Growing up we are all told that school is preparing us for “the real world”. Starting from elementary school, we are told that we need to study cursive handwriting to prepare us for the real world of middle school and high school where we will be required to write in this particular style. From that perspective, they were preparing us for “the real world” of middle school. Upon arriving at middle school, one can only imagine our surprise when we were told that the teachers did not care if we wrote in print or cursive. I, of course, was one of the weird kids that continued on in life writing in cursive. Maybe it was just to see if others could read it or not, or maybe, it was because they taught me what “the real world” was going to be like and I listened to it, even when the real world caught up and it didn’t matter. In high school, my teachers seemed to take great pleasure in assigning as much homework as possible to prepare us for the real world of college.
I was all too pleasantly surprised when I entered college to learn that this is not necessarily true. Yes, the homework load in college is higher, but it is only assigned once or twice per week for someone in chemical engineering. I was able to manage my homework with my much lower load of classes (18 credit hours) compared to 7 hrs per day 5 days per week in high school, to allow for much greater free time to learn how to live. Maybe the real world started in college, but according to most people I have talked with, it does not. College is where you learn to live on your own (kind of, since the parents usually help out with money), you learn that laundry needs to be done, cooking or dining is not a given anymore, cars need maintenance, insurance needs paying, and any myriad of other needs that have to be taken care of that your parents did in exceptional fashion while you were growing up at home. College is your first taste of the real world, but it is only a taste before you get to grow up and feast upon the real world that is work life.
I was able to taste the real world several times in college when I got to do a co-op job with a large multinational chemical company. The first co-op was for the fall semester, so I was only out in the real world for ~4 months before I got my 5-week winter break and then went back to school. The whole time, I knew that this was only a temporary job, so I had the winter break and going back to school to look forward to. This helped me through the time in the real world and made it better. When I was tired of the real world, it was time to go back to school, and when I was tired of school it was time to go back to the real world.
After I finished my co-op jobs and my junior year in college I traveled to Europe for the summer and got a taste of the real world outside of the United States. I spent 2 months is Europe, hanging out with friends and riding bikes in Switzerland, racing bikes in Belgium, and going to school in Denmark. This time gave me a view of what the real world is in Europe. The real world seems different in Europe than in the US where life is less focused on work and more focused on family, friends, and fun. They have much more vacation time and their time at the office for the day doesn’t seem quite so rigid and inflexible. My Italian friend once told me, “the work day starts at 9 am. You work for 3 hours and then have a 2-hour lunch break before you come back for about 3 hours and go home by 5 pm.” This amounts to 6 hours per day of work. The European real world seems like a friendlier version of the real world when compared with the US.
I returned to the US and to college for my senior year before the entrance to the real world. Upon graduation from college, you “know for certain” that you are now entering the real world of work life. This is what you have been told for years and years now and it is a deeply held belief. Now the real world gets to have a stranglehold on your educated mind for the next 40 years as you work and work and work. Nevertheless, when I entered the real world and started working 40 hours per week at a medium-sized multinational chemical company, I was told by my parents I still was not in the real world. I lived by myself in a 1500 sq. ft. house that I rented for $325 / month, I furnished this house with my own things, including buying almost all the appliances from a local “American Pickers” style shop. I learned about the real world of insurance (health, renters/home, auto, etc.), I learned about setting up utilities by yourself, and I learned the real world never sleeps. The real world is going 100% of the time, it always wants to be able to contact you, it expects you to always be available and it demands an inordinate amount of your time. During my first job, I managed to work a schedule so I could work just 8 hours per day and leave work at 2:30-3:00 pm every day and head out on a nice bike ride in the daylight. This alone is why I was told I was not in the real world. My life was not sucked totally away by the real world leaving me time to enjoy myself.
While working my first job out of college, I reconnected with a classmate from college, fell in love and got married. Is this the real world? Certainly not! The euphoria you feel on your wedding day is second to none knowing you get to spend the rest of your life with your best friend, your soulmate. We went on a spectacular, atypical honeymoon to Peru where we hiked 5 days to Macchu Picchu among other adventurous excursions from Cuzco. This was the beginning of our life together, and it made me a bit more like the typical American family. The real world would try to get in the way of our relationship, but we would make it through.
Then I took a job in China with the same company. We were starting up a new chemical plant and it required non-stop 12 hour days 7 days per week for a while before we got a break and it decreased to 8 hour days every day of the week. This strained all points of my life, from self-imposed stress, physical exhaustion, and a generally bad mood, to straining my relationship with my new wife. At this point, I would like to think I had reached the real world. The long never-ending days must be the pinnacle of the real world. When the plant finally got to a steady state and I was working only 40 hours per week again, I realized that this is not actually the real world either. As an expat our housing is covered, utilities are covered, language training is covered, and we have a personal driver. It is almost like we are living at home again with our parents taking care of us. Is this the real world? No, it is the real expat life, but it is not the real world. It is my current world.
The real world starts when we reach personal and financial freedom, freedom from “the man”. This is when I believe the real world really starts. It is when I get to make the decisions on when to work when to stay at home, when to play, when to eat, etc. Currently, most of this is dictated by the schedule I am told I have to follow due to being a working stiff. The real world has decided for me the schedule that I should hold and the time I should be allowed to myself to pursue what really matters to me. It seems interesting that the United States was founded on freedom, but we don’t seem overly free to make our own choices. Money drives us to not truly be free because we need a certain amount of it to live the life we choose. My wife found a wonderful quote during some down time when I was working 70-80 hours per week that we try to aspire to while in our pursuit of the real world:
“Love the life you have while you create the life of your dreams, don’t think you have to choose one over the other.” – Hal Elrod
The real world is certainly the life of our dreams. The life of freedom from having to work for money, the freedom to choose our own schedule, the freedom to live where we want, the freedom to pursue our interests in the way we desire, all are part of our dream life. Join us in our pursuit of the real world. It may seem far away as I sit here typing on my lunch break at work, working for the man. However, it is not nearly as far as it seems.
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