Dear Graduates of the Class of 2016: It’s Not About the Dream Job.
We are just wrapping up graduation season, which means it’s the time for inspirational speeches from commencement speakers across the world wishing hundreds of thousands of young people the best as they set out into the world, while also offering lots of very important advice.
So what can I add here? There are greater, wiser, more experienced people than me that have covered all the major points. Check out Steve Jobs, J.K Rowlings — and my favorite — David Foster Wallace. I also love Kid President when he says ‘we never grow up.. we keep learning.. but there are some adults out in the world who seriously need to graduate kindergarten, who still don’t know how to share and not bully.
So really what can I share with you that’s worth 10 minutes of your reading time? Only the key snippets of what I have learnt in the last 20 years, what I wish someone had told me back when I was 21 (college graduate) or even 31 (MBA graduate), and what I now try to share with my students when they are not too stressed about jobs and careers.. which is pretty much never.
1) Reach for the Stars BUT learn to find meaning in the ordinary
The “Follow Your Dreams” / #DoWhatYouLove piece of advice is a staple of all commencement speeches. And rightly so, because we want to inspire you as new graduates to go out there and reach for the stars. But this advice can be a little bit confusing.. because there are so many other things in play, and so much will ultimately depend on your personality and natural risk profile.
I will say this though, as a disclaimer. I am biased towards NOT giving your heart and soul to a bunch of adults who say they know what they are doing. I am biased towards the guy who opens a lemonade stand over the one who wants to work for McKinsey or the World Bank. That is not to disparage the smart people who get into these very competitive institutions (in fact it is my day job to help every aspiring consultant and banker land these jobs) but rather to say that there’s a special place in my heart for the countless entrepreneurs of all stripes slaving to make their world-changing dream a reality. Who bootstrap, and work like crazy, and believe in building something new.
Regardless, traditional career path or entrepreneurship, I think the holy trinity of career happiness is this — Passion, Talent, and Money — and the fact that you need all three. Best illustrated by this little diagram, and covered already in articles I’ve written since like 2014 (see here and here). So I won’t belabor the point.
There’s no doubt that in general if you like what you do for your day job then life is much more pleasant. Because it’s what you do for 70% of the time you are not sleeping. So, if you like it, that hugely helps ease the pain of living on this planet. But there’s a population-wide mismatch between talent distribution (and what you want to do), and what other people are willing to pay you to do. Additionally, you may have other factors to consider — financial situation, family constraints — and if you are graduating in the U.S. — most probably student loans.
Does this mean you should opt for the safety of the corporate paycheck or the mindless desk job? Actually that is no longer a safe option either. Studies show that almost 40% of work is now freelance or contracted out. There are hundreds of technology driven platforms and products that match talent directly to projects and tasks, completely bypassing traditional jobs and long-term employment.
Ok, so where am I going with this? I don’t think it helps to set this up as a passionate-career-life-adventure VS. safe-corporate-death-zone. Your choices are more nuanced than that (by the way everything is more nuanced than that — see #3). I think the key is to try to be inspired in whatever you do in all the little ways. The truth is there are many parts of one’s day, whether you are a start-up CEO or a corporate accountant, that is just dreary, repetitive, and annoying. You have to develop the ability to find meaning in the meaningless, beauty in the boring, and inspiration in the daily nonsense -meetings, paper work, bills, commute, traffic, laundry.
You may or may not reach the highest pinnacles of your dreams. You also don’t know whether all your stars will align at age 20, 30, 40, or 50. So you have to find meaning and value in what is essentially an imperfect world, and a very imperfect job world. The moments of our lives that are extra-ordinary are few and far between. But if you develop the ability to appreciate the ordinary, if you can find contentment a little bit more easily each year you grow older, then you’ll be covered under almost any contingency, and you don’t have to worry so much about whether you are following your dreams or not.
2) Understand that everything is nuanced. Everything has two sides.
Actually everything has many, many sides. When I was very young I used to think things were black or white. Some year later, I realized — OMG!- there are like all these shades of grey in-between. Some more years later, I noticed — H*ly Mother of G*d! — there are all these other colors, like purple, and blue, and green, and orange.. and each has many shades..
All this to say, learn to be discerning in your thinking, careful with your words, and considered in your actions.
The modern world is nuanced. And if you want to be successful in the global marketplace you have to understand the multiple layers and layers of complexity of that market place. You can’t just see things from your country’s perspective, even if say that country is the United States. There are 9 billion people on this planet- 5 billion men and women of working age looking for work in a melting pot of hundreds of thousands of different cultures, languages, and races. There are so many important conversations people are trying to have across the globe about immigration, diversity, race, minorities rights, women’s rights, climate change, sustainability- all of which change like a chameleon depending on who’s talking, who the audience is, and who’s impacted.
You are going to get caught up in these conversations or be asked to step up and contribute to them. Or indeed lead these conversations. These are the key issues of our generation. Be discerning, not divisive. Be careful with your words.
I have learnt that being able to see things from different viewpoints, even amidst allegiance to your own, is the definition of humility. It’s also the smart thing to do.
3) The only place you have agency over is the present moment.
Once upon a time there lived a very wise Emperor. He looked to all the world religions to find the meaning of life. Finally he just gave up and invented his own religion, which boiled down to these three simple questions and the answers to them.
When is the most important time? Always now. The present moment is the most important time. The past is gone and the future is totally unpredictable. This moment is really the only time you have any agency over. If you are so concerned about your future, understand that the quality of the thoughts you have right now (patience, kindness etc) impact your future far more than any planning for the future.
Who’s the most important person? The person you are with right now. Whoever is right in front of you in the most important person. Focus on that person, that conversation, that relationship. Put away your smartphone. And don’t think of your grocery list or your next appointment.
What is the most important thing to do? To care. We think it’s to improve or cure a person, to fix a problem, to change a situation. But actually it’s to care, to listen, to be present. That’s probably not intuitive because we are built to dosomething. Think about the turmoil of life: turmoil of sickness, turmoil of job loss, turmoil of traffic on your daily commute. Have you tried managing/fixing/changing those situations? Yeah. Exhausting. Try caring. Life doesn’t want to be cured; it wants to be cared for.