5 Tips to Build a Meaningful Career After College

Graduation is the end of your life on campus. But it's the beginning of the long game that is your career.

Why long? Because the object is to keep your career in play, not to win or lose.

I graduated from UC Davis 10 years ago with a major in communication, and I’ve learned plenty since then. My career hasn’t been at all what I anticipated.

I started in broadcasting with an entry-level production job. After that, I worked online with a stint as a journalist in the NBA. My career then took a surprising turn into Las Vegas nightlife marketing. Today, I’m working as a freelance writer and marketer, typing away inside a guesthouse in Bali.

In short, my expectations were nothing like reality. And guess what? The same is in store for you.

Since graduating, I’ve learned lessons about building a career that I wish I had known sooner. Below are five tips that might help you as you start yours.

1. Your education isn’t over

Pregame fun with fellow UC Davis alum and Sacramento Kings broadcaster Jason Ross.
Jon Santiago’s pregame fun with fellow UC Davis alum and Sacramento Kings broadcaster Jason Ross. (Photo courtesy of author)

Learning doesn’t stop once you graduate. Absorb everything your career teaches you and embrace self-education, too.

In my immediate life after college, I learned a lot on the job. As a sports journalist, interviews with players and coaches were part of my day-to-day. But no one showed me how to engage with them when they’re at their lowest.

10 resources for college grads

I wish someone had given me these books and podcasts when I graduated college. Read and listen, as they can help guide your thinking, regardless of the career you choose.




When I worked in the NBA, experience taught me the unspoken rules of a post-game locker room. There wasn’t a book to spell out how to approach unhappy players following emotional losses. But through experience, I discovered the importance of treating professional athletes like people rather than mythical figures. This was something I could only learn by doing.

When my career changed course to Las Vegas, learning proved vital again. The company I worked for had hired me for my content experience. I still had to study the principles of marketing.

I was lucky to have helpful colleagues teach me some of the basics. They showed me how to execute campaigns on social media and how to think from a strategic point of view. Much of what I know about marketing came from this corporate office job, worked far from the Vegas Strip.

When it comes to self-education, these days I read plenty. As a marketer, I follow publications like eMarketer to stay aware of industry trends. And as a writer, I read books like “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott or “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser to improve my craft.

We live in the 21st century, and information is only a quick Google search away. We have no excuse not to take advantage of the shared knowledge we have available.

2. Don’t follow someone else’s path

Running the board for the KFBK Afternoon News at the old station near Arden Fair Mall. (Photo courtesy of author)
Santiago running the board for the KFBK Afternoon News at the old station near Arden Fair Mall. (Photo courtesy of the author)

Always listen to more experienced colleagues, but also consider their advice with caution. The way they achieved success may not be the same for you.

I’ve had the good fortune to work with many talented people in my career. It took me a while, though, to understand that my path didn’t have to be the same as theirs. Kitty O’Neal, anchor of the KFBK Afternoon News, is one former colleague whose journey comes to mind.

In her life after college, Kitty started her career as a call screener for one of KFBK’s most popular talk shows. With dedication, talent and hard work, she rose up the station’s ranks. And after more than three decades, Kitty continues to be one of KFBK’s top talents.

Her success is a rare feat by industry standards. Few broadcasters enjoy a long career with one station like she has. And looking back, I wasn’t an exception.

I worked with Kitty as a producer in my first few years after Davis. When I moved on, I did everything from writing on the web to managing a five-figure marketing budget. Unlike Kitty's, my career has been a series of zigs and zags, which frustrated me in my twenties.

But the passage of time is the greatest tool I had to get through those moments. With perspective, I’ve learned how to admire others’ paths, but not expect mine to be the same.

3. Your career is a competition with no one but yourself

Celebrating Kitty O'Neal's 25th anniversary at KFBK at the California Hall of Fame.
Santiago celebrating Kitty O'Neal's 25th anniversary at KFBK at the California Hall of Fame. (Photo courtesy of author)

At work, we sometimes look at our colleagues as competition. We see them as contenders we must beat to earn our next raise or promotion.

In my life after college, this way of thinking came with a heavy price. This approach made me insecure around other talented people.

I questioned myself when opportunities would go to my peers rather than me. With only 30 teams in the NBA, I thought there was only a finite amount of work to go around.

But when I reflect on how much the League has grown since, opportunities have expanded. New jobs exist that didn't before. Social media management, for example, was only in its infancy when my career began.

There’s enough food at the table for everyone. So, cooperate rather than compete with your peers. Give throughout your career without the expectation of receiving anything in return.

Not long ago, I had an old intern from my last job in the NBA contact me for a reference. I was happy to oblige. There were no strings attached, no hopes that he might repay me in return someday. Knowing how talented he was when we worked together, he had earned that helping hand.

Giving changes your focus from yourself onto another. When we’re anxious about our careers, we’re often caught up in a selfish thought-loops. Helping others can solve that problem.

4. Forget about sunk costs

Business trip to a Portland Trail Blazers game with my Sacramento Kings digital team.
Santiago on a business trip to a Portland Trail Blazers game with the Sacramento Kings digital team. (Photo courtesy of author)

At times in your life after college, you’ll have to reboot. You may discover that the job you chose yesterday is no longer right for you. When you feel this way, don’t remain tethered to the past. Consider changing course instead.

I’ve had to start over a handful of times. My latest reboot came in 2017, when I left my job with the Sacramento Kings to pursue a life of work and travel.

Becoming location-independent hasn’t been easy. There have been many times when I’ve questioned leaving a steady job for the uncertainty of doing things on my own. As a freelance writer and marketer, work comes and goes in irregular patterns. But that’s a reality I’ve come to accept, considering my work in the NBA no longer moved me like it did before.

Compared to my old job in sports, remote work has brought me a different kind of fulfillment. I can live anywhere in the world, as long as I have a reliable internet connection. But more important than that, I control my time, which is my most valuable asset.

Though it might seem scary, the unknown is a better option when your job loses joy. If you consider starting over, plan a graceful exit and give yourself a financial cushion. Sometimes leaping is the right move, even if you only have a slight idea of where you’re headed next.

5. Prioritize process over results

At the Hakkasan Group Office in Las Vegas with GRAMMY-award winning artists The Chainsmokers. (I'm wearing a hat further up the staircase)
Santiago at the Hakkasan Group Office in Las Vegas with GRAMMY-award winning artists The Chainsmokers. The author is wearing a hat further up the staircase. (Photo courtesy of author)

Set goals, but don’t obsess over reaching them. Whether you succeed or fail isn’t always the point. In your life after college, it’s more important to embrace a process you can sustain long-term.

In my twenties, I put little premium on enjoying the process. My discontentment drove me to work hard for an imaginary tomorrow. But it also left me unhappy with what I had in the present.

Looking back, I've been lucky to work in some fascinating jobs. But at every stop, I always felt like my career could have been better. I didn’t practice gratitude for what I already had.

Wherever you’re going, always take the time to savor the journey. You won’t get to relive those moments ever again. Time, unlike money, isn’t a renewable resource.

Jon Santiago, UC Davis class of 2009, is a writer and marketer. His career started at KFBK Radio in Sacramento. Later, he transitioned into marketing, working for Hakkasan Group in Las Vegas. For most of his career, he worked in the NBA in a variety of capacities with the Sacramento Kings. 

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