Congratulations Wharton Class of 2016! It’s been a couple of months but hopefully the special ring to that phrase has not worn off.
Graduation is the time for inspirational speeches from commencement speakers across the world wishing hundreds of thousands of young people the best as they set out into the world. We may even revisit these timeless nuggets of wisdom on career and life: Steve Jobs, J.K Rowlings—and my favorite—David Foster Wallace. But a few months out—especially in light of all that has happened since May (mass shootings, Brexit, racial tension, terrorist attacks)—might be as good a time as any to re-visit some of this wisdom.
I don’t know that I can say anything more eloquent than the great speakers mentioned above. But I can share with you, from a very personal perspective, the key snippets of what I have learnt since I graduated from Wharton in 2004. This is what I wish someone had told me back then, or indeed when I graduated from college. This is also what I now tell my MBA students… when they are not too stressed about jobs and careers to listen.
1.) Reach for the Stars BUT learn to find meaning in the ordinary.
“Follow Your Dreams” and #DoWhatYouLove is an important piece of advice in all commencement speeches. This is because we want to inspire you as new graduates to go out there and reach for the stars. But this advice can be a little bit daunting, and sometimes, confusing. You will discover that there are other things in play than just your own ambitions. Also, so much will ultimately depend on your personality and natural risk profile.
I will say this though, as a disclaimer. I am biased towards NOT giving your heart and soul to a bunch of adults who say they know what they are doing. I am biased towards the guy who opens a lemonade stand over the one who follows 50,000 other students into banking and consulting. That is not to disparage the incredibly smart people who get into these extremely competitive institutions (in fact it is my day job to help every aspiring consultant and banker land these jobs) but rather to say that there’s a special place in my heart for the countless entrepreneurs of all stripes slaving to make their world-changing dream a reality. Who bootstrap, and work like crazy, and believe in building something new.
Regardless, traditional career path or entrepreneurship, I think the holy trinity of career happiness is this—Passion, Talent, and Money—and the fact that you need all three. Best illustrated by this little diagram, and covered in articles I’ve written here and here. So I won’t belabor the point.
There’s no doubt that in general if you like what you do for your day job then life is much more pleasant. Because it’s what you do for 70% of the time you are not sleeping. So, if you like it, that hugely helps ease the pain of living on this planet. But there’s a population-wide mismatch between talent distribution (and what you want to do), and what other people are willing to pay you to do. Additionally, you may have other factors to consider—financial situation, family constraints, and most probably student loans.
Does this mean you should opt for the safety of the corporate paycheck? Actually that is no longer a safe option either. The latest studies show that almost 40% of work is now freelance or contracted out. There are several robust technology-driven platforms that match talent—including MBAs and engineers—directly to projects and tasks, completely bypassing traditional jobs and long-term employment. Already some time ago Harvard Business Review documented this phenomenon The Rise of the SuperTemp where CMOs, CFOS, and consultants with world-class training are working independently to meet this demand.
So where am I going with this? I am suggesting that it doesn’t help to set this up as a passionate-career-life-adventure VS. safe-corporate-death-zone. Your choices are more nuanced than that. I believe the key is to try to be inspired in whatever you do in all the little ways. The truth is there are many parts of one’s day, whether you are a start-up CEO or a corporate accountant, that is just dreary and repetitive. You have to develop the ability to find meaning in the meaningless, beauty in the boring, and inspiration in the daily stuff—meetings, paper work, bills, commute, traffic, laundry.
You may or may not reach the highest pinnacles of your dreams. You also don’t know whether all your stars will align at age 30, 40, or 50. So you have to find meaning and value in what is essentially an imperfect world, and a very imperfect job world. The moments of our lives that are extra-ordinary are few and far between. But if you develop the ability to appreciate the ordinary, if you can find contentment a little bit more easily each year you grow older, then you’ll be covered under almost any contingency, and you don’t have to worry so much about whether you are following your dreams or not.
2.) Understand that everything is nuanced. Everything has two sides.
Actually everything has many, many sides. You’ll find out that the more you learn the less you know. Opinions you were so tied to when you graduated with your MBA will change as you gain life experience. Things you were so sure you knew, you will question. You will end up questioning all – or at least most – of it.
I have learnt that being able to see things from different viewpoints, even amidst allegiance to your own, is the definition of humility. Additionally, given the tumultuous world we inhabit today, it may simply be the only option.
Whether you are pro or against globalization it is a reality. And if you want to successfully navigate this global marketplace you have to understand the multiple layers of complexity of that market place. You can’t just see things from your country’s perspective, even if say that country is the United States. There are 7.4 billion people on this planet—5 billion men and women of working age looking for a good job in a melting pot of hundreds of thousands of different cultures, languages, and races. There are so many important conversations people are trying to have across the globe about immigration, diversity, race, minorities rights, women’s rights, and sustainability- all of which change depending on who’s talking, who the audience is, and who’s impacted.
You are going to get caught up in these conversations or be asked to step up and contribute to them. Or indeed lead these conversations. These are the key issues of our generation.
The best advice I have here is this. Learn to be discerning in your thinking, careful with your words, and considered in your actions. Here’s a very good example of what I mean. NPR interviews this rising young South African comedian who talks about growing up in the Apartheid era, hosting a political satire show in a foreign country, and taking over leadership of a team from a very popular ex-boss. It doesn’t really matter if you like Trevor Noah as a comedian; in this interview his answers, just as a human being, demonstrate careful consideration and eloquent and moderated expression on some very difficult issues. He observes the myriad intricacies and subtleties of human behaviors, as well as different viewpoints across time, place, culture, and race. And because he observes and tries to understand, there’s humility in his answers.
3.) The only time you have agency over is the present moment.
Once there was a very wise emperor who lived hundreds of years ago. He studied all the world religions to find the meaning of life. Finally, he just gave up and invented his own religion, which boils down to these three simple questions and the answers to them. In my own experience I have come to realize that these really are the only three questions you’ll ever need the answers to.
When is the most important time? Always now. The present moment is the most important time. The past is gone and the future is unpredictable. This moment is really the only time you have any agency over. If you are concerned about your future, understand that the quality of the thoughts you have right now (patience, kindness etc.) impact your future far more than any planning for the future.
Who’s the most important person? The person you are with right now. Whoever is right in front of you in the most important person. Focus on this person, this conversation, this relationship. Put away your smartphone. And don’t think of your grocery list or your next appointment.
What is the most important thing to do? To care. We think it’s to improve or cure a person, to fix a problem, to change a situation. But actually it’s to care, to listen, to be present. That’s probably not intuitive because we are built to do something. Think about the turmoil of life: turmoil of sickness, turmoil of job loss, turmoil of traffic on your daily commute. Have you tried managing/fixing/changing those situations? Exhausting! Try caring. Life doesn’t want to be cured—it wants to be cared for.