Shaping Your Life After Graduation: A Guide for College Students

Many months ago I wrote a post that dealt with the question: does college have to be the best years of your life? I argue that it’s possible to continue “the best years of your life” into your 20s, 30s, and beyond by choosing a career that you truly enjoy and gives you your ideal work/life balance. Today I’m going to deal with a second factor that is crucial to forming your ideal lifestyle after college. That factor is none other than where you live. It sounds simple enough, but I find that most college students don’t put as much emphasis on this as they should. However, just because I’m targeting this article at college students, doesn’t mean others can’t benefit from this advice as well.

What I want to explore in this blog post is the importance of planning where you want to live after you graduate. I will argue that where you choose to live and start a career will lay the groundwork for your continued development through your 20s and beyond. Considering that this blog is dedicated to helping you build your ideal lifestyle, I will introduce the concept of location-centric thinking and provide you with steps to integrate this way of thinking into your post-graduation plans. Following that, I will describe how this concept may work in real life, which will aid in bringing this idea from a high-level theory to a practical means to shaping your lifestyle.

Your Environment Shapes You

Students begin looking at colleges long before high school graduation. This is understandable because the college you choose to go to will be a huge factor in how you develop academically, professionally, and as a person. College is the environment that shapes you for four years. I’ll be the first to admit that my school (Binghamton University) has had a strong influence on who I am today. The teachers that I interacted with, the friends that I made, the groups I associated myself with, and the leadership roles I took on all played a part. I sometimes wonder who I would’ve become without these influences. What if I had stayed home and commuted to a local college every day? Would I have the same level of independence and willingness to take risks? I’ll never know for sure, but it’s likely that I wouldn’t. The culture at Binghamton really helped me come out of my shell. In fact, this blog probably wouldn’t even exist right now had it not been for one particular professor I took a class with in the first semester of my Junior year.

Where you decide to live has a similar and just as significant impact on how you continue to grow. For starters, it directly affects your social life and your exposure to arts, culture, and recreation. I guarantee that your social and recreational life will be very different if you choose to live in Alaska over Miami. Cities and towns all have their unique set of characteristics that include: liberal, conservative, artsy, sleepy, 24/7, youthful, environmentally conscious, diverse, and so on. These characteristics of your environment will shape how you express yourself. Sound familiar? Whether it’s a college or a city, your environment plays a role in shaping you.

High school students give themselves approximately a year to explore colleges, visit campuses, and diligently fill out applications and essays. Considering that choosing a place to live and work influences you in the same manner that college does, deciding where you want to live after graduation should receive the same, if not more, attention. If we understand how important college is in shaping our future, why is it so much less common for students to think about their ideal location to live and work after college? Although I have no nationwide figures to back up this claim, I receive a steady stream of anecdotal evidence when I speak with graduating seniors and people in their early 20s. A few of my friends who have recently graduated confessed that they didn’t think too much about where they were going to live until a few months before the big day. Because they didn’t plan ahead, the deciding factor by default, of course, was living where they could find a job, usually near home.

Happiness is at Stake

I strongly believe that where you live has a key role in determining your level of happiness. Why, you ask? Because WHERE you live influences HOW you live. How you live will, of course, affect how much you enjoy life. A lifelong surfer will inevitably feel that part of him stifled living in northern Canada. An art lover will undoubtedly be happier in an area that has lots of museums, exhibits, and a thriving art community.

By realizing that where you choose to live plays a huge role in how your life plays out, centering our post-graduation decisions on location will add a whole new dimension in picking a suitable path that is enjoyable to you. Welcome to location-centric thinking.

Location vs. Career

But if location-centric thinking uses location as the central factor for your post-graduation plans, how do we weigh this against career, especially when they conflict?

Let’s say that you’re a marketing major and have found a job at a small ad agency in Oklahoma. You don’t particularly care for the area it’s located in, but you love marketing more than anything in the world, and you know that this agency is reputable and will help you grow professionally. And because of the crappy job market in this economy, you were unable to find a marketing job in your dream city of Seattle. How do you reconcile this?

Normally, choosing a decent job in a city you don’t like isn’t a decision you will particularly enjoy. However, choosing your dream job in a city you don’t like is a different story. In this example, the passion you have for this opportunity overrides the location. Considering that your job is your “location” for 40+ hours a week, your career inevitably feeds into location-centric thinking. If you feel that your passion and enjoyment of those 40+ hours at work will yield you more happiness than a 40 hour workweek at a so-so job in your dream city of Seattle, then pursue the job. The key here is to choose the path that will make you most happy. And I’m not talking about superficially happy, with more money and a nice car. I’m talking about the kind of happiness that makes you excited to wake up every morning and live life.

But if you’re like me, you aren’t in the position to say that you know exactly what you want to do in life. I happen to be a marketing major, but I’m not 100% sure which area of marketing I will enjoy the best. Going back to the college analogy, in the same way that you can attend dozens of different universities to receive a marketing degree, you can “attend” dozens of different cities to find a marketing job. Why not focus on finding a city that you truly enjoy?

This is why the “real world” supposedly sucks. People who let their career (that they probably aren’t truly passionate about) determine where they live often find that they don’t enjoy the “real world”. It’s hard to enjoy the area you live in when you’re only there because that’s where a job was.

It’s worth noting that quite a few people end up falling in love with a city they move to solely for a job. But there is no guarantee that this will happen for everybody. Why let this decision be a crapshoot? Planning ahead and doing your research will only help.

Let’s Keep Things Real

As I like to say, it’s easy for me to stand on my soap box and tell you to only live in your ideal city, find a job that you’re passionate about, and so on. This is MUCH easier said than done. Considering how both college loans and the economy factor into our ability to get moving after graduation, you sometimes may need to take a year or two to establish yourself professionally and financially, and then you can pursue everything above.

Like I said in my original post about post-graduation lifestyle: “As long as you are on the path to a career you will love to do, you’re on the right path.” So it’s okay to take that less than ideal job for a few years so that you can get your feet firmly planted.

But be sure not to delude yourself; many people stick with a job they took to help them get on their feet after college because they are afraid to let go of the job security. Robert Anthony was quoted saying: “most people would rather be certain they’re miserable, than risk being happy.” Don’t let fear of taking the plunge prevent you from pursuing an enjoyable life. Perhaps Ben Franklin said it best what he said: “The Constitution only guarantees the American people the right to pursue happiness.  You have to catch it yourself.”

So now that I’ve dealt out a reality check, let’s get to the action plan.

How to make it happen:

1)      Know thyself. Make a detailed list of what you would want your ideal town or city to have. A liberal culture? Waterskiing? Dozens of bars and clubs? Cheap real estate? The sky is the limit here. Be honest with yourself. can be useful in giving you a jump start with finding a city that matches your desired lifestyle. I would spend at least a few days mulling over this list and refining it.

2)      Failing to plan is planning to fail. Give yourself time to read up on the culture, recreation, and attractions of various cities around the country (or even around the world). A simple Google search will yield websites and guides that will help you learn about any area you want. Based on my experiences with researching towns and cities, this process might take you anywhere from a week to a few months. Take diligent notes on cities that interest you!

3)      Get moving. In the same way that rising high school seniors visit a select few colleges after researching many different schools, try and find the time to take a trip to your particular cities of interest. You never know when you will fall in love with a city that didn’t look like your #1 pick on paper. It isn’t always possible to visit every area you’re interested in, but do your best to save up for a trip to your top 2 or 3. There are cheap modes of travel for getting around the U.S. if you’re on a budget. I’m pretty fond of Bolt Bus for travel between NYC, Boston, and Philly. See what’s available in your area.

Note: Be prepared with attractions to visit and areas to explore because cities can often be overwhelming if you don’t know where you’re going or what you’re doing.

4)      Keep it realistic. If you realize that your current savings don’t allow you to start fresh in your ideal location, consider the following options:

a.       Get a job locally and live at home for a year or two to save up money as you work.

b.      If your 1st choice city is very expensive (Honolulu or NYC), what about your 2nd or 3rd choice? If your second choice costs 50% less than your first choice, consider the pros and cons for moving there instead.

Good luck on your journey. I hope that location-centric thinking has introduced a new element into your formula for a happy life after graduation. If you know a college or graduate student who may benefit from this, please pass it along to them! They’ll thank you.

Update (1/13/2011): I have recently discovered, which is an amazing resource for anyone seeking to move to NYC, Boston, Seattle, or any other major U.S. city and is looking to find the right neighborhood. The “NabeFinder” tool is invaluable for matching your preferences with different neighborhoods. Enjoy!

About Jon Guerrera

I'm Jon Guerrera, a life hacker at heart and the man behind the scenes here at Living For Improvement. This blog documents all of my successes, failures, and lessons learned as I experiment with finding happiness and fulfillment. I also wrote an e-book. If you like what I write on the blog, you can grab a free copy by subscribing.