger transition than the one from high school to college?

I’m still here. I’m doing the right things. And so are you. Or if not, then you still can – right now. For inspiration, see my post on No Excuses. If there’s anything to remember, it’s that you’re not alone if you’re feeling the difficulty of this transition (or any other transition) too. It takes time, and the key is finding what works best for you. And when you do, go after it with a passion. 

Ultimately, I knew my role. Then I didn’t. Rinse, wash, repeat. That’s life, isn’t it?

A quote that clicked for me recently was in regards to when you are starting work for the first time (perhaps also while in a new city, in a new living situation, or with a new lifestyle): You feel the way you do now because… “You have nothing to measure against.” To add to that further, “And that’s completely fine.”

Keep re-learning the rules to the game. With time, you just might find that you like the new rules more.

From the Elite Daily article linked to above, the real world is “when you become both whom you were meant to be and whom you envisioned yourself to be.”

Welcome to that world. And good luck.

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