It’s graduation season. An exciting time! For the college graduate, this is an especially challenging time (whether the graduate realizes it or not). With other graduations that led up to this one (kindergarten, sixth grade, eighth grade, even twelfth grade), there wasn’t much of an expectation placed on the graduate to have things figured out.
Those prior graduations were mostly about celebrating the achievement and passing a milestone on the way to adulthood.
College graduation is different. The college graduate is supposed to know “what they’ll be doing with their life,” or “where they’re going after graduation.” The real world is out there waiting for them to take it by the horns and wrestle it to the ground!
Everyone assumes that since the college graduate spent most of their life getting an education, now’s the time when they should be ready to leap into the next stage of their life. Ready to go forth and conquer…following their dream and delivering on all that potential they’ve been gathering.
Listen to almost any commencement speech (there are some excellent ones on YouTube). The speeches often contain solid advice, encouragement, and usually a bit of a life story of the person giving the speech.
I’ve never delivered a commencement speech. I’m not sure how I’d approach such a talk, or what personal stories I’d tell. But, I know that my commencement speech would, at a minimum, cover this short list of items:
Life doesn’t come with an answer key.
The answer key is the Holy Grail of any textbook. Put simply, it contains all the answers. It can quickly tell us if we’re right or wrong. Of course, life doesn’t come with an answer key. In fact, many of the toughest problems you’ll face don’t have specific right or wrong answers.
To make it even more challenging, something that’s right for one person or situation is wrong for another.
How will you know when you’re right? You won’t get that luxury very often in life. But, I’ve found that when I narrow my focus on a problem or question down to its impact solely on me, I usually make the wrong choice. When I consider how the outcome of a problem or question will impact the people I love, the people I work with, and the people that rely on me, I usually make far better decisions.
Nobody will tell you if this or that will be on the exam.
This is sort of related to number one. The reality is that there are very few final exams in life, and nobody will tell you what’s on the exam. It’s up to you to determine what’s most important, not only to yourself but to your audience. In this case, your audience is anyone that matters to you. This could be a boss, a loved one, a work associate, or all of the above at the same time.
The project, assignment, or paper that’s due at the end of the semester doesn’t exist in the real world.
Sure, there will be deadlines, but the semester doesn’t end. Even if you’re working on a project at work, the work doesn’t end when you turn in that project. That project is probably part of an even larger project or set of projects that are all part of some larger strategy.
The project isn’t the goal, even when it’s consuming all your time and attention. Understanding how this project fits into the overall mission is what matters. When you learn to think about the bigger-picture goals, while focusing on the specifics of the project at hand, you’ll leap ahead of most people.
But, what if your work doesn’t seem to be part of anything larger. Maybe it isn’t, but that still doesn’t mean that it ends when you turn it in. Chances are that the work you’ve completed will take on a life of its own, and you’ll get to see that happen. You’ll also be called to defend it, especially when things go wrong. And, if you stay around long enough, you may be the person who works to replace the result of your prior work with a new and improved version.
To be successful, you must be willing to seek out the best solutions to problems and new challenges, even when those new solutions make something you did in the past obsolete.
Get used to the concept of constructive destruction, because it’s with you all the time. There’s a quote about the caterpillar thinking everything was over just before turning into a butterfly. For the butterfly to emerge, the caterpillar must cease to exist. In fact, the caterpillar works its entire life to fulfill the goal of destroying itself so it can become the butterfly.
When you create something or become part of something that’s successful, always be on the lookout for ways to improve upon that success. Celebrate the success, but never be satisfied. Always look for ways to tear down what you’ve built to make room for a new way of achieving that success. Trust me, if you’re not looking for, and embracing new possibilities, your competition will.
Life doesn’t divide itself into perfectly scheduled segments like school does.
This isn’t entirely true. Life has years, and each year has four quarters. When each year ends, you’ll be asked to look back (if only briefly) and tell Uncle Sam about how you did, financially. And, Uncle Sam will want to share in whatever you did in the prior year.
Most companies, whether privately- or publicly-held (or governmental agencies) operate on an annual financial reporting calendar. They look at their performance monthly, quarterly, and annually. This cycle will become a constant for you in almost any line of work. It’s a cycle that will have even greater importance to you as your level of responsibility within an organization grows.
What did you do this year? How does that compare to last year? How does this quarter compare to the same quarter last year? What are you expecting to happen in the next quarter, the next year?
Ironically, one thing most people are missing when they graduate is a working knowledge of how income taxes, property taxes, Social Security taxes, Medicare taxes, and the IRS operate.
Always think of your accounting systems (whether personal or business) as a conversation between you and the IRS. Be prepared for a conversation with an IRS auditor, always maintain copious records of your financial activities, and take an active role in planning your financial strategies with their tax implications in mind. The day may never come where you’re asked to defend yourself in an audit, but if you’re purposely and actively preparing for that day, it won’t be a problem.
This reminds me to mention that as smart as you are, you will need some expert advisors in your lifetime. Examples are CPA’s, financial planners, insurance agents, and attorneys. Don’t be afraid of these folks. In fact, seek them out as early in your life as possible. They will help you understand a complex web of rules and strategies that are best to learn when you’re young. Don’t wait twenty years to find these people. By then, you’ve probably caused a bunch of financial damage for yourself without even knowing it. On all things financial, start early, be consistent, and understand that you aren’t as smart as you think you are when it comes to finance. None of us are.
Mentors matter more than money.
Hopefully, by now you’ve had at least one teacher, coach, or professor who you can call a mentor. They pushed you farther than you thought you could go. They asked all the tough questions…and then they took the time to listen to you and challenge some of the nonsense you gave as your answers.
I can’t over-emphasize the importance of mentors in your life. Find them, listen to them, and let them elevate you beyond anything you can imagine.
One thing most of us need is a little more humility, and openness to new ideas. A good mentor is great for tearing down the barriers we erect around ourselves to shield us from our humility.
Mentors tell you what just happened in that meeting where you thought everything went great, but the opposite is true.
They tell you the “why” when you’re only thinking about the “what” of a situation.
Building lasting relationships is more important than money.
This is a cousin to the one about mentors. Friends and loved ones bring beauty to our lives. If you’re presented with a set of career options that force you to sacrifice your friends and loved ones along the way, find new options. It’s as simple as that.
I’ve heard that if you have a friend for 10 years, they become a family member to you on a subconscious level. I buy this theory, wholeheartedly.
Lasting relationships are built. They take time. They take effort. They take patience. They require you to care about someone else at least as much as you care about yourself.
By the way, it’s much easier to get a job when you’re referred or recommended by a friend. It’s also an awesome feeling to know that you helped one of your friends find a rewarding career.
Okay, we’re running out of time, so here are some rapid-fire things to remember (in no particular order):
- The popular kids aren’t always the ones with the answers or the ones having the best time. Seek out the quiet ones, the ones who spend their time listening more than speaking.
- Be sure to attend as many weddings as possible. As a college graduate, you’ll get your fill of weddings for the next 5-7 years. Enjoy them. Let the positive vibes energize you.
- Listening is the key to your success. Always be ready to listen. You’ll find a lot more correct answers in your life when you listen.
- Resist the temptation to panic. It’s easy to become overwhelmed or perceive yourself as being overwhelmed, and then to panic. Panic is a fight-or-flight mechanism and usually doesn’t have any use in our daily lives. This may sound easy to you now, but you’ll face more than your share of “panic-worthy” moments in your life. Don’t panic!
- If you’ve made a bad decision, make another decision and undo the bad one. Don’t just live with your bad decision. This also sounds easy, but this is a tricky one. Things like pride, sunk costs, and pride (yep, it deserves to be repeated) will get in your way (if you allow them).
- Don’t waste time second-guessing your choices. “Wait!?” you’re saying. “What about the one above that talks about having the courage to change a bad decision?” You’ll make lots of decisions that aren’t bad, and still, you’ll be tempted to second-guess them. The challenge with most decisions is that the other alternative has its attraction. This means you may be tempted to look back and let your mind imagine how things could be if only you’d chosen that other good alternative. This is a fool’s errand. It’s a form of self-torture and most of us are experts at it.
- You are the most powerful enemy you’ll ever face. You know all the right buttons to push. You know all your weaknesses, all your fears. You know how to discredit your strengths. You have the most unfair advantage against yourself of anyone. That’s what makes you such a powerful enemy.
Last but not least. Your life is a journey, not a destination. If my daughters are reading this, I bet they’re rolling their eyes because they heard this a lot when they were kids. It’s so simple that it’s become a cliché.
Understand that with each finish line you cross (and you’ve just crossed a big one by graduating from college), there’s an infinite number of new starting lines waiting for you. I don’t mention this to overwhelm you, but as a reminder that your journey is continuous and it’s where you’ll find the most happiness.
Find joy in each day…even the hard days when everything seems to be going against you. Enjoy the mundane chores of life. Embrace the quiet but don’t be afraid to make lots of noise. After all, shouldn’t this journey we’re on be filled with fun?
Enjoy the small pleasures that come from being present in the moment, present for the people you love, and aware of just how fortunate you are to be alive each and every day.
Photo by Vasily Koloda on Unsplash