Some people think going to college will prepare them for life. 

Or at the very least, teach them how to succeed at work.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, those myths can sink the classic high achiever.  At best, college and grad school teaches you how to think critically and provides the foundation of knowledge you need for your career.  It also does a pretty good job of exposing you to material you might otherwise ignore. 

But my favorite benefit came from one of the professors on my thesis committee

You know what I learned from getting my PhD?  That I could teach myself anything.

Apparently corporate comic Scott Adams feels much the same way.

At worst what college teaches you is

  • how to memorize and regurgitate the ideas of others
  • how to cram for a test but remember nothing 2 weeks later
  • how to base your self worth on meaningless criteria like grades

To read more about why you don’t necessarily need to go to college or grad school to be successful, read this argument by Josh Kaufman.  One of the messages I appreciate the most is this: Don’t enroll in a credentialing program [college or grad school] if you’re still figuring out what you want to do with your life. 

I know the readers of Everyday Bright would never make THAT mistake!

If you’ve already sunk the college cost, as I expect many of my readers have, then you’ll want to check out the book Life After College: The Complete Guide to Getting What You Want by Jenny Blake.  It’s what your professors, and perhaps even your parents, never told you about how to live a successful life on your own terms.

I was so impressed with the book, I asked to interview Jenny to dig a little deeper on the themes I thought would be of interest.  Although her book is intended for 20-somethings, I think you’ll see there’s plenty there for the older folks (me included).

JG:  I knew I was going to like this book when I got excited reading the Introduction.  You talk about the blessing and curse of being motivated by achievement.  You say, “As soon as I turned 25, I realized I was utterly exhausted.  I didn’t know how to maintain the same cycle of achievement, and I became incredibly sad and tired.  I knew I couldn’t maintain that frenzied pace for the rest of my life.”  

Tell me more about that: was it a sudden realization? Did someone say something to you?  Because that’s actually a huge realization that many achievement junkies never get to.

JB: It was sudden in that I literally could not muster the strength to do ANYTHING. I had finished a draft of my book, and I couldn’t bear to look at it for six months. I felt tired to the core — unhappy in my role, and as I described in my journal at the time, “a dreadful hum of anxiety permeated my day-to-day activities.” No one had to say anything because I could feel in my gut that something wasn’t right.

I realized that I had defined myself by my achievements for so long that I didn’t know who I was without them — I didn’t feel worthy of love and respect for just being ME — which is sad looking back, but true. That’s when I realized I NEEDED to take time off and just feel my feelings…and now it’s a much better book because of it. I’m also a more compassionate coach and friend because I know what it’s like to hit emotional lows that seem to come out of nowhere. For other achievement junkies, there’s a fascinating description in the Enneagram Type 3 Personality Profile. I cried the first time I read that because it was so true for me.

JG: You go on to say that you broke the cycle by getting clarity on your purpose in life, ultimately getting hired as a career development program manager at Google.  How did clarity help you land your dream job?

JB:Clarity, time and compassion helped me dig deep and be honest with myself about what was and wasn’t working in my life. Clarity did not come overnight — it took almost a year (at least for this dip) — but little by little I started filling in my vision. The analogy of a puzzle just came to me — first you click in the edges: what’s the big container? I knew I wanted to work with people and inspire them through practical tools and coaching. Then from there, you can start to hone in on the smaller, middle pieces — the “how” of what that might actually look like. After I got clear on what I really wanted, I was able to have the right conversations at work, show my interest through blogging (and nail my interviews because of my demonstrated passion outside of work) — which all converged to help me land my dream gig.

JG:  Speaking of clarity, how do you handle your achievement tendencies now?  What’s different?  You say your personal motto is “Live Big!”  That still sounds like an achievement mentality.

JB: Live Big! to me means taking risks – not shying away from life or big opportunities. It means giving ourselves full credit, recognition and permission to live our lives to the fullest – whatever that might mean. And you’re right — there’s probably still an undertone of over-achieving in there.

Now I really try to heed Tony Schwartz’s advice (the author of The Power of Full Engagement, which is all about managing your energy). He recommends that people ditch the marathon mindset and focus on sprints and recoveries instead. Big projects and goals require big sprints — and they often feel great while we’re pursuing them. But it’s critical to balance out those intense periods with build in recovery. Not one night off per month — ACTUAL recovery.

I’m still learning to do this because I love what I do, so it’s easy for me to get caught in the trap of working around the clock. But building in recovery periods in advance is what allows for sustainability in the long-term. I had a complete break-downthree weeks before my book came out because I hadn’t done this. Lesson learned … AGAIN! 

JG:  One of my favorite exercises in the book is the one on personal values.  You list yours as Freedom, Service, Physical Vitality, Gratitude, Growth, Cupcakes!, Clean-Burning Fire, and Ride the Wild Tiger.  I love the originality–that must make them more meaningful.  But I noticed that the exercise calls for you to prioritize your top 5, and you list 8.  How do you prioritize and balance your values?  Is there such as thing as too much for this exercise?

JB: Thank you! I think prioritizing is good because it makes it easier for us to focus and remain clear on the core driving principles. That said, I did cheat and include 8.  I developed these over several years, and found myself adding to the list. Different values show up in different contexts — service is about my career aspirations, whereas cupcakes is part of creating balance and cultivating joy. I suggest people narrow their list to 10, then write them on post-its and re-order over a period of weeks (if not months) based on what feels most true for them. 

JG: I LOVE the work section of the book.  One recommendation you offer is to embrace the side hustle.  How can someone who isn’t entirely happy in their current job take advantage of the side hustle concept?

JB:The key to developing a side hustle is ditching perfectionism and all or nothing thinking. Oftentimes people feel like they have to pursue their passion full-time, or they can’t do anything. Just start somewhere — something is better than nothing. Experiment and carve out one hour a week to work on something you care about. That may very well snowball over time if it’s working, and if it isn’t, try something new! Side hustles are great because they give people creative control over their own life and abilities. I also just wrote a post on the practical side of how to manage a pet project or side venture: 6 Ways to Manage a Side Hustle Without Going Insane.  

JG:  If there was just one lesson learned that someone, regardless of age, could take away from your book, what would you want it to be?

JB: You don’t have to see the whole path ahead in order to do big things. In fact, it’s inherent to the process of a big goal that you WON’T see the whole path. That’s what makes it exhilarating and worth pursuing! Trust that the steps will reveal themselves as they’re ready, and don’t get bogged down in the “tyranny of the hows” as one of my coaches once said to me. Just start! Flesh out the big picture vision and identify the ONE step you can take tomorrow to move you toward something you really want.

Jenny Blake is an author, blogger and life coach. Her newly-released book, Life After College: The Complete Guide to Getting What You Want, is a “portable life coach” that features practical tips, quotes and coaching exercises for every area of someone’s life. She has worked at Google for over five years in Training & Career Development. Read more at her blog (LifeAfterCollege.org), her book website (LACBook.com) and follower her on Twitter @jenny_blake.