The “real world” is now… not when you graduate

University Students often refer their life after they graduate as “the real world,” “real life,” or “adulting.” This humor is mostly just harmless banter, but it touches on a very real problem with our education.

It’s a narrative you’ve been hearing your whole life. Middle school was preparation for high school, high school was preparation for college, and college was preparation for the rest of your life. As you grow up, you’re taught that “real life” is not now, it comes later, and this is just preparation.


At every stage the teachers gave us the same warnings: “the next level up is where things really start to get serious.” But it left many of us with the impression that life had not started yet.

Instead of preparing us for “the real world” it left us with a vague sense of distance between us and life outside of the classroom. We were always preparing for the next level, and we often had a clear set of instructions on how to get there. Complete this project, get good grades, show up and you’ll get to move on to the next level.

Life seems to take many new graduates by surprise. It does not come with clear instructions or grades. Despite all the preparation for “the real world” by the time we get there it is both underwhelming and overwhelming.

We are underwhelmed by the lack of progress we can make in “the real world.” For your whole life leading up to this point, you steadily move up grade after grade, and you have a feeling that you are moving toward something. “The real world” seems to offer little of that. Instead of a clear path it feels more like an open ocean, you can set out in any direction, and there’s no clear indication where you’ll end up.

We are overwhelmed by many “real world” activities that we were never prepared for properly. Paying taxes, navigating insurance, building professional and personal relationships. We even have trouble with the basic things like understanding our emotions and motivations, keeping healthy or how to be happy.

“The real world” can seem scary. Its rules are very different from the classroom. You were taught to follow the instructions and fitting in, if you drew outside the lines or risked being innovative in your work, you were likely to get a bad grade.

We were taught to wait for permission to do what we want be who we want to be. If we want to be a writer, we need to get a job as a writer to become one. If we have a big idea, we need to wait for “the green light” from a boss to make it happen.

In his article ”9 Reasons Why Many Smart People Go Nowhere” Rajesh Setty explains how an intelligent student who learns the rules well would have an even harder time transitioning into “the real world”:

In school, following the rules helped them get excellent grades. In the marketplace, following the rules to the dot will help them lead a “successful” life at best… In a “safe” or sandbox environment there was no need to take big risks. In fact, taking risks would not be rewarded.

The problems of avoiding the real world


This sense of separateness is a problem. Since we grow up feeling like we’re not part of that world or that we’re members of a different reality, we spend very little time figuring out how we will fit into it. We were so caught up in the regimented and prescribed progress of our education that we never bothered to take a look out into “the real world”.

We were so caught up in our education that we never bothered to look out into the real world. Click To Tweet

We graduate with little idea how to conduct ourselves in the real world. The behavior that was rewarded in school is overlooked in “the real world”. We are afraid to make mistakes and fail, and become obsessed with preparation, but because of that we often never end up taking action in the first place.

There’s so much anticipation built up from years of “preparation” that the pressure to succeed is immense. We are afraid that failure will expose our inadequacies to the world, and so we wait to act until there’s a guaranteed outcome. But predictable outcomes only lead to “mediocre success”.

Most students enter into a mild depression after graduation as they adjust to the completely new environment.

Frustrated by a lack of control and watching once planned opportunities not come to fruition can be a very tough thing to experience. Left unchecked, a growing sense of powerlessness, despair, and emotional frustration can lead to clinical depression.“ Dr. Victor Schwartz – Recent College Grads: From Frustration to Clinical Depression

This separateness also leaves us feeling disempowered. We grow up always focused on the “next step” and hitting that next milestone to feel accomplished and that we are living our lives well. We continue to try and graduate through life by aiming for other milestones such as marriage, buying a house, having kids, getting a car, hoping that we’ll finally feel comfortable.

Since we are always focused on that “next step” we are unable to enjoy where we are in the present moment. By the time we hit the goal or the milestone, we are already fretting about how to get to the next step.


How to engage with the real world

So what can be done? Are students doomed to endure this disappointment no matter what?

If you are a young student at university currently you should not be complacent with the prescribed schedule you’ve been given. You don’t need to drop out entirely, there are ways to you can begin to engage with the “real world” and take control of your education.

Start by discovering yourself, examine your interests, your personality, your skills, your history and find the raw materials inside yourself that can be transformed into something great.

Remember that you don’t need permission from anyone but yourself to claim the best things in life. You don’t need to be perfectly prepared when you set out, your interest and curiosity are enough to take a first step. But you’ll need to take risks and endure uncertainty and failure to earn them.

Remember that you don’t need permission from anyone but yourself to claim the best things in life. Click To Tweet

Here are some ways that you can engage with the real world:

Develop your personal brand – Whether or not you actively try to cultivate it or not, you have a personal brand. A personal brand is simply traits or ideas that people associate with you.

One of the best ways to develop a personal brand is to put together a simple website and begin to collect your ideas, observations and stories in a blog. Focus on a theme you are passionate about, if it captures your attention there’s likely many more people out there who feel the same.

A blog won’t get much attention on it’s own. You’ll need to connect with thought leaders and influencers in the space you enter. Working hard to forge relationships will help your brand get traction and capture the imagination of others.

The process of starting and growing a personal brand will also give you more of a context for your education. Instead of taking classes for some vague idea of a career in the future, you can take classes to actively build your brand. Look for ways to deepen knowledge in the subjects you want to discuss or take classes to improve your craft. A personal brand will help you build desirable skills and create something that sets you apart from the droves of graduates.

A personal brand in many ways can replace a resume. Building something that captures the attention of others, demonstrates the quality of your work and helps you build professional relationships can lead to many opportunities after you graduate. You are almost guaranteed to have your name “Googled” in any kind of job application these days, creating a brand presence online will allow you to control what shows up and leave a good impression.

Even if it is not closely related to your career field, the practice and hard work that goes into creating a successful personal brand will be a much more interesting representation of who you are than a single sheet of paper.

Organize an event or start a club – Creating a club works very well with a personal brand. Whatever activity, idea or skill that interests you, there’s probably many more people on campus interested in it as well. Even if you’re the first, passion is contagious. Starting a club positions you as a leader and gives you the opportunity to use your school’s resources to build a platform.

Starting a club positions you as a leader and lets use your school’s resources to build a platform. Click To Tweet

If the club that you want to start already exists then you have two options:

    • Find a way to differentiate your club from what already exists
    • Join the current club and work to take on a leadership role

Even a small group of energized students can do some incredible things. Leverage the group and create events, and invite thought leaders to come speak to your group. Many thought leaders would be happy to talk in-person or online with a group of people who are interested in what they have to say. People are flattered by attention and curiosity from students. Most people will be honored to have the opportunity to speak with a group of students, and the students will look up to you as someone who can connect with interesting people. Everybody wins.

Even if the people you want to connect with live in different cities or countries, you can organize online events and workshops. These can also be recorded and shared on your blog.

Work for free – Some students go through their whole university career studying a subject that seems like it will lead to a promising career but end up hating it so much they quit after a few weeks… Or in the case of Mark Manson, a few hours, in his post How To Quit Your Day Job And Travel The World he writes:

“I sat, nervously sipping my energy drink as I waited for my new supervisor to come train me for the morning. She arrived around 8:30AM and by 9AM had shown me enough pointless procedures to make even the most drab college textbook shout with a vibrant life in my memory. I woke up at 6:30AM for this?

By 10AM I silently asked myself when the soonest I’d be able to quit would be. I was two hours into my lifelong career choice of finance and I was already contemplating an escape route. “This is not a good sign,” I thought next.”

It can be worth your time to test the waters of the real world and do some free work for a business or organization you would be interesting in working for once you graduate. This is a way for you to build some skills, create some professional relationships and get a better sense of what you want to do once you truly arrive in “the real world.”

Let your interest and curiosity direct you. If you love hiking and camping, see if you can do some work for an outdoor clothing company. Try to find a mix of company culture that you appreciate and opportunities to apply the skills you want to develop.

Do your best to research the business and understand their mission, their culture and a problem they have they you want to solve. The better you understand the business, the easier it will be to find a way to work with them.

Find a way to connect your skills or skills you want to learn with a need the company has. Prepare a plan for how you can apply those skills to help them for at least 90 days. Focus on one aspect of the business that you can improve.

By you offering to work for free, it will be a low-risk deal for them and it’s likely they’ll give you a chance. Work hard during those 90 days to make an impact. If you prove to be a valuable person you’ll have some skills, a good recommendation and maybe even a job offer.

Use your schoolwork to connect with the real world – You should take every opportunity to leverage your schoolwork to connect with interesting people and build relationships with them. This is particularly true with subjects you’re interested in.

Most people are flattered to get a message from a student (especially if they are an alumn of that university) that asks their opinion on a topic they are interested in.

Instead of citing only scholarly journals in a paper, why not reach out and try to get a quote from an expert.

Instead of researching a problem for an old business or government, why not use to opportunity to research an issue that a local business is currently facing or a debate that your state government is working on. This takes a little more time and effort than piecing together information online, but you’ll start to build relationships and discover where you can make an impact on the world.

If you don’t have any classes right now that allow you to reach out, then conduct your own research for your personal brand. Connect with experts and thought leaders in the areas where you are developing your brand and build out your blog with these interactions.

Check for campus resources – Most college campuses have a variety of opportunities you can use to connect with the real world. From volunteering opportunities, undergraduate research, guest lectures, career development workshops, tax prep assistance and counseling there is something for everyone. You may meet your future business partner at a campus hackathon or discover a new passion at a career workshop.

Though you won’t be earning course credit for participating in most of these things you’ll develop more practical experience, new relationships and get more ideas of what interests you.

Real world subjects you need to be learning

Building skills that will help you succeed in the “real world” is also one of the best ways to start engaging with the “real world.” Many of the skills listed below are practices while interacting with other people. They’ll force you out of your comfort zone and challenge you in ways that your classes won’t.

Being comfortable with ambiguity: This is the foundation to everything. The world is full of uncertainty and ambiguity, and it is only becoming more so. As the pace of change accelerates in our world, we’ll need more people who can take action without a guarantee of results. People who trust themselves to follow their instinct and find value where nobody else was looking. Tolerating ambiguity is essential to enduring the early stages of starting a business, developing a great idea, building skills and feeling comfortable in your own skin.

Seth Godin puts this best in his article None of Thee Above:

“In a world where nuance, uncertainty and shades of grey are ever more common, becoming comfortable with ambiguity is one of the most valuable skills you can acquire.

If you view your job as taking multiple choice tests, you will never be producing as much value as you are capable of.”

Personal discipline – Without the specific instructions and rules that come with school, you’ll need to develop a personal discipline to keep you on track. The reason you get out of bed in the morning should come from within you, not from an external obligation. Creating the habits that lead to happiness, success and health all require personal discipline to have lasting results.

Personal discipline boils down to creating healthy habits and embedding them so deeply into a routine that they become effortless to maintain. With each good habit, you build momentum in your life and the work you are focusing on.

A great place to start learning about the art of habits is – Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin

Money management – Most of our money management education seems to come from TV commercials rather than school. Understanding how to manage your money is essential for “real world” survival, especially if you have a lot of student loans.

Money management is not just about saving or investing. More important is the fundamental attitude you have toward money. If you see it as a scarcity that can quickly vanish you’ll make very different decisions than someone who has an abundance mindset. Being fearful of losing money will halt your progress in many ways.

Learning how to manage your money well will give you more of a sense of control in your life. If you have a difficult time controlling your impulses, you can automate your money management, so you don’t have to resist yourself. A good strategy is to set up automatic savings; most banks allow you to set up automatic transfers every month or have a preset portion of your paycheck go into savings.

The Mr. Money Mustache blog has a very unique and useful perspective on personal money management.

Local politics – Though national politics are often far more entertaining than local what happens at a city or state level politics can have a much bigger impact on your day-to-day life. Better still, you can have a significant impact on the outcomes of these events as. So if you want to make a change, start in your hometown.

You don’t need to be limited to volunteering in the voting season. A well-written letter to a senator from a young student can change the course of a political debate. Even at a young age, if you are passionate and have a message that resonates with people, you can hold office.

Ben Chin, a young resident of Lewiston, Maine ran for mayor against a decorated war-hero incumbent. His youthful energy and desire to make a change in his home town energized the city and gained an unprecedented amount of momentum.

Ben did not run in an historically progressive town. He ran in one of the toughest cities in the whitest state in the US. One of the biggest issues during his campaign was the treatment of immigrants. Many residents were nervous by the influx of people from different cultures and backrgounds. Ben had an uphill battle with the older population in the town. Despite being a natural born citizen, being half-Asian half-white and much younger than the average politician made many people skeptical.

Though he did not win the election, he came very close. Ben built a huge following of loyal supporters that believed in his vision for Lewiston. His campaign changed the political discourse in the whole city. You can be sure Ben will run again.

You can listen to Ben’s full story on the Millennial Podcast.

Sales – Life is full of opportunities to sell yourself. Whether it’s during a job interview, making requests from others or getting your point across, understanding sales can make you much more effective in getting the results you want from life.

Even if you have something great to offer the world. You’ll need to be able to convince people to buy it. The more expensive the thing you are trying to sell is, the more important your sales skills are.

Sales often conjure up the image of a sleazy used car salesperson using deceptive tactics to make a quick sale. But sales is a very different process than that. It builds on your listening and empathy skills to ask questions to the right person, develop an understanding of what they need or what problem they want solved, and present your product or service as the solution.

Much of this can come from a quiet self-confidence and a firm belief in the value of what you have to offer.

An excellent book for understanding sales in a non-sleazy way is: Spin Selling by Neil Rackham

Negotiation – Most people are very uncomfortable with negotiation. It feels like conflict. But having a basic understanding of negotiation is critical to help you through some of the biggest decisions in your life like buying a house, resolving an argument with a significant other or working with a business partner.

The best place to start is a book called: Difficult conversations by Douglas Stone

Networking – There is little need to be a team player in most classes. But the “real world” you can’t make it far on your own. You need to form relationships and build trust with many different people to succeed.

You must learn the skills of building relationships both online and in-person. The basic process is:

  1. Show an interest in the person and learn about them
  2. Find ways that you can add value to what they are doing
  3. Then ask for something in return.

In her TED talk, Kare Anderson encourages the audience to become opportunity makers for others. By working to advance the interests of others, you’ll form relationships that will unfold in ways you can’t imagine. You never know where your next big break will come from.

“When you connect with people around a shared interest and action, you’re accustomed to serendipitous things happening into the future.

Most people try to open a relationship by asking for something. Most people that you admire and would want to connect with are bombarded with requests to “pick their brains”. They have learned to “tune out” these requests entirely. By adding value first, you can create a personal connection that will pay off in the future.

The best place to start is by attending a Meetup. Check out different meetups in your city and attend a few that interest you. If there is a skill you are working on, there is likely a group of people meeting on a weekly basis that collaborates on that skill too. If you want to work in a certain industry when you graduate, you can find a group of professionals or experts in that industry.

A fundamental read for networking is: “How To Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie


It’s easy to feel resentment toward the educational system and perhaps even your teachers for misleading you about the “real world.” But now that you know, the responsibility is your own. You have the power to make right now real life, and start connecting with the world in ways that will make it a better place and help you grow in the process.

By exploring yourself, sharing your ideas, taking risks and building relationships, you’ll find this world to be a friendly place that is full of opportunities.

If you are a university student looking for more than “mediocre success” when you graduate, I’m writing a book just for you. Enter your email below to get the book for free when it launches.

Kyle Gray
Kyle Gray is the founder of Conversion Cake, where he helps small businesses and startups with content marketing strategy and sales funnels. He is also the author of “The College Entrepreneur” a guide that teaches students how to build an entrepreneurial skillset while in school and use their university’s resources to help them build something amazing.