By the time the band has finished playing “Pomp and Circumstance,” your mom has cried with pride, and you’ve tossed your cap into the air, your grandmother, aunts, and uncles, and all your relatives will be asking you, “So what are you doing next? What kind of job are you looking for? Now what?”
Now what, indeed?
As someone who has interviewed thousands and thousands of job candidates over the years, I wanted to share some advice and tips for the new graduate.
Now’s the Time to Be Bold
If you are a graduate who is not married and is not a parent yet, these are the years when you have career freedom. This is the time to be bold. This is the time to try a career path you might be curious about or have a passion for—or think you would be good at. Because what’s the worst case that can happen here? If this path fails, or your startup idea doesn’t take off, you can couch surf while you try a different path. The late Steve Jobs (along with many others) was a couch surfer on his way to becoming a visionary in the tech industry. Or, you can at least be living with less financial pressures as you find your way.
Usually, this is a period of time before you have a mortgage or family obligations (though you may have student loan or school-related debt). There’s a kind of flexibility in that. (And I’ll let you in on a secret about getting older—there will come a time when you look back on the Ramen and couch surfing years and realize it was an opportunity to try the things you want to do.) Be an entrepreneur. Do something meaningful. Don’t be an influencer with a vapid, filtered life and fake pictures from fake vacations.
Don’t Follow Your Passion
As I said, I have interviewed thousands of people. On each of those interviews, I have asked one consistent question: What are you passionate about?
I ask that question because I want passionate people to work for me—I want the thinkers and creators, and the people who have energy. I am disappointed when people give an “interview answer,” like “I’m passionate about work.” I’m not looking for an answer like that. I want to know what you could talk to me about for an hour, something that really lights up your world—almost always having nothing to do with work. When your face lights up as you talk about it – I know we have hit on what I am looking for.
However, when people tell me their passion, I don’t usually think they should follow that as a career. If you really want to be successful, don’t follow your passion.
Instead, follow what you’re good at.
You can be passionate about baking organic dog biscuits for your corgi, or about origami, or spend your weekends visiting garage sales and collecting vintage sports memorabilia. I am passionate about triathlons.
Yet, meaningful to each individual person, these are quite often the wrong things to lead a career on.
Instead, find something you are good at that you like to do. Certainly, you can be good at things that you don’t like (I know plenty of people good at math in school—but who don’t enjoy it; they just have an aptitude). But then you are not going to be as motivated to improve those skills. But if you’re good at something and you like it, you’ll keep getting better and wanting to keep getting better. And there’ll always be a market for the type of person who has discovered a talent they enjoy.
Now, certainly, there are people who follow their passion to a career. Think of people like Debbi Fields, who turned a passion for cookies into Mrs. Fields, or Kevin Plank, an undergraduate football player who turned an idea for wicking shirts into Under Armour, a billion-dollar company. If you feel that is a direction you are going to go, remember that you will need twin passions—your product or idea plus a passion for entrepreneurship (along with a business plan, capital, etc.).
However, for most people, think about where your talents lie.
Don’t Panic Over Every Jobs Report
The economy is cyclical, and just about every graduating class hears some version of the following: the economy is great but it’s going to crash soon; no one is hiring; we’re in a recession; we might be going into a recession in a couple of months; we’re climbing out of the recession but employers are cautious. And on and on.
Ignore such talk and shoot for the stars.
For example, don’t be discouraged by hearing about major layoffs. These layoffs—as distressing as they may be for the people going through them—still represent a very small segment of the workforce.
Against 300 million people in the United States, and roughly 165 million in the workforce . . . these layoffs are still a small percentage.
Instead, focus on what you can control, such as an up-to-date resume and lots of networking.
We just happen to live in a world where all of the negative news is publicized on the front page—or in our social media feeds. This is often without the context needed to fully understand the situation. For example, if 200,000 jobs were lost in three months, another 80,000 might have been added.
Don’t be discouraged. Do a little math. Learn to reframe how big the problem is.
And know any company you apply to will still be looking for that purple unicorn—accentuate the unique talents you would bring to the job.
The end of graduation is not the end of learning unless you want it to be the end of your career.
Peter Cohen, President of University of Phoenix, has said, “continuous skilling will be required of college and university graduates. Employees will need to continually upgrade their skills through short-term programs and stackable credentials.”
As President and CEO of IPC International, I have been touting upskilling, flexibility, cross-training, and stackable credentials for years. Your college degree is the start of something great, and your career should not be the end of your studies.
Look for Mentors
We hear so much talk about leveraging LinkedIn. In fact, I do also. I never use headhunters and instead tend to research and reach out through profiles.
However, for you as a new graduate, you probably won’t be reaching out to Fortune 100 CEOs and getting a response back. Instead, you should be following people in the industries you are interested in. Reach out without saying, “Hey, can you give me job?” Instead, if someone posts an article or blog post they have written that you find compelling—tell them so.
True story: Even with all my experience, I reached out to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits. This was a bit before he was a household name. I appreciate that he wrote back, was engaging, and very polite and generous with his response. (Another point to be made: Pay it forward. If you do become a “big deal” one day—stay humble.)
But basically, you are looking more for mentors, people to follow and connect with. Then, ideally, if you build up a bit of a connection—you can write to ask for advice on their industry. Just maybe, they will direct you unseen places with job opportunities.
Congratulations on graduating—your career journey is just beginning! Once you toss your cap, have the family barbeque, and spend a few days catching up on sleep, your journey to finding a job is just beginning.
1 Kevin Plank, “How I Did It,” Inc. magazine, originally published in 2003, accessed May 1, 2023, https://www.inc.com/magazine/20031201/howididit.html.
2 Marguerite J. Dennis, “Learning Should Be Lifelong and Not End at Graduation,” October 30, 2020, accessed May 1, 2023, https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20201027103637927.