When I graduated from Brown (2000), I was promised the world. I had just completed four years at one of the most expensive schools in the country. It stands to reason, I reasoned, that my career would be a reflection of the investment I had put into school. “The world is yours!” they seemed to say as they sent me my first financial aid bill.

Boy was I wrong!

After two layoffs in a row and then rebuilding myself from the ground up in 2009, I realized how dangerous this notion can be if left unquestioned.

That’s why I was almost brought to tears while reading a letter written by Lily Maestas, a career counselor at the University of California- Santa Barbara. “An Open Letter to the Class of 2011” begins with the five major differences between your life as a student and your life as a professional:

  1. The year no longer starts in September. (she starts off gently!)
  2. Your circle of friends is no longer handed to you; most of your co-workers will be so dissimilar to you that you will have to find friends outside of your daytime life.
  3. You’re going to get paid crap. You won’t have a free health club, can’t eat out every day, and must spend lots of money on a new wardrobe. Yes, life is going to seem tough.
  4. Your co-workers will probably not challenge your intellect. They’re not stupid or boring, they are just not paid to stimulate or challenge your mind with scholarly factoids, i.e. you will be bored.
  5. Your first job will probably have nothing to do with your long-term career goals. Pressure from parents or to pay off your bills made you pick the first opportunity that came your way. You’ll probably leave it in 18 months and will want to leave it much sooner than that.

These points really resonate with me as well as others who have read it. They seem harsh, but life has never promised to be easy. Lily concludes her confrontation with the realities of post-college life with some advice. Here’s mine:

  1. Don’t take this too hard. Everyone goes through it. You are in the process of defining your professional self. In my case, it took nine years!
  2. Ask your elders for advice. Anyone who’s been out of college as long as I have can probably help you through the rough times.
  3. Remember to celebrate what you’ve already accomplished. This is one I still struggle to incorporate in my life. Hey, after all, I went to Brown, one of the hardest colleges to get into. That should say something.
  4. Find your guardian angels. No one wins alone. No wealthy person ever became a millionaire through just their own efforts (unless they won at poker). Find a mentor who will advocate for you when you need it.

The faster you can accept the realities of post-college life, the sooner you will find success in life.

If I had read this letter sooner, my life may have taken a very different tack. But even after struggling for 9 years to find my professional self, I still did it, and I consider myself successful. So the good news is that it’s never too late.

If there is just one piece of advice I would add to this letter it would be this. Your career isn’t going to fall in your lap just because you graduated school. If you know what you want, do whatever it takes to get there. If you don’t know, do whatever it takes to find clarity, even if that means trying something out for a while.