Several years ago I was invited to give a commencement address for a small private school in my area. This is a version of my prepared notes for that day.
While preparing my remarks for today I was reminded that next week marks the 20th anniversary of my own high school graduation. Strangely enough, I can remember the day very vividly, from what I was wearing, to the weather outside, to where my parents were seated. I clearly remember walking across the stage and shaking my principal’s hand. I swore he said under his breath, “good riddance!”
But what I don’t remember at all was the commencement speech. I have no idea who spoke or anything about what they said, and knowing that has set the bar pretty low for my own performance today.
Well, today is an exciting day for all of you, and I hesitate to do this to you but I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that you will never again have to refer to yourselves as “high school students”, and that is a true milestone. Do you realize that just 100 years ago less than 10% of all students actually finished high school? Even 50 years ago it was only 70%, so be proud of what you have achieved.
The bad news is that you both now have a new job -- one which you will have for the rest of your lives: that of being an adult.
Like any other profession, whether we are talking about teachers, doctors, police officers or pastors; you can either be an amatuer or a professional, and what I’d like to talk about today is how you can be a professional adult. Being a professional adult is hard work, though I am reminded of what Ronald Reagan once said, “It’s true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?”
Becoming a professional adult isn’t about getting a fancy degree to hang on your wall or racking up career accomplishments. Instead, being a professional is more of an ideal, a belief system, a personal mantra declaring you won’t give into the status quo around you. It is a mindset alteration, a mental switch that flips on every day, ready to fight back.
Here are a few tips on becoming a professional adult:
1) When life throws you a curve, hit it!
Though it’s entirely possible that Yogi Berra once said something similar, I’m going to claim that as a Jacob Perry original. Believe me, life will throw you many curveballs, few of which you will ever see coming. The trick in life (as in baseball) is knowing how to hit them.
It’s often said that a Hall of Fame baseball player will fail 7 out of 10 times, and that is true. I will go a step further and say that it isn’t always the most talented players who make it into the Hall, but the ones who can combine their talents with an ability to deal with failure 70% of the time. You see, you will fail in life. In fact, if you’re doing it right you will fail often, as the only people who don’t fail are the ones who never challenge themselves. But the true test is how you handle the failure.
Accept each failure as a learning experience and move on. Fail forward, because every failed experiment is one step closer to success. It isn’t foolish to fail, but it is foolish to repeatedly make the same mistakes over and over again. That’s the mark of an amateur.
2) Show Up
There is truth to the cliche that 90% of life is showing up. But it goes deeper than that. Not happy about things that are happening at your church? Show up and be part of the solution. An amateur complains to everyone around them while sitting on the sidelines while the professional quietly gets involved, seeking not recognition but a solution to the problem.
On a related note, I can’t stress just how important it is to be visible. As I look back over my own career (or careers), I’m struck by how often I’ve been given opportunities simply because I was there, or because I had been there so often that people were comfortable with me. It’s often that simple.
3) Stand On What You’re For, Not On What You’re Against
No one likes a cynic. In fact, I would argue that those who have made the greatest difference on this Earth are those who have spent the least amount of time being cynical. If you desire to make an impact upon your church, your job, your community or your nation, focus more on what you stand FOR and less on what you are against. You will discover that many more people will be interested in helping you if they see you as a positive agent for change instead of an angry critic.
So don’t define yourself by what you’re against; define yourself by what you’re for. Turn your passion into creative action and make a positive impact.
4) Don’t Become Your Job
This one is kind of pet-peeve for me as one of the things that annoys me the most is when someone says to me, “so, what do you do?” It’s not that I’m embarrassed or ashamed of what I do; on the contrary I am very proud of what I have been able to accomplish over the years. But my identity isn’t “Jacob Perry, Political Consultant.” That’s just how I provide for my family.
I am a Christian, and I am Melissa’s husband and Isaiah’s father, and the son of Frank and Terri. That’s the identity that matters to me. Never let your identity be based upon what your job title is. You are so much more than that. Only amateurs are obsessed with their job titles; a professional is above that.
Don’t be confused: You should take pride in your work. You can work late - you can work the weekends. But your job title doesn’t define you. The amateur over-identifies with his work, and the results are usually devastating. When you focus on your job title, you become over-invested in success and terrified of failure.
5) It’s Not About You
In fact, it’s NEVER about you. Amateurs are self-centered and always trying to find ways to get themselves noticed. A true professional understands that receiving credit is far less important than accomplishing the task at hand. Be the one who cares about getting the job done and you will be amazed at the opportunities you will be presented with. As C.S. Lewis once said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”
6) Never Be the Smartest Person in the Room
If you look around and find that you are the smartest person, get up and walk out, or invite some smarter people in with you. In your working life we often call that networking or team-building.
In fact, one of the hallmarks of a great leader is someone who isn’t afraid to be surrounded by people who are more qualified than he is. You will be challenged more and learn more and will ultimately become a better person for it.
7) Be a Character Ninja
Ninja’s were legendary warriors who devoted their entire lives to the craft of war. A professional is also a character ninja; someone who is dedicated to building and developing their own character. The person you are becoming is far more important than whatever job you might have at the moment. Keep a journal and jot down your own thoughts about how you view yourself, about your honesty or how you interact with others. Then obsessively train yourself on those areas on a never ending quest for personal growth.
Character is who you are when no one is around, or it is how you treat others who can do nothing for you. Are you always polite and understanding with the server in the restaurant? An amateur is too focused on what others can do for them to worry about personal growth.
Investing in your character is playing the long game. It’s a long-term investment that will pay back a thousand fold. You can definitely get ahead by stepping on other people. But if you want to be successful long-term, make your character count. Your daily interactions with ordinary people will define the kind of person you are and will be.
8) Never, ever, ever allow formal schooling to interfere with your education.
As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing worth knowing can be taught.”
An education is something that you acquire over a lifetime of study and reflection, which is not the same thing as sitting inside of a classroom and reading from a textbook. Don’t misunderstand me: a formal education can be crucial to your future career plans. You cannot be a mechanic or work in the field of veterinary medicine without acquiring the necessary formal education to do the job properly. But do not confuse this process of formal schooling with an actual education, which can only be acquired through a curious approach to your life. Seek opportunities to challenge yourself, to challenge your ideas and worldview and see how they stack up with what others think.
When pursuing career opportunities try to factor in how your skills will improve by doing this job and worry less about the financial aspects. People who are financially successful tend to be people who have truly mastered a talent or skill, and you can only do that through education.
Being an adult is both exciting and challenging, but it’s also mandatory. Everyone must take the job; there can be no refusals. But what you can decide for yourself is how you will approach your new job. Will you be a respected professional who everyone wants to associate with, or will you be the amateur who people eventually ignore?