They called my name over the loudspeaker. In my graduation gown, I walked up the steps and onto the stage, over to a woman standing under a spotlight--our department chair. I shook her hand, collected my sheet of paper, and walked off stage.
That's how long the top of the mountain lasted. Four years of work, for eleven and a half seconds of celebration.
Three days later, I was sitting in my first internship. The working world looked very different than any of my former classrooms. All the employees seemed to be doing something--whereas in school, us students would just sort of sit there waiting for proper direction.
A girl with what I would soon learn was called creative-professional attire walked up to me and placed a small USB hard drive in my hand. "I need you to take this, go downstairs to the graphic design shop, get fourteen copies of eleven by eleven, use the company card, and I need it before noon," she said.
In that moment, I was still very much was a student. I wanted to ask, "How do you want me to do this? Where is the assignment? How will I be graded?" But I got none of those things. In fact, no one did. The answer to every question was, "Figure it out."
For months, I tried to figure it out--and every time I would try, I'd somehow stumble and fall.
"Cole, I need you to figure out how to upload company editorials to Flipboard," the creative director said to me.
I tried. For fifteen minutes, I tried. And when I was sure of the outcome, I returned to him and said, "It's impossible. I read a few different articles and they all said you can't do it."
He looked at me with a half smile, and then quietly said, "There's always a way. Figure it out."
Frustrated, I returned to my seat. Not everything is possible, I said to myself. But, since I still had to do what was being asked of me, I got back to work.
Ten minutes later, I figured it out. He was right. And this was the beginning of my learning the single most brutal truth about the real world--that they don't teach you in school.
There is always a way. But it's on you to figure it out.
I hear so many of my peers say, "I think I'm going to go to graduate school. I'm really good at school. What I'm not good at is real life."
And sure, if you genuinely want to go to grad school, by all means. But if you're going simply because real life is harder than you thought it was going to be, you're only postponing the problem.
The problem is that school teaches you material, but it really doesn't teach you how to learn. It doesn't teach you what to do when a co-worker tells you to go do something you've never done before, and have no instruction as to how to do well.
Yet, that's exactly how the real world operates. The real world doesn't come with instructions. You don't get graded at the end of each semester, letting you know that your ability to wake up on time is great, but your saving-money-skills are extremely sub par. These are all lessons you need to learn on your own, and ultimately teach yourself.
Which is why, more often than not, the best students are not the ones who go on to found companies or lead incredibly successful teams. They end up working for the kids who spent less time caring about the grade, and more time teaching themselves the things they wanted to learn, outside of school.
So, if you're about to graduate, and you're getting ready to enter the real world--whether it's an internship, a job, an apprenticeship, etc.--then know this: that sheet of paper you have in your hand doesn't mean much, except to explain where you were for four years.
Your degree does not guarantee you any answers.
Your degree does not give you a free pass.
Your degree is nothing more than a symbol of what you chose to make your educational focus as you transitioned between being a teenager and a young adult--but it does not mean you are actually skilled.
Skill, talent, work ethic, positive habits, all of those things come with figuring it out. And it's those who forever look to that sheet of paper as a crutch, that ultimately never end up "figuring it out."
It cracks me up when young people say, just because they're out of school, that they're "old." Stop saying you're old. You're not.
You are about to enter the real world.
The game isn't over. In fact, the game has just begun.