There is no worse feeling than believing you wasted your time on something that was supposed to be good for you. Unfortunately, for many university graduates, this is actually pretty common. A Gallup poll from last year revealed 36% of Americans regret their college major entirely, and a whopping 51% wish they could go back and change something about their college experiences. In this particular article, one woman reported that she felt disappointed because she wasn’t actively using her English B.A. in her current job. At a glance, this paints a pretty negative picture of reality — but that is only if you assume your work has to be relevant to your degree for it to benefit your life.
In fact, after my own college graduation, I spent three years working various jobs in the food service industry. Some of my positions included cashier, barista, hostess, and waitress. And while my initial reason for taking these jobs was out of pure necessity (my bills didn’t care where the money came from), I grew to appreciate them for other reasons. It turns out that my decision to not immediately pursue a career in my field after graduation had a positive impact on my life as a young professional. Looking back, that time working ordinary jobs served as a productive period of self-discovery and personal growth — arguably more than anything I experienced during my actual college years. And while I know this choice probably doesn’t appeal to everyone (I’m sure someone reading this is appalled that I didn’t use those three years to get an MFA), I know that it did a lot of good for me, and I think it could also be great for somebody else. So if your college degree currently serves no purpose other than starting conversations or decorating your home office, I’m here to let you know that’s perfectly fine.
Here are 5 benefits I experienced from working jobs where my B.A. didn’t matter one bit:
1. It gave me the space to consider if I even liked working in my field
In 2012, I made money exclusively through my barista and hostess gigs. If I did anything remotely related to what my film degree would have hoped, it was on my own time (and largely, my own dime). After spending months participating in unpaid film projects (many of which I’m so grateful are NO longer on the internet), I came to this conclusion: Doing the thing you “love” on the side for free really gives you some perspective on whether you actually like that thing at all.
In my case, I began to understand my interest in the film industry (and probably my reason for majoring in it) was largely the result of fantasies I had about what it would be like to work on movies. It wasn’t based on anything real, like whether I enjoyed sound design or cinematography. Sure, I liked contributing to these projects and being surrounded by other intelligent, creative people. However, deep down, I couldn’t see myself diving in and pursuing it for life. And once I figured out that my interest level clearly wasn’t where it should be, I began to consider other paths, like writing (which I did for free for over a year and still love to this day).
Sometimes we don’t realize that we need a change until we remove ourselves from a particular environment. Whenever I look back on that time, I am so thankful the job that sustained me — the place I spent 40+ hours in every week — was completely unrelated to my film degree. I know that had I earned even the slightest bit of compensation from these film projects, or dove straight into an entry-level production gig, I likely would have taken much longer to admit that this wasn’t the right path for me.
2. I learned what I was actually good at
It can be very easy to fall back on your title as a degree holder when you’re unsure of how you can actually contribute to the world. I used to believe I was super qualified to do a lot of things that I was actually clueless about, simply because I had read about them in school. Through waiting tables and serving coffee, I very quickly learned that while knowledge is power, labor is what actually gets shit done. Nobody in my restaurant cared that I had a well-rounded understanding of the global media industry and a 3.7 cumulative GPA. What mattered in the restaurant world was way different: Could I sell things? Could I talk to different people and large groups comfortably? Could I make drinks to standard every time? Could I keep it together when a difficult table decided to leave no tip?
It was so important for me to develop an understanding of what I could actually do in a work environment independent of academia. Although I held part-time jobs while I was a student, I never made a conscious effort to become aware of my strengths and weaknesses, let alone how to improve them. After my first few months waitressing, I learned I was great at handling stress and multitasking, but very mediocre at selling. Because my compensation was entirely based on my individual performance in those areas, I pushed myself to adapt and get better at those skills. Now, I’m not saying a person can’t come to know their professional strengths in a job that is directly related to their studies. However, for me, knowing my degree provided no real advantage helped me achieve some clarity about my abilities.
I should also that add during that time, I became aware of other skills I hadn’t yet acknowledged or put to use. Remember how I mentioned in the last section that after giving up on film production, I found out I loved writing? That realization came from trying to start a freelance career with pretty much zero journalism experience or connections. Once my work started getting accepted by editors and publications I admired, I started believing that writing was something I was halfway decent at and capable of pursuing. I know if I had worked any other career level job, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to try it.
3. It allowed me to focus on getting my sh*t together because I didn’t have any emotional ties to my job.
Look, I loved my co-workers. I loved my managers. And yeah, to some extent, I actually enjoyed talking to guests, taking their orders, and watching their faces light up when their food arrived at their table. However, I never, ever, for a moment considered food service to be anything but temporary for me. I was 100% in waitressing for the money and could care less about what happened there when I wasn’t working. Yes, I hustled hard for my tips, but once I clocked out, I disconnected from that world completely. This left me totally free to emotionally and mentally invest myself in other things outside of work.
I say this is important because I know people who take immense pride in what they do for a living, especially when they’ve studied for years to acquire a position. In some ways, this sense of obligation a great way to stay motivated. However, this can also lead to an astonishing lack of work-life balance. In America alone, 54% of full-time employees who have paid vacation packages avoid using them out of fear that they will be replaced. If we consider that this 2014 Gallup poll showed that 70% of college graduates get a sense of identity from their job, then the last statistic isn’t at all surprising.
Throughout my time in food service, I never felt guilty about focusing on myself when I needed it — and boy, did I need it. I was perfectly content taking time off, traveling, and putting my extra energy into my writing. That lack of attachment was liberating. Obviously, I know those statistics don’t reflect the case for everyone, and I think if you’re lucky enough to land a job that’s related to your studies, pays well, and fulfills you, hold on to it. But personally, I think it can be extremely beneficial to have a job with only one purpose: making money.
4. I gained legitimate skills and a unique experience to talk about in my cover letter
Not to sound like your Grandma or anything, but I’m a firm believer that customer service skills are extremely valuable in a world that’s becoming more and more automated. Yes, it’s very cool that we can figure out most of our burning questions about the world and look up things like how to assemble Ikea furniture on our smartphones (thank goodness for that, actually). But sometimes it’s nice to talk to an actual human being who understands us. Service industry jobs are massively underrated, which I find interesting because this report claims their demand is expected to increase in the coming years. For this reason, I will never take my waitress and barista experience for granted. Those basic tenets of customer service and selling — empathy, clear communication, and anticipating needs — have remained invaluable skills that I still find myself applying in my professional life today. In my current teaching position, I am constantly selling the material in new ways so the students stay interested and see it as valuable. And when it comes to my writing, especially with developing branded content, I approach it with a service mindset.
Of course, sometimes the skills you gain from a job don’t necessarily translate into your next role. Sometimes they simply help you with life. For instance, I fully credit talking to strangers and regulars at my coffee job for pushing me to crawl out of my shell and be more confident. To the naturally social crowd, that might not count as a “skill,” but for the shy person I used to be, it most certainly was. Ultimately, the takeaway is this: Never underestimate what ANY job can do for you. I’ve had more employers express interest in me because of my unique background than people express concern over the fact that I don’t have eight years of production or publishing experience.
So if you’re ever worried about not having X amount of years experience in your field, try this instead: Think of what you can do now that you couldn’t do before your current job, no matter how insignificant it may seem. You might surprise yourself (and an interviewer) with how much you’ve learned.
5. I stopped putting the idea of a dream job on a pedestal and started to genuinely appreciate what I had
Often, we have a tendency to romanticize the idea of a job the same way we can romanticize the idea of a person when we’re in love. Unsurprisingly, this mindset can lead us to chase things that sound like the best damn ever on paper, but in reality, are so wrong for us. Consider this quote from a 2014 Forbes article by Neil Howe:
Millennials would rather hold out for the best job. Unlike young Boomers and Xers, many Millennials would rather take an internship with the hopes of scaling the ladder at an existing business rather than risk being shut out of their desired field or venturing out on their own.
“Hold out for the best job.” It kind of sounds like the idea of finding a soulmate, doesn’t it?
The idea of a dream job is alluring because it’s supposed to be the payoff for investing in your education — proof that work can be more than just work. At the same time, it places a massive amount of pressure on a person to only go after that one thing, and consequently, see every other option as settling. Tying your happiness and self-worth to a job like that is only a recipe for continued disappointment for the rest of your life. To this day, I have friends who are extremely underappreciated, underpaid, and unsatisfied in their careers, but who justify staying because it’s somewhat related to what they studied. They can’t bear to think of the possibility of giving up on the dream.
Out of everything I gained from working in food service, I have to say that learning how to truly be humble was the most important. Part of that process included ridding myself of the belief that I was better than any line of work simply because I went to college. Sure, I never expected to be a waitress, but I wasn’t any less capable of being happy because of it. I didn’t need to have some fancy title for me to appreciate what I already had. I was grateful to have a paycheck, a solid network of friends, and a very small audience of people who liked the small number of stories I published online. Once I realized this, I stopped seeing my degree as a waste and started understanding what an immense privilege it was that I got to experience college in the first place.
To this day, I still have ambitions and things I want to accomplish with my life, but the dream job remains a distant myth for me. I believe waiting tables allowed me to see more possibilities for my future than just the one path I thought was right for me when I was a student. And although it may take more time for me to achieve those new goals, I’m not going to stop myself from being proud of what I’ve already accomplished.
After all, my life is still happening now, and every moment of it matters — even if my degree does not.
Savanna is a freelance writer in Northern California whose hobbies include all things theater and dog-related. She hopes for a world where avocados will be included in the price of her entrée and a 12-step program is widely available to people who obsessively collect air miles. Follow her on Twitter here.
Image via Unsplash