Advice #57: Should I Risk Everything Post-College or Play It Safe With My Career?

Nubby Twiglet | Should I Risk Everything Post-College or Play It Safe With My Career?

Dear Shauna, 

I grew up with an artistic passion of my own: fashion and design. I had dreams of attending Parsons in NYC but when I sought out my more creative inclinations for college, I was pushed into a more “practical career path”.

Flash forward: I’m two months away from graduating with my Mechanical Engineering degree and I recently turned down a job offer at a competitive engineering firm. My parents are literally about to have a heart attack.

While I have felt this burning passion and conviction to pursue my dreams of marinating engineering, fashion, and design by starting my own company, I’ve never felt more lost in my life. I know my purpose. I know the end goal. But I have spent the past four years conforming to what society has deemed as the “right way” for me to learn and cultivate myself as an individual and have not had the opportunity to do what I love: design and create. I’m tired of sitting back and waiting for the life I want– I want to take it now.

I’ve struggled with the thought that if I had dropped out of school to pursue one of my business ideas, I would be doing what I loved and would be ten times happier, wealthier, and living the life I always dreamed. Do I shoot big and go for the start-up immediately, or do I pursue a regular job now, do some freelance work on the side for exposure and develop my business at night? My dad loves the latter option. I on the other hand believe that every moment I am not pursuing my dreams is not a valuable way for me to spend my time. But, I do have loans and I got to put food on the table.

What I wanted to ask you is do you think the path you took is required for me to enter this industry? And, how were you able to differentiate between being young and naive and taking a calculated risk that’s in line with your passions?


Dear Lost,

Your creative energy and passion oozes through every single word of your letter. You’ve got drive in spades and though they don’t often mention it in school, your go-getter attitude will play a huge part in creating a successful career because you’ll be less fazed by the inevitable “no’s” and slammed doors. But let’s slow down for a second and remind ourselves that creating a new business from scratch is not a walk in the park. Nobody wants to share their daily letdowns on Instagram but the first year is by far the hardest so you have to be mentally ready for it.

Focus on the here and now. I hate to sound like one of your parents but here it goes: most people in this economy would kill to have a job offer on the table before they’ve even finished their degree. You mentioned having a lot of loans and needing to put food on the table so having a surefire way to get the money flowing post-college is a huge blessing. I’m no trying to make you feel guilty but instead reminding you that there may be a silver lining here if you look at it in a different light.

Hear me out: I don’t think you that should spend the rest of your life focusing on mechanical engineering if that’s not where your passion is at. Sticking with a path just to make your parents happy and keep up appearances will slowly kill you inside. If you don’t feel that burning in your gut to make mechanical engineering your career long-term, just use it now as an immediate means to an end.

Set a six month goal of sticking with this job to pay down your debts and get a savings account started to fund your true passions. Once that time is up, if you still feel full of misery, leave immediately to do what you’re meant to do. You’ll still be way ahead of the game because you’ll have solid job experience and referrals on your resume if you ever need it to fall back on (I doubt you will but it is always responsible to have a backup plan). More importantly, your finances will be in a much better spot. Remember, if you have no cushion and can’t make ends meet, it may become too stressful to even get the creative juices flowing for your new business.

Use your nights and weekends during those six months to plot and map out these brilliant business ideas you have brewing. Sketch out all your plans so that as soon as your time is up, you can immediately transition to your self-created dream job.

Giving yourself a set amount of time to launch your business can do wonders. Instead of feeling completely manic about launching your business right away, you can take the time to nail the branding, messaging and website. Your potential clients have short attention spans and you only have that one chance to make a first impression — make sure to get your branding and offerings right the first time.

My path to running my own businesses was very convoluted and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for anyone else. I am glad that I got a lot of real world experience in different jobs I didn’t like because I appreciate where I’m at a whole lot more now. In hindsight, I could have easily cut out years of general education classes, went straight into a design program five years earlier and became a designer much sooner. Things have changed a lot since then — there are so many ways to gain new skills including Skillshare and internships and it’s all about finding that right fit.

To learn everything you need to know, you might just need to knock on the right doors and find the right mentors. Or, you may feel more prepared with some specialized schooling (my design program was only 2 years, based at a community college and by far the best investment I ever made). If you’re a really quick learner, enroll in some continuing education classes at your local design school to brush up on the basics.

To answer the other part of your question, I didn’t let go of all outside employment until I was absolutely positive I could make it on my own. I believe in taking chances but never risk so much that you’re gambling away your entire livelihood. I probably held on for far too long but once I let go, I was as free as a bird. I had no regrets. We all have different comfort zones so that’s why it might only take you six months or less to make magic happen, whereas it took me five years from the time I graduated to become 100% self-supporting.

It’s great to have the passion you do but the thing to remember is that passion doesn’t alway lead to paying the bills. I think you’ll feel better (and your parents will be less freaked out) if you show them that yes, you have what it takes to launch your own ventures but more importantly, that you have a solid plan to back it all up. You have everything you need to create the life and career you want. The passion, intelligence and drive are all there. With a little more planning, you’ll be unstoppable. Good luck!

Image: Made U Look Photography.

12 Responses to Advice #57: Should I Risk Everything Post-College or Play It Safe With My Career?

  1. Rachel says:

    Wow this could not be a more perfectly planned post for my life. I graduated college two years ago and started my own freelance business a year ago after being laid off and this has been the hardest year of my life.

    Your tips about finding a mentor and taking classes are great. Things I really need to think about.

    Man I could sure use that savings account though 😉


    • Shauna says:

      Rachel: Good for you for going out on your own and giving it all you got! It’s hard, so hard. But each day is a learning opportunity. Hang in there, you’re going to be just fine!

  2. Wei-Wei says:

    This is amazing to read. I’m in exactly the same spot except I’m only in my first year of university, and already looking for a way out.

    I really appreciate the advice that you’ve given, Shauna! My plan currently is to do exactly as you’ve suggested — keep going, but slowly build my dream on the side, and when the moment comes, work at it with full force. There have been many conversations where I’ve just exasperatedly exclaimed, “But I don’t LIKE what I’m doing! And every second I waste doing it is a second I could be learning and working what I do like!”

    To the letter-writer: I would love nothing more than to speak with you personally; I identify with you so much, it’s a little scary.

    • Shauna says:

      Wei-Wei: Your situation might be slightly different if you’re just one year into your program. The original writer was only two months from graduation and had a job offer so in her case, it made sense to finish but you may have time to make the move you want. Sounds like you’re giving it a lot of thought which is great — I love a good planner!

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  4. Kate says:

    Top advice Shauna. I agree that Lost’s passion shines through in every word and that is going to be key in getting them to where they want to be.

    If it helps, I kind of did something similar although it was years after college which I would like to share.

    While working in a steady IT job that paid well (but which I hated and killed me inside) I had a lightbulb moment – I wanted to be a writer. I enrolled on a part-time journalism course, went down to four days a week at work (so I could pay the bills) and dedicated every Saturday and Monday for a year doing the course and getting valuable work experience along with working for free using vacation time. I wanted to quit my job on the spot as I despised it so much and do a full-time course but I realised this wasn’t sensible with bills and a mortgage to pay. Doing the part-time course and staying working was the best decision I made – similar to you taking the job out of college and using it as an immediate means to an end while you work on your other plans. The year I spent doing the course made my old job more bearable in a strange way – I think because I knew there was light at the end of the tunnel and I was working towards a real goal. With lots of hard work (and working for free) I landed a job at a place I did two weeks of work experience shortly after the course finished. The rest is history but I agree with Shauna – money worries will just pile on the pressure, so to have that taken care of with the mechanical engineering job while you develop what you want to do, is a huge help.
    Sorry I got a bit carried away there! I hope that helps anyway.
    Kate x

    • Shauna says:

      Kate: You sound extremely level-headed and I love how you planned your approach and it completely paid off! Your story will be an inspiration for many contemplating the same move. It’s a reminder that we don’t always have to take an all or nothing approach!

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