Now that the graduation caps have floated down, it’s time to face a different world.
While my personal experiences and thoughts on the subject may be helpful as you navigate your epic journey, I know the diversity of the collective is certainly stronger than anything I could offer alone.
So, I asked my incredibly valuable and certainly accomplished network of friends, family and colleagues – most of whom are 20, 30, & 40 years beyond graduation:
What would you tell your graduating self?
While I expected some response, I was blown away by the more than 200 – some quite detailed and incredibly thoughtful – comments from a range of CEOs, teachers, entrepreneurs, farmers, corporate and non-profit professionals, stay-at-home moms & dads, well-known authors, financial advisers, lawyers, consultants, tradespeople and coaches.
While all of the responses were incredible, following are some of the top themes – which I’ve categorized and combined – that resonated most:
1. On Mindset
There’s a lot to be said about mindset. Let’s start with Einstein – because he’s probably a good go-to bet for advice. When asked to pose the most vital question facing humanity, Einstein replied, “Is the Universe friendly?” Then he goes on to basically explain if we decide the universe is unfriendly, we may either isolate or destroy ourselves. If we decide it is neither, we are simply victims to what is. If we decide it is friendly, power and safety comes through understanding its workings and motives. If you decide the Universe is friendly, it’s not to say there’s nothing wrong with the world, or in ‘our’ world. But the fact is, our brains are literally wired to more readily see the bad. Seeing the good requires an active decision. It’s an assumption. And your assumption of the world heavily determines the part you play in it.
Contributor: Albert Einstein
2. On Presence
My respondents had an abundance of thoughts on being present. Here are a few of the best. “The ability to be present — wherever you are, be there, be focused, be listening, be empathetic, be respectful.” “When I think of people who seem successful in business and/or relationships, I do believe they ‘practice the ministry of presence.’ No matter how busy they are, or how many distractions are speeding across their radar, they focus on whichever they are doing at a given moment and thus are able to grasp the situation more clearly, assess how best to address it, and engage more effectively with the people affected by or affecting that situation.” There’s a reason this expert was Vice Chair of a global company, and now a lauded Professor. Presence is critically important. It means “having the ability to put your phone away, make space, focus, practice a challenge, show up respectfully, and listen.” As for focusing on the task at hand, I couldn’t be more convinced. Personally, I built a business from one client, one task, so I know this to be true.
Contributors: Patrick Ford, Winnie Carey, Andra Russell, Mary Lev, Patricia Cook
3. On Authentic You
Being “unapologetically authentic” doesn’t mean you get to do and say what you want, whenever you want. Nor does it mean you should share every detail of your private life. It means you’re courageous enough to be you. Statistically speaking, you have 1 in 400 billion chances of being here. By existing alone, you’ve beat the odds already – by a lot. If that’s possible, so is everything else. “There is only one you. Don’t care so much about what people think.” In a sea of the same, you will stand out by being you and attract the jobs, people and opportunities that are best suited to you. If you pretend to be someone you’re not, something(s) and someone(s) that shouldn’t, will show up. “Authenticity is one of the best things you can offer to the world … and it’s a huge key to both happiness AND success (personal, professional and beyond).” You will change, learn and grow – which is expected and natural. “Have patience. It is a marathon not a sprint.”
Contributors: Laura Leedy, Beth Kretz, Efrem Epstein, Mark Alberti, Tatiana Karpova, Carrie Egger
4. On Body & Mind
Be careful with your body and your mind. Nurture them, strengthen them, see a doctor if either is not well. These are your greatest instruments – really all that you have – to contribute to the world. Don’t destroy them. Don’t devalue them. Don’t weaken them. You need both to take you where you want to be – literally and metaphorically. Move them. Take them places – overseas, over the river, out of your comfort zone to strengthen and challenge your limitations and assumptions. Surprise yourself. Take care of you. Be aware of that which threatens both – the overindulgence of food, stress, drinking, drugs, toxicity, existential angst, social media and narrow-mindedness. “Start/continue to work out and eat correctly,” “Meditate,” “Breathe,” “Go beyond your borders,” “Expand your network” “Be grateful,” and if you need to make a big decision, “Sleep on it.”
Contributors: Lenny Lefebvre, Tony Wahl, Kathy Walsh, Stacie Nevadomski Berdan, JeanAnn Morgan- Liftin, Jennifer Paavola
5. On Money
Many people have a complex relationship with money, as if money excludes passion and purpose, and vice versa. Not only is this untrue, the reality is we live in a society where financial needs must be met in order to survive and thrive. When they are not, and in some cases seem near impossible (e.g., student loans) it creates incredible trauma, stress, trickle-down and trickle-up problems.
You need not apologize for figuring out your needs and making money. In fact, that’s your responsibility. While money is a commodity, it is a critical commodity and financial security allows you to be freer with your choices, feel less driven by fear, and frankly, become independent.
Here’s what you need to know: “However broke you may be, try to put 10% of your paycheck away starting early,” “invest early,” “regularly pay off debt,” “spend less than you earn,” and “buy as soon as you can afford it.” You need a plan, and more importantly, the discipline to consistently practice that plan. “Keep your life simple.” And while it’s often not discussed in career sections, depending on a wealthy spouse isn’t a strategy. As the saying goes, “If you marry for money, you’ll earn every nickel.” Sort yourself out. As best, and as early as you can. Consistently.
Contributors: Loretta Curtin, Sean Dooley, Chris Bivona, Brendan McGarry, Bridget Kiley Catleka, Ann Craparo, Vince Farkus
6. On Passion, Purpose & Voice
Be who you are. Say what you think. Don’t be afraid to take calculated risks, while “staying true to your core values and beliefs.” “Aim high and if you really want it, never give up.” “Learn to speak and use your voice well.” “Know your audience.” “Do something you’re passionate about,” but importantly – FIND the passion in what you’re doing now or outside of work. “Never miss the chance to inspire or be inspired.” “Never be afraid to speak up when you need to – for yourself or someone else.” One comment that truly resonated with me, and I think it’s critical to work, well-being and society: “Learn the art of a difficult conversation. Learn to be assertive without being aggressive.” “Be kind, honor yourself and your calling. Importantly, be kind to yourself.”
Contributors: Tiffany Cloonan, Sue Kennedy, Nicole Grogan, Stephanie Hines, Ingrid Kristen, Melissa Gwaltney, Dave McEwan, Leigh Ann Rangel, Carla Rooney, Anne Whiting Kennon, Christine Wilkerson, Joe Sviatko, Eileen Casey Gianiodis, Kevin Kelly, Sarah Cargill Gruszka, Carmen Akella, Tracy Taft Conner, Lou Branco, Glenn Sapadin
7. On Responding to “Failure”
“Success is an evolution, not a destination.” “Neither your career nor life are straight lines.” There are twists, turns, falls, curves. What you see as “failure” (something unexpectedly bad) today may be exactly what you needed to happen. You may not know why. But whether at work, looking for work or in life, how you respond to failure matters more than the event itself. I don’t mean to downplay pain and loss. People get sick, jobs are lost, relationships end, tragedies occur, and the grief and pain can be overwhelming. “You are resilient and have all the tools you need to recover.” “There’s beauty in the struggle as long as you can slow down enough to recognize it.” “It’s not how you respond to your success, but your failures that builds character.” If you can respond productively – “stay open-minded, learn, apologize when you screw up, forgive, let go of anger,” you win.
Contributors: Marcia Fox, Kate Gilfillan, Winne Carey, Maria Fedorchak, Paige Panzer-Kozek
8. On Work Ethic
Work ethic consistently topped the advice and there’s a good reason. “It comes down to working really hard.” You need to do the work. No matter how far we’ve come technologically, there’s simply no hack for work ethic, either in your job or your life.
Regardless of talent and natural ability, everyone can show up and work hard. Hard work not only gets you where you want to be, it earns the respect of those you want to be respected by. None of us are entitled to anything. “We all have a responsibility to work hard and be teachable.” The tremendous feeling of accomplishment cannot be achieved without a good day of hard work, which can be learned in any situation. As one of my experts said, “Everything I learned about work ethic, I learned from 0-18 working on a farm. Spend a summer on a farm and learn about work ethic.” And remember: “Weakness of attitude, becomes weakness of character.”
Contributors: Matt Hopkins, Kim Pichette, Amy Johnson DesRochers, Renee Carmine-Jones
9. On Authentic Relationships & Community
Your relationships will change depending on how your paths continue to converge or diverge. The data is overwhelming that the people you hang around most have an incredible impact on your health, happiness and success. It is these relationships that help “you define you” and move through professional and personal highs and lows. “Find a mentor who has your back. Be a mentor and have someone else’s back.” Find the people who inspire you, lift you up, make you laugh, make you think, and importantly, aren’t afraid to call you out on your baloney. Those are the people you need.
Try to understand people first. “Get a commission-only job then you’ll learn everything you need to know about people.” I couldn’t agree with that more once having to sell $1,100 vacuum cleaners door-to-door at commission-only. Because I had to. I learned more about people in six weeks than I had in the previous 17 years.
“You don’t need thousands of ‘followers’ to succeed.” In fact, quantity often distracts from quality. If you’re going to be in for someone, be all in. “Contribute, give, engage, invest your time and talent in that community.”
Contributors: Karen Brennan Jambe, Kevin Valis, Katie Wilcox, Mike McNally, Maureen Madden, Marcy Burt, Peg Reardon
10. On Character & Integrity
Character, integrity, and trust are things we often talk about in the abstract. Traits that should “never be compromised as they provide us peace and strength.” But the characteristics we hold dear must be earned – through actions. Be mindful of who you are and how you treat others, which includes “having respect for others regardless of position.” I would add, circumstance – especially “not judging too quickly,” “directly addressing the person with whom you have a problem/not gossiping.” We are united in agreement in the principle. Yet consider how often we all too quickly break those rules (interrupt at meetings, disregard someone else’s opinion, say something or stay quiet because of fear of consequence).
It takes a strong character, integrity and empathy to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and “understand the impact of your words and actions on others.” I’d also add it takes a strong character to recognize the limitations of your own assumptions, ego and experience.
Contributors: Tonia Clate, Monica Day, Jennifer Belardinelli Mesa, Sol Felitzer, Michelle Schwartz, Sara Goff, Bridget Catleka
11. On Creativity
We spend hours on end viewing other people’s lives. But we’re not here to be voyeurs. We are meant to create, to build, ideate, to inspire. Whether that’s creating a routine, mastering basic life skills or trying creative pursuits like painting, drawing, learning an instrument, writing, singing, building something or learning another language – the left-brain creative pursuit is necessary for our right-brain to thrive. Never stop creating. It’s what we were made to do.
Contributors: Samantha Haywood, Dave MacEwan
So now you know all the secrets I’ve learned from many wonderful people over the years. And it’s your turn to cultivate your own tribe. Start soon. Like immediately.
You are about to embark on an amazing, hard, exciting, scary journey, full of more love, joy, heartbreak and peace than you can ever imagine now. “Enjoy it.” It will likely knock you in the teeth now and then. You may get stuck, until you decide to change things. That’s OK. We’re all a work in progress. But every day is a chance to make your life spectacular.
Contributor: Roy Nygaard
Some days you won’t get a thing right. Others, you’ll feel like you nailed it. If you succeed at all of it, tell me how. But no matter what: Keep going.
You know the only people – the ONLY people – who simply cannot truly fail? The ones who never give up. “To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”
Contributor: Albert Einstein
Thank you to an incredible community of people for your wisdom and courage to share it.
Patty McDonough Kennedy is a change communication expert, speaker and trainer with 20 years of experience helping organizations transform and succeed. She’s lived and worked in the US, Africa and Europe, delivered keynotes at TEDx Duke University and for more than 20 organizations including Coldwell Banker and UBS. She’s been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Entrepreneur and PRWeek. Contact her at [email protected]