On the “Real World”

English teacher Hal Ebbot reflects on what the Real World is...and isn't.

With graduation looming, I’ve been hearing people talk about the “Real World” a lot these days—usually in the context of what something isn’t. For example: “Peddie students don’t live in the Real World.” And maybe that’s true. But I think it’s also true that when people use this phrase—the “Real World”—they usually have no idea what they’re talking about.

It’s possible, of course, that I don’t know what I’m talking about either. But I suspect I have a better idea than some of you, if for no other reason than that I got a head start.

First, let’s clear up some areas of confusion.
  1. College isn’t the Real World. Not even close. Not even a little bit.
  2. In the Real World you still procrastinate important things—and somehow it usually turns out OK.
  3. In the Real World mean people are sometimes still cool and successful. Sometimes things don’t balance out—even in the long run.
  4. In the Real World you don’t always face consequences for things you do (even when you should).
  5. In the Real World sometimes you still feel self-conscious.
  6. In the Real World sometimes you still feel uncertain.

There’s one major thing though, I think, which sets the Real World apart from the life you’re living right now—and this is it: in the Real World you have to start thinking and caring about other people more than yourself. Consider what your life is about at this moment. Right now (in school) your entire job is literally to make yourself as good as possible; the only thing you’re supposed to do is figure out how to be the best at self-improvement. It’s no wonder, then, that you (high school students) are by and large so selfish. But it isn’t your fault, exactly; it’s kind of the way you’re supposed to be. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t celebrate those of you who are the best at making yourself good at stuff. Sure, it’s nice if you help other people out along the way; but that’s mostly an incidental benefit. If you look at the vast majority of our awards and ways of measuring success, they all center on who figured out how to make themself the best.

In my experience, however, the thing that makes the Real World the realest is the fact that I don’t get to only think about Me anymore. Of course that doesn’t mean I’m not selfish in certain ways (I am) or that I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about myself (I do)—it just means that things are more complicated than just that, and when I think about the work I have to do on a given day, ultimately most of it isn’t about Me. This is good news and its bad news. It’s bad news because it can be unsettling and unpleasant when you arrive in the Real World and you can’t be as selfish anymore. Being selfish is easy. And fun.

Luckily, however, the good news outweighs the bad: because what I’ve found—and what I’m happy to report—is that it feels good not to be (as) selfish, even if it takes some getting used to. I like myself more now than I did when I was like you, when my only job was to figure how I could make Me better. These days part of my thoughts are devoted to what’s best for other people, and the weird thing is that somehow that winds up being good for me, too.

Sometimes when we talk about the Real World we talk about like it’s a place to be afraid of.

Sometimes when we talk about the Real World we do so in a longing kind of way.

And the truth, I guess, is that both ways are the right way.