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Book Jacket

Trade Paperback
192 pages
Feb 2004
W Publishing Group

Twentysomething : Surviving and Thriving in the Real World

by Margaret Feinberg

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt


Chapter One

Rude Awakenings: Grappling with Adult Life

        I don’t know what I was thinking. Really, I don’t. I thought all those people who got up, got dressed, and drove to work every day really liked what they did. I thought that if 9 to 5 was good enough for them, then it would be good enough for me. I thought my boss would be like my high school teachers who winked when I missed a day of class. I thought I would make enough money to pay all my bills no matter how much I spent. I thought a lot of things… that just weren’t true.

    Shortly after graduation and my grandmother’s funeral, I headed for my first real job. Well, sort of. It was actually a summer internship with a Florida-based publication. The first few days were exciting. I met tons of new people and familiarized myself with the building’s layout, especially the small employee kitchen and refrigerator. I immediately made friends with my boss and the co-workers located closest to me. I even had my own cubicle. It was so exciting and new!

    I began by organizing my desk and office supplies. Within the first few days, I bought little knick knacks and began decorating my cubicle with photos and conversation starters. I recorded my first greeting on the company’s voice mail system. The process took somewhere between two and three dozen times as I got the “Hello, you’ve reached the voice mail of…” just right. I found a bagel restaurant nearby where I could grab a cup of coffee on my way to work and swing by for a quick lunch in the afternoon. I stocked up on healthy snacks like carrot sticks and granola bars for the afternoon lull in energy. I even had a water bottle. I was ambitious, and had everyone (or at least myself) convinced I could do a great job. It was a glorious experience, at least for the first week.

        Halfway through the second week, it occurred to me that this wasn’t just for fun. Going to work wasn’t like two weeks at summer camp or a few months abroad, where you could come home afterward. No, the workplace was for keeps, and I would have to keep on working for the rest of my life.

        “The rest of my life.”

    Those daunting words hung over my head, and my perception of my work environment suddenly changed. Finding a new Scripto pen in the supply station or connecting with a co-worker next to the water cooler lost their wonder. I began to notice my pleasant drive to work in the morning was actually a 35-minute, bumper-to-bumper commute. My cubicle was small. My work was endless. And as nice as all my fellow employees were, their main purpose each day was to get work done, not socialize.  

        I can’t believe no one had told me that work was really another four letter word for jail. You have to do your time, eight hours a day, five days a week, fifty weeks a year, with only two weeks off for good behavior. I was deeply jealous of all my college friends who had opted for graduate school. They would be in five-figure, if not six-figure debt when they got out, but at least they managed to postpone the inevitable prison sentence for a few more years.

        I thought my situation was unique until I began asking around and discovered almost everyone had been caught off guard in one way or another. Just to make sure it wasn’t just me or a few other co-workers, I called some other recent graduates. At first, they put up the usual front. Everything was going great, they loved their new jobs, they couldn’t imagine doing anything else. However, when I pressed a little deeper, they admitted they were struggling, too. The office environment wasn’t nearly as fun as college life.

    We were all missing our midnight trips to the mini-market for Pop-tarts, canned cheese, and Wheat Thins. I called a few friends who had accepted positions as youth pastors and worship leaders. They were going through the eye-opening experience of full-time ministry. One friend told me he liked working for the church, except for all the people.

    I called a friend who was in the military. After whining about boot camp for forty minutes, he let me know the horrifying truth: The government was not going to let him out of his four-year commitment. He had signed up, and they were going to keep him.

    Finally, I called the few friends who had chosen to throw caution to the wind and head to Colorado and Utah to lead wilderness adventures trips, teach skiing and guide white-water rafting expeditions. All of them were having the time of their lives. They may have been a month or two behind on those student loan payments, but they were convinced it was well worth the cost (and interest penalties). Jealous and slightly intrigued, I called back a few months later. They admitted that this fun-filled, worry-free lifestyle couldn’t last forever – not if they ever wanted to break out of the living-on-Cup-of-Soup-and-cans-of-tuna-with-seven-other-roommates lifestyles. I realized that they would be living my life soon enough. I guess I should have warned them. Oh well…

Caught By Surprise

        No one ever told me that the real world was full of surprises. Maybe everyone assumed I already knew. It wasn’t until I graduated and faced a life full of limitless possibilities that I realized how pre-planned my life had been up to that point. Some of the planning can be attributed to the local board of education, but most can be attributed to my parents who thought it best to make sure their child was educated. Looking back, I realize my life was pretty planned, and I didn’t have much to say about it.

    I don’t remember much before the age of five, except for a few pre-school classes and beloved babysitters. I remember the day I forget to wear underwear to kindergarten. Fortunately, I was wearing a long dress that day. But I felt as if every other kindergartner knew. I burst out crying, and it took the teacher nearly half an hour of coaxing for me to confess my little secret. I had to call my mom, and she brought me a pair. After that slightly scarring event, my public education was pretty uneventful.

    There weren’t too many choices or responsibilities; Mom and Dad took care of the vast majority of them. I went from teacher to teacher and grade to grade until graduation. You probably followed the same progression, unless of course you were brilliant and skipped a grade or you were a real genius and figured out how to stay in the system for an extra year.

    You’ve probably noticed by now that the current education system has a progression that repeats itself. In each of the segments -- elementary, junior high, and high school -- you enter the school as the runt of the litter and then grow mentally, physically and socially until you’re the big kid. You may be the runt in kindergarten, but you rule the roost by the end of elementary school. Then disaster strikes and you’re the runt all over again when you enter junior high. This is really obvious in high school, when classes of short, vocally high-pitched, pimply-faced kids enter their first year and emerge four years later the size of an NFL lineman with Barry White’s voice or with the physique of a New York City fashion model. This same progression of pipsqueak to king of the hill continues into college and then into the real world, when what we thought would be a great job turns out to be just another runt position with a different title.  

        Unless you count the runt cycle and a few home economics classes, not a lot of training is given to us for living in the real world. It seems like most school systems and parents think college will provide all of that education. After all, you are away from your parents’ rules and structure, living on your own for the first time. But you’re still in a bubble of sorts, padded by dorm rooms, cafeteria food and professors who hopefully want to teach you something first and get recognized in their field second. And the school work? Did you really think an anthropology or political science class would help you earn a big paycheck right after graduation? I was a religion major, and it didn’t help me much in paying my first rent check.

    It seems like that first year out there’s a huge reality check,” says Ashley, a 26-year-old graduate of the University of Colorado. “No matter where my friends went – whether they were teaching third grade, working with an advertising agency or in ministry -- across the board, everyone was really struggling that first year out.”

        Ashley says one of the biggest things that happens upon graduation is that you’re stripped of all the titles you’ve had. “You used to be able to say, ‘I’m a student or I’m a psychology major, or I’m on a sporting team,’ but when you graduate you have to figure out who you are in the bigger scheme of things. Trying to figure out who you are and what to do in a stage of life that doesn’t seem to have much guidance is really hard. I think I learned as much that first year out of college as I did in the four years in college.”

        No wonder the transition into the working world is so bumpy. No wonder there are so many surprises. No wonder we have been struggling to get our lives settled. For the most part, we’re ill prepared for the realities of adult life. My entrance into the real world, and especially into the workforce, was a rude awakening. I had worked jobs before – everything from paper pushing to pushing plates – but these jobs were always for extra cash. I never had to make sure the amount of my paychecks was actually bigger than the amount of my bills, because Mom and Dad were always paying the heating and gas bills, stocking the refrigerator and filling up the tank whenever I wasn’t driving the car. I was smart enough to know these things didn’t just magically happen, but I didn’t comprehend what it would be like to make them happen.  Most things managed to catch me off guard, but I’ve managed to sift through the rather long list and identify the top ten. Who knows? Maybe they’ll find a spot on the The Late Show with Dave Letterman.

1 .You have to work.

     I knew that one day I would have to work -- everyone has to work. I didn’t know that I would have to work every day until I had built up enough of this substance called retirement money to never work again. And all the while I was trying to build up a retirement reservoir, the little demands of life would be eating away at my goal of not having to work.

        Thomas, a 26-year-old graduate of the University of Alaska, says the hardest part of transitioning to the real world for him was having to work all the time. “I can’t be lazy like I could at home,” he says. “Now I have to buy my own shoes, not to mention my wife and kid’s.”

        Do you remember the days when a note from a parent was enough to excuse you from class? In school, you enjoyed the benefits of a summer vacation: three full months of fun and sun, an easy job and lots of potential dates. In the real world, my bosses weren’t satisfied with a note from Mom or the explanation that I really needed a day to relax. They wanted me at work every day, for the entire day. After checking with a doctor, I discovered that all the illnesses that made it impossible to sit at a desk and work were too embarrassing to submit to an employer.

        For a while, the teaching profession, with its promise of summers off, sounded great, but my fear of being trapped in a classroom with two dozen junior high kids made me reconsider. The military, with its retirement plan, sounded interesting, too, until I learned that boot camp wasn’t optional. The idea of marrying someone for money sounded ok, until I realized that if I did that I would probably never be able to live with myself morally. Somehow I managed to overcome the temptation to sell everything I owned to a pawnshop and buy a stack of lottery tickets.

2. Entry-level jobs aren’t always fun.

     Before graduating, my biggest challenge was landing a job, but little did I know an even bigger challenge was waiting: the entry-level (a.k.a. runt) position.

    Those graduating from school find themselves in the great catch-22 of the working world: to get a job, you need experience, but to get experience, you need a job. The result is that most graduates find themselves in an entry-level position, on the lowest rung of the working world ladder. These positions tend to be… well, let’s just be honest: the bottom of the food chain. To make us feel a little better, bosses trick us with glorified titles. We may be able to fool some people by telling them we’re an administrative assistant when we are a secretary, a retail consultant when we are a sales clerk, or an information specialist when we’re doing data entry eight hours a day, but we can’t fool ourselves.

        Listening to all the statistics about the job market these days, I am grateful to just have a job. But how many times can you restock supplies, replace the toner cartridge and staple, staple, staple, without wondering, Is this all there is? Is this what four years of college gets you? And shouldn’t the highlight of my day be bigger than a trip out of the office to the copy shop?

    Gillian, a 24-year-old library cataloger, describes her transition in the real world as “pretty bumpy.” After graduation, she was dating someone and neither of them had a clear idea of the career path they wanted to follow. Gillian says she was happy doing the college thing – classes, hanging out with friends, enjoying a relaxed schedule – but was looking forward to not having to study when the reality of the  9 to 5 of life hit her between the eyes.

     “I couldn't fathom how anyone could work eight hours a day,” she recalls. “When were you supposed to get anything done? When could you meet for lunch with friends or go running or just sit at a coffee shop and read? I was definitely unprepared for the time commitment a full-time job required. In some ways, I was very immature and unknowing about the real world and didn't want to get into the daily grind.”

    Entry-level jobs will forever remain humbling. That’s how they’re designed. They remind you of what you really don’t want to be doing for the rest of your life, and help you decide to work hard, do a good job and progress to the next job level as quickly as possible. The good news is that despite whatever you’re feeling, entry-level jobs really don’t last forever, and after a little while your responsibilities and pay will increase, even if you don’t get the corner office and reserved parking space. Entry-level jobs are much-needed reminder that you are not what you do. Your value and worth lay elsewhere. And, hopefully, the experience reminds you to treat the next person you does your job a little better.

3. Moving up in the world takes lots of hard work.

     They say it over and over and over again: You have to pay your dues just like everyone else. I have listened to this statement for several years now and have finally concluded:

    No one ever tells you how much those dues will cost. No one ever tells you when those dues will finally end. No one ever tells you who is actually getting paid all those dues.

    I knew I would have to pay my dues, but I never knew I’d have to pay them for so long. I assumed I’d be given “the big break” documented in the lives of so many of VH1’s “Behind the Music” and Biography Channel stories. I honestly believed that someday someone would come along and help me see something in myself that I didn’t know was there. Doors would fly open, my purpose would be clear, and all my dues would be paid in full.

    Instead of being a hopeless romantic, I think I was a hopeless optimist, or at least partially delusional. It only took a few rounds of “Could you deliver this file to so-and-so?” to wake up, and discover that the big break wasn’t necessarily around the next corner, and I needed to brace myself for the long haul.

    Over the last few years, I’ve discovered that life isn’t about one big break. It’s about a series of little breaks, or opportunities, that God entrusts to us. They come at odd times, usually unexpected, and rarely without increased responsibilities. You have to pay your dues. You have to pay a lot of them. And in the end, the difference between those who make it and those who don’t is simple: You have to decide to never give up.  

4. Life is expensive.

     This may sound a little crazy, but after years of careful study, I am convinced that black holes exist on our planet. And there are at least two main areas where they hover. First, they tend to hang over my car keys, mysteriously disappearing whenever I put them down. Second, they gravitate toward my checking and saving accounts and devour all excess funds. Really. I can testify to this. There will be an extra $20 or $30 dollars in my account one day, and the next day, it’s gone. Scientists may try to point to the empty pizza boxes in my trash can to explain the strange phenomenon, but they’re just looking for a loophole.

        The truth is that life is expensive. Rent goes up and cars break down. Whether it’s eating out, buying gifts, or replacing your workout shoes, most things cost more than you’d think. You can find a bargain here or there – a shirt for half off or a discounted treasure on Ebay – but those little things are just there to make you feel better about the big things that are taking all your money, like student loans and revolving credit card debt. Then, all the expenses you didn’t count on in your monthly budget (assuming you have one) begin accumulating, like a semi-professional wardrobe, a transmission problem with your car or a minor surgery that result in major bills.

        There is also that little word that has a big price tag: insurance. I was hoping the insurance company was just kidding when they said I was no longer eligible to be on my parent’s insurance policy after turning 23. I knew the insurance company was serious about other issues, but I really thought they’d make an exception just for me. After all, my family had been great clients for years. In all that fine print, somewhere, I expected to find a clause that would allow me to keep my health insurance. I called the company. I cried. I argued. And I lost. I felt like I had been rejected by the mean-spirited chef at the Soup Kitchen on Seinfeld, but instead of being told, “No soup for you!” I was being told, “No insurance for you!”

        The insurance company isn’t the only one that doesn’t make exceptions. Just because you are kind, know someone, or have a great smile, doesn’t mean someone is going to make an exception for you. Sure, they may have made one in the past, but that doesn’t mean that you’re always going to find a loophole.

    As soon as I learned how expensive life really was, I moved back in with mom and dad.

5. You may have to move back home.

     For some, this is a joy. For others, this is a nightmare. Many of my high school friends say they felt like a failure because they never left their hometown or they had to move back. When you have the entire world ahead of you, it can be humbling to choose to return to your hometown, especially when it’s a small one.

        Even more humbling than moving back home is moving back in with Mom and Dad. You may have to face the stigma that is attached to re-invading the parental nest. You may even have to sleep on the couch for a few weeks while your parents reconvert the home office (which used to be your bedroom) back into a bedroom.

    The good news is this stigma is fading away as more and more twentysomethings move back home for a season or two. In fact, roughly ten percent adults ages 25-34 are living with their parents. 1

    People who choose to move back in with their parents are able to slash debt at a much quicker rate, and therefore give up less of their income to the interest payment on their loans. Financially, people who move in with their parents are winning, even though they aren’t as cool as everyone living in a posh studio apartment (eating Top Ramen when no one is looking).

    I was a little apprehensive about moving home, but I discovered something wonderful. On top of the financial benefits, living at home helped me renew my relationship with my parents. It also helped me learn how to handle adult responsibilities slowly, rather than jumping in with both feet. When something in the house broke, I wasn’t calling Dad from a few states away asking for advice. I could watch him fix it, and in the process learn how to fix it myself. I learned how to handle responsibilities – whether it was training a new dog or fixing the roof. The great thing was that I could do it all with someone nearby to help if I ever got into trouble. Overall, I can honestly say that it was a great experience and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

6. Finding friends, church and community isn’t always easy   

    When I look in the mirror, I see someone who is adventurous and outgoing. I see someone who doesn’t have any problems making friends. I can help you pick out the perfect pair of skis or a snowboard, reel in a big fish, and cook a healthy meal for ten in a moment’s notice, never forgetting to discreetly tell you about that broccoli stuck between your teeth before anyone else notices. I am great best-friend material. So why is it that I am having a hard time making friends in a new city? When you put me in a large city with a potential for a million or so new friends, I struggle to connect with anyone, let alone a million people.  How am I supposed to develop lifelong friendships when I am struggling to connect with anyone?

        In today’s highly mobile culture, people are constantly drifting in out of my life; at the same time, I am drifting in and out of theirs. It is a wonderfully enriching process, except when it happens all at one time. In school, I developed friendships that I knew I would last a lifetime. Our relationships were built around common experiences and interests. After graduation, though, we each packed up our individual vehicles and headed in different directions. Some went to the police academy. Others went to law school.  Some headed to corporations and others went into the military. Some decided to start their own companies, and others decided to pursue artistic dreams or outdoor adventures.

        Most of my friends headed to the Northeast, landing in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City, while I chose to follow the snowbirds to Central Florida. I had no idea how much I’d miss those late nights eating pizza and pretending to study. I quickly learned that getting a “real” job takes up far more hours in a day than my schoolwork did. And all that working leaves little energy and time for building friendships. When I finally manage to carve out time in my busy schedule to do something, I have to find someone who can carve out the same time and who wants to do the same thing. Solid friendships don’t just happen; they take time, sacrifice and intentional effort, and making friends was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be.

    If finding friends isn’t enough, I also to had to find a church I could call home. In a big city, you’d think this would be a cakewalk; after all, the listing of churches in the Yellow Pages takes up a half dozen pages. But after a few months of visiting congregations I was still looking for a place that I could call home. I found myself lost in the bigger churches, and uncomfortable surrounded by families with children in the smaller congregations. I went to churches that offered a meat market for singles, and others that didn’t have anyone between 20 and 40 in the congregation. Some churches offered phenomenal times of worship but shallow Bible teaching -- others provided great teaching but stale times of worship.

    After two months of Wednesday evening, Saturday night and Sunday morning services, I finally discovered a church in a nearby town that was worth the extra driving to attend. Thinking I had it made, I struggled to build relationships with other twentysomethings who lived so far away. Finding a church where I felt welcome and comfortable was a lot more difficult than I ever anticipated.

    I’ve talked to scads of twentysomethings who also struggle to find a church community they feel comfortable in. Brian, a 24-year-old living in Nashville, Tennessee, said it took him almost three years to find a church he could call home. “I started asking around in college and started going with friends, but didn't like it much,” he says. “ It was too much marketing to the rich and performance and not enough God. When I go to church, I want to know that there are real Christians there worshipping God. I don't want to feel like it’s just a routine. I spent a lot of weekends having my own church at the house or by the lake. The Lord finally led me to an awesome church with a large young adult crowd.”

        The good news is that most twentysomethings who are persistent and willing to attend a different denomination than the one they grew up in find a church they can call home sooner or later.

7. It’s hard to find that special someone. My four years of college were preceded by well-meaning family and friends who said, “I just know you’ll meet the one while you’re in school.”

    They were so wrong.

    I didn’t find the one; instead I found a bunch of other guys, some good ones and some bad ones. And like most in my class, I graduated single.

        I headed into my twenties bold and brash, and wasn’t too concerned about settling down. Then my 27th birthday appeared and I realized that something strange had happened: I was still single. Now I might be a little slow on the uptake, but sometime during that next year I realized what a prime opportunity school had been to meet someone. Those well-meaning family members and friends had known something all along. When I wanted to meet someone at college, I attended a function or event. When I wanted to meet someone in the real world, the options were less appealing: a bar or singles’ event. I’m still not sure which is worse. The kind of guy I wanted to meet wasn’t going to frequent either one.

    James, a 29-year-old living in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, describes his transition into the real world as a “work in progress.” “It has been incredibly difficult learning to be alone,” he says. “Working, paying my mortgage and bills, and living life in general are not a problem; not having anyone around to share my thoughts and dreams with is a very daunting task. I struggle with it on a daily basis and constantly wonder if it will ever get any easier.”

        Finding someone you want to spend the rest of your life with isn’t easy. Some people join a dating service, while others log on trying to find an Internet love connection. Some people find romance through a small group at church, while others meet that special someone at work. For many years, my personal dream has been to meet someone in the produce aisle of the grocery store. I picture him standing among the melons, a big, strong fellow who loves the outdoors and thinks that grilled chicken breast and steamed broccoli is manna from heaven. But that hasn’t happened. I listened to what felt like fifty bazillion stories of other people falling in love and marrying before I finally said, “What about me?” Maybe you’ve asked that same question, too, along with several others: When will my day come? Will it ever come? Where is that special someone? It’s easy to grow discouraged by the lack of possibilities -- or even the abundance of possibilities, especially if the possibilities are blind dates set up by well-meaning friends. If you’re struggling to find the one, you’re not alone. Somewhere out there, your special someone is looking for you, too!  

8. Even in your twenties, the body begins to show a few faint signs of aging (gasp).

    I once asked my mom if she felt any different as she grew older. While she still remains active – diving, skiing, and hiking – she says her recovery time has changed; it takes long to recuperate. She’s gets more tired and stays sore a little longer.

        Fortunately, I am still in my twenties and can do the same physical activities without much concern about payback time the next day. One glaring exception to this rule is sleep. Like most students, I used to be able to pull all-nighters. Now I can’t stay up all night even if I try. Somewhere between 3 A.M. and 5 A.M. in the morning, my head starts to pound, my vision begins to blur, and my body aches. I literally hurt from the lack of sleep. I may try to catch up by sleeping in that morning and going to bed early the following night, but sleep deprivation begins to take a heavy toll.

    The recovery time just isn’t the same, and even if I try to deny it, it seems as if the glory days are over. My friend Peter calls it the Party Poopers Club. A group of twentysomethings will get together on a weeknight, and by 9:30 p.m. everyone is heading home to get some sleep so they can work the next day. Some people call it being a responsible adult, but I like Peter’s title better.  

        The battle of the bulge also becomes a little tougher sometime during the twenties. The good news is that the freshman fifteen – those dozen-plus pounds you gain during school – aren’t a problem once you graduate. The bad news is that they aren’t a concern, because you’re too busy worrying about the “secretary spread” from a desk job or the I-don’t-have-time-to-cook-so-I’ll-just-eat-at_________________(insert the name of your favorite restaurant here) poundage.  

        Wade, a 29-year-old graduate student at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California, estimates that he has gained forty pounds since college. “I look more and more like my dad every day,” he says. “And I’m losing my hair. I'm cutting it shorter, but overall, I'm letting nature run its course. No Rogaine for me! I try to work out, but it’s very hard considering I now work full-time and am finishing grad school at night.”

    You can try to fight it. You can join Gold’s Gym. You can join the buyer discount program at GNC. You can lift weights, run, walk, bike or get involved in any other sport. And it will make a difference. John, a 26-year-old intern with Young Life, said he is the strongest he’s ever been. “My body fat percentage is average to below average, and this is coming from a former fat kid,” he said. “Sure, there are a few signs of aging like a receding hairline -- that's why I shave my head, a few more aches and pains, and I don't recover from lack of sleep like I used to, but I don’t have any complaints. I’m happy.”

    Your body doesn’t stop changing after adolescence; the changes have just begun. Your metabolism begins to slow down and your weight starts to creep up. I’ve also already noticed that a few strands of my hair have made their own independent decisions to turn gray. It’s all part of the aging process, and while it’s important to take care of your body, the sooner you come to terms with these inevitable changes, the healthier you’ll be – physically and emotionally.

9. You don’t have to leave the country to experience culture shock. I grew up in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. It’s a mountain town, complete with a ski area, ice rink and rodeo grounds. While I have never had the desire to climb Mt. Everest, I thoroughly enjoy the outdoors. I love hiking, river rafting, horseback riding, skiing and car camping. I enjoy picking spring flowers and crunching along on fall leaves. When I’m outside, I feel alive.

    While other women are shopping at Anne Taylor and Dillards, I’m at Eddie Bauer scouring the off-season clearance racks and stacking up on sweaters, turtlenecks, fleeces, and wool socks. If you’ve spent any time in the outdoors, you know functionality is more important than appearance. Who cares if it’s cute if it doesn’t keep you warm? As a result, my clothes are usually a size too big but just right for easy layering, and my backpack is usually stuffed with at least ten pounds of just-in-case supplies.

    The move to North Carolina for college wasn’t too much of a stretch as far as attire was concerned. There were plenty of outdoor enthusiasts and grunge heads there so I blended in, but when I arrived in Orlando, I didn’t exactly fit in. Everyone seemed to be driving two-wheel drive sporty cars, while I was huffing around in my Subaru, dubbed a “grocery-getter” by some friends because it was a station wagon, shortly after my arrival. I knew better than to bring my sweaters and jackets to Florida, but didn’t realize just how different the clothes in my closet looked until I noticed the form-fitting fashions everyone else was wearing. Even though the seasons barely changed, other women’s wardrobes did – regularly. Having new and trendy clothes mattered, and I didn’t have anything reeked of modern fashion, unless a few timeless pieces like white T-shirts and jeans qualify.

        In Colorado, people don’t ask what you do or what you drive as long as they know what kind of board, or skis, you have under your feet. Catching the handful of primo power days on the mountain is more important than a high paying job that requires you to work all the time. But in cities like Orlando, your car and the title on your business card do matter. Growing up in a city of 10,000 and then trying to survive in a city of 1.5 million was a little overwhelming. Scratch that. A lot overwhelming. The urban splendor caught me off guard. Traffic. Pollution. People everywhere. When I walked down the sidewalk, I couldn’t tell who might want to mug me. I would get lost regularly, end up in a sketchy area of town and not realize it until someone the next day gave me the “You went where???” speech. I tried to get my co-workers to do something cool like go tubing down a river or hiking in a preserve, and they looked at me blankly, smiled and informed me they were going to a concert or show on the weekend. I definitely discovered that I didn’t need to go abroad to experience culture shock. A move from the West to the East Coast was enough for me.

        For you it might be just the reverse: A move from a big city to a small one causes the shock. For others, culture shock is caused by moving from one region of the country to another. As much as I say that I’m not, I really am a creature of habit. I don’t roll with the punches like I think I should. But I’ve decided that whether I’m in the great outdoors or the concrete jungle to try to make the best of it.

10. I know less than I thought I did. And I didn’t know much.

    Youthful exuberance convinces every teenager they know more, a lot more, than they actually do. I was no exception. I knew a lot, at least until I was smart enough to figure out I didn’t know anything. Somewhere between my first English exam and the end of my freshman semester, I discovered I had a lot of learning to do. And all that learning wasn’t going to end anytime soon. During school, I studied the great philosophers, mathematicians, theologians, astronomers, and thinkers of history, but knew very little about surviving in the real world. I could quote facts about American history, but actually handling conflict between two friends was a lot more difficult.

        My 28-year-old friend Cindy developed a reference term for our knowledge of life. She calls them “three by five cards.” Whenever I call her for advice on a situation, she’ll offer wisdom on how to respond or react, unless it is a situation she has never heard before. Then her voice will soften, and she’ll say, “Marg, I don’t have a three by five card on that one. I don’t know what to tell you.”

        Three by five cards record our experiences and knowledge, but in the course of everyday life, you’ll encounter new people and situations that throw you for a loop. No matter how much you know, or think you know, another situation is waiting to trip you up. Your stack of three by five cards is pretty thick when you’re young, and you think you have all the answers, but all you’ve got is a lot of blank cards.

    The truth is that each day I’m learning more, but the greatest thing I’m discovering is that I still have a lot more to learn.  

The Real World  

        All the realities that caught me by surprise can be summed up in one statement: The real world isn’t anything like The Real World on TV.

        Chad Pelletier, who starred on Road Rules: Australia and later married Holly Brentson who starred on Road Rules: South Africa, says, “Real World, the television show, is everything but real. Put it this way… the show caters to a preteen to mid-twentysomething demographic, who would be bored out of their minds if they knew what really happened during the show. And that’s the truth.”

    Although I believe Chad’s insider information that all is not as it seems on these shows, I have a confession to make: I have applied to be on more reality television shows than I care to remember. To support my little addiction, I’ve conned multiple friends into making short and corny videos, filled out twelve-plus page application forms with thoughtful and sometimes provocative answers, and even over-nighted the information to studios in order to meet their deadlines.

        My interest in reality television started in my teens with MTV’s homegrown Road Rules and The Real World. At 29, I am too old to apply to either one (the cut off age is 26, in case you were wondering), but thanks to the networks hopping on board with their own, I have an ever growing list of new shows to apply to. Not only do I apply to be on reality television shows, I also watch them. I am guilty of hosting “Survivor” parties, watching Big Brother, staring in disbelief and wonder at ABC’s Extreme Makeover, and watching almost the entire season of The Bachelor. And, yes, when no one is looking, I even watch Fear Factor. I often wonder: Why watch scripted characters -- other than those on Friends, of course -- when you can watch real people have real meltdowns on national television?

        Much has been written about our society’s fascination with reality TV, but a friend of mine summed up the trend in a simple observation: “It’s human chess.” We love the opportunity to watch people interact outside their natural environment and in the process learn something about ourselves. It’s fun to watch a season of other people’s blunders; a lot more enjoyable than going through a season like that ourselves.

        There are days, however, I wish the real world really was like The Real World. Even if it’s only make-believe, I wish someone would sponsor my life for a few months. A posh crib in a cool city, a set of new friends and a big project sound pretty great. If the only things I had to worry about every day were getting along with a few obnoxious roommates and trying not to make a you-know-what out of myself on national television, life wouldn’t be so bad.

        But I don’t live in The Real World. I live in the real world without the deluxe accommodations or cameras making me famous. I can’t just be an audience member watching other people make mistakes; I am a participant who is learning most of life’s lessons the hard way. When the rent is due, I have to pay it. When I want to eat, I have to cook it. When the sponge by the kitchen sink smells sour, I have to bleach it. It’s real life. Every day.