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.
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