It’s graduation season.
I’d love to pen one of those columns that tells all the grads out there about the wonderful world awaiting them and all the perspectives they should keep from here on out. It would go viral and set the Internet abuzz and would be shared and emailed and eventually be attributed to Patton Oswalt or Chelsea Clinton or one of those guys with the long beards on that show that has something to do with ducks. But quite frankly, I think all of those have been written (and I personally think the “Wear Sunscreen” one is still tops).
So instead, I think I’ll opt for a look back to June 1990, when I was a graduating high school senior. I was 5’6” and 17 years old. Blessed with an internal clock that was a smidge late on ramping up to grown-up time, I would grow about six inches over the next two years. At one point in time, there was a VHS tape of my freshman year in college in which my voice was cracking. Thankfully, this tape has since died, mainly due to excessive overplaying during reunions with fraternity brothers.
I left for Tuscaloosa, Ala., with the firm plans to light the world on fire. Where, exactly, I planned to be was not exactly sketched out, but solid long-term planning is not the hallmark of someone who thinks spending Spring Break sleeping in an Isuzu is a good idea.
My four years at Bama were the greatest stretch of personal development in my life. Yes, I have two wonderful children and a great family and a fulfilling career. But I don’t think any of the good I have now happens without the four years I spent there. I met my wife there, as well as some of my nearest and dearest friends. And the growth most people do between 17 and 21 is one of the biggest avalanches of experiences you will know. But now is not the time for reflections on a great time at Bama, particularly in the event my parents or children may be reading.
I majored in Advertising and Public Relations and took the first job that was offered to me after graduation. This was after not getting jobs with the first 75 – not an exaggeration, the actual number – places I applied. For some reason, it still bugs me that I did not get an interview with the Baton Rouge Department of Tourism.
The job I accepted was in Orlando, and I found out about it because of my aunt, who had a friend at a publishing company. I sent my resume, and Carol, my first professional mentor, had me come down for an interview. A few days later, she called and we had this conversation:
HER: We’d like to offer you a position at …
ME: I ACCEPT!
HER: Michael, generally, with job offers, you wait until you hear the offer, and you should certainly know the salary first.
ME: It’s OK! I ACCEPT!
I moved to Orlando and rented a place right across the street from my office. The job was as an editor of college textbook manuscripts. Here is the lone piece of advice I will give to college graduates: Upon graduation, do not take a job in which the sole responsibility is reading college textbooks for 40 hours a week. I’m not saying there is not a time or place for that later in life. But take it from this fella – fresh out of college is definitely not the time to do it.
Carol was a fantastic guide along my first professional path. One day, about nine months into the job, she pulled me into her office and asked me how I was doing. I told her it was great and that I was so happy to be an honest-to-goodness professional doing what professionals do and so on and so forth. She looked at me with those eyes that a mother cuts when she knows you’re just giving lip service. I was miserable. She knew it. I did my job well – I was one of the only editors at the company ever to be included in a textbook acknowledgment (Galvin and Brommel’s “Family Communication: Cohesion and Change,” a classic you no doubt have read). But she knew that this was not what I wanted to be when I grew up.
She then said something that has stuck with me since then: “You don’t want to get your gold watch from here.” She was encouraging me, if I wanted, to go experience other things in life. It’s not that she wanted me to leave. Quite the contrary. She was looking out for me. I learned later on that she was actually being quite protective of me, as the company folded a short while after I left.
Since that time, I have gone on to several new adventures in my professional career, each one presenting its own new challenges and rewards. So as a new batch of graduates head into the world, I just hope you’ll forge your own way and take some chances along the way, try some things that may not work out and find out who you are as you get older. It’s nuts to think that you should have to pick who you’re going to be forever when you’re 17, 18, 21 or even 30. Go live life. Chances are, it’ll wind you down a path that will put you right where you need to be. You’ll figure it out as you go.
Oh, and do wear sunscreen.
Mike Gibbons was born and raised in Aiken. A graduate of the University of Alabama, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @StandardMike.