University taught me what a nut graf was, but it didn’t show me how to hustle. It introduced me to postmodernism, but it didn’t teach me how to deal with failure. In fact, the most important thing I learned during my college years was that what happens at university doesn’t necessarily have much to do with the real world. For me, college was just institutionalized purgatory while I worked out the direction I wanted my career to take.
I’d wanted to pursue a career in journalism ever since I’d seen Almost Famous in my early teens. I dreamed that, one day, I would be cherry-picked by Rolling Stone to go on a road trip with a raucous band with only the promise of good story and a meager check.
With that firm yet ludicrous goal in mind, I got started early. I did my first paid interview just a few days after I had graduated high school. A friend of mine was editing a small, free music magazine, and when one of his journalists bailed on a story last minute, he gave me a shot. Over the next few months, I reviewed the gigs and CDs no other journalists wanted to cover and started building a clip file of mostly garbage articles. I used that small wad of terribly overwritten prose to start writing for larger music magazines, and soon I was being paid to see shows, reporting backstage at music festivals, and slowly—with the help of great editors—figuring out how to write.
It’s common to take a “gap year” in Australia, which is a year off in-between high school and university that’s meant to make you grow up, decide a direction for your career’s compass, and get off the remote island we call home to see the rest of the world. While a lot of my friends chose to ride motorbikes through Vietnam or see how many beer halls they could blaze through in Germany, I was fortunate enough to spend time volunteering in India before slowly making my way to New York, where I scored an internship in the American bureau of an Australian magazine publisher. There, I completed menial tasks such as putting all the W. magazines since 1982 in chronological order and summarizing episodes of Oprah, Ellen, and The View for gossip magazine editors in Sydney. My role was affectionately known as “the trash filter,” but I didn’t care—I was learning on my feet. (That, and Rolling Stone Australia‘s US editor sat just three desks away.)
By the time I returned home and started university when I was 19, I was regularly writing articles for a small cohort of music magazines around Australia. I arrived excited to learn alongside a cohort of smart, sharp-witted students and hone my chosen profession under the guidance of some of the best journalism professors in the country.
But as classes got underway, I started to question whether putting all my effort into my schoolwork was going to pay off in the real world. It was a strange time to be in J-school. Internet journalism was on the rise, but no one was quite yet sure what to make of it. One lecturer openly admitted that what he was teaching us would be totally irrelevant in two years’ time. I remember showing another tutor how to use Twitter. Meanwhile, newspaper circulation figures were plummeting and magazines were shedding staff members like a second skin. I worried that if I prioritized school, I’d be falling even further behind in an increasingly cutthroat industry. I was learning from my professors, yes. But I was learning a lot faster by working—and making mistakes—as a young reporter in the outside world.
I realized I had a choice. I could spend three hours polishing my essay for my Advanced Print Reporting class so I could get an A instead of a B+, or I could use that extra time to to pore over my favorite magazines, absorbing their tones and styles, and scouring their websites for information about how to submit pitches. Instead of devoting time to writing for the on-campus newspaper, I could send dozens of cold-call emails a week to new editors around Australia. I decided to do the bare minimum I needed to get by with a steady GPA, and spent every other drop of energy I had on advancing my career on the outside.
By the end of my first year at university, I had become a staff writer at a culture website. By the end of my second year, I was offered my first job at a real-life magazine. I spread out my final year of university over 18 months to accommodate my full-time job, and by the time I graduated when I was 21, I was securing national exclusives with the likes of Henry Rollins and Sigur Ros, and waking up in the middle of the night to interview Cat Power in her beach house in Miami. According to my 17-year-old self, I had made it; Cameron Crowe, eat your heart out.
At the same time many of my friends were graduating and fighting over the same internship placements, I had bought myself a five-year head start. I had not waited for opportunity to come to me once my degree was in my hand—I branched out earlier and took control of my fate.
Of course, some of this is specific to the arts; if you want to be a doctor or go to law school, you’re likely going to have to put academic achievement over skipping class to sneak into press conferences. But there are many other professions where experience matters a lot more to your future employers than your GPA.
This isn’t to say that university years are for naught. If you’re planning on entering a profession that will value life skills over scholarly acclaim and on-campus activities, college gives you three to five years to experiment and learn from trial and error. For students in this category, it makes sense to stop stressing over a single lackluster test score or making obsessive notes in textbook margins. Instead, spend that extra energy working out the practical steps you need to take to get the career you want.
University gave me an excuse to look around, survey the landscape of journalism, and plan my professional path. As it turned out, the first step was going off campus.