July 15, 2013
I didn't give any college commencement addresses this year. Administrators probably assumed I had already been scooped up by the biggies — Harvard, Yale, The Iowa School for the Perpetually Perplexed — and didn't bother to ask.
Regardless, I have sage advice for recent graduates preparing to enter the workforce. I thought about getting them each an iPad, but at this juncture, what's more valuable than life lessons from someone they don't know who graduated more than 20 years ago?
Here then is America's Most-Beloved Workplace Advice for New Graduates, courtesy of America's most-beloved workplace advice columnist:
The first thing you want to do before entering the workplace is to get a job. It gets awkward when you walk into a company and start working without being hired.
When I graduated, I was still job searching. It took me about three months before I had lined up something in my field. I called that "The Cool Approach," positing that having a job lined up right after graduation would make me look too eager and that a grueling post-graduation job search gave me better stories to tell in bars.
I'd guess many of you are using The Cool Approach, and that's fine. You will find work, as long as you keep pressing.
Which brings me to my first piece of advice: Don't hold out for a dream job; just find someone who will pay you to do stuff.
Early in my career, I moved and was job searching in a new city. I got an offer from one news organization, but was being "considered" by another with a loftier reputation. I called a former editor, a chain-smoking, gravelly-voiced grump of a man straight out of "haggard newsguy" central casting.
I asked him what I should do.
"Huppke!" he hacked. "You need someone to pay you to write stuff. Take the damn job!"
I did, and it got my career going.
So I'm modifying his advice and telling you to get into the workforce as quickly as possible and start doing stuff. That's how you learn; that's how you build. I don't care if the job isn't ideal. It might even be tangential to the field you want to be in, but it's a job and it will help you develop not only work experience but also contacts and a reputation.
Which brings us to pithy advice sentence No. 2: Be a decent human being.
That has become a mantra of this column, and it's of immense importance to people starting their careers. Whatever kind of work you do, whatever your abilities, the thing you have the most control of is your personal brand. What kind of a person are you? Do people like you? Do you play well with others?
I've known plenty of people with marginal skills who have done great in life because they're nice, hard-working, willing to chip in when needed and generally pleasant to be around. If you can pair those qualities with exceptional skills, you'll be a powerhouse in any company.
I don't care if your first job stinks or if you feel like the work is beneath you. Charge into that workplace every day and work your butt off, treat people respectfully and build a reputation as a decent human being. THAT will take you places. And a non-jerk reputation is something you will take wherever you go.
Of course a sizable part of being a decent human being is not thinking too highly of yourself. Advice nugget No. 3: Be humble.
Most of us come bounding out of college thinking we're the smartest person in the room. We imagine our skills will be discovered swiftly and rocket us to the highest rungs of our professions.
I graduated with a degree in chemical engineering. My first job was busing tables at Applebee's. Being yelled at for putting the ketchup and mustard in the wrong place on the table will humble you up real quick.
And that's good. You can maintain your self-confidence and enthusiasm without being a pompous upstart. You just have to absorb a concept that eludes most young people: this is a long game, and you're just getting started.
Pace yourself. Learn everything you can. Recognize that each job, or each position in a company, is a steppingstone.
I don't believe in the old hierarchical model of employee advancement. I think if you're good, you should be noticed and rewarded, regardless of age or experience. Thankfully, more and more companies are thinking that way as well.
But that doesn't mean you walk in the door and reach your dream job after six months. You have to learn the basics, building your brand as a smart and likable worker.
Impatience will show in your attitude and behavior. It will sully your aspirations. And nobody likes sullied aspirations.
Remarkably — perhaps mercifully if you're a young person whose parents are forcing you to read this — that's all the advice I have for you. I could fire off dozens of more specific thoughts on dealing with work and managing careers, but these are three foundational points: Get a job. Be a decent human being. Be humble.
You'll screw up stuff and make a few enemies and go through some miserable times. We all do — that's why it's called "work" and not "a white-sand beach in Bali."
But you'll be fine. And, like me, you'll find work you truly enjoy — and know the proper way to arrange the condiments at Applebee's.
TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at firstname.lastname@example.org, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere, and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.
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