Oh, The Places You Won’t Go (Why No One Invites Me to Give a Commencement Speech)

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Graduates:
You probably came here today expecting some rah-rah commencement speech telling you how important you are. How you are going to go out into the world and do great things, change the society for the better, live your dream.

Sorry to disappoint you, but this isn’t that kind of speech.

I’m here to break the news to you that, in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars in tuition and a lifetime of debt, your university has sold you a fake bill of goods. They’ve boosted your egos with inflated grades in courses you’ll never use. They’ve told you you’ll earn six figure salaries thanks to that piece of sheepskin you’ll soon hold in your hand. They’ve sheltered you in a bubble where your only job was to learn and think. I hope you enjoyed it, because it’s time to grow up.

Let me make one thing clear. The past four years (or five or six) have not been wasted. It’s just that it hasn’t been about what you thought. It wasn’t about learning how to write a coherent essay on the symbolism of the green light in The Great Gatsby or how to limit a function when x equals a fixed constant. It wasn’t about stuffing your head full of facts the night before a test, hyped up on Mountain Dew and diet pills, only to forget them the moment you left the classroom. Your degree shows something much simpler and at the same time broader than any of that. First, it has trained you how to think, and to think in a certain way depending on your discipline. A lawyer tends to think about issues in terms of risk, an engineer tends to see problems and solutions, and so on. Second, it shows that you are able to finish something. To obtain your degree, you’ve had to organize your time, meet deadlines, communicate and work as a team. All vital skills regardless of where you decide to hang your diploma. So don’t get the idea that I don’t think employers care about your degree – they do – just not for the reasons you might think.

Enough of the disclaimer. Time for reality.

You Know Nothing
I used to hire a number of engineers right out of school each year. Some came in expecting to manage projects, or at least to be doing high-end design work on bridges and highways. What did we have them do instead? They did mundane chores like checking quantities and proofing the work of more senior engineers. We had learned from years of experience that while these college grads had a basic understanding of the work, they didn’t know near enough to do the job. We started them at the bottom so that they we could be confident that when we did give them more interesting work, they would be capable of doing it. Many of these same engineers would come to me several months later and say, “You get through college thinking you know everything. I had no idea how much I still had to learn.”

Work Doesn’t Care About You
Okay, this isn’t exactly true. Work cares about you, not as a person, but as a resource. You have certain skills, talents and energy that they want to tap in order to meet their mission. In exchange, they provide you with pay, benefits and opportunity. That’s the deal, and if you’re lucky, your employer will meet their end of it. But don’t think your boss wakes up every morning thinking how he or she can make your life better. Your boss has his or her own problems. You are a blip on your employer’s radar screen. So don’t get upset when you aren’t getting all the attention and praise and opportunities you think you deserve. To bastardize a quote from JFK, Ask not what your employer can do for you. Ask what you can do for your employer.

It’s All Up To You
Long gone are the days when you can expect to come out of school, get a job and work your way up the corporate ladder to the C-suite. Sure, it does happen (We have one manager retiring this summer with 40 years, having gotten the job right out of high school). But for most of you, you’ll work for several employers, and in probably more than one type of work. Employers lament the fact that employees have no more loyalty, but in reality, they only have themselves to blame. Many will lay off employees of twenty years just to add a few cents to their share price. They are not looking at you as a long-term investment. You can’t count on them always being there for you. Look out for yourself. Do a great job, keep learning and growing, maintain an up-to-date resume, and always have a contingency plan.

Doing What You Love Won’t Pay the Bills
Paula Poundstone once said that if everyone did what they loved, nothing would get done. After all, how many art historians, novelists and social media specialists do we really need? Yet people don’t seem to understand this simple fact. When I used to advertise for a graphic designer, I would get hundreds of resumes. Why? Because people thought the work was creative, even glamorous. But when I put out an ad for a Call Center Rep, and I get few if any, qualified takers. The job is tedious, stressful and, above all, necessary. Ever wonder why attorneys earn so much money? Because if they didn’t, few people would want to be one. As Scott Turow – the lawyer turned novelist – said, I don’t know of any attorneys who wouldn’t rather be doing something else. Now, I’m not saying take whatever job pays the most. The position needs to be a good fit, and you have to work for the right organization. But if you want a stable career, find out what organizations value, what they have a hard time finding people to do, and do that.

You Aren’t Going to Change the World
Sorry to break this to you, but most of you are going to have a hard enough time just keeping your head above water, so forget finding a cure for cancer or ending world hunger. These are big problems with no easy answers, and even if they are solvable, no one person can do it alone. Most of us are not Bill Gates or Madame Curie or Barrack Obama. We will never get our names into the history books. But while you can’t affect the world at large, you can have a great influence on the world around you. Whether its family, friends, coworkers or neighbors, your everyday actions will have an impact. So be honest. Be helpful. Be a Good Person. Affecting those around you is the best you can hope for.

So that’s it. Except for this – I’m sure many of you who want to avoid growing up have considered grad school. After all, the university life is something you know, something you’re good at, something comfortable. Your professors may have even encouraged it. If an advanced degree was good enough for them, it should be good enough for you. Now, if you want to go into a field that requires an advanced degree you may have no choice but to continue school. But if you aren’t sure what you want to be when you grow up, more school will only suck up your time and your money. Better to get out into the real world and get to work, and then, if an advanced degree is what you want, go for it.

Until then, welcome to adulthood.

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