Life experience: how to?
September 30, 2007 7:00 PM   Subscribe

I need life experience. But I haven't a clue where to start.

First a little background. I know what you're thinking, I need life experience so I need to go live life. Well, I'm 19, male, lived in the same house for that long, and have never done anything worth while. I guess thats because I've always adhered to what my parents wanted or what they thought that I wanted.

It's taken to long to think for myself but I wow do I feel liberated. But the thing is, I feel left behind. People everywhere have seasoned their likes and dislikes and I'm left only with the most superficial enjoyments. I need somewhere to start.
I've been thinking about moving outside of the country(usa) and taking up school, but to where? I really have no clue what to do with myself and I'm becoming more and more frustrated. I can do the safe thing and just go off to the same college my brothers attended, but why? Should my decisions be largely affected by my parents, or am I right in thinking about doing what I want?
What's keeping me from doing anything is a fear of wasting time. This will be my third semester at community college, and I can't help but think this ironic. I have a little money saved up, but instead of looking for adventure and returning home, I want something more permanent. From there I could decide to do whatever.

I've lurked and I feel privileged to be able to ask such an intelligent community.
posted by alexplainlater to Society & Culture (31 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
You need to leave school and work a year.

I'm serious. It's time to leave the sandbox and see what life is really like, and there's no better way to do that at your age than to work a full time job.

Leaving the country etc is just a way of trading one sandbox for another. It's time for you to be an adult.

"fear of wasting time" -- say what? It's your time, you can use it for what you want to use it for. Since when is there some sort of schedule on your life, and who imposed it on you?

Don't be afraid to waste time. Or rather, don't be afraid to spend time on things that don't seem to look "useful" or "important". You may discover, on retrospective, that they were very useful or very important -- and that's the point. The "life experience" you seek, that broadening, is precisely what you'll get from doing things that right now you don't think are useful. If you stick to what you know, you won't get that broadening.

When I was 18 I spent a year working in a book warehouse. I think it was one of the best things I could have done at that age.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:11 PM on September 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

I didn't leave the country, but I did move to a totally different part of the US for college. I've never regretted that; I met a different set of people, lived in a different climate, etc.

It sounds as if you're comparing yourself to your brothers, or that someone else is doing this for you. Trying to meet other people's expectations of you is going to cause you untold amounts of suffering down the road.

It really doesn't matter what you choose to do, or what you "accomplish." What matters is that your heart is in it, and that it reflects who you are.
posted by desjardins at 7:13 PM on September 30, 2007

Oh, and I agree with Steven. I worked for several years before attending college (not because of any grandiose plan, but because I was fucked up). Anyway, when I did get to college, I had sufficient perspective about the world of dead-end jobs, and thus I truly enjoyed studying.
posted by desjardins at 7:15 PM on September 30, 2007

Get a retail job.

Really. Bookstore, grocery store, whatever. You will be exposed to a huge range of people (especially at something like a grocery store, since everyone buys food, but not everyone buys a washing machine or an Armani suit), you will bond with your coworkers over the stupid things customers do, and some of those bonds will turn into friendships.

Don't do this for more than a year or so, or you'll end up burnt to a crisp. But for a year? Yeah, you'll gain some life experience. And you can get retail work pretty much everywhere.
posted by rtha at 7:17 PM on September 30, 2007

I'm not sure what your money situation is, nor do I completely agree with moving out of the country for a year - but I'm seconding the "get a job for a year" idea. Just make sure that you get back into the swing, go to college, and get your degree SOONER than later. It's hard to go back to school after you work for a year or more.

My advice, if you're set on not going to school right away, would be to find somewhere beautiful and live/work there for a year. My goal is to end up somewhere mountainous and green - you might get yourself on the right foot by starting OUT there.

YMMV, of course. Good luck. A four-year U is also a pretty great life experience. I wouldn't have changed mine for the world.
posted by jimmyhutch at 7:17 PM on September 30, 2007

Rest assured-- you're living your life and gaining life experience(s) in your own unique way... which is pretty much all any of us can aspire to. Do what feels right to you (not your parents) and don't worry too much about the rest of it. Many of us feel we're wasting time--and knowing exactly what to do with your life is a rare thing (I still haven't gotten that figured out and I am three decades older than you).

Go with your instincts and let the wind blow you where it will... it really doesn't make a whole lot of difference in the end.
posted by idest at 7:19 PM on September 30, 2007

Transfer to a four-year university that offers co-op work experience, preferably four four-month terms. Seek out co-op placements outside the city where you live or are going to school. You'll gain a lot of growth while financing your education and getting work experience.
posted by acoutu at 7:21 PM on September 30, 2007

At 19 no one has seasoned likes and dislikes, just pretentious poses that will not identify with 5 or 6 years down the line. Someone's hardcore anime fetish or bukowski quoting will be an embarassing footnote at 30. So dont stress it. At worst youre a late bloomer, which is a good thing as you peak when youre older and wiser.

Well, no one likes community college. Its a stepping stone to a real college. Why arent you in one? Can you get into one? Have you picked a major? Focus on getting into a school far from home if you can afford it. Then you try stuff like Peace Corps.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:22 PM on September 30, 2007

check out great way to learn about yourself, help out people, live somewhere new, make a small amount of $, and make a difference.
posted by tarantula at 7:23 PM on September 30, 2007 [3 favorites]

I would say skip out of school for at least a year, if not forever. The most interesting people I've met have had either no college education or have little bits here and there. Notice I didn't say the richest people I've ever met, but you pays your money and takes your choice.

One thing I'd suggest is the idea of working on organic farms. Whether or not you are interested in the ideals of that is one thing, but it's really solid, hard work and you'll learn a lot about yourself. There are networks of organic farms in the United States and many in other countries. Google "WWoof" willing workers on organic farms. I'm serious. It's a good thing to do.

I really really really regret going to college when I did. The only reason I did was because I was scared of the alternatives. Which were all the unknown but cool things I wanted to do. Now I'm backtracking and doing those things but it's harder when you are 32 and all the cute girls that are doing them are 20. Just a thought.

Good luck to you.

posted by sully75 at 7:39 PM on September 30, 2007

Don't focus on wasting time, outside of briefly considering the financial implications (debt load, benefit of getting a degree earlier, etc). Until I was about 24, it felt like I should be a specific schedule, but after that I realized how crazy that was.

While I think work experience is important, you're likely be able to get a job in the summers or in between schools.

Also consider the balance of experiencing a broad variety of things and building relationships and community.

Personally, I'd focus on looking at four-year schools outside of your immediate area, ideally in a location that you might be interested in living. You can study abroad possibly from there, or teach abroad after graduation. (Caveat -- I'd consider working/work program such as cityyear, etc if you don't know what you want to major in yet, and you may want to work in an area where a specific major is required.)
posted by ejaned8 at 7:45 PM on September 30, 2007

Learn to spend at least half an hour a day in aimless wandering.
posted by flabdablet at 7:57 PM on September 30, 2007

Wow, you sound a lot like me! I don't have much more life experience than you do, but maybe I can share some advice.

I finished high school at 16 and was too young, spineless, and sheltered to do anything other than follow my parents' set plans and go to my hometown university and study electrical engineering just like my dad and my sister, despite having almost no interest for the subject and offers of full-ride scholarships to better schools.

Needless to say, I regretted it, but it wasn't the end of the world. Moving out of the house at 18 against my parents' wishes was the first good thing I did to gain life experience; I suggest you do too as soon as you can. I went off to China for a couple months in summer, learned Chinese, traveled, and met a lovely girlfriend from Europe who was also studying the language. It was so fun I did it again the next summer. That was the second good thing I did to gain life experience. Being on your own in a foreign country and traveling and backpacking about are a great way to meet people and develop all kinds of life skills. The best thing is, I didn't waste any time because I did it in summer. None of the companies I'm interviewing with seem to care I didn't do any boring internships instead. However, I did need to do some part-time work to finance living on my own and traveling to China; luckily, my work was internet-related (so I worked from home and didn't have to do that much actual work). Internet-related or not, I think that working part-time helped me gain some life-experience as well.

Now I'm 20 and graduating from my EE program. I still don't have too much interest in the subject, but it turns out my degree and foreign language skills qualify me for all sorts of interesting work unrelated to engineering! There's also the possibility of going into other fields in grad school - I'm applying to programs in financial engineering, which involves all the quantitative skills needed in engineering (which I like) but none of the fiddling around with electronic junk (which I don't like). I also have a bunch of solid job opportunities with engineering firms to fall back on if all else fails.

If there's one other thing I would mention, have fun and gain life experience, but keep up your grades in college. People say they don't matter, but they've certainly been a big help for me in applying to grad school and getting job offers. Of course, I'm in a technical discipline, so YMMV.

So even if you end up following the beaten path for the first few years, it's not the end of the world - you'll find your own way sooner or later. Good luck!
posted by pravit at 7:58 PM on September 30, 2007

Well, this is a hard question to answer, since the answer depends on what would be substantial and satisfying for you, and people will have different experiences with this. Some people might want to learn to write or play an instrument, while others want to find God or join the military, or travel, or read up on the history of Western Philosophy, or get into a bunch of messed up romantic relationships. Or organize poor voters, or learn to heal the sick, or spend some time in the mountains. What appeals to you? What would seem worthwhile to do?

I do think that going away to college can be a good idea, since it gives you a lot of options as you choose majors and clubs and social scenes; however there are other options as well. If you're not sure what you'd find interesting or fulfilling, pick an option and run with it. You can alway switch direction later, but it's enormously helpful to build some momentum early, even when you're not sure about the final destination.
posted by washburn at 8:22 PM on September 30, 2007

Washburn mentioned it in passing, just as I was about to point out that the most obvious answer had not yet come up: put in a couple of years in the Armed Forces. It is very good for focusing your attention on the things that are important.

Joining the Air Force has an advantage, I hear. When they tell you you will be deployed for x number of months, that is how long you serve - unlike some of the other branches.
posted by megatherium at 8:26 PM on September 30, 2007

Firstly, at 19 you should not expect to have gained much life experience yet, so don't sweat that. The fact that you are asking this means you are at least willing to leave the nest and fend for yourself, so you get a big tick from me for that.

The advice I would give is to do whatever you want to do. If you want to continue your education and be all responsible and shit, do that. If you want to drop out of society and live in a tree to protest against logging of rainforests, do that. As long as you are living your own life and not being sheltered in any way, you will get experience. It takes time, though, so you need to be patient.

Most of all, enjoy yourself - don't stress about collecting experience like it is a full set of stamps - just get out there and live.
posted by dg at 8:27 PM on September 30, 2007

I'm sure someone above me has said this already. I'll add my perspective.

When I was 18 I left home and travelled overseas for a year. Worked in the UK, saved money, travelled, went back to the UK, worked, saved money, travelled again. Rinse, repeat.

Before I left I was fairly middle ground in all things. I didn't really have much of a sense of precisely who I was, what I wanted, who I wanted to be, etc. It's not like I went overseas and 'found myself', but I did go overseas and found out about myself. From always being within my comfort zone, I found myself in places with no one to rely on but myself, and I found (to my complete surprise) that I could handle it.

You don't have to go overseas. Money could be an issue for you. I do think you need to get out of your comfort zone. Out of home, out of town, out of the state, out of the country. I'd highly recommend overseas because the range of potential new experiences is much wider.

I wouldn't rush off to college unless you actually want to learn. Going there just for something to do could well leave you in debt and still with the same aimless feeling.
posted by twirlypen at 8:39 PM on September 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Honestly, it doesn't matter what you do. Just do SOMETHING. Do something different. Move out. Get a job somewhere unexpected. Not to sound all new-agey, but be a participant in your own life, don't just let it slide past you while you wonder "what if".

There's no such thing as "wasting time" if at the end of the time in question, a direction to go next becomes a little clearer to you. Don't be afraid to make tough decisions, and don't be constrained by your comfort zone.
posted by pdb at 9:03 PM on September 30, 2007

Go to school far away.

Alternatively, while it certainly doesn't appeal to me for a number of reasons, the Air Force might be entertaining. Plus, if they don't screw, blue, and tattoo you (and you're in the US), they'll hook you up with (some cash toward) college after your tour. I recommend the Air Force mainly because the toys are way cooler and have a much lower chance of putting you eyeball-to-eyeball with an enemy.
posted by Netzapper at 9:12 PM on September 30, 2007

Leaving your parents home will give you plenty of experiences.

Move in with some friends/strangers & share an apartment. That'll teach you something about paying bills, dealing with deranged flatmates & maybe having to arrange for a plumber to call when the water heater stops working. I hope that doesn't sound patronising, I was very green at 19, probably greener than most.

Travel is always good: even if you go somewhere different & don't much like it you'll have gained confidence in your ability to plan a trip & live independantly. So I'd suggest a month away. Over Christmas/New Year perhaps? I don't know when USA colleges give holidays.

Perhaps a trip to Mexico or another closeby country which is different enough to your home but is used to having at least some tourists visit. So there will be an infrastructure for travellers that you can hook into, no need to make the first few holidays overly intrepid. I rarely meet anyone who given the choice wouldn't have travelled more than they actually have done.

Without knowing anything about the USA education system, I think it's important that if you leave your college/school you do so at a point that you can (if you wish) rejoin later without too much hassle - in other words don't just leave in the middle of a school term because you've got itchy feet.

If you have to wait 4months (for example) before you begin your adventure use it to save a bit of cash & plan what you're going to do/where you're going to do it.

But do something/go somewhere new to you.
posted by selton at 9:20 PM on September 30, 2007

You can leave the country and work. It's what I did when I was nineteen. BUNAC can get you set up with a work visa in Britain, Ireland, Australia, and a few other places.

It's life experience out the wazoo.
posted by roger ackroyd at 10:31 PM on September 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

At 17, I left the parents house and left for college-- life experience #1

At 21, I left college, moved far away from my hometown and my college, and started working as a programmer-- life experience #2

At 22, I got burned out from programming and joined the Armed Forces (Army)-- life experience #3

At 23, I got deployed to South Korea-- 180degrees difference from the United States-- life experience #4

Now, at 24, I'm here for another year in South Korea, and I am more happy with my life than I have been in ages. I'm learning every day and having the time of my life. YMMV, of course.
posted by SeanMac at 1:25 AM on October 1, 2007


When I turned 20, I left for China. Originally planned to stay 6 months, ended up living here. Alone, in a country where I didn't speak the language. I had never been to a bar, disdained smokers, never taken care of myself (mom had awesome medical insurance - doesn't apply here!), never ridden a motorcycle, knew jack shit about the internet, had never had a serious girlfriend, never had a serious job, never had my own apartment, never cooked for myself, never dealt with broken appliances, never bought anything big-ticket, and never really did much of anything except read books and blather on the internet. I wasn't necessarily following my parents, but I wasn't following much of anything else either.

Now I'm a teacher/translator/god-knows-what-else jack of all trades sort, and making that move was the best damn thing I ever did. For me (so your mileage etc.), "life experience" has always come about as a result of boredom or been imposed on me. In short, it's all been an accident.

Don't choose something conventional, if you really want it. And working for a year? That's a waste of your time, if you ask me, when you have other options. You want hard work? Be an English teacher in Beijing. That's your backpacking experience without leaving home, because this city is a stop on tons of backpackers' to-do lists. Two-million odd tourists come through here a year, and then there's the diplomatic kids, long-term freaks (don't get me started about megaphone guy), locals of every stripe (it's the intellectual capital of China, and these people can get freaky), and all other manner of whatever. And you get working experience, and professional experience (this city is full of start-ups, local and non-, looking for able young bodies), and all that. The last 3 years living here has been amazing, every day of it. Someone just handed me a giant plastic bag of donkey spam. Literally, preserved donkey that you just squeeze out and eat. Could you even imagine something like that? Work experience, you'll get that. Life experience...all you want. Beijing's not a hardship posting, not a dusty hole in the middle of nowhere, it's a fantastic international city with wonderful people and places.

This post is turning into an advertisement for Beijing tourism. The actual point is, I never, ever would have found it had I not felt like I had nothing to lose by going overseas. I was bored and frustrated by my inexperience and parents' smothering. So not just a "year" overseas, but a state of mind: do ANYTHING better than what you're doing now, and you'll be pleasantly surprised.
posted by saysthis at 2:36 AM on October 1, 2007

Lots of advice in here about leaving the country, now while I dont 100% disagree with that, I'm not sure I would recommend it at your age/experience level. Sure, you could leave the country and throw yourself haphazardly into a completely foreign experience, but is that the most beneficial thing for YOU?...

At 17, I moved out of my moms house and out onto my own, got a full time job and started dealing with adult things (paying bills on time, buying/cooking my own food,etc, maintaining my own apartment and car) It was probably the best choice I ever made so far as it taught me alot about independence.

The best life experience advice I can give you is to try to learn something new every day. Big or Small, just try to learn something new that you've never heard of. New band or album, try a new food, drive down a street you havent driven down before, make small talk with people you meet (grocery store, bank teller, etc) When opportunities come along where people invite you to do something - GO DO IT. It may not work out, it may not be what you expected, but it'll be experience you can learn from.
posted by jmnugent at 3:03 AM on October 1, 2007

My son, after a year in private college on scholaship, left college for a year to wait tables. Earned himself enough to buy a nice car. Quit work to start back at college, this time at community college. Wrecked his car and realized if he wanted another one, he'd better get a job. So now he's working and attending class, saving up for a new ride.

He still lives at home but pretty much sets his own schedule (although since he is sharing a car- one that I own- with his younger brother since wrecking his, we want to know where he is, especially if staying out overnight). But I'm done telling him what to do except for when he asks specific questions. He's gotta figure it out.

He recently decided his current job is not generating enough money for the time invested so he's quitting that one and looking for a better-paying one.

He's still living at home, but since he dropped out of school he is learning that things just get handed to you in life; you have to work for them. *That* is life experience.
posted by Doohickie at 6:33 AM on October 1, 2007

...learning that things don't just get handed to you in life...
posted by Doohickie at 6:35 AM on October 1, 2007

Well I don't think you have to quit college to work. I worked nights and weekends in pubs and hotel bars when I was a high school and university student and it was great in many ways, from having cash to social opportunities to hanging out with a diverse bunch of coworkers and customers to having a marketable skill that I could (and did) use while travelling. On the other hand, you don't exactly sound enthused about your college course, in which case working at home or abroad might be a good break. And I agree that moving out, sharing a place with some other students or some new people would be a good step.
posted by jamesonandwater at 7:31 AM on October 1, 2007

Living on your own is good way to get yourself to start thinking independently. I think your life truly starts when you start thinking and doing independently.

Other than that, do things out of your comfort zone. Door-to-door salesman is pretty tough... just don't let it turn you into an fake person, outside of working hours.
posted by gttommy at 7:49 AM on October 1, 2007

When I was 20 I left school to work for a year, and have nothing but horrible memories from that time, centered around my as-of-yet inability to communicate. (Resulting in a job lost, forming no good relationships, etc.)

It wasn't until I was much older that I was able to look back on my college years and realize that I had no identity whatsoever during that time. So you're several up on me, 19 and already seeing it.

Read. Travel. If I could do it again I wouldn't take any time off school; I'd hurry up and get a degree so I could get on with things. By the time you earn your degree in whatever it is, you'll have a better idea what you really want to do, and then you can pick up a masters. (Or don't; I have a biology degree and earn my living as a production artist and web developer.) Incidentally, it was while I was in college that I started teaching myself how to code HTML (the internets were much younger then) and after six years in and out of school and *still* not interested in working in a lab, I simply decided to do web development instead, and that's what I do. These are things you can figure out along the way. That applies to career as well as basic interests and opinions.

For me, the basic rules of how to get a life (join a club! take a new class! go running in the park!) never work because I just don't enjoy doing anything I'm not already doing and it all seems forced and it's always a disappointment. However, the *awareness* that there is a problem helps heighten my senses. Senses to the people around me, the things around me (which might pique my interest), etc. So I think you're already on the right track.

But by all means, move out of your parents' house if you have the financial means. You don't have to go to another country, just get your own place.
posted by iguanapolitico at 8:17 AM on October 1, 2007

So you're having three options thrown at you here, basically, none of which are horrible ideas. Whatever you do, don't listen to your parents too much, you're getting close to the age where they really don't know what's best anymore than you.

1) More College. Good idea if you have something academic you like right now that you can see yourself trying out at a bigger school for a bachelors. If you're more lost than that, it will be a waste of money compared to other things you could do. Lots of people take 5 years or more to get their undergrad degrees in my state system, and changing your mind is fine, but it's good to go into it with some vague direction at least. Lots of the life experience in college is outside of class anyway, so go somewhere far away from home that has good vibes and a program of study that appeals to you that will let you transfer credits.

2) Going abroad. Good idea if you want to do the trial by fire method as saysthis did, and probably the fastest and most intense life experience many people have. Maybe not the greatest if you're scared by the very idea of moving to another state. Baby steps might be required first. Having your first real job in another country sounds tough but it can be done. Don't think it's going to be vacation, it won't.

3) Work. Safest and possibly the most boring option, but the easiest to change if you decide you don't like it. Everyone should have a shitty retail job once; at your point it's good on a resume, you could meet some cool people, and learn alot of good really basic skills that the other two options might not present as readily.

Any of these will get you some of that experience stuff. You can try them all before you're 25 or 30, too. You're going to think "shit, how do I write this paper/find food when I don't speak the language/deal with this nutjob customer?" and later you'll call it life experience. The important part is to expose yourself to that stuff, expose yourself to as many people as possible and listen to them critically and see what they can offer you.
posted by slow graffiti at 11:23 AM on October 1, 2007

What washburn said.

In particular, it seems to me a lot of people I know are busy pursuing what others might consider worthwhile, and a lot of others are busy dreaming about pursuing whatever it is they aren't pursuing at the moment (some change goals all the time, others just live in envy of what they think they should be doing).

Define your own goals, for your own reasons. Or, you know, what washburn said.
posted by Chuckles at 8:14 PM on October 1, 2007

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