The “real” real world

By Jonathan Goldin

I didn’t get my first “real” job until three years after graduating Boston University, and by that time I had developed a negative attitude towards the world of work as well as a long-term sense of alienation and confusion about careers.

Future University of Massachusetts graduates, you’re not alone.

This is not the first time in recent history when the American economy did not provide nearly enough jobs for educated graduates. In 1974, the year I graduated, unemployment stats would make your head turn by their outrageously high percentages.

Since we live in a country without the “safety net” that most other industrial nations have, and whereas downturns in the labor market and the economy in general are not unusual, one wonders why colleges and universities are not dedicated to ensuring that all students are trained in how to find and cultivate mentors, how to negotiate with potential employers, how to find collaborators to create entrepreneurial options or how to weather the psychological storms that accompany sour economies.

Upon graduating in the mid-70s I moved to a working class section of Cambridge, Mass. and found many of my peers collecting unemployment and food stamps. I worked a series of odd jobs including taxi driver, school bus driver, waiter and ad salesman for a local weekly newspaper. This path is not such an unusual scenario for liberal arts graduates now or in the past.

In fact, a fellow 1974 graduate and staffer of B.U.’s weekly student newspaper had a satirical opinion column published in Newsweek magazine called, “The Intellectual Taxi Driver,” in which he fantasized a fictional New York City cab company promoting their liberal arts graduate drivers by matching them up with prospective riders.

“You want to talk to someone about Aristotle, we’ve got a Philosophy major ready to pick you up at 79th and West End Avenue,” wrote the author.

The thing not to do in the face of an economy that is stacked against the lower, working and middle classes is to give in, give up or go along. For example, I was talking to a recent UMass graduate in a local retail outlet and she indicated that instead of being more aggressive in finding better work, she was “satisfied” working an obviously under-stimulating job and “paying off my student loans.”

Sounds like a no-win strategy.

It’s easy to become isolated and discouraged in the labor market when one is barely accessing one’s talents, skills and character strengths. It’s hard to get out of that hole, and paying off student loans as a first priority seems like a self-defeating approach.

My first “real” job was also the first and only one that involved a very large corporation and I failed miserably at navigating the world of “corporate speak.” I had talent and drive and the necessary energy for broadcast journalism, working in the news department of a major TV station in Philadelphia, but I had no idea how to cultivate a mentor in that hyper-competitive and complex ambience. Nor did I have the personality or temperament to engage in “office politics” with any success.

I discovered years later that this early setback and the three years of odd jobs had had a profound effect, which according to economists and labor experts, often results in a lifetime of reduced income compared to peers with comparable education.

This is just one of many reasons why I’ve viewed that part of my role as a psychotherapist/coach/counselor is to infuse “school of hard knocks” wisdom for my student clients facing the transition to the “real world.”

The single most important piece of advice I can impart is that the best way to be successful in any career is to pursue choices that are fundamentally compatible with one’s personality, temperament, character strengths, skills and talents. This pursuit of compatibility between oneself and one’s career is not always easy.

Another way to put it is to use your strengths to leverage your deficits. Understand clearly your unique talents and aim to transform the job to fit you, rather than chase after the futile pursuit as the square peg in the round hole.

Consider the following: let’s say you’re a recent graduate with an abiding intellectual interest in politics, a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science and volunteer experience with several political campaigns in the past, and you’ve been offered a policy job in a Washington, D.C. think tank.

At first glance this sounds like a no-brainer, slam-dunk choice and it in fact might be. But it’s also possible that your personality and temperament might be less in sync with the typical bureaucratic ambience of those organizations and be better suited for grass-roots community organizing.

But it’s not easy to find advice or support to resist the resume obsession, status seeking and high salary of the think tank job, and instead learn to focus on being true to oneself. And in a labor market this bad, who can afford to be so picky? And, how can one expect to make the job fit one’s own unique strengths, rather than re-molding oneself to fit the system’s demands?

Being “true to oneself” is a lifetime challenge. It reverberates through every decision in one’s life. Some of this wisdom can only be learned through life experience, but some can be gleaned from exploring one’s temperament, personality, family dynamics, significant friendships and relationship patterns, learning style and character strengths.

My wish is that many more UMass students now and in the future will have greater opportunities for formal and informal advisors and mentors to provide this support, advice and training.

Jonathan Goldin is a licensed independent clinical social worker, holds a Juris Doctor degree and has a practice in Amherst. He can be reached at [email protected] and 413-222-3006..