Each year, as spring turns to summer, and thousands of Boston-area college graduates flood the streets wearing caps, gowns and huge smiles, I reflect upon my own 22-year-old self and wonder what I would have done differently knowing what I know now. In this generation, college graduates are overly concerned with being passionate about their first job. Everyone is encouraged to dream huge and not settle. What many of them don’t realise, however, is that passion is fleeting, and defining your life path by what you love at this very moment likely means you will not stick with it once your passion fades. Studies have shown that passion comes from mastery, not mastery from passion. So, as I sit here at age 37, I would like to tell the class of 2014 the following (knowing my 22-year-old self never would have listened):
1) Set the ground work for future excellence. You won’t get to the equivalent of the Olympics in your career if you go out drinking seven days a week. Master your job. Be excellent at it. There’s a lot of talk about work/life balance today, but now’s not the time to think that way. You’re most likely single and childless. You won’t be forever. Want to ensure you have a big experience gap over your peers? Screw the 40 hour work week and spend as much time as it takes to be the best you can possibly be. The rewards in the future will be worth the sacrifices you’re making now.
2) Be willing to master tasks that some people find too boring or too difficult. Have you ever lived in one of those bad college apartments where you have a door that sticks? The trick to opening the door is something like to twist it half way, then lean into it with your shoulder and lift up on the handle while you twist it the rest of the way. It’s a complex motion and when you first move into that apartment it takes you 2 minutes to open the door every time. After a few weeks though, the motion has become natural and you get it on the first try. You can harness this same power at your job. Learn something that might seem boring, like reading industry reports or financial statements. At first, your mind wanders and the words don’t make sense, but if you keep at it, and you dig in, you will start to understand more and more, and the comprehension starts to come naturally, without much work. Then when your peers aren’t learning because they can’t focus long enough to digest this information, you will have a deep and significant advantage.
3) Don’t watch TV. I have never seen an episode of The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad or any of the shows that people constantly discuss. If you sacrifice these trivial things now, I doubt you will miss them later. I understand that it’s easy to get caught up in the “hanging out mindset.” After all, you do work hard and yes, probably deserve a break. But remember that if reaching your goals were easy, everyone would do it. Instead, read, write and travel. Do things that make your brain swell with knowledge and give you a competitive advantage over your peers.
4) When all else fails, just do something. People often miss good opportunities because they have this unrealistic idea in their heads of what they want. Or, alternatively, because they have no idea what they want and are paralysed trying to make a decision. Sometimes the biggest gift you can give yourself is to explore. The key is to do interesting things — things that help you learn something, or move you forward. If you don’t know which direction to go, just pick something. Whatever you do — don’t stand still.
5) Having smaller goals is fine. The life I chose isn’t for everyone. Other people have different goals. Some want to get a decent job and then sit back and enjoy life. There is nothing innately wrong with this. To each, his own. But in my experience, too many people do have big, hairy audacious goals, but give up on them after they realise they have “wasted their 20s” and are now poorly-positioned to ever achieve them. If you have big goals, you have to be willing to make the big sacrifices to accomplish them.
I remember walking across the stage on graduation day, just as many of you have done just a month or two ago. You might think your days of hard work are over, but really they are just getting started. The best thing you can do for yourself is to set reasonable expectations about your future based on how hard you are willing to work, what you are willing to sacrifice and what you aren’t. Too many people wait until mid-life to realise they didn’t put in the time and effort to achieve their goals. Don’t make that mistake. Work hard at whatever you do, keep taking on interesting problems and more difficult challenges. Career advantages are like compound interest. The extra work you do seems to add little benefit at first, but by the time you are mid-career, you are making major gains. Keep that perspective and invest heavily now, when it will have the most impact. You will be glad you did.
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