Three pieces of advice for college freshmen

Two pieces of advice that got me through undergrad, graduate school, and my first two years post-grad…plus one thing I keep learning every day

This week, I had the opportunity to speak to a class of college freshmen at my alma mater, St. Bonaventure University. Normally, I can gauge whether or not a classroom actually gives a shit but having to speak via Zoom really puts a damper on the “Gives A Shit” meter.

            Regardless, I rambled for a bit, covering my experience in the book publishing industry and my journey from where they are now—a journalism 101 classroom—to rebranding and building a niche regional book publisher into a multi-imprint, globally focused company. Then, I discussed my decision to leave the company. I thought, at that point, it would be good to change the conversation from “Intro to the Book Industry” to “Make Yourself Prepared 101.” So, the last third of my talk was a careful balance between practical advice and what probably seemed like dreamy platitudes.

            Anytime I give a talk, I take time after to reflect on my words. For me, it’s about honing my speaking skills…and ultimately the anxiety that makes me run things over 15 times in my head before letting it go. These students, who mostly stared blankly at me from the seat I sat in seven years ago, likely didn’t care about the book industry—or they weren’t sure what they cared about yet anyway. So it was important for me to impart something else. The advice I gave boiled down to these three things:

  1. Take the Opportunity

Teach yourself the thing. Get involved with as much as you can. And use the word “no” sparingly when a learning opportunity is presented to you.*

When I was a freshman, I learned Adobe InDesign because I said yes to an editor position on the board of the campus newspaper. I could’ve been intimated as a first-semester freshman. But they offered me the job, so I took it. I taught myself InDesign during late nights in the newsroom, and within a couple months I had purchased the newest version for my personal laptop so that I could continue to learn the program—and learn the most up-to-date version—in my spare time.

Three years later, when I was a junior, a mentor and professor of mine needed a book designer for his historical foundation’s book series. He knew my skills and tapped me to take over. That opportunity helped me shift focus from my goal of becoming a New York Times political journalist to book publishing professional. (I hadn’t yet worked out exactly what kind of role I wanted in the industry, but ya gotta start somewhere, right?)

Eventually I figured out where in the industry I wanted to be, and I got there in record time because I said yes to opportunities. If I had been too timid to step up as an editor the first week of my freshman year (the imposter syndrome is still running through my veins), I wouldn’t have had the design skills honed enough to be in a professional book designer position before graduation college. Then, I wouldn’t have been introduced to the book industry as a professional option, and I wouldn’t have pivoted my career at the time I did.  

*Disclaimer: There are indeed many times to say no. (See the next section for more on that) Briefly, these times include when you’ve already accepted work that would make it impossible to complete this new opportunity (either because of time or ethics); work-life balance; and the all-important mental health meter. This is not an all-inclusive list

2. Develop the Tools

Time management. Effective planning. Networking. All great buzz words. The kind of shit that makes a group of 101 students roll their eyes and look at you like you’re another bullshit adult. (I’m not even sure I’m a regular adult, so I’m definitely not a bullshit adult.)

The problem here is that these buzz words mean something. Or at least they should. But each young person needs to figure out what they mean to them individually, and how to incorporate the necessary values these bring into their lives. I truly believe that having a tool belt of skills like these make a huge difference in the success of students in and out of the classroom.

Out of all the skills my college advisor pushed me to hone, effective time management was the most important. He instructed me to time myself, to figure out the exact amount of time it took to write an article for the paper, craft a good email, and even make a simple breakfast in the morning. Before I knew it, I had accomplished more in a day than some of my peers did all week. “I don’t know how you have the time to fit all this in!” people exclaimed during my junior year when I was taking 18 for-credit classes, auditing another 3-credit class, managing the newspaper as editor in chief, working two internships, and holding down that freelance book design gig. I learned early to understand how to use my time effectively. It’s still the most precious asset I have.

Now, effective time management is more important than ever. Knowing how much time a blog post takes to write helps me plan what I can realistically get done between my scheduled walk and dinner plans with my partner. It helps me set goals I can meet, which keeps my mental health in check. (Because going through week after week with unmet goals really does screw with your self worth.) It also helps me say no to opportunities that aren’t in line with my goals and know when to find time (i.e. nix another activity or project) because a new opportunity really does need to replace it—even if only temporarily. I can evaluate the opportunities that come to me in concert with my goals because I mastered the art of taking the opportunity AND spent the time to develop my tools.

3. Things change. That’s okay.

Actually, it’s better than okay. It’s great. When something changes, it means there is opportunity for growth. (There’s that O-Word again!) Besides, if you don’t change, you might as well be dead.

Reflecting on the most drastic change of my career thus far has given me a lot to ponder. I was terribly concerned that I was a failure. That I couldn’t possibly speak to a class about the book industry because I’m no longer in the industry full time.

But that doesn’t make my experience go away. So I spoke from that place in my mind and heart. And, perhaps most importantly, because things have changed for me so recently, because I survived the Summer From Hell and have pivoted my career for the second time in a large way, I was more able to speak to the uncertainty these students feel as first-semester college freshman, navigating a whole new place with new people during a global pandemic.

I’ve described my decision to leave the company as leaving me with a fog. That no clear path was available. The paths I’d always seen totally disappeared.

But what I learned through that process I could’ve learned no other way. I found parts of myself in the cracks of learning who I am not—and what I would not allow. Those layers cracked and peeled away, like a snake shedding its skin, and allowed the newness to shine through.

Even though I left the publishing house without a plan or a path, I wasn’t lost or “missing” a part of myself like I thought I was. I was creating a new piece by discovering the cracks in the image I created of myself—the image I wanted everyone to see.

So things changed, and that’s okay.

We all, on some level, strive for an airbrushed, picture-perfect life. But if our real, our truth is in the cracks, then a smooth surface isn’t just a façade. It’s a perfectly paved road to an inauthentic and meaningless life.


[Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash]

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