The First 5 Years

I’ve been picking fights on Twitter and building up the website for my course at Carnegie Mellon next semester, but wanted to share this idea. As part of the StuCo (Student Taught Course) I’m asking my students to create a timeline of the highlights of the first 5 years after undergrad of someone they admire, who they think is successful in their field.

This serves three purposes, all a little sneaky. The first is to give them a source to mine for ideas for their own 5 year plans, which they’ll create next. The second is to help them think about what success means to them–when I ran that conversation last semester, everyone started with “success = money” and eventually sifted into more personal definitions (“success = a girlfriend” or “success = time and money to play StarCraft every night” or “success = getting to travel once a year”). The third is to give each of my students an excuse to explore, screw up, and keep going.

I find this exercise comforting the times I’ve done it. The summer after graduating Wellesley and before beginning to study law at Yale, Hillary Rodham Clinton worked her way across Alaska working in salmon canning operations. During law school, she alternated interning with radical civil rights lawyers and working political campaigns, all the while turning down future president Bill Clinton’s marriage proposals to build her own career. Five years after graduation, she had a law degree from Yale and was a member of the impeachment inquiry staff during the Watergate scandal.

This is all to say, when I start getting worried that one internship or job might make or break my ability to use my skills to help the most people possible while staying intellectually adventurous, I think of canning salmon and calm down.

Inspirational Quote:

“Do not follow where the path may lead. Go, instead, where there is no path and leave a trail.”–Ralph Waldo Emerson


  1. Why is Hillary so amazing? It’s so wonderful to hear that she had a “down” year. It’s so easy to forget that a lot of successful people meandered a bit as well. Having a plan doesn’t always mean driving along the same highway every time. Helpful and inspiring as always!

  2. Yay :-D. Even for the folks I profiled–Susan Rice, Rachel Maddow, Lawrence Lessig–who popped right into graduate school after undergrad, most have a few years in their first 10 where they do something wacky–do corporate work, co-host with Chuck D, clerk for Scalia–and they all turned out alright. I never worry about either of you making your mark on the world in the way you want to. 😀

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