As a child, tests and exams were an inescapable aspect of my schooldays. Later, as I left home for the greener pastures of university and experienced my first real taste of independent living, tests and coursework still dominated a large part of my life. The importance placed on scholastic and academic achievement, for most of my life, was almost total. Now, as a 24 year old graduate, I find myself wondering when my twenty years of academic work will finally pay off and I will get the reward that has been promised to me for most of my life, and I have come to a troubling realisation.

Despite my apparent achievements, there are many things that I and many like me were simply never taught. Schools and universities paint themselves as the golden gateway to the land milk, honey, employment, financial security and a generally lovely, easy future, but it just isn’t so. Since graduating, I have found myself horribly, almost hilariously unprepared for life beyond the classroom, and these are 10 Things I’ve Learned:

1. You looked stupid
When I arrived at university, I was every inch the rebellious free thinker, determined to be my own man. Now, when I look back on pictures of my student days and see my huge hair, chin scruff, fingerless gloves and camouflage patterned bandanas, I cringe and thank my lucky stars that I moved beyond this phase. As much as I would love to live in a world where I can wear what I want and not be judged for it, it is better to look good and be well thought of because of it than to be mistaken for a drug-dealer, as I was, on several separate occasions. Look smart and you shan’t look stupid, and will be all the happier for it.

2. You made mistakes and that’s okay
If you’re anything like me, you’ve made a bunch of mistakes, many of which you regret. While it’s easy to see these negative experiences as failures to be forgotten and moved on from, the truth is that these bad choices and bungled situations are learning opportunities, and they won’t be your last. You’re only human. If you want to succeed, odds are you’re going to encounter failure and make mistakes along the way. If you learn from them, no experience, no matter how horrible, is ever completely negative.

3. You have to set your own priorities
As much as I enjoyed my course at university, I had no idea what I wanted to do once I had finished. After spending so long following the instructions of others, making decisions for myself was an unnerving prospect. This is made doubly difficult if you also have others telling you how they think you should proceed, as it draws you back into the pattern of following instructions where none are really being given. However, learning to embrace this freedom and marrying to personal agency can be extremely fulfilling and gives you great peace of mind. It’s always nice to feel like you’re going somewhere.

4. You need to learn the value of happiness
It is a perfectly normal thing to want to be happy, and it is easy to think that if you are not happy that you must be unhappy. Most of us always have something unpleasant lurking at the back of our minds, especially as things like work and money become more prominent in our lives. However, total happiness is rare, and happy is not the default. Life, I would say, is usually a bit crap. Learning to appreciate this reality not only made it easier to maintain a positive outlook in the face of adversity, but also gave me a greater appreciation of moments of genuine happiness.

5. Your physical wellbeing affects your mental wellbeing
During my first year of university, I put on weight, mostly due to my poor, junk-food heavy diet. However, because I didn’t have a car, I walked everywhere, giving me some modicum of exercise. After I graduated, I found myself stuck in an office job and I put on even more weight. As a child I had always been skinny and, while few among my friends would ever say anything, my extra flab and loss of muscle made me feel feeble, unattractive and miserable. This continued for about six months in a repetitive, depressive cycle until, after a bit of pushing from some concerned friends, I managed to pull myself out and started to do something about it. A simple change in diet and some additional physical activity has improved my situation greatly, and now I go running often. I even enjoy it!

6. You have to keep busy
Boredom begets boredom. Having worked in a dull office job and subsequently been unemployed for an extended period, this negative cycle is one I know well. Whether you’re at home or at work, it is vital to occupy your mind. A long work shift or a repetitive job search will only seem longer if you allow yourself to fall prey to boredom, making it harder to focus and reducing your productivity, and the effect is cumulative. This does not mean giving in to distraction, however. Actively engaging with a task makes it much, much easier, and you’ll often perform better and quicker.

7. You never know who knows who
When I was let go by my office job, I struggled to find new work for months. Being on the dole was lousy and left me angry and frustrated. During this time, a friend took it upon himself to try and keep my spirits up, mostly by just hanging out together when we could. It was a huge help, but then he went further and found me a part time job working behind a bar. The landlady used to babysit him when he was a child, and he knew several childhood friends who worked for her. Cultivating and maintaining friendships helps keep you sane when things are lousy and can pay unexpected dividends.

8. You have to learn to take (and ask for) help
As much as it can be a bitter pill to swallow, mostly because I’m stubborn and dislike being told what to do, I’ve learned that, sometimes, I’m just wrong. If somebody is offering you help or advice, it’s probably because they have some information or experience that you don’t and they want to help you. It’s almost certainly not to mess with you or make you feel stupid. Learning to accept help when it is offered, and ask for it when you run into difficulties, can save you time and make your life a lot easier.

9. Your degree doesn’t mean much on its own
As a child, people tell you that a degree is a golden ticket to the upper tier of graduate jobs. In job interviews, however, the thing I am most often asked about isn’t what I studied, but my time with my university’s comedy society. While a good degree is definitely beneficial, it tells an employer very little apart from that you went to university. Extracurricular activities and interests tell a potential employer much more about the kind of person you are, as well as giving you something interesting and unique to make you memorable, a vital factor in getting a job. If something interests you or you want to develop a new skill, it can only make things better for you.

10. You have to start before you can finish
As a graduate, I find myself in a strange position. For the first time, I am entirely in control of my own life, and I have no bloody clue what I am going to do with it. Up until this point, I have always had others determining my path for me, whether by accident or design, and the thought of choosing my own path is a frightening one. What if I choose the wrong path? What if I never find the right one? These fears are very real. That said, one of the most important lessons I have learned is this: Seize opportunities, because they are increasingly hard to come by and their value diminishes exponentially with every passing moment. This feature is my way of seizing one such opportunity, and I eagerly advise you to seize yours too, be they professional, personal or just a passing fancy.

You only have one life to live, so live it!

Photo Credit: Merrimack College via Compfight cc