Lessons from My First Three Months as a Real Adult

As of five days ago, I have have been a real, proper adult for three months. That is, I’ve been working at my first real, full-time job for three months. In the years that led up to my graduation, I wondered what the switch from the academic life to the professional life would be like, and many of those wonderings have made their way onto this blog. So it’s only fair that I update you on how things have turned out so far.

Here are a few things I’ve noticed about adulthood so far, in no particular order.

1. Food is Expensive

You sort of take food for granted when you’re living at home. Even while I lived in my own apartment, I would still pop home fairly frequently and take advantage of a free meal and the opportunity to raid the pantry for things I needed. Plus, when you’re working, you don’t have nearly as much time to cook, so if you’re not careful, you end up eating out a lot. My first month or two here, I spent more on food than I did on rent. For context, I live alone in a city where rent is fairly expensive. Granted, for the first month I was in corporate housing with no kitchen, which meant that I had to eat out for nearly every meal, but that’s still a lot of damn money on food.

By the way, don’t believe the statistics about “average expenditure” on food. I’m not sure where they get those numbers, but as far as I can tell, they’re a load of crap.

2. Bills Aren’t as Bad as Everyone Says

People spend a lot of time whining and complaining about how many bills they have to pay*. They bitch and moan and put it off to the last minute, and then freak out and complain some more when their payment is overdue. But it’s really not that big a deal. First of all, many bills these days can be paid online, which makes bill-paying a non-event. I don’t do auto-payments, because I like to track my expenses, and because I don’t trust companies to pay themselves directly from my account or credit card. But even so, the most I have to do to pay a bill is log in, punch in my credit card number**, click submit, and go about my day. It usually takes a grand total of two minutes, and then I can go back to playing Legend of Zelda, baking cookies, or whatever it is I do in my free time.

I suspect that people just don’t like to see all that money leaving their account, and that I can understand. It’s always a little disheartening to see all that money roll in on pay day just to watch it slowly trickle out of your account as you pay one bill after another. Nevertheless, life goes on.

3. There Are Less Hours in the Day

In college, I spent roughly four or five hours in class per day. I then spent far less than the recommended amount of time studying and doing homework outside of school. In my part-time job, I spent very little time working, most of which was during the summer. So my days were pretty much free. As much as I complained about not having any time to do things, I had butt-tons of time to do whatever the hell I wanted, I just squandered it all. How? Not a clue. When I try to add up a typical school day in my mind, I come up around 5 hours short. Where did all that time go? What was I doing? Was I regularly and frequently abducted by aliens? I don’t know, but that time vanished.

When you spend an average of 8 hours per day at work, you wind up with less time in your day. I need to get around 8 to 9 hours of sleep per night to function like a normal human being, which means that about 17 hours of my day (including work) are written off from the start. Factor in an hour of transportation time, and that leaves me with 7 hours of free time. A good bit of that time is spent slogging through my morning routine and, by the end of the day, I have about 5 hours to myself.

Now,  I’m certainly not the first person to mention the fact that working adults have less free time than students, and I’m not complaining about it. On the contrary, I kind of like it. Having less time in my day makes me appreciate the time that I do have, and on the weekends when I have all the free time in the world, I make a decent use of it. That doesn’t mean that I go out saving the world, wrestling bears, curing cancer, and climbing mount Everest, sucking every single drop out of the marrow-bone of life. But it does mean that I enjoy my free time more.

4. There’s So Much More Time

When I was in school, everything felt finite and ephemeral. Things needed to be done immediately, and my longest term goal was to get a job at the end of my degree. Now that I’m working, I have quite a few goals that stretch two and three years away. One of the hardest parts about working so far has been forcing myself to realize that not everything has to happen now: I don’t have to rush into as many things for fear that they won’t be around anymore. Granted, some things you have to rush into, but there are other goals that you can stretch out. It’s a process of calming down, stepping back, and controlling my life deliberately rather than impulsively. And although it’s hard, it feels pretty good.

5. You Can’t Tell Me What To Do

If I want to eat chicken wings for dinner four nights in a row (which I’ve done once… at least), no one can tell me not to. If I want to fill my room with playpen balls, no one can stop me (haven’t done this one yet). Most of the time, I use this freedom to do fairly mundane things. The other day, for example, I spent the entire day designing and 3D printing a Jammie Dodger cookie cutter, and then making Jammie Dodgers from scratch. They were delicious, and it was a glorious day. Every Sunday morning I make pancakes for breakfast, and this Sunday I made one that was almost as big as my plate because I CONTROL THE SPATULA NOW, SON!

People think that becoming an adult is boring; there’s the so called “daily grind”, and paying bills, and having to be responsible. When people raise these concerns to me, my response is usually “Fuck. That.” Being an adult means you make the decisions. It means no one has the right to tell you when to brush your teeth***, when to go to bed, or what you can and can’t wear. You make your own life, you set your own expectations, and you decide which paths you do and do not want to take. Some of the most inspiring people in the world are the ones who ignored what people told them adulthood was going to be like, and decided what their own adulthood was going to be like. You’re going to spend the majority of your life being an adult, so what’s the point if you don’t enjoy it?

Look at that boss.

Look at that boss.

6. It Can Be Lonely If You Let It

In college, you’re bombarded by people, fliers, posters, and announcements urging you to sign up for this, volunteer for that, and go out to some other thing. This isn’t really the case when you’re an adult. I don’t mean to say that these opportunities don’t present themselves, but they’re not as abundant, and they’re not always as easy to find. Slowly but surely, it’s easy to settle into an unhealthy routine, especially if you’re a bit introverted (like me). Fortunately though, you’re reading this, so you’ll know that all you have to do when you start feeling like a hermit is to go on a site like Meetup.com or look around your local burger joint or hobby shop for some fliers advertising meetings, find something that piques your interest, and go to it. It’s hard at first, but it will very quickly be easy again.

Here’s the Deal

So far I’m enjoying being an adult. On occasion I’ve been afraid that being an adult would be a slow, steady descent into retirement, but so far I’m pleasantly surprised. The thing is, like just about everything else in life, it’s what you make of it. It can be a great experience, or it can be a miserable experience. Since this is how I’m going to spend 80% of my life, I’m choose to enjoy it.

*I recognize that I’m very privileged to not have trouble making ends meet, and I don’t intend to demean those who do have trouble paying their bills. If you complain about all the bills you have to pay because you’re having trouble scraping together the money to do so, then I certainly sympathize.

**If your credit card is your primary mode of payment, I highly recommend memorizing your credit card number, the expiration date, and the CVV security number on the back. These three numbers will make you feel really cool, and will save a bit of time with every bill you pay.

***Please though, do brush your teeth even though no one is telling you that you have to. Everyone around you will appreciate it.

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x Things That ______ People Do Every Day

From time to time, I go on Facebook. It’s this new website you might have heard of, where people post thoughts, opinions, links, and play various time-wasting games. When I go on this “Facebook”, I occasionally run into a link someone has posted, which is titled in this format: “10 Things To do before ____” or “14 Things You Shouldn’t Do When ____” or “11 Things _____ People Do”. I suspect this naming scheme originates from the popular self-help business book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, and on principle, I agree with the concept. The basic idea is this: I want to be more like people who do this, so I should examine what those people do, how they do it, and why, and then I should emulate their behaviour. This is the sort of literary endeavour that requires research, interviews, plenty of rumination, and a fair bit of craftiness to distil the habits these people have amassed over the years into the irrelevant (e.g. separating their food before eating it) and the relevant (e.g. waking up early, using lots of post-its, eating only vegetables.) This is not the sort of thing that one can write – properly, that is – in an hour that would otherwise be spent browsing Reddit, except you haven’t posted on your blog in a while.

What really set me off on this topic was an article that boldly claimed to be a list of some number of “Mistakes Not to Make During your 20’s”. Like most articles of this nature, it contained short, glib paragraphs proffering advice about what to and what not to do during your 20’s in order to be a “successful” person. Ashamed as I am to say it, I read the article, and took some of its advice to heart. One heading in the article that stuck with me particularly strongly, claimed that it was a mistake to “believe you deserve a break.” Weeks later, when I was tired, overworked, and slacking off, the article would pop into my brain, and I would think about how maybe I shouldn’t let my self take a break. It bothered me; if this person who made it through their 20’s told me that this was a mistake, should I not do it? But I’m exhausted and my brain doesn’t work; do I just keep pushing?

One day I realized that was stupid advice. Of course you need – and yes, even deserve – a break sometimes. When you’ve spent two weeks straight doing useless busy work for a University degree that you may or may not use, and that certainly won’t give you the professional skills that you need for a real world job, sometimes you need a break. When you’re frustrated and tired and annoyed, sometimes you need to do nothing for a while, and that’s ok.

Articles like this really stick in my craw because they’re so misleading. It’s easy to take the advice of our elders (even if the “elders” in this case probably aren’t much older than we are), as fact, or at least to wonder if their suggestions will turn out to be accurate. When giving advice, it’s important to consider that you’re giving advice to a person with different ambitions, a different past, and a different future. Sure, it’s easy to look back and what you did when you were their age and say, “You know, I did this, and it really helped me: you should do it to” or “I didn’t do this and I’ve regretted it; don’t make the same mistakes I did.” But it’s far harder to realize that each of us is a different person with our own challenges, and sometimes that advice can do more harm than good.

More than that, however, I find it incredibly presumptuous of a person on the Internet to claim that they know exactly what mistakes I should and shouldn’t make in my 20’s. Mistakes are a valuable learning experience. And who knows, maybe something that didn’t work for them will work for me. As useful as advice can be sometimes, when it comes down to it, we each have to find our own way through this world.

So that is to say, when you really take advice to heart, maybe it shouldn’t be from Buzzfeed. Maybe you should do some research about the author of the article or book, and make sure that they did some research. And maybe you should think about what they’re saying and – more importantly – why, before really accepting it. Or maybe not; it’s up to you.

On Becoming an Adult

Here’s the deal: In April, 2014, I’ll be graduating from McGill with a BSc. in Computer Science. I have one more semester left in school until I start working. I’m an adult, and in around 6 months time, I’ll be putting money in my bank account – money that I’ve earned by working – and living 100% by my own means. None of that was real for me until the other day. What happened? I signed up for my graduation photos.

First of all, let’s clear this up for good: graduation photos are a fraud. Why? Because you don’t actually take them when you graduate, and you’re not wearing your graduation gown when they’re taken. No no, you take them an entire 4 months before you graduate, and you wear a gown they lend you for the photo shoot. It is all a lie. There isn’t even cake. When you sign up to have your grad photo taken, you’re still not even 100% sure that you’ll graduate. Hell, you haven’t even applied to graduate. Which is also a thing, students: you have to apply to graduate.

Now that we’ve covered that little detail, let me talk about why all this “becoming an adult business” slapped me in the face when it did. You see, I’ve never really put much stock in all the accoutrements surrounding graduation. In fact, I’ve technically had the opportunity to attend three  of my own graduations, and of those I only attended one. In some ways, not attending graduation has become “a thing” for me; it’s like a tradition that I feel I have to uphold. But despite my feelings on graduation, and not wanting to be paraded around in front of a bunch of teary-eyed parents while some school official I’ve never even met berates me and my colleagues about the value of education, making the appointment for my grad photo was somehow a wake-up call for me. When I submitted that web form, it all became real. This is it: I’m becoming a real, proper, certified adult.

Rather than doing the sensible thing, and quickly signing up for a masters degree or adding a minor to my degree, or dropping some classes next term – anything to stay in school a bit longer – I actually felt pretty satisfied with myself. Never having to go back to school again is freeing. I’ve got a lot of experience under my belt, and now I’m free. And it’s not that I want to stop learning – on the contrary: now I get to learn even more – but I can do my learning on my schedule. I’m jumping off the treadmill of assignments and exams and quizes and essays. I’ll get to make things that have never existed before, and I’ll get paid to do it.

Sure, it’ll be hard. I’m about to start a whole new chapter in my life, in a totally different environment. Perhaps my next blog post will be about what I realized during my first job interview: that as much as I feel like an old hand at school, I’m going to feel like a total “n00b” in the workplace. But as scary as change is, it’s also exciting. It means new things, and I think I’m ready for them.

Projects: I Need Them

Yesterday, I went to McGill’s Tech Fair. All manner of companies were there, scouting talent and taking applications, looking for young students who need jobs. Needless to say, they found plenty, and I was one of them.

It was the first time I had ever been to the Tech Fair, and I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I’ve been told my CV is impressive, but I didn’t know what companies would be looking for, or even what – exactly – I was looking for. Among the myriad mining companies (I counted around three gold mining companies) and engineering firms, I managed to find a few software companies that interested me. I chatted, asked questions, and tried to make myself seem knowledgeable, curious, and passionate. The one question I wasn’t prepared for, however, was the question I expected to be the most prepared for: what projects have you done lately?

I’ve always thought of myself as someone who does projects. I’ve always done projects. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been building things, even to the detriment of my own schooling. I have all but four volumes of Make Magazine that have ever been published. MacGyver is my hero. On any given day, I would rather code for five hours on one of my own projects than for one hour on an assignment for school, and yet I couldn’t think of a single project that I have done recently for my own interest, and of my own volition.

This realization has been a long time coming, I think. School and extracurricular activities (read: work) have sucked up a lot of the time I would ordinarily spend hacking and coding. And when I’m not studying or working, I’m usually too lazy and worn out to start working on something else. Sure, I’ve written some little programs here and there on the weekends or over the summer – coding is a part of life for me – but I haven’t really built any of the super cool, outlandish, crazy awesome projects that I used to build when I was younger and cared less about school. And that’s a shame.

So today is when it changes. This evening, I’m going to blow a TON of time that I could be spending on a DOZEN other things, writing a program that I’ve wanted to write for a few weeks. I’m not going to finish it tonight – I may not even finish it in a week, a month, or a year – but I’m going to start it, and I’m going to have fun. I’m going to tap into my passion again: I’m going to focus on what’s important.

Deschooling

The first few weeks of summer are always a bit of a drag. It’s like diving head first into a cold pool – the shock washes over you as your body acclimates to its new surroundings and temperature, and it takes some time before you feel like you’ve completely normalized. A few days ago I read about a concept called “deschooling.” Deschooling is what happens when home-schoolers* first leave school. They sit around and play video games, get up in the late afternoon, waste time, and do nothing. It happens all the time. After a while, they get into their element, and realize that they want to learn stuff. Then they start learning.

I don’t know any of this from first hand experience, so I can’t really make any claims about the accuracy of how that process happens, or how often it happens. But I do think I deschool every summer. When the rigidity of my class schedule finally gives way, I find myself plummeting into the cold waters of freedom, dazed and confused, and not sure what to do next. I waste time, I sleep late, I watch TV, and – reluctantly – do whatever work I need to get done. Working part time seems to slow the deschooling process, and my assumption is that to properly deschool, one has to engage in sloth as fully as possible before returning to a normal state of being able to get out of bed on time and do things like a normal person.

Deschooling isn’t a fun experience. It’s a time during which I have very little control over my sleep schedule, and I’m usually pretty bored. I spend a lot of time sitting around doing nothing. But there comes a time, a few weeks down the road, when I realize that I’m being a bum, and that I don’t want to be a bum. I get up, and I go do something.

Yesterday, I checked out a few books from the library and started to read. Today, I’m writing a blog post. Little by little, it seems, I’m returning to normal. My brain is rebooting, and the emptiness where once there was the structure and scheduling of school is being filled with my own schedule and rhythm. The freedom is starting to feel good, and soon I’ll be able to fully enjoy summer.

Looking forward, into the next phase of my life, I’m wondering how this dynamic will affect my work. Work, I expect, will have all the rigidity and structure of school, but without the added commitment of having to work at home. The stress of knowing that there’s always something else I should be doing will hopefully be gone, and maybe I’ll be able to “deschool” a little bit each day when I come home from work. I imagine that I’ll be a bum when I get home for the first few weeks, maybe even months. But as I adapt to my new routine, I’ll slowly return to working on my hobbies and outside interests, seeing friends, and generally having a life. That’s the idea, anyway.

*The more appropriate but also more radical term is unschoolers, which refers to children who don’t follow a prescribed curriculum or take standardized tests, but learn their own material at their own pace.

Changes to the Blog (or Accepting Money from Readers with PayPal)

Today, I think we’ll forego the usual apology about not blogging for a while, and cut straight to the chase: there’s gonna be some changes ’round here. First, you may have noticed the rather snazzy new theme. The old one was too minimalist. Anyone who has seen my apartment knows that I’m not a total slob, but I am far from minimalist. This new theme is clean, neat, and fits my style much better. The fonts are pretty sweet too. Let me know what you think in the comments.

Second, a while ago, one lovely commenter suggested I add a donate button to my site. I did a little research, and got scared off by tales of people adding donate buttons to their sites, and having their funds frozen. Granted, PayPal can’t take money away (that is to say, the worst that would happen is I would make no money at all), but words like “freeze” and “bank account” in the same sentence scare me, especially when the sentence in question refers to my “bank account” being “frozen.” So I put the idea on hold. Today, however, I ran across that same comment, and thought to myself, “Let’s monetize!” So I called PayPal, and got the word directly from the horse’s mouth.

No, a personal, not non-profit blogger can not use the PayPal donation button to collect donations on their site. However, rather than accepting “donations,” you can use a “Buy Now” button, which I presume goes through different internal PayPal channels, and which allows you to accept an arbitrary amount of money from arbitrary people without having your bank account arbitrarily suspended. Brilliant! Then you can use the “Donate” button image for your “not donation” button, and away you go!*

So, if you’ve been itching to give me your money, but you’ve been frustrated that you haven’t been able to, now is your chance! That shiny button up at the right hand corner will take you to a page where you can enter your own “Item price” and give me some money. I will be eternally grateful! And I’ll be more likely to blog more often if I’m getting money from it.

On the other hand, if you feel that I’m a sell out, and that I’m being ridiculous asking for money from you in exchange for the meaningless drivel that I post on the Internet for all eyes to see… don’t donate. For one thing, I’m not asking for your money, I’m giving you the opportunity to give me some money to encourage my ramblings if you’d like to. If you don’t want to donate, you don’t have to. I might not love you as much as I do now, but I won’t hate you… not that much, anyway.

As always, you’re encouraged to express your feelings on these changes in the comments. I welcome your feedback; it helps me figure out what you people do and don’t like to read on the Internet.

And, because I don’t say it enough, thanks for reading.

*To be perfectly clear, these are not “Donations,” in the sense that they are not tax deductible, and they do NOT go to a charitable organization. They go to me filling my face with food, paying my bills, and buying an expensive private jet so I can travel to the Bahamas while sipping Champagne and eating fois gras. You are giving me money, you’re not donating it to any particular cause or organization. Just so we’re clear. (And so PayPal doesn’t smite me.)

No Resolutions 2013

Every year, it seems, I write a blog post about how I’m not making New Years Resolutions. It’s getting a bit old, a bit monotonous, and I feel like I’m repeating myself. I feel like I’m berating my readers with the same drivel over and over again… but I’m doing it again this year, so suck it up!

Month: January, Year: 2013, Resolutions: None. Not one. Let’s review. The main reasons I don’t do make New Year’s Resolutions are because 1) if I need to make changes in my life, I make them in “real time;” that is, as soon as I realize there is a problem. 2) I think people use New Year’s Resolutions as an excuse. How’s that? Most people don’t follow through with New Year’s Resolutions. Sure, they go to the gym for a few days, maybe even weeks, but eventually they stop. There are a variety of reasons for this, but for the purposes of this discussion, what’s important is that most people don’t follow through. I think people use that as an excuse. Stopped going to the gym? So did a bunch of other people. Stopped “eating healthy?” You’re not alone. Still drinking too much coffee? Next year…

This is not to say that I don’t believe in making lifestyle changes at certain intervals, it’s just that I don’t think the first day of the New Year is a good day to start, especially when there are so many other people to fail with. I set goals at the beginning of semesters, especially after the summer break. After the semester is over, I’m in a better place to sit back and think about what I want to do in the coming term. What do I want to improve on? How am I going to do it? How will I know I have improved? Then I implement, and hope for the best. If it doesn’t work, I try again next term, or later in the same term.

Those two bold questions are important. Motivation research (and common sense) shows that specific goals with specific measurements are more likely to lead to success, and that most people set fuzzy goals with no measurement of success. Many people, for example, set the goal of “eating better.” What does that mean? If you eat one less burger in 2013 than 2012, you have technically eaten “better” according to some arbitrary standard. If you fail to bring fork to mouth one less time in 2013 than in 2012, you have – by some standard – succeeded in eating more skilfully (i.e. “better”) than you did in 2012. Congratulations. A specific goal is this: “Eat meals comprised mostly of vegetables three times a week.” Even that’s a bit fuzzy. How about this: “Eat white carbohydrates less than two times a week.” That’s a great goal. That’s a goal you can monitor. That’s a goal you just might be able to stick to.

Now that I’ve done my pedantry bit, let’s talk about my goals for this term. If you’ve read my previous posts, you know that I’ve been working on discipline. I’m pleased to say that I’ve done well. One of my specific goals last term was to get two A’s. I did not meet that goal. I did, however, boost my grades compared to previous terms. This semester, same goal: two A’s. Second goal: do all the assignments. My weak point in school is that at some point during the semester, I get frustrated and bored, and I stop doing assignments. I don’t just do them half way, I stop doing them altogether. That changed last semester, and in all but one of my classes, I turned in all or most of the assignments. This semester, ALL the assignments. Everything I am assigned, I will turn in. And not only will I turn it in, I will do it right. How will I do that? (Forming a plan of action for achieving your goal is also important.) I’ll do the assignments early, and I’ll check my answers. The details of this goal are still in the making, since I’m still fitting into my schedule, but that’s ok. Another goal was to brush and floss my teeth every single night. I used to brush most nights, and floss frequently, but I wanted to do it every night. Done. I think I’ve missed one day since a week before the start of last semester. This semester, I’m adding a morning brushing to that goal.

Those are a few goals I’m continuing to work on and I’ve added another: meditation. I want to be more disciplined, and more focussed. Meditation does just that sort of thing. There are lots of ways to meditate, but the one I’m going to focus on is the one found here. From what I’ve read, this type of meditation strengthens the pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of your brain that delivers willpower. So I’m going to meditate this way every night before I go to sleep. So far, I have meditated every night this semester, and I’m still going strong. I started out with 5 minutes, then 10, and I think I’m going to kick it up a notch and go for 20 tonight. It’s tough, but that’s what I’m looking for.

Finally, I do have some fuzzy goals. There are some things I want to do that I don’t really care to define properly, because they’re things that I want to work on, but that I don’t want to interfere with my other goals. If you pick too many goals, all of them suffer, and the three goals I’ve mentioned here are more important and concrete. I want to encourage my curiosity. Instead of just reading about a concept – mead making, say – and glossing over it, I want to immerse myself in it. I want to dig in, and learn some cool things about it. If someone were to come up to me after I read an article about mead, and ask me what I learned, I want to be able to tell them something cool, not just say, “Uh… well…” That’s just a waste of time. I also want to keep my room cleaner, do the dishes more frequently (which I’ve been doing,) and go to sleep earlier.

And yes, I want to blog more often. I’ve been neglecting my blog again, but some day I hope to get back to it. My life has been changing a lot lately, and blogging didn’t really fit in my mind. Now, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to focus on it a bit more. But who knows. One reader suggested that I add a donate button to my site, and I think I may well do that. I don’t want you to feel pressured to donate, and I won’t add it unless I start blogging more often, but it would certainly encourage me to blog more often (and contribute to the Help Me Pay My Rent And Things fund) if people threw some change my way every once in a while. If you have thoughts or opinions on this (or any) subject, please do leave them in the comments.

Also, if there are things you want me to talk about (or not talk about) in 2013, please let me know.