Twelve Rules for New Grads

by Michael Watkins

What advice would you give new college graduates about launching themselves into the workforce? Beginning May 12, 2013, I facilitated a discussion around this question on LinkedIn. The hundreds of responses offered a wealth of advice and insight about what it takes to make a successful transition from college into the workforce. I distilled the discussion down into twelve key pieces of advice — "rules" if you will — for getting off to a good start in one's career. Each rule is adapted from a quote from a participant in the discussion. (There often were multiple postings with similar themes, so these are simply selections.)

1. What you learned in college is a foundation for future learning, nothing more. As William Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest, "What's past is prologue." This is not to minimize your accomplishments or to downplay the importance of graduating from college. Just take care not to view your degree as a destination. What you learned is important. What you learned about how to learn is essential; it's the foundation for your life-long success.

2. Be someone that your colleagues want to work with. No one wants to work with someone who is unpleasant or unreliable or self-serving. "Attitude," said Winston Churchill, "is a little thing that makes a big difference." So position yourself to be the colleague-of-choice. Bring a positive attitude to everything you do. Keep the commitments you make. Help others advance their (legitimate) agendas. If you do, others will want to work with you and help you to succeed.

3. You're not as smart as you think you are, even if you are as smart as you think you are. You won't go far wrong, no matter how able you are, if you err on the side of humility. Arrogance breeds resistance; even if you really do have all the right answers, you need to bring people along with you. Recognize, as well, when to stand by your beliefs and when to flex in the face of good advice. For as Mahatma Gandhi said, "It is unwise to be too sure of one's own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err."

4. From the very first moment, remember you are creating an impression. The American humorist Will Rogers said, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression." This observation is backed up by much good research on the astonishing speed at which people form first impressions of others, often in seconds. And, once formed, opinions can be difficult or impossible to change. In fact, people tend to seek out information that confirms their pre-existing impressions and block out information that doesn't — the so-called "confirmation bias." So think hard about the impressions you want to create.

5. Do what's required, from the menial to the extraordinary, to get the job done. Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States said, "You must pay the price [to safeguard liberty] if you wish to secure the blessing." No one achieves great things without first paying their dues. So be prepared to do a lot of work early on that may seem beneath your abilities. Keep in mind it's more important to work in a good organization than to start with a good position. If you demonstrate your energy, dedication and ability, advancement will surely follow.

6. The harder and smarter you work, the luckier you'll get. In the long run, good work discipline matters as much or more than talent. If you can't prioritize, focus, and produce on a consistent basis, you're not going to go far. As Aristotle so aptly put it, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." So if you don't already have a strong work ethic and good work habits, either strive to develop them, or prepare yourself for mediocrity.

7. Learn to listen, listen to learn. Epictetus, the Greek philosopher said, "We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak." Almost 2000 years later people continue to struggle with this fundamental equation of communication. The act of listening, actively and thoroughly, is the most powerful influence technique there is. If you listen well, you will learn. And even if you fundamentally disagree with what's being said, your ability to demonstrate understanding of others' points of view will open their minds.

8. Always do your homework. College graduates understandably are sick of doing homework. But the discipline of being prepared is indispensable. No one wants to waste their time with someone who hasn't done the necessary preparation; it's a sure-fire way to corrode confidence and lose respect. And preparation is an essential prerequisite for innovation. For, as Blaise Pascal said, "Chance favors the prepared mind."

9. Don't learn the tricks of the trade, learn the trade. There are no shortcuts to becoming excellent. As Colin Powell expressed it, "A dream doesn't become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work." So find your vocation and figure out what it will take to be outstanding in doing it. Resist the temptation to take shortcuts, because they usually are dead-ends. Keep in mind that few people mistake appearances for reality for very long.

10. Embrace your weaknesses. Of course it's important that you leverage your strengths. But strive too to recognize and compensate for your weaknesses. Because it's certain that you will be called upon, at many points in your career, to do things that don't naturally play to your strengths. As Michael Jordan, put it, "My attitude is that if you push me towards something that you think is a weakness, then I will turn that perceived weakness into a strength." So get on the path to self-awareness early, take advantage of every opportunity you get to engage in self-assessment and embrace good coaching wherever you find it.

11. Network your brains out. There is an old career maxim: "It's not who you know, it's who knows you." In reality, of course, both knowing and being known are important; but neither is sufficient. You need to cultivate relationships that are founded in mutual benefit, whatever the relevant currencies are. The benefits of business relationships range from having valued sources of advice, to securing conduits for exerting influence, to exploiting channels for getting access to information and resources. Think hard about the relationships you need to build, because they require substantial investment. Treat each relationship as a bank account into which you must deposit at least as much value as you hope to withdraw.

12. Don't lose yourself trying to be what you think others want you to be. Finally, learn to appreciate the power of authenticity, especially your own. Reflect on what you feel when you are in the presence of someone who is being inauthentic: pity, disgust, but never respect. Keep in mind this is what others will feel, sooner or later, if you try to be something you fundamentally are not. This is true even — in fact especially — if you are trying to be what you think others want you to be. For as the poet e.e. cummings put it so powerfully, "To be nobody but myself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make me somebody else — means to fight the hardest battle any human can fight."

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