By Allison McWilliams (’95), Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University

graduates on a hill at sunset throwing their graduation hats

Photo by Baim Hanif on Unsplash

There is so much attention placed on the path to and through college – get the best GPA that you can, build your resume through extra-curricular activities and internships, get into a school that is a good “fit,” choose a major that aligns with your interests, get a job or get into graduate school, and so on – that you likely have emerged on the other side feeling accomplished and exhausted. But, life doesn’t stop at college graduation. Indeed, this is just the beginning of your adult life. Unless you’re in graduate school, no longer do you have someone telling you where to be, when to be there, and what you will do when you’re there. No longer are you surrounded by resources and support systems that just want to see you be successful. No longer can you count on a safety net to protect you from failure.

So what are you to do? Up until this point you have been conditioned to think about life in four-year chunks: four years of elementary school, four years of middle school or junior high, four years of high school, four years of college. Each of these blocks of time had a defined beginning and end point, a natural transition for what comes next.

These same defined blocks of time don’t exist in the real world. But that doesn’t mean you can’t establish them for yourself. As you move out of college into your first post-college experience, take some time to honor that transition, as you would have for the move from high school to college. And then, think about each of the following areas, your Five For Your First Five. These are the five key competencies for you to master in your first five years out of college:

  1. Do the Work. Your first job (or jobs) is rarely ever going to be the dream job, but it is a critical time to start discovering strengths, interests, and skills for the future. This is also the time to start examining what you do and don’t like about work and how these relate to where you want to be in the future. First and foremost, everything during this time starts and ends with the work you will do. It’s imperative you are showing up, every day, ready to give your all, to learn, to grow, and to make the best impression on your co-workers and superiors you possibly can make.
  2. Build a Life. Be intentional about creating positive life habits. Some of these are practical issues around finances, retirement planning, and finding doctors and other support systems. But others are a bit less obvious. These include questions like how will you spend your time, when it is completely your own? How do you find and create hobbies? What are those individual personal habits you value, and how will you prioritize those in an already-full day? What happens when things don’t go exactly as you had planned them, and there is no safety net?
  3. Create Community. We all need to feel like we belong to a place. However long you intend to live somewhere, you need to live where you live. That means putting down roots, joining groups, and building intentional relationships. It means adopting an attitude of permanence. Creating community means finding adult friends, being intentional about who you are letting into your life and why, and building a robust, diverse network of mentors and advisors who can help you to explore the decisions and choices you are making.
  4. Practice Reflection. Reflect on the choices and decisions you are making, why you are making them, and what you are learning about yourself along the way. Mentoring relationships, in particular, are all about reflective practices, taking intentional stock of where you are, where you have been, and where you are headed. This is work you can do on your own, of course, but it is far too easy to brush it aside for “more important” work that fills up the to-do list and inbox. But if you’re not learning from where you have been, you are destined to repeat the mistakes of your past. Privilege both personal and organizational learning.
  5. Own What’s Next. At some point during the next few years you likely will be forced to choose between safety, comfort, and known success, and uncertainty, risk, and potential failure. This may be a choice you seek out, based on what you will have learned about yourself, your values, your strengths, and your skills. Or, you may have an opportunity that appears unexpectedly, maybe even before you think you are ready for it. Either way, you can start to do some planning now, to put yourself in the best possible position to assess these choices when they appear.

So there it is, your Five For Your First Five. We think these five areas are so critical, we wrote a book about it, which you can use to develop each of these areas for yourself. Honor this transition. Be intentional about your choices and decisions. Own your career and your life after college.