Generation Z. Post-Millennials. The iGeneration. The generation graduating this year makes up a quarter of today’s U.S. population – which represents more than the Millennials who came before them, or even my own Baby Boomer generation.
The young people graduating this season were ushered in to this world alongside the 9/11 attacks, and by their 10th birthdays, were met by the 2008 financial crisis. Though they were too young to know it at the time, the gravity of these events laid a foundation for this generation’s own form of insecurity; that the world as they know it can change in a moment’s notice. This rift in their outlook means a lot to them – I know because some of my kids are this age – and it colors my advice for their future.
Given today’s realities, the graduates I’ve spoken with would proclaim that gainful employment alone isn’t enough for them – though it’s likely enough for their parents. They will say that they seek meaning, fulfillment, and a passion for their vocation and life mission. Indeed, those are noble pursuits. But in the quest for a purpose-filled profession, graduates shouldn’t lose sight of gaining real experience and the value of sticking it out and doing the hard work.
Many of the commencement addresses I’ve heard or read all revolve around the trope “follow your dreams.”
My advice to young professionals is more practical. Dream big, but first get a job.
Over the nearly four decades since my own college graduation, I’ve learned many valuable lessons; many of which have helped shape my current outlook and the decisions I’ve made as a business-owner, advisor and investor.
Here are four of those countless lessons, translated for graduates today.
Lesson 1: Seek opportunities to discover what you’re good at (and get paid for it, too).
Graduation is not the time to find your life’s passion. Chances are, it will take time to discover and develop. Many older adults are still working on discovering their passions. Instead, focus on finding what you’re good at, and opportunities where you can demonstrate your skills. And then, find someone who will pay you to do it.
As a kid, I loved playing basketball. But I also realized that, no matter how hard I worked on my game, I would never make a living at it, standing at 5 feet 5 inches, with not much of a vertical leap. So, when someone says, “you can be anything you want,” well, that’s not exactly true.
The best way to hone your skills is by continually seeking new opportunities and trying different things. Pursue internships, take on new tasks. Then stick with the things that stick with you, and move on from those that don’t. My experience says that you’ll enjoy what you excel in, and that may just be where your passion (and paycheck) is hiding.
Lesson 2: Life is what you make it, not what you share about it online.
In our ever-connected world fueled by overly curated social media feeds, too much energy is spent attempting to make our realities appear attractive, while far too little time is spent actually making our experiences meaningful and good. While investing in the perfect positioning of a “personal brand” may serve to distinguish graduates from their peers, the content of your character will always outweigh your image.
Mentors and managers who have the power to help young professionals progress are typically much more interested in supporting those who have strong character, demonstrate knowledge of and appreciation for the business, and speak truth to their experiences.
By living a trustworthy life, treating people with honesty and respect, serving others and always trying to do the right thing, your life will not only look good; more importantly, it will be good.
This is what truly matters, and how to work toward success. Let character and substance be your personal brand.
Social media posts are cheap, deeds are precious.
Lesson 3: Tune out the noise and pay attention to what is under your control.
We live in a world where negativity surrounds us. And yet, by most objective measures, things have never been better. Today, people are richer, taller, healthier, cleverer, longer-lived and freer than at any time in history.
Some predictions project that 50 percent of jobs available today will someday be replaced by artificial intelligence, including the jobs for which many students just spent the last four years preparing. But instead of dwelling on that possibility, remember that, as William Shakespeare said, “sweet are the uses of adversity.” While there will certainly be those who dither and worry about the prospects of their personal obsolescence, I can guarantee there will be others looking at the opportunities that future disruption will afford. I tell grads who listen to me to be part of that group.
Let’s look at history: In 1798, English scholar Thomas Malthus predicted mass starvation would result from the world’s inability to grow enough food. In 1968, The Population Bomb by Stanford University’s Paul Ehrlich posited that we stood on the brink of apocalypse from overpopulation. At the beginning of the 21st century, computer scientists anticipated mass system failures as the result of Y2K.
While some of these predictions would have been correct if smart problem-solvers hadn’t intervened, what many predictions fail to recognize is that humans adapt and adjust. Ignore the predictions and negativism. Instead, pay attention to the things that are under your control. Work hard, keep learning and improving skills, and take care of both your physical and mental health. We can’t control how things like artificial intelligence are going to affect jobs in the future, so work on making yourself invaluable in the present.
Lesson 4: Strong relationships are the key to real happiness.
Working in wealth management, you quickly learn to be a people person. Our business is deeply rooted in relationships, and it’s a big part of what draws me to our work. Earning returns is one part of the equation, but a lot of our job has to do with building a strong foundation of trust and mutual respect, as well. So, we invest time in our clients, truly getting to know them, and we often find they become our best advocates and our friends.
What most people – including these newly minted grads – miss in this equation is that forging, and maintaining these relationships is hard work; it takes time, effort and the willingness to step outside your comfort zone to foster them. But it is almost always worth it, not just in a business sense, but in creating a more bountiful life for the person doing the work.
Quality relationships within one’s network and community are the key to personal happiness. Research has shown that deep social connections are good for our souls. In your quest for success, remember that while you need to make a living – and the cost of living is high these days – don’t forget about nurturing what really matters.
So when I had the opportunity to talk with grads, as I did with the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business earlier this month, I shared my four points, but I also told them to enjoy the moment. It is one of a few once-in-a-lifetime experiences to stand tall and walk across a stage.
It's important for them to look forward to what’s next; temper their desire to find purpose and mission with the hardscrabble reality that seeking that level of fulfilment comes more easily while working, and working toward a goal. It won’t be easy, but nothing worth much ever is.