Twentysomething: I’m in 17th grade

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By Ryan Healy — Most of my friends would love to run their own business some day. Me too. However, we believe the first logical step is to get a few years of work experience, make connections, and save money.

A couple of months ago, my good friends from college, Matt, Cole and Adam, came to visit for the weekend. These three want none of that work experience I’m talking about, so they are opening up a sandwich shop in a college town.

The first thing Adam said when he saw me was, “What does it feel like to be in 17th grade?”

He was referring to the fact that I live in an apartment complex with hundreds of other “young professionals” who are basically living the same boring (his words) lives. At first I laughed it off and told him that he was just jealous that I was making money and could afford to live in a nice place like this.

But after thinking about it, I understand what he means. I more or less live in an adult dorm, albeit a super-sized and super-expensive dorm. Every morning I wake up and put on a suit, or as my buddies call it, a “uniform.” I walk to the subway with all the other young workers or “students,” and I take the subway or “school bus” to work, or as Adam would say, to “17 th grade.”

I have to admit, thinking about post-college years in this way can make me question why I am doing this instead of pursuing something I love. But I have chosen to take a different perspective about this whole 17th grade idea.

Of my college friends, about half are in graduate school. They are in 17th grade much like me; however they are paying for it while I am being paid, and I’m learning how to live in the real world at the same time.

I do not consider myself to be an adult. Whether you think there is something wrong with this or not, it’s a fact. And I would say it’s safe to assume that if you took an inventory of recent college grads in the workplace or grad school, the majority would give you the same answer. I don’t know when or if I am supposed to be an adult. I’m thinking it will be around the time I start a family.

Because of this, I guess you could say that my company has replaced my parents as my support system. They provide me with money to put a roof over my head, they pay the insurance companies to cover most of my medical needs, and instead of asking mom and dad for my weekly allowance, I just wait for that good old bi-weekly paycheck to appear in my bank account.

I try to learn something from everything I do. This so-called 17th grade is just what it sounds like — an educational opportunity for me to master before I graduate to the next phase of my life or the next “grade.” What that grade will be, I have no idea, but I hope to figure it out while I’m here. It might be my own business, it might be a management position in a small company, or it may have absolutely nothing to do with business at all.

My ideal 17th grade will teach me how a successful company runs, how to improve my public speaking skills, and how to work with and eventually manage a diverse group of people. The question I ask myself is, which company or “school” as my buddies would say, will provide me with the best “education?”

22 replies
  1. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    Hi Ryan

    You’re right to look at what you’re doing at the moment as another learning experience. It probably is much as what your friends in grad school are doing, only paid. But I don’t agree that your friends who are opening a sandwich shop aren’t doing the same thing. They’re just doing it in a different sort of school again, one that’s even more applied or hands on than yours or your grad school friends. It’s certainly one that involves the most degree of risk – but isn’t that the kind of venture which sometimes involves the steepest learning curve as a result?

    Ultimately we all learn in different ways, and if your way involves the security of being paid to live in dorm-style accommodation and wear a uniform, then that’s fine. I guess it comes down to asking what kind of degree you’d like to graduate with, or what kind of peer group you’d be proudest to have as an alumnus.

    And maybe NOT being an adult is the best reason of all for your friends to have a bash at running their first business now :)

    Keep up the posts – I’m enjoying them as much as ever.



    Thanks for the comment.  I completely agree that my friends opening the sandwich shop are also in “17th grade.”  To tell you the truth, they are probably learning more from their small business then I am learning at the bottom of the ladder in a large corporation.  I still don’t know if I made the best decision by choosing the “secure” route as you point out, but it’s the decision I made and I may as well learn from it.


  2. Humaira
    Humaira says:

    Ryan, great post! It’s kinda struck a cord with me as I’m finishing my final year of my degree, and for one of the modules we have to start a business. The whole process has made me want to do it in the future, after as you say some experience and money to do it.

    But, I agree that I’m going to be moving to a different “grade” or school. During my first job application I sort of felt like I was being shown around a new school, and I think once I start looking for work that will be the case.

    Good luck with whatever grade you go to at the next level!



    I’m glad you liked the post.  Experience and money are important, but according to my friends who skipped the whole process, they are not necessary.  I’m starting to think they are right.  Good luck with the job search and your future business.


  3. Caroline Jack
    Caroline Jack says:

    >I do not consider myself to be an adult. Whether >you think there is something wrong with this or >not, it's a fact. And I would say its safe to >assume that if you took an inventory of recent >college grads in the workplace or grad school, the >majority would give you the same answer.

    My friends and I have discussed this one quite a bit. Being in our late 20s and early 30’s, none of us feel like adults.

    Here’s my theory: the adults we see most when growing up are our parents. Somehow we get this idea that we won’t be adults until we start acting like them. In my case, this would involve some compulsive coupon-clipping and wearing those bizarro skirt-pant-combo-items my mom calls “coolottes”. Yikes.

    When I hit 30 last year, I knew that I could no longer avoid calling myself an adult. The big leap, for me, was realizing that “this is what an adult can be like (and look like), too”.

  4. Potres
    Potres says:

    I don't have a problem with being in the 17th grade as long as that is helping me learn what I need to achieve my career goals. Even when I'm 40 if I decide to make a drastic career change I wouldn't mind going back to 18th grade as I long as that helps me improve and get better at what I'm doing.
    My problems with being in 17th grade start when I have to wait for June to graduate even if I can work hard and cover a whole syllabus by March. I think that ties back to Penelope's post "Paying dues is so old school". If your manager doesn't feel comfortable giving you more responsibility just because you've been out of college for only 6 months and you haven't pay for dues yet, that has nothing to do with learning and being good at what you're doing. In other words if you are in 17th grade, not because you need more classes, but because that is what people do in first 12 to 18 months of their first job, than opening a sandwich shop makes a perfect sense.

  5. RT
    RT says:

    “I do not consider myself to be an adult. Whether you think there is something wrong with this or not, it's a fact. And I would say its safe to assume that if you took an inventory of recent college grads in the workplace or grad school, the majority would give you the same answer. I don't know when or if I am supposed to be an adult.”

    I feel the same way. At times I feel like I am just “playing adult” like small children “play house”. I’m married and own my own home, and I still feel this way. So, I don’t know that you’ll start feeling like an adult when you start having a family.

    I feel it may hit more when the people I have around me at work start getting younger and younger.

  6. Mick
    Mick says:

    If you asked most of the senior citizens that you know, they would tell you that they also don’t feel like adults. I’m in my early 30s, but I’ve talked to many people much older than I am and most feel like teenagers in older bodies.

    That said, I think your point about various educational paths beyond college is important. People often get bogged down in the idea that their first job after graduation has to be an iron-clad career path. Those that realize it’s really just another learning experience (whether it’s launching a new venture or being a suit in an office) will ultimately benefit the most and have more luck in finding fulfillment in their jobs.



    It’s really interesting to hear that people in their 30’s still don’t feel like adults.  If anything, I expected people to tell me I need to grow up.  To get to your other point, I try to learn from everything I do, not just my job.  Those who choose stop learning after school are missing out on some great educational experiences.


  7. Greg
    Greg says:

    I started feeling like an adult when kids came (40). I think it was the knowledge of someone so utterly and completely depending on me. The decisions I make no longer affected just me and my wife. They affect someone who has to bear the consequences of the wrong decisions I make.

    If a "real" job is 17th grade, children are the doctorate.

  8. Nicole
    Nicole says:

    Coming from a “Twenty-something”, in response to considering oneself an adult or not, I do not consider myself an adult.
    That being said, what leads me to conclude that I am not an adult is not the number of years I have been on this earth, but the quality of how I deal with my responsibilities.
    The adult title is not rewarded to a person based on age, but by how they respond and react to their responsibilities. When a person is responsible for another person's well being, a very important responsibility, the way the person responds and reacts to this responsibility determines if this person deserves to be awarded the adult title.
    Of course, there are many other opinions on what determines adulthood. Common opinions include but are not limited to legally consuming an alcoholic beverage, legally operating a vehicle, having a child, going to college, and graduating college. My questions are: are these all not just different levels of responsibilities? And how is the level of competency with these various responsibilities not worthy of being considered with awarding the adult title? I'm sure everyone knows at least one person who is legally allowed to consume alcohol, but usually needs a "chaperone".
    Also, I'd like to point out that even with tremendous responsibilities many people have a negative connotation of the word “adult”. It refers to getting old, which most people quickly deny the accusation of. Truth is I'm scared to become an adult. I know I can handle many responsibilities with class and elegance, but I'm not so sure that means I don't need to be "chaperoned".

    As far as being in 17th grade – as long as I am progressing, or should I say “graduating”, to the next grade, I am content. That is not saying that “skipping grades” or any promotion/entrepreneur achievement wouldn’t be preferred. I am just focusing on making sure I never get “left back”.

  9. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    To further Nicole’s points above, I add three descriptors that support me and my coaching clients to consider their/our/my “adulthod”: (1) emotional maturity, (2) child-like behavior and (3)child-ish behavior.

    For me, an adult is one who is emotionally (and spiritually) mature, one who is self responsible, conscious and aware of the consequences of one’s actions, do-ings and be-igs; one who who is honest, sincere, and self-responsible, in integrity and shows up authentically in relationships…at work, at home and at play.

    There are “twenty-somethings” I’ve coached who are remarkably adult; and 40-50-60 somethings who are not so much.

    “Adults” can be very child-like, i.e., open and allowing, curious, seeking adventure, joyful, juicy, playful, etc. who explore life with a “beginner’s mind”, without assumptions, have a zest and verve for life, etc. at any age.

    And, there are those “older folks”, not “adults” who can be childish, i.e., recalcitrant, reactive, ego-centric, 3-4-5 year olds.

    So, for me, it’s not about chronology, single vs. married or partnered, or renting vs. having a 50,000 sq. foot home, or working on the first floor vs. the 43rd floor, or all the trappings and packaging and toys, etc.

    It’s about how consciously, self-aware, and self-responsible one can self-manage, self-regulate and be self-responsible vis-a-vis one’s relationship first, with one’s self, and then, with others (mentally, emotionally, physically, socially, financially, spiritually…). It’s whether one lives in harmony, that there is an alignment between what one thinks, says, feels and does and the wisdom of one’s life choices at work, at home and at play.

    It’s about whether one is aware of one’s purpose, why one is on the planet and one’s role in the larger community…at work, at home and at play.

    As some of my psychotherapist colleagues say, many, if not most, adults are really 3-4-5 year- olds in adult bodies and adult clothes.

    There’s adult…and there’s adult. What’s the difference?

  10. Jacqui
    Jacqui says:

    I read your post yesterday right before I walked into a meeting, thinking about how I don’t really consider myself an adult, either – almost to the point that I feel slightly untruthful when I call myself one.

    In my meeting, I was the youngest in the room by at least 15 years, yet I had to endure the most childish, immature (not to mention unprofessional) exchange of words I’ve ever seen.

    Peter is absolutely right (I hope) that adulthood has nothing to do with chronology, and I’m glad, because if what I witnessed is how adults act, I’d rather not be one.

  11. Max Maidak
    Max Maidak says:

    This idea of 17th grade has been in my head for a while. It seems to me that you are very comfortable being institutionalized. A corporation, particularly a very large one, bears remarkable resemblance to a total institution; you describe it very much like boarding school.

    I am currently working on an essay about this topic here:

    hopefully some helpful souls that can point me towards some empirical research regarding this topic; particularly in regards to institutionalization and hierarchical structures; see

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