3 Lessons You Won’t Learn In College

Commencement time is just around the corner. Many eager seniors await that magic moment, the culmination of four years of work, when they finally receive a diploma, certifying their worth to the world.

Having been out of school for (at the time of writing) nearly three years, I frequently find myself offering free advice to recent grads. For one, I genuinely enjoy helping, and any opportunity to do so is welcomed. Additionally, I feel there are MAJOR gaps in the college curriculum. It’s not that schools do this intentionally or maliciously, I just think many of the biggest concerns of young people are overlooked, or considered too taboo for the classroom. Where do you learn to be a good friend or partner? When do you figure out how to ask for help when you need advice? Where’s the course that teaches you how to manage a credit card so you don’t fall into debt once you start buying expensive things?

I guess we’re just expected to figure this stuff out. Fair enough, but man, what a wasted opportunity. I wish there was more conversation around these topics. Hence, this is why I’m writing this post. I want to share a few key lessons that you won’t learn on any campus, in hopes of opening up more dialogue on these subjects.

1. Job vs. Career vs. Vocation

I was so excited to start working and earning real money. I’d spent many hours earning just over minimum wage while in school from various jobs, or painting houses in the Illinois summer heat. This is a job, an exchange of your time for money. You show up, do the work, you get money. There is generally very little specialization in a “job”, and you can be replaced almost immediately.

A career is what we hope to start after college — whether it’s continuing down the academic route, or steaming forward into industry, we usually think of careers as long-term. It takes time to build a career; you’re no longer as replaceable, and there’s typically some hierarchical structure to the way your career “advances”.

Your vocation is your personal calling. Sometimes there’s something so significant in your life that changes the way you see the world. Whether it’s a close friend or family member battling an illness, a spiritual awakening, etc. these kind of callings usually leave you with no choice, but to answer. A vocation is generally the most intrinsically fulfilling of the three ways to make a living, as you might not be focused on the rewards, rather, service to the cause takes the spotlight as the primary objective. Additionally, only YOU can fulfill your vocation.

There’s no right or wrong way to earn the money that supports your life, but understanding the various methods and motivators can help you recognize what options are available and help you make a more informed decision. For bonus material, I recommend reading this post and this story.

2. Building Character

It’s a hard feeling to describe. Sometimes, you read something that just resonates. That’s exactly what happened to me a few weeks ago upon reading this article, which originally appeared in the New York Times, called “The Moral Bucketlist” by David Brooks. As a Yale professor, Brooks talks about his experience working with some of the finest products of American meritocracy. His students are among the brightest, most accomplished individuals.. on paper.

Brooks describes the difference between what he calls the “resume virtues”, and the “eulogy virtues”. Resume virtues are as you expect, where you went to school, where you work, etc. while eulogy virtues are the things they read about you at your funeral, the kind of person you were, if you were funny, optimistic, and so on. Essentially, Brooks points out that our society is heavily weighed to promote and reward resume virtues, leaving the eulogistic accomplishments relatively unnoticed, ultimately creating a morally inarticulate culture.

Here’s the lesson. Your worth as a human isn’t derived from success or a degree. This might be hard to swallow, especially for recent grads who are about to hit the marketplace with that fresh certification. Sure, your skill set might become more valuable as a result of your degree. This is merely the economic law of scarcity and specialization. But YOU as a person, only you decide your worth. I wish classes emphasized the importance of having a healthy self-image. Love yourself, your faults, and your idiosyncrasies.

3. Figuring Out What You Want

It’s both an odd and relatively new problem. The American Millennial was handed a ticket to a historic buffet of life options. I’m knocking on wood here, but there haven’t been any world wars or drafts in my life, I haven’t been raised under a dictator, or communistic agenda. I’ve been afforded every opportunity imaginable, and to some (myself included) this is paralyzing.

What if I don’t like what I do? What if I squander my opportunity? Can I change my mind? All these fears about seemingly non-problems, but I can assure you the psychological effects are quite real. If you asked ten college students what they want, how many do you think would give a straightforward response? “I don’t know yet” is what I’d expect most to say. And that would be totally normal.

Figuring out what you want from life is one way to look at it. Another way is to ask what life wants of you. That’s how you find your vocation. This is how you tolerate grueling practices, the “ramen noodle phase”, sleeping on couches, etc. It’s okay not to have all the answers now, but I beg you to find the courage to keep exploring. You don’t know what you don’t know. Build yourself a library of experiences, and you’ll begin to develop your taste for life. Read biographies of people you look up to, and take notes.

To “know thyself” isn’t as easy as it sounds. You will find things you don’t like, or don’t care to work on. Just know, you’re not alone. Nobody is born a professional at life. We’re all just bumbling our way through it, pretending like we know what the heck we’re doing.


There are many more lessons I’ve picked up since my college days. If you like this post, I will happily write a follow-up. I wanted to share these thoughts in particular because I think these are important philosophical topics that frequently get overlooked in college, and actually address the fears many students have about the “real world”. If you have additional stories, or things you’d like to add, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Thought Catalog Logo Mark


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