6 Lessons I’ve Learned Since Graduation

The graduation speech I wish I’d heard.

In this season of graduations and their (sometimes monotonous) commencement addresses, I think back to speaking at my own high school graduation. I was a total mess at the time, completely overwhelmed by what the future might hold and, more immediately, how I was going to pay for my undergraduate education. I’d been told to focus my commencement address on being unique, how we could all harness our special unicorn talents to make the world a better place.

But rather than focus on what was special about each of us, I instead chose to speak about what was extraordinary in all of us. I think my general thesis was “You can do all things.” It’s a message I stand by today. We — all of us — can do all things. More than others expect of us, and more than we believe of ourselves. The perspective afforded by space and time has allowed me the opportunity to see that this is so. It’s also revealed which of those well-intentioned pieces of advice (given in commencement addresses or otherwise), were just plain wrong.

So here, as a service to recent graduates, I offer the advice I would give to my younger self vis-à-vis those commencement address myths I wish someone had busted for me:

1. Seek Joy, Not Happiness. People talk all the time about being happy, like it’s a steady state. It’s not. And if you’ve seen the movie Inside Out, you know there are other emotions that are equally important to the human condition. Sometimes you learn the best lessons in life when you’re decidedly unhappy; that doesn’t make that experience any less important. Instead of seeking happiness in your life, think about seeking joy. As Webster’s defines it, joy is “an emotion evoked by well-being, success or good fortune.” I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always feel happiness when I’m with my family — potty training my twin boys can be an exercise in patience and frustration to say the least! But I do feel joy every minute I’m with them. I’m grateful for their existence, and I find joy in their presence, always.

2. Work-Life Balance Doesn’t Exist. Get Over It. I remember recoiling when I heard esteemed business exec Liz Davila make this statement during a leadership perspectives course at Stanford. But I’m so thankful she did. Instead of pretending that your life is made up of separate silos that must never interact and that often compete for your time and attention, aim instead for Work-Life Integration — the blending of life and work. Sure, technology has facilitated my ability to check emails and do other work from home, but Work-Life Integration has also played out for me in other, more deliberate ways, such as bringing my daughter with me when I meet with potential collaborators, meeting with my team at my house while my kids are there, or taking red eyes so I miss only one bedtime.

3. You’re Not in Control of Your Life (And That’s OK). As much as we’d like to dictate our life’s path, that’s not often the way it works. The sooner you realize that life will throw some major curveballs your way, the sooner you can quit worrying about controlling it and instead dedicate that time and energy to being creative and enjoying life. Had I known this, I wouldn’t have spent so much time obsessing about landing the perfect first job, finishing grad school “on time,” and establishing myself in an ambitious career while also starting a family. Because guess what? The babies didn’t show up when planned. Life happens and much of it is out of your control. Learning this will free up your time and energy for life’s unexpected lessons and opportunities.

4. Behave to Your Own Physical and Mental Health at Work. No one cares about you as much as you do, so take care of yourself. This includes where — and for whom — you work. Your professional environment matters. Managers and leaders in the workplace directly impact the physical and mental health of their employees. Long hours, heavy job demands, lack of control over your work, and pervasive work-family conflicts can take a toll on both your own well-being and that of your family. Research links workplace stress to negative health outcomes, including increased risk of cardiovascular disease, depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges. Don’t be afraid to quit a job or boss that’s unhealthy.

5. Being CEO isn’t the end all be all. Becoming a CEO is often the gold standard for ambitious MBA grads and corporate staffers, but getting to the C-suite isn’t always as much fun as people think. Some of my best professional experiences were in junior, roll-up-your-sleeves roles where I was engaged in the day-to-day work of learning and growing a business, collaborating as a team with colleagues I didn’t have to manage. I wish someone had told me to become an entrepreneur, because the four startups I’ve been involved with have provided me with some of the greatest opportunities to learn and grow — more than I ever thought possible.

6. Give Back. It’s not unusual to hear this piece of advice at commencement, but it doesn’t always sink in. It should. Hands down, the moments I’ve felt the best in life are those when I feel I’ve helped someone else. And during those times I’ve felt at my worst, volunteering has offered me important perspective. It’s why today I give my employees paid time off to volunteer. To quote Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben in Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Use your power wisely and compassionately, and your life will be exponentially fulfilled.

So as you enter this season of commencement speeches, remember what it felt like to have the future ahead of you. Keep learning and make it happen