As a faculty member at a top research university who just last week listened to the Southern Methodist University Commencement speech by the CEO of AT&T, I wonder what Commencement speakers see when they look at the sea of graduates in front of them. They see happy graduates, for sure. They see graduates who hope that their brand new degree will open the doors to a better future. Yet if those men and women delivering Commencement speeches have been paying attention to the world around them while they ascended to the top, they know that career success doesn’t always reward the employees that deserve it and not all graduates hoping for a fulfilling (or simply bill-paying) career will achieve it. So when they look at the crowd of capped-and-gowned graduates in front of them, they must also see young adults about to have a rude awakening, no matter how well-meaning and talented they are.
A student asked me the other day what advice I had for new graduates. It is a harder question to answer than it seems. I have been doing this job for almost fifteen years now and the graduates who have had the most success have not been the superstar ones who believed they were awesome and any company would be lucky to have them (in general those students could have attended better schools but had chosen mine for the financial aid package, and throughout college they kept an attitude that they were simply better than their classmates; later they tended not to find many allies in the workplace and their careers languished). The graduates who have had the most successful careers have not been either the lackluster students who kept repeating that grades don’t matter in the workforce (because at the end of the day, knowing what you’re talking about does help your getting promoted). Instead, they have been the students who weren’t overly rigid in their view of what the degree meant, and could adapt to their changing circumstances while always striving to do well.
I answered that people change a lot after they’re twenty-two, and while they certainly achieve a milestone when they graduate from college, it is only the first milestone in a career that will literally count dozens. Deep down, people wish they could be guaranteed success if they did all the right things and checked them off a success checklist. Going to college is one of those supposedly right things. But the four years coming up after graduation are far more important than the four years of college that students have had so far. The biggest mistake I’ve seen my former students do is not to keep their eye on their career goals while they were entering their first job. Some have associated with the wrong crowd, enjoying life as a paycheck-earning young adult a little too much, hanging out with recent graduates who weren’t good role models. Some allowed themselves to stay in jobs that didn’t utilize their talent.
The thing is, if your career fails to lift in your first job, it’s going to be hard to convince anyone else to give a chance to you rather than to a brand-new graduate who hasn’t had an underwhelming first job experience. If you’re spending your days making photocopies and bringing coffee, you’ve either given someone the impression you couldn’t do any better or you’re in a toxic work environment where entry-level hires are being taken advantage of. Either way, you’ve got to make a change. So either ditch the fair-weather friends you’re having too much fun with at happy hour (because people who aren’t succeeding in their career love nothing more than seeing their pseudo-friends’ careers stall as well) or ditch the manager, also known as: go back on the job market.
A career may last forty years, but the first years are critical in either achieving the momentum that will pull you up through the ranks toward high-performer status or being pulled down to earth by the forces of bad luck and surrounding mediocrity. It’s great that you got your Bachelor degree, but the hard work is yet ahead.
Of course, that’s not the sort of speech the graduates in formal attire and their proud parents in the audience want to hear on Commencement Day.