I often think about what kind of advice I'd give to college students who are just about to graduate. I hope to visit my alma mater sometime in the near future and give them some, but for the time being, it's given in conversations and blog posts.
If there's one recurring thread I hear about in all fields, it's you don't make a lot of money right out of the gate. I don't know why suburban kids expect to make almost as much as their parents do in the first few years out of college, but they do. Money is necessary to live off of, but it doesn't equate happiness. Having a surplus of money can make life seem easier (i.e., car repairs, medical attention, clothing, entertainment, etc), yet it's not the only thing worth working hard for in this world.
Be it a doctor, lawyer, writer, computer programmer, salesman and so on, nobody starts with the top job with the highest salary. You start at the bottom, but the bottom is rarely as bad as people think it is.
Yes, I've been through the whole "gopher" aspects of my field, but I've learned so much in the process and have had fun. Little step by little step, it's pretty amazing to be respected and valued for the job you do. You don't get points taken off for doing a good job and paying attention. If 90 percent of life is showing up, another five is paying attention and the other five involves luck and talent. That's something I think we all can do.
Something I'd add is to follow your bliss, but follow it pragmatically. If you really want to be a writer, painter, musician or a filmmaker, don't flat-out avoid working a job that pays the bills in the meantime. It's like what Stephen King once said: let your life inform your art; not the other way around.
Most stories I've heard of successful artists (read: people who are passionate about what they do and are happy with what they are doing) don't start out doing their art full time. Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith learned the ways of filmmaking on their own time while they worked in places like oil rigs and convenience stores. Chuck Klosterman wrote for a local paper while he worked on Fargo Rock City. Elvis Costello pretended to work on computers while he tried to find a record deal.
The stories are endless, but the point remains: find what you love to do. Flex those creative muscles and don't stop being creative just because college is over. It should not be a primary goal to make money doing what you love to do. It's like what Ryan has put perfectly to me: if you're not willing to do something for free, then you shouldn't do it. I know that all too well with all my years playing music and writing. Those are things that I do not for the money, but for creative necessity in my life.
I understand sticking to a path of discovery requires a degree of discipline, but I equate it to staying on an exercise routine or a diet. Map out your own routine and stick with it . . . and don't give up on it because you're not seeing immediate results.
One last piece of advice for now is this: don't let dream-killers dictate "life" to you. Frankly, I've found people who take a bleak attitude with life in general gave up their dreams long ago and find some sort of satisfaction with bursting someone else's bubble. It's like they're jealous of you for having a dream because there was a time when they had a dream. Or worse, they never had one in the first place.
So, that's just some of the advice I give to people. I might sound like some floaty, wannabe motivational speaker, but I can't forget the lessons I've learned along the way and the people that gave them to me. Besides, this is the kind of stuff you don't learn in college. You learn them by experience; not in books.