Bullish: What I Wish I Had Known When I Was 18

The author on the first day of college, and just before graduation

A reader writes:

Hey, I’m a student about to start college, studying computer programming. What can I do now to make myself more appealing later? What are some things you wish you’d done in college?

Some advice for younger people would be much obliged.

Can do!

When I was eighteen, I was a mixed bag. I showed up at college with a writing portfolio of over 100 published pieces, and also no social skills at all, terrible clothes and hair, and a massive anti-authoritarian complex that I felt was the main ingredient of success. Awesome, right?

Freshman year, I attempted to start a newspaper syndication service. I failed Chinese. I was also, briefly, captain of the boxing team; eighteen is a great time to shave your head in an attempt to intimidate your opponents and also experience what your skull looks like. Sophomore year, I started a web design company that expanded into an Internet marketing firm (see Bullish: Three Career F*ckups I Made So You Don’t Have To).

I think being the first in my family to attend college allowed me to think outside the box quite a bit in terms of what that stage of life is “supposed” to be like. It wasn’t “supposed” to be like anything. It seemed obvious that I should start a company so when I graduated, I wouldn’t be going around prostrating myself with a resume full of shitty part-time jobs. Strangely, it did not seem obvious to me that I should make friends, and communicate like an adult with my professors.

Adults actually like to help you – if you remind them of themselves, way back when.

If you’ve grown up in a blue-blooded household, you might have had “family friends” who treated you like a little adult and created internships for you in high school and let you know that you can call them anytime.

If not, you may have grown up viewing all authority figures as just that: authorities to either seek approval from or defy with all your might. Not … allies. Or collaborators.

Many young people go to college and act exactly the way they did in high school. “Haha, sorry I don’t have my homework, haha.” “Will this be on the test?” Etc. Only now that there are fewer rules, it’s worse – they’re texting throughout class, as though they aren’t paying a lot of money to be there. (I tell you, I teach classes that adults pay to take, and when someone texts for twenty minutes straight, it makes me want to kill myself, and I’m pretty sure that affects my teaching of the rest of the class. Your texting absolutely affects the educational environment for others. So, glance at your phone discreetly and only text back in emergencies, like a goddamn grownup.)

So, plenty of professors are accustomed to teaching a classroom of oversexed children. It’s horrible. But you can be the happy exception – the kind of student your professors were imagining when they decided to become professors in the first place.

Your role is not that of a subordinate taking orders, nor is it that of a peer – it’s more like that of an apprentice. You can set the tone for your interactions with the professor. Don’t suck up, and don’t suck up in class. Instead, stop by office hours (when it’s not busy) or shoot the professor an email (that he or she can answer quickly) about something that’s purely intellectual – not something that’s “going to be on the test.” That establishes right away the role you want to have; the professor has knowledge, and you would like to have that knowledge, and add to it in whatever small way you can. Professors remember those students, sometimes for decades.

Most adults are delighted to help a young person who reminds them of themselves. Conversely, most adults are loath to help you if you represent a generational shift that invalidates their own point of view; for instance, if you argue that text messaging abbreviations should be acceptable in academic essays, or you can’t see how printed books are different from and in some ways superior to the Internet (see Bullish: Pre-Internet Productivity Tips for the Young and Sprightly).

There’s a middle ground. You need to establish the tone in relationships with professors, administrators, advisers, and other adults who might be able to help you launch your career and adult life.

And don’t think I’m advocating only attending college to get a job. People look down on this, and rightly so. If your college education is taught in English, there should be some Shakespeare in it. I was a philosophy major, after all. It didn’t hurt me. I expect a lot of you. I want you to do everything in this column while also getting a real education (like a gentlewoman!)

Don’t go to grad school to delay life. Everyone looks down on this.

I was the first person in my immediate family to go to college (and after four years, I was more than ready to be done with it), so for some years afterwards, I was intimidated by (or felt inferior to people with) masters degrees.

Later, I learned that a lot of masters programs are just finishing schools for people with rich parents. And also, of course, ways to delay the real world.

Many masters programs are just a single year of classes – in something you’re already interested in. So, it’s the easy part of a bachelor’s degree, again! You can do that later. When you’re twenty-six or forty. Anytime.

Unless you specifically need a masters or PhD for an actual job that you have a reasonable chance of obtaining (clinical psychologist, social worker, professor, etc.), please don’t be a 24 year old who’s never held a job or run a business or had a client. It looks terrible. And immature. Start now. As a programmer, developing and releasing smartphone apps is an obvious move, or doing some freelancing on sites like Elance and Guru.

Senior year in college, many of your classmates will be filled with terror. These are some of the same people who managed to go to high school while also going through the college admissions process. But now, there’s no Common App, and no one is telling them exactly what to do. So they move back in with mom and dad and hope they can figure out it later.

I know it’s a horrible economy, and you might end up unemployed and living with mom and dad anyway (see Bullish: You Can Start a Business by Tuesday). But if you spend four years living like a child, you can’t blame it on the economy – it’s your own damn fault.

Be an adult ASAP. It’ll be less of a shock when you graduate.

Somewhere during your college career, try to move somewhere where you cook your own food. Learn to cook food that will keep you healthy and energetic and at the body size you like, so that later in life you can keep yourself well-fed on autopilot. (I laughed when I read that New Yorkers were being encouraged to stock up on three days of food before the hurricane – some people really never cook! If I am holed up in my building for the apocalypse, I will be eating cold chickpeas from a can – with olive oil, sea salt, and sun-dried tomatoes – for months. Along with warm beer.)

But seriously, it’s not cute to whine and be helpless and call your parents every time you need to know the best cold medicine or how to get grass stains out of clothes or how long to boil an egg (if your parents enjoy hearing from you and answering these questions, feel free, but don’t brag about how ineffectual you are without them). The Internet knows more than your parents do anyway. Look it up, and be the person your friends go to when they have no idea how life works. Learn how to write a resume. Learn how to drive (I put that off – I felt like a really serious dork taking drivers ed when in my twenties and trying to run a company).

You actually don’t want your peers thinking of you as a helpless wounded bird –even one with an oversized, knowledge-filled brain.

Networking: at your age, it means hanging out, not sucking up.

One major reason you don’t want your peers to think of you as incompetent is that they’re the people you’re supposed to “network” with, except that almost no one in college realizes that that’s what they’re doing.

In Bullish: Social Class in the Office, I wrote about being a young person who didn’t know how to shake hands; my clan just doesn’t do that. But I was certainly aware that Serious Businesspeople wore suits and shook hands and carried briefcases and exchanged business cards and were Very Formal All the Time. Which, of course, is only maybe true in movies from the ‘80s. Which, of course, is exactly where I’d gotten that idea.

When I was in college, I viewed most of my classmates as mainstream sell-outs with no capacity for independent thought. It was the dot-com era and I felt like I was the only one who noticed. I started a company. I considered dropping out to run the company full-time. (I still think this might have been a good idea. The late 1990s was a time of young people starting tech companies and going public and making millions, and tech companies proliferating so quickly that they were recruiting anyone with HTML skills and a pulse for six-figure jobs. Obviously, there hasn’t been a comparable bubble since then.) Some of my classmates were in absolute denial that college was ending and that they would need jobs. The ambitious ones went through the college’s recruiting process, which I found absurd – I wasn’t letting my academic overlords anywhere near my resume or my economic activities. My high school guidance counselor wasn’t very helpful in regards to getting into college; I certainly didn’t trust the Career Services office to be any better.

I did make friends, of course. I moved into a co-ed fraternity house largely populated by computer science majors, actually. But when my five-year reunion rolled around and I decided to go – for networking purposes – I immediately arrived and saw people (all those “mainstream” people) just hanging out with old friends. Not “networking.” I realized it was pretty much too late; if we weren’t friends then, we weren’t going to network now. It was a really lonely “reunion.”

I wrote in Bullish: Keep Your Love Life From Ruining Your Actual Life about the idea that even hanging out should have goals:

Tony Robbins once said something I thought sounded crazy — that every encounter should have a goal. I mean, coffee with a friend? Seeing Bridesmaids? Do we always have to have goals?

But how often have you had a day off during which you didn’t plan anything and consequently didn’t enjoy yourself very much? How often have you shown up to lunch with a friend preoccupied about something else? Robbins suggested that one possible goal of having lunch with a friend could be to make that friend feel good about something. Um … argue with that.

Your goal in college shouldn’t be “networking,” specifically – that will feel really fake, and also, what the hell are you networking “about” with the psych major on your hall who’s wearing sweatpants that say “SLUT” on the ass? She doesn’t have a job. Or real pants. (There’s nothing wrong with any of that. It’s college, and let’s all please reclaim the word “slut”.)

Just be friendly, and nice, and competent, and interested in other people, while standing up for your own boundaries (no, I can’t have six people drinking in my room because I need to study) and always seeming a shade or two more competent than everyone else.

You can drink and go to parties and play pranks and be a young person; in fact, those things bond you to other people who might be important to your career later. Someday, you will be Serious Businesspeople with someone who will tell a story about the “legendary” time you did something crazy – so, sure, go do something crazy. But be the person who does those things without passing out, and while miraculously also getting all their assignments done on time and just generally being on their shit.

Five years after you graduate, some of your classmates will be in important positions; some of them will be administrative assistants who pass on resumes to those in important positions. Ten years after you graduate, some of your old drinking buddies will be very, very good people to know. It’s a long-term plan.

(See also Bullish: Using Your College Skills to Succeed After College and Jen’s spot on the Oprah Winfrey Network in which she gives advice to her former self.)

originally published August 26, 2011