The Things You Don't Learn in College

Posted on September 8th, 2014

The reality disconnect

There are a lot of things you don’t learn in college. For one, you’re never really held accountable for anything (unless god forbid, you’re an honest to goodness hard-working engineering major). Miss a class, or all of them, cheat on an exam (though you’d have to be pretty stupid or a student athlete to get caught), or somehow end up in the hospital after one too many (or possibly way, way too many) drinks. It all doesn’t matter. There are a lot of things we got away with in college. As I found out in the past year or so, this does not hold to true in the real world.

"There’s a lot of things we got away with in college...this does not hold to true in the real world."

Flashing back to March this year, things weren’t working out so great. I had found myself in an impossible situation where I knew I couldn’t stay at the company I was working at. Staring out of the window, I gazed upon a half-frozen bleak urban landscape. AKA, Detroit in March. The past week there had been some rally for some union walking up Woodward Ave. Clearly there’d be no distraction to get caught up into this week. Was there anything happening in these barren, empty wastes of the massive throughways Detroit called streets? Heading back into reality, I heard the words spoken, “we need a decision now”. These heavy feeling, important words were being slowly spoken by my immediate supervisor. There were many thoughts buzzing around in my mind; I so wanted to badly think about all of those, instead of the one being pressed into my brain. Somehow, gathering the courage to rotate my body to face my colleague, I looked up and asked, “How long do I have?”

When enough is enough, you just have to move on

There are many things you don’t learn in college. One of those things is learning how to understand how to appreciate what you’re doing. Understanding it enough, to know how to appreciate it enough to be able to know when it’s time to walk away and do something else. In college, it’s too easy to screw up one test, but make it up on the next one. Drop the class, with no penalty, before that first failed test ends on your transcript. I swear that my Finance professor bumped up my Intro to Finance grade to a B-, simply due to me being a nice guy and actually showing up to his class as a second semester senior. It’s also ironic being a business major and taking finance that late into my college career. But that’s another story for another time.

I left college with incredibly lofty and idealistic ambitions. Thankfully, I still have those today, but I’ve come out of the past year a bit more jaded and worn. There were some dark times this awful, awful winter in Detroit. Majoring in Entrepreneurship really doesn’t give someone a lot of choices professionally. Lucky for me, I had done some amateur web freelancing, so I know my way around technology. I knew only one thing after graduation, I wanted to take the fast track to understanding everything there was to entrepreneurship. I had even bet my short term future on a fellowship program that promised exactly that on paper. Interning at everything from government consulting to a software-as-a-service software company, in Silicon Valley, led me to believe I knew more than I really knew. None of that prepared me.

One of the largest benefits of why I joined this fellowship program is that it helps fellows find jobs with startups. The catch being that these companies were located in “second-tier” cities, think of Detroit or Cleveland. Cool, not a problem I must have thought at the time when I took a quick offer with my first company in Detroit. After sitting through two years of classes with the objective to write “business plans” and “action plans”, I really had no idea what working at a real startup would be like. I now believe that teaching entrepreneurship is fundamentally impossible, let alone being able to convey the experience of working at one, without actually doing that. The fact that entrepreneurship is no longer a major at my alma matter would attest to that difficulty.

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Obligatory silly photo to mix things up!
"I had grown a lot in my professional skill sets, namely design and front-end development, but had really failed to achieve my larger ambitions."

As I sat there in that conference room this past March, I must have realized I had learned a lot in the past eight or nine months. I had grown a lot in my professional skill sets, namely design and front-end development, but had really failed to achieve my larger ambitions. This is something that should have taken a lot less time to realize. The thought must have crossed my mind that in college there’s always someone to appeal to for help. I had no idea what to do here in this situation.

The slow acceptance

Let’s say your American History professor didn’t quite like the direction and thesis of your last paper. If you were to schedule a time to talk with him and nicely ask for a second chance, he’d probably give it to you. This is something incredibly untrue in real life. There’s always someone to talk to, but they really don’t have to do anything about it. Neither does your American History professor, but generally they’re not there to be mean or make your life (too much) harder. At some point, you are your best advocate as well as the only person who can take responsibility for actions taken or not taken.

My colleague and the founders were right of course. Even if I had brought up the fact that I wasn’t happy months beforehand, what had I really done to try to change the fate that led me to that fated mini-conference room in March? Of course, I had other things pressing on my conscious, health issues included. But, that’s not important. For some reason, I was initially speechless that I was being asked to make a choice. A critical choice that decided my future at that company. Looking back, it’s incredibly obvious. If I wasn’t happy doing what I was doing, and if it wasn’t going to change, this situation would be inevitable. As acceptance slowly settled into my brain, my colleague and I discussed options I might have.

College did not prepare me to make this decision. As we considered roughly four major options, we both knew there was really only one outcome. I would be leaving this company, and probably pretty soon at that. There was no way around it. I had staked out my wants and needs, and so had they. This resulted in an impasse impossible to cross. I came up with the bravery to talk this over with the founders. For some reason, I thought that having them tell me exactly what my colleague had just done would make a difference. Make this situation seem more real perhaps.

The next day I sat down in front of the same colleague and both founders. I remember feeling squeamish and rightfully out of my mind. I have never had this discussion before with anyone. I could think of no parallel experience from all of my education. Somehow I didn’t suffer a mental breakdown on the spot, and we walked away with the best possible outcome for the situation. I never had to bargain before in my life, especially in college. If there was a situation I wanted to avoid, I’d just not go to that class that day. Negotiating leaving my job was definitely a first for me. But, I am proud of the fact that no bridges were burned that day. In the end, I would wrap the next few weeks up, turn in a project, and walk out still as friends.

Of things to come

The next few months were an incredible blur of health issues, job seeking, and trying to understand just what I had done. Ultimately, I did find another job, also at a startup in Detroit. Life goes on, whether you go with it or not. The moral of this story is perhaps that we were given way too much time to be wishy-washy in college. Do I like this major or not? Well, you’ve got until the end of sophomore year to decide that. Real life has boundaries and consequences. The sooner I understood that, and begun to internalize that, the happier and more satisfied I became. Ultimately, we have to just make a choice sometimes. My dad always likes to say, “Half of the game is just showing up”. And showing up, means you made a choice to show up.

"My dad always likes to say, “Half of the game is just showing up”. And showing up, means you made a choice to show up."