I graduated from Wheaton College 10 years ago this month. This Friday, I’ll be attending commencement ceremonies at Biola University, where I’ve had the pleasure of working for nearly seven years. I’ll be cheering on a dozen or so students who I’ve mentored, taught, employed or befriended; students who will be walking across the stage to receive their diplomas, much as I did when I was their age, a decade ago.
As I’ve reflected on how I have changed and what I have learned in the ten years since I graduated college as an undergrad, a few things come to mind. The following are some of the big learnings and key realizations I’ve come to, some sooner and some later, since May 2005. Perhaps the Class of 2015 can file these away as they set out on their post-college journeys:
1) 22-year-olds don’t have it all figured out
Perhaps the most universal and, in some sense, admirable quality of college graduates at the “prime” of their intellectual enrichment (or so they think) is a certain intellectual confidence and epistemological hubris. Though many of them look back on their cocksure freshmen selves with derision and shame, the ironic thing is they have adopted the posture again by the time they graduate, just in a different way. Graduating seniors feel “enlightened” to have grown out of many of the views of their upbringing; they see themselves as having mature, nuanced and authoritative perspectives on everything from politics to gender to Calvinism (especially Christian college graduates). But the truth is, you only know so much at 22. Some of the things I wrote and blogged about in my early twenties were far too sure of themselves. With age comes the development of a beautiful thing called intellectual humility, which opens up conversations and connections which might otherwise be closed off. The more one lives, the more one sees that wisdom is more dependent on curiosity than confidence.
2) Cynicism is mostly a waste of time
It happened to me and I see it happen to many (the majority?) of today’s Christian college undergrads: A slow, steady bubbling up of cynicism over the course of the four years from the wide-eyed summer camp frivolity of orientation week to the “I’m over it” jadedness of senior year. It’s a cynicism that arises from, among other things, the disconnect one feels between the “bubble” surreality of Christian college and the harsh realities of real life. It arises from a (healthy) questioning of ideas we assume and systems we take for granted. But when questioning (with the constructive pursuit of truth in mind) gives way to cynicism (an “I’m better than” disposition that relishes deconstruction) it becomes a problem. Trust me, get over cynicism as quickly as you can after you graduate. The world will open up to you, and with it beauty, truth and goodness, when you put cynicism aside and allow yourself to be vulnerable and teachable and curious. Plus, only other cynical people enjoy being around cynical people. So for the sake of winning friends and influencing people, put the cynical snark behind you, along with the other “childish things” Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 13.
3) It’s good to embrace discomfort
This is a lifetime struggle for most of us, but one of the most crucial truisms of life. We only grow by stepping outside of our comfort zones. College is in some sense about discomfort: learning and living in community with people who are very different; having ideas and assumptions challenged; feeling isolated from the familiar. And those are wonderful things. But once you graduate from college it can be easy to find a community that is just like you, surrounded by only the ideas you hold, and just stay there the rest of your life. While I would suggest that the first few months or even year after graduation should be on the more “comfortable” side of of the spectrum, most of your life should be lived on the edge (or in the midst) of discomfort. When we push ourselves to do what is uncomfortable, to know the Other, to not cease in our explorations, great things happen.
4) Moderation is not weakness
Everything is done to the extreme when you are 22. That stage in life is often characterized by what I call “The Pendulum Problem,” a propensity to react so extremely to one position (usually something one grew up believing) that the new position is just as problematic in the other direction. This extremism is fueled by youthful energy and “radical” passion, yet most of the time it leads nowhere. True growth, substantive change, comes when we see that balance is not compromise and moderation is not weakness. The world is always going to be more complicated and nuanced than our best efforts to understand it. Whether it be politics, theology, or consumption of culture (see my book Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty), embracing the beauty of moderation will bear much fruit.
5) Sticking with a local church is worth it
“[Do] not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some…” (Heb. 10:25). Let’s face it: One of the easiest things to neglect in college and especially after college is getting involved in a local church. Whether because it’s a hassle, the people are weird, the preacher isn’t compelling or it just feels like a vestige of times past, church is often a casualty of twentysomething life. But nothing has grown me, sustained me, and challenged me in healthy ways over the last decade more than my commitment to the local church. Beyond the community and accountability it offers (no small things), church provides a necessary big-picture reality check and rhythm that molds and shapes me in a consistent way, week after week, when so much else in my life is in flux. Twentysomething flourishing depends on having at least some consistent priorities and “rocks in your planter,” as my pastor says. The Bride of Christ, inconvenient and uncomfortable as she may be, is a mighty good rock to build your life around.
6) Proximity is (almost) everything in relationships
After college, when friends disperse and communities split, the temptation can be to focus on maintaining friendships across great distances. With social media, skype and other such things, this sort of relational maintenance can be easy. And there’s nothing wrong with it. I’m glad I have maintained profound friendships with my closest college friends, even when I’ve been thousands of miles from them for a decade now. But one unchangeable reality about relationships, no matter what happens with our digital communication capabilities, is that physical proximity matters most. I met my wife because she worked in the same building as I did. The people who matter most for me now are those who I have regular, in-person contact with. They go to my church. They come over to my house. They work alongside me. Meanwhile, older friends have become less important over the years, simply because they live far from me and I only see them occasionally. This is something to simply accept, not lament. Friendships change. New people come into your life and shape you profoundly. Proximity is worth everything.
7) Connections matter more than concepts
I am an ideas guy. I love thinking. In the years after I graduated from college ten years ago, I was all about the thought life. I read and read and read, and wrote and wrote and wrote. It was fruitful, but much of it was solitary. I still debated concepts with others, but it was usually in blog comments sections or over social media; rarely was it over a coffee or a beer. Yet I have since come to see that ideas are valuable only insofar as they facilitate connection, in two senses: connection as in connecting the dots between isolated concepts (so crucial in our digitally fragmented age); and connection as in relationships with people. The more I live, the more I see just how important it is to prioritize people over principles; individuals over ideas. This isn’t to say we should compromise on convictions or forsake truth the minute it becomes a stumbling block in a relationship. I believe truth and love can coexist. What it does mean, or has meant in my life, is this: Time spent with my family and friends, with students and mentees (again: proximity!), should be a higher priority than time spent reading blogs, scrolling through Twitter or mulling over my Next Big Idea. The world has more disconnected ideas than it knows what to do with. The world could use more substantive connections and relational commitments.