The Harvardian’s Guide to the Real World

Seniors, assuming you acquit yourselves well during finals (I’d say odds are 50-50), almost a quarter of you will join me in New York, where I’ve been scratching out a living for about a year now. As you cogitate on your entrance into the real world, let me be the first to say, “Come on in! The water’s cold and unforgiving.”

Sobriety aside, I’m sorry to inform you that your diploma won’t give you the one thing necessary to survival: common sense. That, I’m afraid, you must earn. To make your segue as smooth as possible, however, here are a few pointers about life in the city—and in general:

First—unlike in class—at work, requirements are mandatory. If you’ve got a job, you’re expected to show up. You’re also expected to be on time. There’s none of this seven-minutes-past-the-hour funny business. Luckily, if you’re quick, you’ll realize that a 7 a.m. wake-up time isn’t so ungodly if you go to sleep the night before.

Second, work has unavoidable unpleasantries—namely, your coworkers. At one point, you may find yourself sitting across from a guy who went to Yale. And if the dude in the cubicle next to yours reeks because he came straight from the gym, you can’t sit somewhere else. There’s nowhere to go.

Third, work has rituals, which you must follow. To be a successful investment banker, for example, you’ve got to stare at your computer screen refreshing The New York Times homepage longer than the rest of your coworkers. The first one to leave loses.

Plus, you’ll need to learn the lingo. For instance, at an investment bank, you don’t “read” books; you “do” them—typically several in one night.

At the same time, you’ve got to have cojones: You’ve got to tell the boss “no” occasionally. Let’s practice: “No, boss, I can’t ‘do’ another book because I haven’t slept in the past 72 hours.” My I-banking friends tell me such a move would get them fired. I could think of worse things.

Fourth—and this trips people up a lot—at home, you have more work. There’s no such thing as Dorm Crew. Meaning: You have to clean the bathroom yourself. If you end up living with an economics major, he’ll try to pull a “comparative advantage” on you. “Brian,” he’ll say, as he pleads for chore time clemency, “this just isn’t a productive use of my time. These aren’t the skills I need to be learning right now.”

Now I’m as pro-market as Adam Smith, but you’ve got to set him straight: Twenty minutes of scrubbing the toilet is more edifying for him than another hour of listening to Rebecca Black. What will he learn? That he’s never too big for a job.

Some would say I’m mostly citing random anecdotes. And they’d be right. But my point is that the real world forces you to do things you dislike, things with almost no payoffs. And that is good.

College is a holiday from history, during which you have few real responsibilities—that is, the kind you can’t talk your way out of. After four years of it, you get to be a little spoiled. Because when you spend all our time thinking about mortgage-backed securities or the Arab Spring, you forget that eventually, you have to pay the rent. You start to think you don’t have time for the little things. You start to think you’re above them.

Thankfully, some real-world experience will teach you otherwise. No, it won’t teach you “what you want out of grad school.” (You already knew the answer to that: money.) Rather, it will teach you that life isn’t just about thinking big ideas and making big moves. It’s also about paying the bills and washing the dishes. It’s about being responsible for yourself and cognizant of others. It’s about humility.

A brief sojourn in reality land will show you that. You’ll start sticking to a schedule and maintaining a budget. You’ll become more likely to vote Republican. Or you’ll become a lawyer. Either way, it’s a good experience, and you’ll glean more practical knowledge than that contained by the entire Committee on Degrees in Folklore and Mythology.

So cheer up, Harvard grads-to-be. You’re about to enter adult life. You’ve got brilliance down. Now give competence a try.

Brian J. Bolduc ’10, a former Crimson editorial writer, is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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