I came across a Quora answer recently that really resonated with me. The question was “What is life like when you graduate college and start working?” The answer was concise and very on-point, so I’ll reproduce it here in its entirety.
When you graduate from college, you trade in the old anxiety that you might not be able to scrape your way through the latest assignment or pass the next exam for a much deeper and more worthwhile anxiety, that you might fall short of making the most of your opportunities in life.
College is a minimal constraint satisfaction problem, and many of those constraints are purely heuristic/artificial. Life after college is a completely open-ended happiness maximization problem, so to speak, and there is no one to tell you whether your solution is correct.
During college, our greatest fears were often related to failure. We worried about whether we would finish a problem set on time, how well we would perform on an exam, or whether we could make it to a particular building to submit our independent work before a 5pm deadline. For the most part we were focused on meeting certain expectations that had been set for us. These expectations prevented us from losing so long as we met the minimum criteria, but they also placed a ceiling on what we could potentially achieve.
Our greatest threat after college isn’t failure, but mediocrity. There are no exams, no targets, no boundaries. There is no safety net if you fail, but there is also no limit to how high you can reach. We may all be college graduates, but the range of outcomes after that is vast. There are no rules, and feedback doesn’t come in the form of a number on a piece of paper.
I hadn’t really thought about the differences between college and post-college in such economic terms, but it makes so much sense to me now. I realize that many people who have graduated from college are trying to solve the wrong problem. That is, people are so accustomed to satisfying minimum constraints that they continue doing it even after graduating from college, when the rules completely change.
When there aren’t explicit requirements such as grades, we tend to set up our own minimal constraints and signals for measuring how we’re doing. Often we choose to work in institutions, live in places, or adopt lifestyles with enough pre-existing constraints and automatic feedback mechanisms that we can settle comfortably and not have to even worry about the happiness maximization problem.
In some ways, it makes life easier. You don’t have to worry about promotions or job security if you always work at a large company where career advancement is highly structured. You don’t have to worry about learning other languages or about other cultures if you’re content to live in one city or country for a long time. You don’t have to worry about experiencing extreme highs and lows if you choose a simple and stable way of living. And you certainly don’t have to worry about self-reflection or seeking constant feedback if you’re not always reaching for something higher.
But in another, more basic sense, it’s avoiding the problem altogether rather than trying to solve it. It’s precluding a whole range of possibilities without ever having dared to explore them. In college that might have worked, because in the end everyone becomes a graduate. But nobody is going to hand you a life diploma — nor should you want one.
I have a list of 2013 New Year Resolutions, but if I had to consolidate them into one central theme, it would be to maximize my life happiness by eliminating as many of my implicit constraints as possible. I hope many of you will join me in trying to do the same. Here’s to the new year!