June 15, 2017
Got A Degree? Awesome...But This is What You Need to Know

Graduation season is upon us, and a plethora of newly minted graduates are ready to hit the ground running. I remember when I finished school, I was bold enough to think that having achieved a college degree would be the key to a successful future. Sure, it played a role, but ultimately it was just a ticket to entry.

Like many things in life, careers don't come with a handbook. You enter the workforce, perhaps with some vision of a master plan, and the only thing you can truly count on is that it will likely never play out exactly as you imagine it. Decades of work experience, thousands of hours spent helping others navigate their careers, and a candid helping of reality is what I share with you now. There are obviously infinite bits of wisdom you can glean from others if you open yourself up to just need to be curious and embrace that notion that you don’t hit the workforce having all of the answers.   

Steve Jobs once said, “The only way to do great work is to do what you love.” I couldn’t agree more. Skills matter, but if you aren’t passionate about the work you do, it’s hard to bring your best day after day. Don’t get me wrong; no one is suggesting that if you are passionate about your work, that it won’t come with challenge or frustrations. It is, after all, called work for a reason. However, when you are truly finding value and meaning with the work you do, it becomes far easier to persevere through those down points. And your work moves from a “job” to a “career.”

Unless you are one of the rare people who score your dream job right out of school, many of us settle to get our foot in the door somewhere. Makes sense; we all want to start making money and get moving with our lives. That said, as you search for companies, don’t be swayed by those offering free lunch and weekly social events. That’s all fun stuff, but it has very little to do with the work you are actually going to be doing. We all spend a significant part of our life working; so understanding your value set prior to searching for a company is important. Before accepting, understand what they value as well. If your value sets don’t line up, the chances that will have a great experience there are fairly limited.

I can’t count how many people have crossed my path over the years, confident in their knowledge that they had all the right answers. They are young, and hungry, and eager to make their mark. I get it. I was one of them. One thing I’ve learned through the years, however, is that it’s not all about having the “right” answers that counts. It’s far more important about how you go about getting to that answer. Ask questions. Seek knowledge. Broaden the scope who you collaborate with. You learn over time that often times those who are insatiably curious are the ones who thrive over the long haul.  

Most of us are told by our parents how special we are, and that we deserve the best. That notion has been exacerbated over the years by coaches who give everyone on the soccer field a medal for just showing up. Get ready for some ego checking as you enter the workforce. You might have a track record of smarts, which allowed you to go to a great school or lead a successful club or sports team. Business is a far different entity:you have to earn it. In other words, don’t enter the workforce assuming your previous successes are going to result in a promotion within your first three months of work. No one is going to hand you anything.  

And just how does one accomplish this and get recognized for your contributions? It’s a pretty simple formula.

When you are always focused on “What’s in it for me?” and “I’ll take this on if I get a big raise, ”  you are focused on your own ego needs. Instead, focus on making an impact to your team and organization. Miraculously, when you operate that way, all the ego needs will ultimately be met, because now you’ve made yourself a truly valuable member of the team and companies work  hard to recognize and reward those people.

Throughout our lives, we curate a list of people we admire and aspire to embody certain qualities from. Many people run to the concept  of having a mentor. I’d argue that the benefit comes from not just having one formalized mentor relationship, but rather a number of different people who you look to on a variety of different topics. You can learn something from just about anyone if you know what you are after. Don’t have access to these people? Fret not. Go on LinkedIn and search through their “influencers” to see whose messages you connect with.  Read books and articles about areas you want to learn more about. Build a point of view, and supplement by gaining wisdom from others. Heroes don’t need to wear capes; they just need to inspire you to get the best out of yourself.

Of course, finding your zen keeps us all calmer during the chaotic times. In this case, however, I'm suggesting you need to embrace the art of being agile. Times are changing at a rapid pace.  Jobs that people trained hard for years ago are now becoming automated. Career paths are morphing to more of a “lattice” that don’t follow one prescribed path. Obviously, this can cause stress in the form of “will I still be relevant in a few years?!” There is no changing progress. However, you can double down on your efforts to always be learning something new, and focus on abilities that will likely never disappear - like emotional intelligence and teaming. By stay ahead of the curve, you will be far better poised to navigate it as things in the world evolve.

Graduating from college and entering the workforce is a huge accomplishment, and one that should be celebrated. Enjoy, and then put the diploma aside and start embracing the new challenges ahead. Over the last several years, you’ve not just learned much about one specific topic; you have learned how to think, analyze, and partner with others. Those are the skills and mindset it’s time to employ. Get to work, and go make your dent on the world.  

Christina Luconi is Chief People Officer for Rapid7. Follow her on Twitter: @peopleinnovator.