Buck Up, Fresh Grads — The Party's Over: Eight Lessons That Might Help

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You already knew that, but this essay in The Financial Post, a Canadian newspaper, by Rick Spence, has some words of wisdom:

If I were asked to deliver a convocation speech, here’s what I would say based on my experience chronicling 25 years of entrepreneurship:

Your diploma is a passport to nothing

From now on get by on what you can do, not what they say you know. While you’ve been cutting classes or cribbing for exams, other people were in the trenches getting kicked in the teeth. They’ve learned all about getting their foot in the door, pitching ideas, asking for the sale and rebounding from setbacks. You have a lot of catching up to do.

You are a free agent

You are a small cog emerging from a big bureaucratic machine. Most of you will soon exchange your student number for an employee ID badge. But you don’t have to be a cog. Think of yourself as a free agent, choosing where and how you work. A job is not your life, just a contract. Many new opportunities will present themselves. Some will be dressed as job offers; others disguise themselves as business opportunities, bad bosses, new technologies or career roadblocks. To stick with one job or one employer is to settle for a limited experience when other people are moving from challenge to challenge, building their skills and networks.

The biggest challenge — especially if you carry crippling student debt — is not frantically looking for a job, any job, but trying to figure out who you are, what you’re best at, and finding a fit between your IQ, education and EQ, your emotional intelligence.

And, at some point, ideally finding a place where you can thrive, not just sit in a cube and wait ’til Friday.

I got my first full-time job only two years after I graduated (University of Toronto, English major.)

I didn’t need one, because my freelance business was so strong (Lesson One: You have skills you can sell, on your own, into the marketplace. Once you realize this, you will never feel the same fear of unemployment again. If your skills are too weak to be of value to others in this fashion, strengthen them as quickly as you can. If you’re too scared to approach [possibly critical or rejecting] strangers, get over it. It’s one of the most crucial survival skills.)

But I thought I’d better get serious, aim higher (i.e work in an office for someone else; Lesson Two, not the best choice for some of us.) I was hired by The Canadian Press, the national wire service that’s the equivalent of the Associated Press.

Misery! (Instructive, though.) I worked the late shift so would pass my live-in boyfriend on the stairs to our apartment as he arrived home from work and I left. (Not a good sign.) Then I’d collect news from across the country and re-distribute it.

Sundays nights got so bad I would cry before I went in because that was the night every week I had to write a round-up story called Fatalities — Fats for short — about everyone who had died or been killed in newsworthy fashion over the weekend. The gorier and grislier the death, the better!

I worked with a robot named Judy (as will you, at some point. Maybe not named Judy, but someone whose values, or lack of same, horrify you. Lesson Three; they’re everywhere.) One night I asked if this parade of death bothered her. “No, it’s just numbers,” she chirped.

I passed probation, but my bosses and I gratefully agreed that this sort of work really wasn’t a great fit for me. (Lesson Four: Just because you are competent at something does not mean you enjoy it or will thrive in this niche. Pay bills as long as you must, but get out before you die.)

Thank God I won a fellowship that month and went to France instead. A few years after that I managed to get a Big TV Job writing national nightly news and did that for a summer. At the end, I asked the boss if he’d give me a reference.

“No,” he said. “You were terrible.”(And you thought Canadians were nice and polite.)

Lesson Five: Just because you were all-American or had a stellar GPA or perfect SAT, a star on campus or in grad school or some other job(s) doesn’t mean squat in the “real world.” Whatever your current boss thinks is really important is really important.

I wasn’t past 25 then, but better to learn young when you are dreadfully ill-suited to jobs that, on paper, look really great and may even pay a lot. How can you not want any job? How can you not cling to it, as if it were (even if it is) a life raft?

Lesson Six: You must find faith in yourself. The market isn’t your BFF.

Today’s grads will have to take every ounce of “self-esteem” and shove them somewhere dark and private. Employers, especially in this economy, could not care less if you are happy or want a better title or more responsibilities.

They’re too busy being hounded by people like me, with decades of experience ahead of you.

From a story in Bloomberg Businessweek:

Ten months after graduating from Ohio State University with a civil-engineering degree and three internships, Matt Grant finally has a job — as a banquet waiter at a Clarion Inn near Akron, Ohio.

“It’s discouraging right now,” said the 24-year-old, who sent out more than 100 applications for engineering positions. “It’s getting closer to the Class of 2010, their graduation date. I’m starting to worry more.”

Schools from Grant’s alma mater to Harvard University will soon begin sending a wave of more than 1.6 million men and women with bachelor’s degrees into a labor market with a 9.9 percent jobless rate, according to the Education and Labor departments. While the economy is improving, unemployment is near a 26-year high, rising last month from 9.7 percent in January-March as more Americans entered the workforce.

Lesson Seven: Be savvy, strategic, kind, ethical, flexible, professional — and willing to do anything legal.

Lesson Eight: Never, ever expect the words you may well have grown up hearing as a constant, comforting refrain: “Good job!”  Your boss didn’t.

10 thoughts on “Buck Up, Fresh Grads — The Party's Over: Eight Lessons That Might Help

  1. Caitlin Kelly

    That’s quite a compliment, thanks! Wish I was raking in the big bucks so could say “Oh yeah, I’m doing everything right.” But I also know my priorities and that’s worth something.

    I think, these days, if you can pay your bills, save some $ for emergencies and retirement and do some work, of some kind, that you enjoy (even volunteer), you’re doing really well. I don’t think this is the time for anyone to focus only on $$$ or status or The Right Job.

  2. jake brodsky

    I didn’t wait until I graduated to learn these lessons. I worked all day so that I could afford to attend school at night. I finished my last class in the fall semester. So by the time graduation rolled around, I couldn’t have cared less about some ceremony where some expert in his own field addresses everyone and tells them the lessons of his or her life.

    I was employed at the water and sewer utility and discovered quite by accident that I enjoyed the work. Meanwhile all my classmates with the scholarships from their cool sounding defense contractor work dried up and blew away when the contracts from the cold war era ended. My brother went through much of the same thing while working a dream job in the aerospace industry. So much for that really cool high tech job I was hoping for.

    That’s when I realized that my work was meaningful, technically interesting, and although it was relatively low profile, it was still fun.

    Here I am, twenty years later, and I still enjoy the work. My advice: keep your eyes open. Often one can find amazing and satisfying careers in the most ordinary places.

  3. Caitlin Kelly

    Thanks for sharing…it’s great you found work you love and are still able to do it.
    I wonder how many of us are so focused so young — and in this recession how many will still find satisfying work, if any work.

  4. john

    Lesson Nine (if I may): There is no finish line when it comes to gaining knowledge and acquiring mastery in whatever you do. In my field, most of the jobs that exist today did not exist 20 years ago and neither did the skills to do them. If you think you’re done learning, you’re sadly mistaken in today’s world. So keep your brain open to new ideas and maintain your sense of intellectual curiosity, these attributes will serve you well, much more than anything you’ve already learned to date.

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  6. Caitlin Kelly

    John, so true. I had never blogged (which probably doesn’t look like it demands much skill) a year ago when I was offered this spot. I was really intimidated and figured I might fail — and in a very public way. But it’s become an essential skill in my industry, so too bad!

    It’s a little overwhelming to consider but I believe in knowing lots of smart helpful people in your own field who can also help keep you aware and abreast of such changes.

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  8. inmyhumbleopinion

    As someone who has returned to academia after nearly 30 years in the workforce, I have one other addition to your list: unlike college, corporate life IS NOT a meritocracy. Pretend you like and agree with everything your boss says, even if you don’t. And if you don’t, make sure you disguise your disgust. Wearing it on your sleeve is suicide. Politics are everything in corporate life and if you suck at it, you will suffer. If you navigated the social hotbed that is high school successfully, you will likely do just fine. It’s all the same BS.

  9. Caitlin Kelly

    imho, this is why I have a terrible dread of any corporate work, no matter how lucrative. I am a terrible liar. People can smell it when I don’t respect them…and I navigated high school the way I have done the rest of life…after being bullied for three years, became prom queen (?) and left with some very good friends. But I didn’t focus on being popular, then or now.

    But good point!

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