Open letter to recent college graduates

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Congratulations!  Making it through four or five years of college requires concentration, stamina and discipline and you should feel very proud of yourself. I am proud of you.

I imagine you have been getting looks of pity from friends and relatives since you are graduating in one of the bleakest economic climates since the Great Depression.

Here is the good news:  there is no need to worry.

Living with constraints and challenges is one of the best learning opportunities you will ever get. By succeeding in a tough economy, you will be much better prepared for life than peers who graduate with offer letters waived under their noses the moment they cross the stage to collect their diploma.  Constraints breed creativity. Creativity is the single most useful skill you will ever develop.

Here is my advice to you, based on thirteen years working in and studying career development, learning, human behavior and performance inside and outside of corporations:

  1. There is no perfect job.
    I am so sorry if you agonized over choosing a major.  It must have been really hard to decide the subject matter to specialize in that would prepare you for a fruitful career.  So here is the good and bad news. Bad news:  you may not work in a field that has anything to do with your major.  Good news: just as there is no perfect major, there is no perfect job.  As soon as you settle in to the perfect situation, it will change, your manager will leave, your company will be acquired, or you will be promoted and everything you loved about your job will change. A much better way to view your career is by observing the kind of work that interests you. Which activities energize you? What kind of people bring out the best in you?  If you view your interests and and skills as ingredients searching for a recipe instead of searching for the perfect job, you will be much happier over the course of your life.
  2. You are always self-employed, no matter your tax designation.
    The job market today is radically different than that of your parent’s generation. No job is guaranteed, and no company can promise stability.  So the best way to create long-term income security is to manage your career at all times as if you were self-employed. If you take a job as an employee, do not ever put your career in the hands of a manager or mentor. Always be looking around for ways to make yourself valuable to the company, and your company’s customers. Always stay connected to the job market at large. If you work for yourself, never close the door on work as an employee, since if you run into a rough patch, you may need to be your own venture capitalist for awhile until things straighten out in your own business. There is no inherent stability in working for a company and no inherent glamor in working for yourself. Both are viable ways to make a living.
  3. Don’t be afraid to skip a step.
    Many people will give you advice that you must stay in one position for a set number of years in order to ready yourself for a certain responsibility or opportunity. The people I consider the most successful (by my definition which includes enjoying their work, earning a good living, feeling happy and accomplishing lots of life goals) do not wait for permission from anyone to pursue opportunities. I encourage you to become familiar with young entrepreneurs like Shama Hyder who is on her third successful business at 24, Ben Casnocha who started a company and wrote a book before starting college and Ramit Sethi who has co-founded  a successful company, positioned himself as a personal finance expert and written a best-selling book at age 26.  You don’t have to follow their path as entrepreneurs, but you would be wise to channel their self-confidence and ability to brush off older naysayers.
  4. Don’t chase the market.
    One of the biggest regrets I hear from 40-something coaching clients is following a career path that they did not feel passionate about, but that was “practical” and “paid the bills.” Many find that their early career choices set in motion a highly pragmatic but intensely unsatisfying work life. Instead, follow the kinds of things you are really passionate about.   Brett Farmiloe and his college friends, disheartened by their first corporate jobs, took off across the country to interview people passionate about their careers. Their  Pursue the Passion project allowed them to interview hundreds of fun, enthusiastic people, and landed Brett a prime job as Social Media Manager for
  5. Fast, free and scrappy wins the race.
    The best way to build a career or a business is to test and try a lot of things.  If you spend too much time in the planning stages, opportunities pass you by.  You may be a really good student and pride yourself on graduating at the top of your class. This is a great accomplishment. It might also get in your way, if you worry that every project you undertake must be perfectly executed, or you will consider yourself a failure. Instead, get used to testing often and failing fast. If things don’t turn out as planned, instead of asking “Why me?” ask “What happened?” or “How could I improve that next time?” The pace of work is so fast, and the tools of technology are so adaptable, that the people who are able to work quickly, creatively and flexibly will be the most valued in the market.
  6. Trust your body.
    You may feel confused about which decision to make or which direction to take in your new career.  You may lie awake at night weighing options and evaluating the merits of each choice.  As your brain works hard, your body is quietly sitting there with tons of relevant information. In fact, it probably holds the best answer for you if you just listen to it. Here is a trick: remember a great moment in your life, and notice how you felt in your body. Then remember a horrible time in your life, and notice how you felt in your body. Now think about each of your career choices. How does each feel in your body? The more you trust your body’s responses, the better decisions you will make. Listen to an interview with my coaching mentor Martha Beck for some more clues to how your left toe holds the clue to your right life.
  7. Be generous.
    When I was in my twenties and thirties, older mentors in the corporate world (most of them male) told me that I was too nice for my own good. “You have to learn how to be more tough if you want to get by in the business world,” they said.  I have no problem being strong, or working hard, but I never considered that being kind and generous was synonymous with a limp career.  Here is the good news: being kind, generous and authentic is now seen as a brilliant career strategy.  It helped me gather the world’s kindest community of blog readers and clients around me, attracted a book deal from a major New York publisher, and, most importantly, makes me feel proud to show my kids how I work.
  8. Relax.
    Your life is not a race.  You have plenty of time to experiment and figure out what interests you.  You should travel.  Volunteer.  Try really out really different kinds of jobs and see what lights your fire. There is not a universal timeline for figuring things out, although many will tell you there is. The real questions to ask yourself as you cruise through life are: Are you happy? Are you learning? Are you contributing something positive to the world? Are you interested in others? Are you enthusiastic? Learning how to slow down and enjoy the present is a wonderful gift to yourself, and will help you produce really high quality work.
  9. Work your tail off.
    I just said to relax.  But I didn’t mean be lethargic and lazy.  If you are sleeping on your parent’s couch and eating Flaming Hot Cheetos all day, that is not relaxing, that is copping out. If you don’t have an income stream coming in right now, find something worthwhile to do. Use your hands and build something. Take on a big challenge at your local community center. Build a website. Start a blog.  Seth Godin has some more specific suggestions. I encourage you to listen to him; he is one of the most creative, productive and hard-working people I know.
  10. Don’t try to do things on your own.
    Rugged individualism is highly overrated. By trying to do everything yourself, you will take longer, produce worse results, feel isolated and have fewer exciting experiences. Instead, build on your current network. Stay in touch with classmates, professors and old bosses. Fill your life with all kinds of smart, interesting and compassionate people. Aim to have peers and mentors of all ages, professions and backgrounds. The more diverse your network, the more opportunities will come your way. Us old folks think that you are the social networking generation, so leverage Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to maximum advantage. Ask for help and help others, and watch your career thrive.

Like any advice you receive, you are welcome to ignore mine. Your own instinct is your best guide, and will not fail you.

Enjoy your journey, and thanks for listening.

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56 Responses to “Open letter to recent college graduates”

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  4. Moira says:

    I really like number 8. “Your life is not a race” is exactly what a good family friend told me a few weeks ago when I was stressing out, trying to decide whether or not to go straight into law school. I’ve decided to take a year to work, relax, live a little… and I’m really excited. If anyone is interested in having more conversations about life after graduation, check out my blog! (

  5. Pam,

    Well said. These are all valuable pieces of advice, but my very favorite is this one:

    “Your life is not a race. You have plenty of time to experiment and figure out what interests you. You should travel. Volunteer. Try really out really different kinds of jobs and see what lights your fire. There is not a universal timeline for figuring things out, although many will tell you there is. The real questions to ask yourself as you cruise through life are: Are you happy? Are you learning? Are you contributing something positive to the world? Are you interested in others? Are you enthusiastic?”

    If I’ve learned one thing since graduating, this would be it. Sometimes being lost for awhile is part of the process. Take the time to explore and to be at ease with not knowing.

    Another thing I’ve learned is that a college degreee in itself doesn’t entitle you to anything. If you want to be successful, you’ve gotta have a lot more to back it up. I’ve written more about this here if you’re interested: Why Your College Degree Doesn’t Mean Sh**”

    Thanks again 🙂

  6. Andrew says:

    This list is gold. I think it perfectly complements how I feel.