Graduation season means a rush of news articles about famous commencement speakers and their words of wisdom. US Secretary of State John Kerry just gave one, as did recently fired New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson.
David McCullough Jr., longtime Wellesley High School English teacher and son of one of my favorite authors, gave one of my favorite commencement speeches of all time last year when he told graduates they’re not special.
Much is made of these words of wisdom, but wisdom can come from the everyday, the hard knocks and the failures.
Here are six bits of advice from my own school of mediocrity.
- Your first three jobs will pay little. The really good jobs and pay must be earned for years after graduation. Employers will rarely give you a plum assignment right out of school. They want to see what you’re made of first. You’ll get the shittiest tasks and, as entry-level employees, you won’t make enough money to live independently. The key to the good stuff is to pay your dues with grace and good humor.
- Nobody likes whiners. Because of that first point, you’ll probably find yourself working more than 40 hours a week and seeing people who don’t work as hard as you getting ahead. Life’s unfair for most of us, and you have to make the best of what you have at the time. Life is a series of tests and the winners usually smile and bear the tough stuff. Also, fairness is hard to measure. For all you know, that colleague who doesn’t work as many hours simply learned through experience how to work more efficiently.
- Kindness beats ruthlessness every time. Some will disagree with me on this, especially those who find ruthlessness necessary to get ahead. But it’s been a simple fact that when I’ve been a cut-throat asshole, my work life has been miserable and innocents have been hurt. When I’ve been helpful and kind, I’ve always felt better for it. Too, the bosses I’ve learned the most from have been the compassionate ones. When you’re kind, colleagues want to work with you — and help you through the inevitable rough patches.
- If work becomes everything, you lose. I once put work so high above everything else in life that it nearly ate me alive. Remember that a job should be something you do to live, not the other way around. Jobs come and go. Sometimes it ends before you expect it to and it’s not on your terms. If you have a balanced life with other interests and friends outside office life, you’ll survive and probably thrive more than you had before. If not, it’ll feel like your life has ended with the job you just lost.
- Neglecting children for work is the biggest mistake you can make. Some of you will marry. Some of you will become parents. If so, don’t put work ahead of them. I know what it’s like and it sucks. I’ve also been guilty of doing it to my kids in the past. Your neglect will fill them with bitterness that causes them more pain in adulthood. Today, I rearrange my work schedule around my children’s needs. It’s not always easy and I don’t always do it well. But it’s the least I could do, since I helped bring them into this world.
- It’s never too late to renegotiate your life. Hate your career? Feel trapped by the choices you made? Start over. You may think you can’t. But people do it all the time, with spectacular results.
All of this isn’t meant to depress young adults heading out into the world. It’s meant to assure them that it’s within their power to learn, grow and thrive. It’s just not as easy as some are led to believe.