4 Signs You’re a College Grad Avoiding Reality

by Alexander Heyne · 20 comments

As I take a few months off to explore the Philippines and Taiwan, I can’t help but feel that travel (particularly long-term vagabonding-style travel) is an escape, and sometimes only that.

It’s what so many of us use to put off (or escape) reality to some day over the rainbow. We put it on the back burner. “Ehh I’ll deal with it later,” we tell ourselves.  For the young that don’t have limits to our travel (beyond just money), it’s a little different. Technically we can keep traveling and not stop traveling.

As I meet people, travel and live my own life, I wonder how much of what we do is an attempt to avoid the real world. We avoid making the tough calls. We avoid the most important decisions until the last moment. We put off adulthood and the responsibility that “real” decision making entails.

So I’ve been thinking – have I been avoiding reality and attempting to buy myself time?

Signs that you’re avoiding your reality

You’ve been teaching English abroad. For three years…

You moved backed in with your parents. Two years ago. And only have been working a part time job.

You went back to grad school or got your MBA even though you’re not quite sure what you want to do.

Your circumstances, jobs, or location have changed but you are still on the same page of your story. 

Face it, you’re avoiding reality. 

If you’re teaching English I bet you figure “Why the hell would I get a corporate job just to pay for an expensive apartment back home, when I am living like a king here < insert random place in Asia > ?”

If you moved back in with your parents and have been chilling and partying with friends, taking it easy and sleeping in, I bet you figure “what’s the point of moving out and getting a ‘real job’ and making life so much more difficult when I can just chill and not pay rent like I am now?”

If you went back to grad school or got your MBA I bet you figured “Why not? I can get some sweet credentials, makes some sweet connections, and get a higher paying job. Plus my current job(s) blow, and I’m not quite sure what to do. I might as well go get another degree while I figure it out.” (Bet you forgot about the 100k debt…)

We try to justify all these actions but rarely do we sit down and think about how beneficial they’d be 3, 5, or 10 years down the line. We also rarely think about what we really want.

Will you really be teaching English for 5 or 10 years?

Do you plan on living with your parents and working at the video store till you’re 30?

Do you honestly think that paying 50 or 100k for grad school will magically clarify what you’ve always wanted to do?

For most of you I’d bet your answer is no. In other words, you’re stalling.

But here’s my question: are these really that bad?

The four types of people and their realities

As far as avoiding or responding to reality goes, I see four people on a yearly basis (meaning when I’m at home, and when I travel).

#1 Rockstars – people who ditch reality for good.

You know, the crazy uncle that lives in an RV and always has girlfriends and is always moving? Yep.

Got a friend who is kind of vagabonding and bumming all over the world, working odd jobs to pay his way around? Yep.

This group of people that “ditch” reality always seem to have a hard time coping or paying the bills and for whatever reason often fall into the stereotypically “irresponsible” category.

I know a “rocker” who probably will never settle down, will never truly feel like she’s found her place, who is okay with having just enough money to get by, and is totally fine with being a transient for most of her life.

#2 Emerging adults – people who put off reality short-term.

These are the people who end up moving or living abroad, backpacking, teaching English, doing teach for America, Peace Corps, etc.

Most of us go in search of adventure and change, but don’t really have intentions of actually doing that forever (even though we talk like we do).  We want a year or a few years of adventure before we head back to figure out what’s next regarding “reality.”

Most of us want semi “normal” lives after – marriage, kids, a job after our hiatus.

#3 The realist (corporate type) – people who jump right into reality and stay.

We’ve all got friends who went right to their first job post-college and are still there.

I’ve got multiple friends working banking jobs in NYC making great money working 70 hours a week. 99% of those people will never escape that reality for most of their life.  They often talk of escape but are too afraid of leaving what they have behind.

They drool when they hear about my constant “vacations” and trips abroad and can’t wait to escape. Most won’t.

#4 The discontent – people who have thought about, and figured out, their reality.

One example is a couple I know. The husband is Fijian, the wife is German. They mixed their realities by creating a resort on an island in Fiji where they now live.  None of them have 9 to 5’s or limited vacation time. They can do what they want.

I ended up meeting them because I did marine biology research at their resort in Fiji for 6 weeks — Lawaki beach house.

Another example is a friend I have who has his own business. His employees do the work while he makes sure the system runs smoothly (remember: run the system, don’t be a cog in it). He spends 9 months of the year traveling, and most of his other time is spent doing whatever he wants (usually traveling more for charities).

Are you putting off “life” because the life you’re gonna go back to sucks big time?

Are you putting off reality? In other words, are you fleeing your circumstances for the time being, even though you know you’re going to have to come back to them? Is what you’re doing going to bite you in the ass in a few years?

Do you want a family and kids… but you’re still on your third year of teaching English?

Do you constantly dream of world travel but can’t imagine leaving your salary and pad in NYC?

There’s obviously a discrepancy going on here…

Don’t get me wrong I’m all for “fuck it” travels that take you to all kinds of places because you’re ordinary life exhausts you. Do it. Take them. But if you’re 22 and doing “fuck it” trips, and then 25 and 30 and 35 and still doing them, you obviously haven’t figured out what’s going on underneath it all.

You haven’t sat down and figured out what you want and how you define success

You need to think about how you can have the best of both worlds.

The “real world” doesn’t have to scare you shitless

Going and living abroad, or teaching English, or backpacking and traveling, or vagabonding or bumming around won’t change shit once you get home.

The world is going to be as you left it. If how you left it was chaotic, messy, confusing, and unfriendly, that’s how you’ll find it.

If you left the world and it was scary and intimidating and impersonal, that’s how you’re going to find it once you go back.

The real world is supposed to be hard. College is easy. I don’t care if you got a 4.0 and were an honor’s student and won a dozen awards and accolades all while being on a sport’s team.  The real world is still harder.

If it’s easier, you’re probably being way too complacent. 

 So go off and ditch reality for as long as you want, but remember:

… reality will find you, and it will be twice the bitch it was last time you left it. At some point you have to confront your reality and seek to improve it or resign.

So take the “fuck it” trips, go off and vagabond and teach English or do the peace corps or live abroad. But remember that it is no substitute for thinking through why you do what you do. And those things won’t magically help you figure out what you want to do unless you sit down and think about what you want to do.

And remember that you can do anything, but you can’t do everything.

If being a vagabond and transient (by will) is what you want to do your whole life, know that you are consciously probably trading off the option of having and raising healthy, functional kids.

If you want to go off and be a rockstar, plopping around a new country every 2 years for the next 40 years, know that it in all likelihood it means you’re going to have to sacrifice your relationships for it and may never have a long-term relationship.

If you’re comfortably in your post-college job, with your apartment, plenty of money, but a feeling that life sucks and is pretty mediocre and meaningless - know that going home and wasting your time by watching TV or playing video games is just putting off your life.

You’re just postponing everything. Spinning your wheels. Killing time.  You won’t just magically figure shit out playing Call of Duty or watching Scrubs.

There’s no such thing as “buying time”

This always struck me as ironic.  In English, when we try to get extra time we say we’re “buying time.”

The problem is that each person’s time is finite, so by definition all you can do is spend time. Buying time is actually killing time.

Hopefully then we want to ask ourselves how we’re investing our time — because you can either waste it (where what you do won’t return anything to you), or you can invest it for a potential return.

You can travel and still be killing time.

You can have a job and an apartment and still be wasting your life.

You can teach English or join the peace corps and return home years later and truthfully be the same person in the same shitty circumstances if you never confronted them.

So if you’re a recent (or not so recent) college grad, ask yourself: are you killing your time or investing it? Are you dodging reality hoping it’ll magically be all unicorns and rainbows when you get back home?


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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Robin August 31, 2012 at 1:06 am

Why does reality automatically mean having kids?
More & more people are putting off kids altogether,
who can afford more kids nowadays?
And your selection of “realities” is painfully limited.
Have you ever heard of the military? Travel your whole
career AND learn skills AND maybe raise a family.
That’s what my parents did for 23 years and I guarantee
they’ve been places you never will. My father didn’t stop
globe trotting till he retired from the military at 45. Beat that.


afheyne August 31, 2012 at 11:58 am

Robin – I’m just making an assumption for 95% of humanity. 9/10 couples I know have kids, even if they live unconventional lives. Thus i’m writing for the majority of people I meet.

I agree, my selection of realities is definitely limited. It’s limited to my own experience which is definitely not all-encompassing.

The military definitely has some great travel and learning opportunities – although the military and foreign service families I’m familiar with often have problems with their kids long-term because of all the childhood disruption.

It’s quite possible your parents have been many places I have never been and never will be – that’s natural, not to mention that they’ve probably been on this earth twice as long as me. As for myself, traveling is a simple love and at age 25, I’m quite happy to have traveled 1/4 to 1/5 of the earth already. Lots more to see !

I don’t think it’s really a matter of competition or comparison – it’s for each person to live a lifestyle more aligned with what they enjoy, versus a typical “9-5 for 40 years” or “infinite vagabond” type model.


Ellen May 3, 2013 at 3:15 pm

I agree, your list of “types” is very limited and kind of ignorant. You’re only 25, you’re experience and knowledge about life is limited, even if you don’t realize it. The thing that bothered me most about this article though, was that you don’t offer any insight or solutions about the problem you’re discussing. You put people into two categories–either wasting time traveling, living with their parents, etc., or working too much in a job they hate. That’s really black and white. You go on and on about how lost and unhappy these people are, and how they are wasting their lives, but you don’t offer any ideas/insight into how to change that. You say they need to figure out what they really want but you don’t give any advice or ideas as to how they are supposed to do that. You are also overlooking the fact that traveling/teaching abroad could be a way to figure out more about yourself and what you really want. It’s not necessarily running away or avoiding real life. Teaching abroad for a year itself could be life changing and give a person insight into what they really want to do. Anyway, you sound pretty pretentious for a 25 year old. You talk like you have it all figured out, yet you don’t say anything about what you are doing that is better than what everyone else is doing. There is no wisdom in this article.


Alexander Heyne May 3, 2013 at 4:41 pm

Hi Ellen —

My point in writing this article was just as a general observation. There was no “this is the answer” because the answer changes for every person. My observation was that many of us choose two coping mechanisms – staying stuck in jobs, or just going off and traveling. But neither of them really solve our long-term problems. And I find a vast amount of unhappy people on both sides of the spectrum.

I don’t claim to have it all figured out.

I have many, many hundreds of posts on this site that have my proposed “answers” to this problem, keep looking around the site, for example a recent post here: http://milkthepigeon.com/2013/03/28/the-1-reason-youre-not-getting-what-you-want-in-life-and-how-to-fix-it/

I agree, traveling and teaching abroad have many merits and are great ways to figure out new things about yourself and life. No disagreement there.

Hope that answers your concerns.



Mat May 16, 2013 at 1:30 pm

The “real world” being the suburbs and 9-5 jobs most people aren’t happy in in the first place? For what reason does a person really need to go back to that “reality”? I assure you, tutoring Syrian refugees in Turkey in English and history, literature while missiles go off just over on the Syrian side is a “reality”. And what I and others are doing isn’t a fantasy or even an escape to the students I’m with. Humans from very different cultures sharing experiences, learning from one another in the midst of crisis is not a total fantasy.

I’m supposed to go back to a reality I find boring and predictable because you say what I and others are doing is “escape”? Try working some job you hate, going home to watching 3 hours of television and taking your anti-depressants. That’s a real escape and Americans of many ages actively engage in that every single day—because they don’t know what else to do and it’s what people have decided is socially acceptable. Engaging honestly and with interest in the world outside our nation’s borders is nothing to be ashamed about–even if you want to do it for 5 years, 10 years, 20, your whole life, or not at all.


Alexander Heyne May 26, 2013 at 11:19 am

Hi Mat,

You’re right, and you bring up many valid points. I’m with you 100% that the real escapism that many Americans deal with is the self-medication and self-loathing that goes together with a soul-crushing 9-5 lifestyle. No doubt in my mind.

Having said that, I also think (From my experience, and the people I’ve met), many people who go abroad to teach English just are avoiding their personal problems, rather than deliberating choosing it as a long-term lifestyle. In other words, they are running away from something. Not running towards something.

Does that make any sense?



Kyle December 24, 2014 at 1:50 am

Who says many Americans aren’t happy? Most people are pretty happy with their families, food in their bellies, and the ones they love around them


James S. August 17, 2013 at 11:25 am

I read this and agree for the most part. I graduated college and worked in a corporate cubicle job for 4 years after I was laid off in 2008 I had some kind of crisis about working like this again and decided to take a job teaching abroad. Now its been 5 years and im 32 and I am still teaching abroad. I am scared ****** of what the future holds and how to get back in to things back in America. What do you recommend I do now.


Alexander Heyne August 18, 2013 at 10:37 am

Hey James,

I think you should use this time to do one thing:

A. Figure out what kind of work you’re actually interested in.

If you know the cubicle life isn’t for you, figure out what is. Do you want to be an entrepreneur? Do you want to be outside for work? Do you want to be active?

Start calling up people abroad in those professions, ask them for their honest opinion on their work. What’s it like? Would they recommend it?

Start doing as much research and experimentation as you can now (better to shadow someone, or talk to them), so that once you go back you aren’t dying in the cubicle again, waiting to escape.

– Alex


Tammy November 10, 2013 at 12:39 pm

Hi Alex:

In your comment above you stated that we should ask the following questions of various professions: What’s it like? Would they recommend it? However, if I ask those questions politely and the person does not want to respond that what does that mean? Suppose they feel their corporate rules does not allow them to share that information? What if they hate it but do not want you to know? What if they give vague responses and even when I ask for specific information like hours of work really involved? How would you know if they are being honest and not just putting on a brave face? This applies to asking both friends and persons within my network. I just want to ensure I am prepared before I ask those questions. Thanks.

Mr.Will March 10, 2014 at 3:51 pm

Thought I would chime in – have read a couple of articles and I think your writing is very good. Not sure why people are so angry that you have only listed a few lifestyles etc. Basic summary is to ask yourself if what you are doing is really where you want to be going with your life…….no more no less :

I thought that was a very good way of writing the point down – are people heading where they want to go, or merely distracting themselves by whatever means possible.

Are they also aware of the consequences (might have been suited to a whole different article) and have people truly decided what success means to them……

Great article, and am very puzzled why people feel they are somehow being attacked by it!



Alexander Heyne March 10, 2014 at 10:29 pm

Hi Mr Will,

Guess I hit the right nerve ;)


Sam Myam March 24, 2014 at 9:20 pm

“Will you really be teaching English for 5 or 10 years?” That is a good thing to consider. Some people do it to “escape” or to find a job (unable to find teaching jobs home), but it can be possible to build a career on it if, in China, you move up from provincial schools to Beijing/Shanghai/Guangzhou. The question: How many people do so?


Zimzam July 18, 2014 at 8:31 am

There is no such thing as “reality”. Everything is real. What generally is “reality” is… generally accepted as… “reality”, but not everyone is a general person. Not everyone is happy with the narrative or route that is generally accepted for someone to take in their adult life.
I am of the opinion that varied experiences produce the fastest change in a person, which in this context means that ditching your home country and going abroad will make you experience many things and will change you faster than staying at home and doing a corporate job.
Nobody has to stay live in the country where they came from. People all make sacrifices, and they might prefer to live in many countries or a different country.
Why is teaching English in Asia for 3 years is avoiding reality? What if someone found what he always wanted in a new foreign culture? – I’ll give you an example. Someone from Britain going to Latin America. The culture (and weather) is very different and might suit someone just fine. I see lots of European women settling down with Latin husbands in Latin America. Are they escaping reality too?

We are not bound to the place we were born in, or do you think differently? Is that were we “should” go back, eventually, and get married, buy a house, etc.


Alexander Heyne July 18, 2014 at 9:57 am

“What generally is “reality” is… generally accepted as… “reality”, but not everyone is a general person”

Spot on.

“We are not bound to the place we were born in, or do you think differently? Is that were we “should” go back, eventually, and get married, buy a house, etc.”

The reason I said it’s avoiding reality is just based on personal experience – observing most of the expats in Asian countries. Of course not everyone is like that :-).


James December 21, 2014 at 2:08 am

What’s with the smug condescending tone?
What qualifies you to talk down to these people because they are ‘avoiding reality?’ according to what you think their reality should be? Your opinion is garbage.

Why the hell would anyone go back to the West if all it offered was a _decrease_ in their quality of life? Why not keep chilling in Asia or LatAm or teaching English? That reality is one they are choosing to adopt; they aren’t interested in the claims of people like you that only the Western way is ‘real’.

Perhaps you should clip your self-righteous tone, you’re embarrassing yourself.


Tom July 11, 2015 at 10:49 pm

Seriously mate? If the only thing you can offer is a personal attack on Alex then perhaps he’s hit a sore point with you. Comments like yours offer nothing and everyone is worse off for their presence.
I really enjoyed the article, Alex, and I found it beneficial and eye-opening. Don’t listen to this scrub.


Yvan Ung March 24, 2017 at 2:09 pm

One must not forget that young adults with disabilities (including, but not limited to, autism, from which I suffer) may not have the opportunity to aspire to anything like a normal life. To some with disabilities, moving back in with their parents might actually be a sensible option, and life is a lot more difficult when it comes to job hunting with disabilities.


Alexander Heyne December 5, 2013 at 11:53 am

Hi Tammy,

The best way to get honest responses is to take people out to coffee. Or give them a phone call in their after-work hours. It’s much less likely that people will give you BS answers to cover their ass outside of work.


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