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’Tis the season of graduations. The caps and gowns are back. And with all the graduation photos that have begun to adorn social media this month, I’m reminded that it’s been a year since I walked off the stage, diploma in hand, and bid goodbye to my school and home for four years. A year since I wrapped up sixteen or so years of formal schooling. A year since I began Adult-ing.

Graduation from college is a pretty big pivotal milestone. And as with many important points in history, it can be quite interesting to see both the differences and the similarities between the before/after eras. So in honor of this special time of year, here is a reflection of my first foray into post-school life:

Ah, college days. When you could roll out of bed at 9:00am, hit the snooze button (multiple times…), and still fit in a workout before your first class. And on days when I didn’t have a morning class, I could stay wrapped up in my blanket burrito with no shame for another hour. It was worst freshman year, when all the excitement of college life leaked into the early morning hours, providing ample excuse to snooze my way through the morning. I think things improved from then on — by senior year, I’d achieved something resembling a healthy sleep schedule and rarely got up past 9:30am. Still, by all measures, 8:00am was considered early, and 6:00am was unthinkable. Fast forward to now, and thanks to the loveliness that is the great Bay Area Traffic, 6:00am is a regular thing now. I’ve actually grown to enjoy the peacefulness that heralds the arrival of a new day. Driving as the sun rises over the calm streets and working in the early-morning quiet of the office have become moments I savor. How times have changed.

The first workday night of post-grad life was confusing. I was standing in the bedroom after eating dinner and had this incredibly strange feeling — I literally had nothing to do. No homework, no study sessions, no late-night meet-ups with classmates. No deadlines. Complete and total freedom…it took some getting used to. Weekends were a thing now too. A whole two days of free time! Compare this to the college life, where being a student is an intense 24/7 job. There’s always something to be done — you’re always learning, always working on new projects, and always following some sort of semi-hectic schedule. In a world where you’re covering new subjects every week in several classes and switching classes every 10 weeks (we were on the quarter system), you’re constantly pushed to explore, adapt, and grow intellectually. And then suddenly, after you graduate, none of that structured time is there. In its place are hours of unstructured time during the post-work evenings and weekends. No predetermined agenda and — for the most part — no external deadlines or pressures. How you spend your time is completely up to you.

Ok, I admit, I spent much of the first few weeks spending these hours in blissful relaxation on the couch with a book, perusing the internet, and generally lazing around. But I think there’s only a certain amount of passive relaxation one’s brain can take. After a week or two, I actually could feel my mind getting sluggish. That’s when I realized that there really was no more external impetus; now I had to find my own catalysts to be productive. What’s been most effective for me is making a habit of consistently flexing my creative muscles. I’ve noticed that I’m much more happy actively creating rather than passively consuming. Drawing, writing, and coding little side projects keeps my brain stimulated and pushes me to continue learning and growing on my own.

When you’re growing up, often your parents help you set your immediate goals. There are also certain recommendations set by the broader community and society as a whole — high school graduation, then college graduation, etc. Well, after graduation there are no more formal requirements. There are very few clearcut, well-defined goals and even fewer straightforward paths that lead to them. Suddenly you are the sole person responsible for defining what you want your future to look like and how you will get there.

What problems do I want to be solving? Am I doing this or that because it’s interesting or because it’s comfortable? Can I find work that pushes me intellectually while also offering good work-life balance? How can I contribute meaningfully to my family, my community, and society as a whole? Making these short and long-term goals has pushed me to think more actively about what I want in a career and in my personal life.

There’s really no place like college for forming close relationships. So many close bonds have been formed from that potent mix of close living spaces and shared student experiences. Friends are a few minutes’ walk from your dorm room. Clubs, study spaces, and dorm events create perfect hubs to hang out, collaborate with, and get to know your fellow students.

Once my friends and I graduated, we left the journey we had been taking together and split on our respective paths. Some went to medical school across the country. Some took jobs on the East Coast. I was relatively lucky that most of my friends stayed in the area, either continuing with their graduate studies or working in cities around the Bay. Still, working at different companies and living in different cities means fewer moments for spontaneous time together. I’ve learned that I need to be very intentional about maintaining and building my relationships. It’s so easy to drift apart when you don’t put conscious effort into spending time with your old friends. You have to remember to initiate that group dinner, schedule that 1-on-1 coffee chat, and make those texts and phone calls to friends who have moved to New York, Boston, or Detroit. Yet when you’re intentional about maintaining a relationship with someone, even if you don’t see each other often, the time you do spend together is always richer. When I’m only seeing a friend in person once every few weeks or twice a year, you bet we’re going to make those few hours count.

I remember being in elementary school and thinking, “Wow, those middle schoolers are so big and so mature. They must have it all figured out.Then in middle school it was “Those high schoolers seem so sure of themselves. They must have it all figured out”. And then in high school I thought, “Ok, college students are on a whole other level. They’re literally adults. They must have it all figured out.” Then in college it was slightly terrifying because now I only had four more years to “figure it all out”. And now, here I am post grad and…yup, I still don’t have it all figured out.

I wonder if, as a society, we overvalue having things “figured out”. As children, we’re encouraged to think about what we want to be when we grow up. As students, we’re told to start thinking about what career we want, and to find our passion. And yet, when I entered college, I discovered entire fields of study that I had no idea existed in high school. When I began job hunting, I found not only the traditional jobs in the big-name companies, but non-profit work, quirky startups, and unconventional roles. We grow up in an educational system that is so cleanly prescribed, that it can be easy to see our world of opportunities scoped within predefined and well-established walls. But in reality, there’s no one stopping you from defining a unique path that is completely your own.

I’ve had to learn the value of simply trying. Of taking that first step. Of just getting started. Growing up, I was always focused on figuring out what “the right” thing was. Was this major “the right” one for me? Was this job “the right” step on my career journey? I would wait to make a decision or hesitate to start something new until I knew it was “the right” decision. But reality is rarely so cleanly black and white. In fact, some of my biggest self-defining moments arose from simply trying something new. For instance, my foray into digital animation in middle school was my first glimpse at a tangible intersection of art and technology. Taking that first computer graphics course sophomore year of college led me to take a leap of faith to switch tracks from AI to computer graphics. That decision, in turn, allowed me to build the skills and experience that helped land me a dream internship at Pixar. I had no plan for any of this. The most valuable mindset I’ve learned is to stay open-minded in this whole messy journey. To stay curious about all things, whether or not they seem directly related or useful to my interests. To take reasonable risks. As my brother once told me, “The only way you’ll find out whether you like something is to try it”. There’s a whole world of possibilities out there, but don’t worry, you have your whole life to keep “figuring it out”.

It’s been an interesting first year of Adult-ing. Sometimes it’s been wonderful, sometimes it’s been scary. Sometimes it’s been disappointing, sometimes it’s been incredibly fulfilling. Sometimes it’s been laid-back, and sometimes it’s been intense. There have been so many moments of fun with friends and family. And I’m sure there are many more adventures around the corner.

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