College Graduation: From Traveling Station to Station to Navigating a Borderless Sea

David Brooks offers a metaphor for college graduation as a transition from traveling station to station to navigating a borderless sea. The same can be said for making the transition from employee to entrepreneur.

From Traveling Station-to-Station to Navigating the Borderless Sea

“When you’re a student, life is station to station. There’s always the next assignment, the next test. After college, there are no more stations. You’re thrown out into a borderless sea, expected to find your own career path, your own social tribe, your own beliefs, your own values, your own partners, your own viewpoints, your own identities. It takes a different set of navigational skills than you’ve ever had before to find the far-horizon goals you’ll orient your life to.

You’re at an inflection point of your life, and the hard part of an inflection point is that the skills required to get out of it are skills you do not yet possess. So you have to endure a meandering, wandering process between ages 22 and 28 that will change who you are. You have to build your boat after you’ve been launched out to sea.”

David Brooks in May 12 commencement address at Butler College

Making the transition from the episodic structure of college to the ongoing demands of the workplace–“building your boat after you’ve been launched out to sea” is similar to the challenge of the entrepreneur’s leap of faith that first requires the jump off the solid cliff of steady employment before you can build your wings on the way down. Bootstrappers can relate to Sterling Hayden’s suggestion that the only voyages worth taking are those where you have to scrounge for the means to continue as you wander.

“To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen who play with their boats at sea–“cruising” it is called. Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change. Only then will you know what the sea is all about.”
Sterling Hayden “Wanderer

You Have to Balance Inner-Directed and Outer-Directed Efforts

Picking a direction on the borderless sea“There are two common routes students take after graduation. The first is the aesthetic life. People who take this route figure they should have some fun before they settle into adulthood. This is a great way to start off adulthood. The problem comes … is that the person who takes an aesthetic approach to life is concentrating of having a series of fun experiences but is not thinking about the grand project his or her life is building toward. It’s a timeless truth that if you live life as a series of serial adventures, if you spend your life keeping your options open and not really committing to any one thing, you’ll find yourself leading an impotent, fragmented life. Life will be a serious of temporary moments, not an accumulating flow of accomplishments. You’ll waste your powers, scattering them in all directions.”

David Brooks in May 12 commencement address at Butler College

I think this is the real test you confront upon graduation. It’s quickly apparent that it’s not longer enough to be someone with high potential or juggling many options. You have to commit and with commitment comes the loss of options and the real possibility of failure. Of course it’s only in failing that many important lessons can be learned. I think this is why A students and others who have excelled in academic settings can find entrepreneurship so difficult. Failure is unavoidable–even on the path to success–and the level of not only uncertainty but ambiguity is an order of magnitude or more higher.

“The second group of emerging adults confront a borderless sea and they figure they should treat the real world just as a continuation of school. As students, they were good at getting into places, so they try to get admitted into companies that have prestigious brand names. […]

Suddenly, your conversations consist mostly in describing how busy you are. [..] And workaholism is a surprisingly effective distraction from any emotional and spiritual problem. Pretty soon you’re suffering from acedia. Acedia is an old-fashioned word for the quieting of desire. It’s a lack of care. It’s living the sort of life that doesn’t arouse your strong passions and instills a sort of sluggishness of the soul. Your heart is over here, but your life is over there.

If you do this, you’ll look around and you’ll start asking yourself, “What is my life for?” You’ll get depressed because you don’t know what your purpose is. You’ll doubt your own abilities. You’ll feel like you’re wasting your precious time. Other people are thriving but you’re stuck. You lose track of who you really are. As Lily Tomlin put it, “When I was young, I always wanted to be somebody. Now I know I should have been more specific.”

David Brooks in May 12 commencement address at Butler College

Entrepreneurs can also succumb to pointless workaholism–avoiding the discipline of prioritizing their efforts and simply working all hours to avoid self-reflection. But corporate careers encourage it and in a different way foster the atrophy of key skills that form the basis for entrepreneurial success: sales, negotiation, the fortitude to persevere as an outlier or someone who violates one or two pieces of conventional wisdom (of course you only succeed if the conventional wisdom turns out the be incorrect in the area that you are ignoring it).

Climbing Out of a Ditch

Navigating the Borderless SeaAnd so each of these two ways end up in the ditch. Recovering from that ditch period you’re gonna go through is not like recovering from a disease. People don’t come out healed. They come out different. The poet Ted Hughes observed that the things that are worst to undergo are the best to remember, because in those moments, the protective shells are taken off, humility is achieved, and finally, you can really be loved.

You come to see that the question that leads to happiness is, “How can I give myself away? What job or person or community or faith or cause can I pour myself into so thoroughly I’m no longer thinking about myself?”

Nietzsche had some good advice about this, how to find your vocation. Make a list of the four times you’ve been genuinely happy and then see if you can draw a line through those four things. That’s where your deep gladness is. Finding out what really motivates you is not like buying a car. It’s not a decision. It’s about listening to your own life, understanding your own desire. What do you do when nobody is telling you what to do? What do you read when nobody’s telling you what to read?

The second part of finding a vocation is finding a problem you love. Some problem in the world. A social problem would seem like something you hate. But when you look at people who found a vocation who have really found fulfilling lives, it’s more accurate to say they love a problem.

So the lesson is, go around looking for problems.

And so, if it was up to me and you only remembered one thing I said today, it would be this. Find a place where there used to be community but now there’s nothing. Fill the hole. Connect people. Patch it up.

David Brooks in May 12 commencement address at Butler College

Understanding your priorities and superpowers requires that you persevere through hardship and setbacks. Building a business requires that you build on your strengths and find partners who share your values and complement your weaknesses. It also requires you to find a customer set you want to serve and a problem set you are willing to work on for years and bring initially some proficiency and ultimately some expertise to solving.

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“Boat Helm” and “Vintage Compass Rose” images licensed; © Claudia Mora

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