How to survive in the “real world”

A crash course for seniors graduating in a few weeks.

Eric Murphy

In three weeks, graduating seniors will finally have to face the real world. For those who haven’t spent the last four (or more) years preparing for this eventuality — and I assume that’s most of us — it’s time for a cram session about what you need to know to survive the wilderness of the adult world.

First things first: the real world I’m talking about consists of more than getting a job; what I mean by the real world is simply everyday adult life. Higher education might prepare us for a job, but its most important role is to prepare us for the job of being a human and citizen, to be able to navigate and make decisions in boring, everyday life.

There are many decisions one must make in this mysterious “real world,” from big ones, like where to live and whether and when to start a family, to small ones, like whether to acknowledge the man asking for change on the street or start a conversation with someone who looks uncomfortable in a social situation. We tend to think educated people are better equipped to make decisions, but in some ways they may actually be at a disadvantage.

As college graduates, we have been thoroughly and constantly validated and praised by the American education system, our relatives and even President Barack Obama. Supposedly, we are the “best and the brightest.” And indeed, we should be proud of our accomplishments. But there is danger in constantly being stamped with approval.

Social science and cognitive research shows that in the decision-making process, most reasoning is done after the fact: We come to a conclusion and then reason in reverse to justify that conclusion. In other words, reason doesn’t help  us make decisions, it helps us explain them to ourselves and others.

This means that “smarter” people don’t necessarily make better decisions; instead, they just are better at convincing themselves that whatever decision they want to make on a gut level is the right one.

Compounding this problem of “smart” people being better at justifying their actions is their sky-high confidence in themselves. Most of us graduating in a few weeks have been repeatedly told we are among the best. Standardized tests starting in fourth grade; Advanced Placement and Post-Secondary Education Opportunity classes; honors societies; the high school GPAs, ACT and SAT scores that got us into college; and our college grades (which, let’s be honest, have been signifcantly affected by grade inflation), are all ways in which we have repeatedly been stamped with approval. In fact, we have officially and authoritatively been labeled as “better” than those who don’t have these statistics or honors.

So not only are we college graduates better at telling ourselves we are good and smart and correct, but the education system is constantly reinforcing that belief. It’s tough for all of that not to go to someone’s head.

And people who have done a thorough job of convincing themselves that they are good and smart and correct are far more likely to think the rules don’t apply to them. After all, if they are the “good guys,” they are incapable of doing evil, and besides, they must be smarter than whoever came up with the rules.

This hubristic attitude has been responsible for some of the most disastrous decisions in the last decade. It’s the story of both the invasion of Iraq and the 2008 Wall Street collapse. Extremely smart people who had been validated in every possible way — going to the best schools, graduating at the top of their classes, having powerful and high-paying jobs — were extremely good at convincing themselves that they were the “good guys” doing the right things and unable to make mistakes. The result is thousands of dead Americans, hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and a massive collapse of the American economy that caused and is still causing profound misery for millions. Humility matters.

On top of these common decision-making errors by people who are labeled “elite,” everyone tends to look for evidence that confirms the beliefs we already hold; that proves we are, indeed, as right and smart as we like to think and have been told we are.

Society has told us college graduates a story about ourselves in which we, the heroes, have cleared the highest of bars by virtue of our brilliant intelligence and exceptional merit. But a strong mind is not the same as a fair one, and an intellect is not the same as intellectual honesty.

To break the illusion of ourselves we’ve been handed, we need modesty and others to give us a clear perspective.  Sometimes we can be jolted out of our assumptions when someone else presents us with a previously unheard point of view. The challenge that a higher education helps us meet is the ability to jolt ourselves out of these assumptions on our own. To correct for our biases, we need to acknowledge that we are one imperfect voice among many.

If there is anything you should take from college to help you survive in the real world, it is a profound sense of humility and honesty. Read and listen widely, and from a variety of voices, especially marginalized and dissenting ones. Remind yourself of your fallibility, be skeptical of yourself, and try to be aware of your biases and blind spots. Doing so will help you think, decide, survive and enjoy life better out there in the real world.


Eric Murphy welcomes comments at [email protected]