What Should I do After Graduation?

Ask Gary

I would really appreciate your help with a question. I’m graduating from high school this year and trying to figure out what I should do.

When reading about your background, I noticed that you have a degree in Mechanical Engineering. I have been accepted to a University for that very program. I’m going into engineering because of the many doors it opens and for the money but I don’t feel optimistic about it. I think I would prefer to do a skilled trade. I’m afraid I will get stuck doing a monotonous job if I don’t go to University however.

You said that you had a miserable career because you went into engineering? I would value your opinion on this: Should I get a degree in engineering? How does it affect your life in terms of relationships, etc.? I’m really worried – I don’t want to lead myself down a path of misery.

Thank you, Alex

Dear Alex with a Future,

I didn’t have a miserable career experience because I studied engineering. I’m not sure how that got interpreted. Engineering is an education that has served me very well in many ways. It was a conglomeration of things that created my misery at that time in my life. The biggest factor was that I was unaware of the world of emotions and beliefs that I was living in my mind.

The second biggest factor was working 80-100 hours a week at something that I wasn’t enjoying any more. I enjoyed it for a number of years, loved the challenges, and the action. (Ran nuclear power plants and drove an aircraft carrier) But not having balance or time to do things that I enjoyed eventually left me drained and unfulfilled. (I should note that I didn’t have time to discover what things I enjoyed.)

At the time I didn’t understand the importance of putting my happiness as a priority. I had just assumed that if I was successful, and in the “right” relationship, then I would be happy as a consequence. This was a set up for a big disillusionment.

“Should I get a degree in engineering?”

Expecting someone to answer this question is disrespectful to your self. You are the only one that is responsible for the decisions you make. Other people are not. You will live with the consequences of your choices. No one else will. Make the decision for your self and not because someone else says it is a good idea or not.

At the same time be aware of your inexperience at making such choices and take the time to consider what other experienced people have to say. They will have awareness and insights that you have not yet accumulated. This can be of great benefit. Always remember, in the end, it is your decision.

Planning for an Unknown Future

In working through a decision that involves such a long time frame, recognize that you can’t know the future. Therefore you can’t know if it is the “right” decision before you take action. Some roads you have to go down, explore and see if they work for you.

For this reason it is most important to give your self the freedom to change your direction later. Your comment, “I don’t want to lead myself down the path of misery,” sounds like it has assumptions based in fear of being trapped. That fear alone will paralyze you from taking any action. It also sounds as if you are not allowed to change your choice once you commit to it. This kind of mindset and inflexibility in your choices is what creates the feeling of being trapped.

What is an Education For?

My technical education has served me well and still does. I’m comfortable learning programming on my own website because of programming classes in college. One of the ways I see the structure of people’s belief systems is much like a mechanical engineering system. I see how different parts of the mind interact and trigger one another as if it were diagrammed in a schematic. In school I learned how to think in terms of inter-related systems. That skill helps me to understand things like emotional dynamics in relationships. It turns out that I learned a lot of skills in my engineering classes that could be used elsewhere.

Getting an education doesn’t mean you are limited to working in that field. One of my favorite jobs was in sales. I got to visit different customers and help them solve their problems. It was like learning a new puzzle and solving it every other day. The job was a sales job, but it was made easy because of my technical competence and experience in engineering. It was at that time I discovered the challenge of working with people and my interest piqued in that area. That is something that I couldn’t have known before and only found through discovery and exploration from technical sales.

If you think of an education or degree as something that locks you into a career for the rest of your life, then you will feel trapped, and sabotage the opportunity.

But what happens if you see education as preparation for a journey into unknown worlds ahead? Twenty years ago there wasn’t an internet, and only a few people worked in computers. You don’t know what new fields of business and science will emerge in the next 20 or 40 years. No one does. The most prepared for success may very well be the most flexible and creative minds. How will you prepare your mind in this adventure of life?

How can you best prepare your self to adapt to a changing world? This is what an education is for. The goal of an education is not to limit you into one small area defined by a degree. One of the goals of an education is to make you more prepared and more adaptable to any area of life.

Consider these two scenarios in terms of flexibility, opportunity, and choices. If you get a college degree, how easily can you transition into a trade. If you go into a trade, how easy is it to transition into management, or engineering later?

You have choices

You can’t know if something isn’t good for you until you check it out. At 18 I chose mechanical engineering as a major even though I wasn’t even sure what mechanical engineers did. I just wanted to know how things worked. I couldn’t have understood what I was getting into until I got into it.

It is only once you have experience that you can make an informed choice. The irony is that you can’t get that experience until you make uninformed choices. That informed choice may very well be to get out and find a different path. But at least at that point it is an informed choice. That’s what happened for me in the military, and in a couple other pursuits. I got excited and got going on something and when I learned more about it, I decided it wasn’t for me. With each new experience I was able to make better choices. You can’t predict the future. You can’t know what will be most fulfilling for you in your life and what won’t. That’s one of the exciting parts of discovery in this adventure. See the Dan Gilbert video about people’s expectations on happiness for more on this point.

What should I do after I Graduate?

Some people approach questions like this as if they can know the “right” answer before they explore the experience. This comes from too much pattered book learning. Too many times our mind has been patterned with the scenario that there is only one right answer, and it has already been defined before we make a choice. It drives the feeling to check the answer guide in the back or confirm our feelings with an expert to ensure we make the “right” choice. This isn’t my experience when it comes to making choices about the future. And when I think about it, choices that affect the future are the only kind there are.

Trial and Error – Discovery and Exploration

So much of the journey in life is trial and error. But that approach only looks acceptable if you remember that you have the right to change your choice. Your awareness that you have a choice, and that you can change it, will give you a sense of freedom, and power. Not to be aware of these opportunities will leave you feeling trapped, powerless, and helpless in any choice you make.

If you don’t like the term “trial and error” because the voice in your head generates too much fear of failure, then you can think of it as discovery and exploration.

Increase your Awareness by being Grateful

Be grateful for the opportunities that you have. Be really grateful. I pretty much enjoyed my service in the military with the exception of the last few months. In the end it wasn’t really bad, I was just tired. I was ready for change and I wanted a different path. The problem was that in the military I just couldn’t give them 2 weeks notice and leave. I had a several months left, and considering the consequences, no real choice about it. That was a situation of not really having choices and being somewhat trapped.

About half the world population lives on less than 2 dollars a day. They have a lot fewer choices. Many days they don’t have a choice of what to eat, or if they will eat.

If you practice being grateful for the choices you have you will be more aware of your power to make choices. That awareness will give you a sense of freedom, and allow you to see opportunities that others don’t. The less grateful you are, the less awareness you will have of your choices. With less awareness of your choices you are more likely to feel trapped and powerless. Practicing gratitude and appreciation for the choices you have will help you stay in touch with that source of power.

As a reference to making better decisions I suggest reading Source’s of Power by Gary Klein. He has awareness and insight into how the mind really makes decisions. In Klein’s book The Power of Intuition he provides several practical techniques for improving your decision making process. It’s not going to be much help in the “What should I do after Graduation” type question, but you will be making many more decisions in your life. You might as well be aware of how your mind does that so you can improve the process.


For a practical guided meditation in Gratitude listen to the first free session of the Self Mastery Introductory Course.