Commencement speeches can be heavy on abstract hopes and dreams and light on practical advice. As another graduation season rolls around, I got to thinking about the commencement address I wish I’d heard.
When I received my undergraduate degree in chemical engineering, I was filled with mixed emotions. After reaching my goals for so long as a student, I no longer knew what the road forward looked like. I’d recently completed an internship in my field only to discover I didn’t enjoy it very much, and I was panicked that my chosen major had sealed my fate.
But here’s what I figured out since then: Your days as a student haven’t ended even if your days in school have. You don’t have to define yourself by your major or what you thought you wanted to be when you grew up. If you continue building out your skill set, you’ll find there are many more ways to apply those skills than you may have realized.
In fact, your first job isn’t your destiny either. I moved away from engineering and took a job with a big accounting firm after graduating, despite not knowing much about finance. After that I spent time at a venture capital firm, and then an Internet marketing startup.
At the time, I was struggling to find my fit, but looking back, those early choices were good ones. What I picked up in my wanderings is the same advice I’d share with today’s new grads.
You’re eager, energetic, and full of ideas, but before you rush to present your thoughts to the board of directors, slow down and listen. Use your newcomer status to observe and soak up on-the-job lessons about your work environment, interpersonal dynamics, decision-making, and communication styles. Don’t feel bad about not having everything figured out—you’ve got time.
Even if you think you’ve nailed down your perfect career path, keep an open mind and expose yourself to as many different experiences as possible. You can’t continue growing and evolving as a professional if you don’t stay curious and receptive to new skills, responsibilities, and points of view. Now’s the time for exploration and experimentation; you can specialize later.
Now that I’m a CEO, I’m not approached as often by new hires seeking my guidance. I suspect they assume I’m too busy or important, or they’re afraid of looking green and clueless. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. I know from speaking with colleagues that we all feel an obligation to help when junior employees want to tap into our experience. We were all in their shoes at one point. So don’t be afraid to approach your senior coworkers and ask to chat over coffee. You may very well find a mentor for life.
Take a risk and try something unfamiliar while you’re still new to the game. If you’re taking the time to listen, venturing beyond your comfort zone, and seeking guidance from more experienced colleagues, you’ll always be growing. And that will make you a valuable team member and contributor over the course of your entire career, no matter where you end up.
As today’s grads enter the working world, I hope they’ll go into it with an open mind and boundless curiosity. A lifelong learning attitude will serve you well, and it’ll make the journey a lot more interesting and rewarding.