The learning never stops — well, perhaps I should say that the learning should never stop. I like to think that every year I am a little wiser than the previous and that I am better prepared to confront the world and my life with the newly-found knowledge of the previous year.
Today, I sit here as a 37-year old stooge who retired at 35, thinking back to my college days and how far that I’ve come.
Somehow, we made that whole early retirement thing happen. Of course in college, early retirement was the last thing on my mind. But in my mid-30s, I couldn’t get it out of my mind.
I needed out of corporate America — fast.
Still, I cannot help but wonder if I would have been able to retire even earlier had I realized back in college that working for nearly half of my life (or more) just didn’t need to be my reality.
But then again, I was in college. That whole experience was preparing me to work. Work, work, work. I thought that I was following the normal path towards death retirement.
Here are five things — five absolutely incredible gems — that I wish I knew back in college. If I were a little bit smarter, I probably would have retired years sooner.
Five things to know after graduating from college
1. College isn’t what it’s cracked up to be — I have already written at some length about how nutty this whole college thing really is, and especially how different schools automatically conjure up ill-conceived assumptions of potential for success for no damn good reason.
I value education, but college quite frankly prepared me for nothing — as it does most people. It got my foot in the door and that’s it. The work that I put into graduating Summa cum laude was nice, I guess, but it was also completely meaningless.
I figured that the collegiate environment would automatically envelop me into what I needed to know to make lots of money and be happy, so I just sat back and let it happen. Fat. Dumb. Happy.
2. Work is nothing but a means to an end — I always viewed work as something that people do until they are physically unable to work any longer.
Of course, how could you blame me?
Sadly, that’s what work has turned out to be for so many in this country. Buy a big house, drive an inefficient gas-guzzling car, watch a huge LCD television while texting back and forth with your buddy on your unlimited data plan using your $600 designer phone — and then lament the fact that there just isn’t enough money for X, or that I wish I had enough time to do Y.
In reality, what I was being prepared for in college was a long career of work, and I was ready to accept that fate just like the majority of our population.
I turned off my brain to something better, instead relying on my understanding of “normalcy” to get me through life. To hell with normalcy.
We don’t HAVE to follow the path that so many others follow.
And if you want to switch paths, college is the time to do it. You’re prepared to face the next stage of your life. Brimming with enthusiasm, you march forth down whatever path you feel is right for your life.
Unfortunately, the further down the path you get, the tougher it is to change course.
3. Good things come to those who wait — Often said, rarely embraced.
But, I wish that I did in my earlier life. Instead of plowing my way down a course of action, what I should have done was take things much more slow, focus on what truly makes me happy, and re-arrange my life so the things that I do, and the money that I spend, is in direct support of what I know in my heart to be right.
The truth is I was much more concerned with getting things done fast than done right (just ask my 6th-grade teacher, Mrs. Messer).
The ability to reflect on life and take the time to learn from your mistakesand recognize the things that cause your successes is critical to making more thoughtful decisions throughout your life. Use your head. All the time.
4. Professionals are not all that “professional” — I’ll admit it, I was intimidated by my hilariously misinformed understanding of the professional world. I had assumed that people in positions of power were, well, the best of their breed.
I entered the professional working world straight out of college thinking that the people who I will be working with will just kick my ass back into the stone age with their knowledge and experience.
I soon realized how dumb that was.
Sure, I did work with many bright people who were not only experienced in their field but genuinely smart. But quite honestly, I was surrounded by mediocrity.
Most of these people weren’t in it for the science or the innovation. They didn’t come to work every day because they loved what they do or thought they were making a difference.
Hell no. Most came to work because, well, that’s what you had to do to pay the bills. It wasn’t about production or doing something meaningful. It was about making a living.
And while they were obviously more experienced than I was at the office, I wasn’t exactly surrounded by “best of their breed” folks. They were fine at what the did, but so was I, fresh out of college.
My dad always used to say that it’s not that tough to look good, and showing up was half the battle. And you know what? It is. I found that putting in even the slightest bit of additional effort was easily recognizable, which almost effortlessly put me into a position of getting ahead.
5. Money is meant to be saved, not spent — It’s exciting when college is finally done. Over the past four or more years, you’ve scrimped by on rice and beer and now you are finally making some serious money.
So, let’s spend it!
And I did. I blew through a half year’s salary my first year out of college and bought a used Corvette convertible. Fun car, definitely a blast to drive, but completely overkill and without a shred of utility.
If my spending habits had stopped there, then I might be able to simply chalk that one up to a forgivable mistake straight out of college.
It happens, no big deal.
But it wasn’t. I plopped another half year’s salary down over the course of several years upgrading the hell out of that car. Supercharger, forged rear end, race camshaft, $1500 wheels, twin-disc clutch, headers, exhaust system. That sucker was fast and loud. It was also a money pit.
I also went out to eat…a lot.
I moved into an apartment with a roommate a couple of years after college graduation. We went out to lunch and dinner every day. Every. Damn. Day. The money left my wallet as fast as my waistline was expanding.
Phew, I was a wreck.
Then, I moved out to Arizona and a couple of years later bought a brand new Cadillac CTS. Interest-free loan, but still expensive — way too damn expensive for a car. I realized my mistake last year when I finally wrapped my head around the concept of retirement and silly cars that Americans believe to be “better”.
But hey, you live and learn.
Had I understood these concepts in college, I would have much more money right now. Way more.
But, I can’t look back into the past and wish for a different result because, well, that’s a waste of time. The truth is I do now understand that money is meant to be saved, and that this whole professional working life thing isn’t all that tough, really.
In fact, life is quite easy.
What about you? What do you wish that you had known back in your college days?
This country offers far, far more opportunities than other nations, by far. All we have to do is reach out and grab them. If you want to succeed and retire early in pure and unabashed happiness, you can. Anyone can.
You just gotta want it.
Steve is a 37-year-old early retiree who writes about the intersection of happiness and financial independence. Steve is a regular contributor to MarketWatch, CNBC, and The Ladders and lives full-time in his 30′ Airstream Classic and travels with the country with his wife Courtney and two rescued dogs. He blogs at Think Save Retire.