I’d like to start by congratulating you, new graduates, for the degrees you have so diligently earned. This university prides itself on a challenging and diverse curriculum, and it’s no small feat to pass with flying colors. Now you must head into the wider world, and in the finest tradition, I’m supposed to send you off with a speech to both inspire and entertain.
Except, that’s not what you actually need to hear. You’ve spent the last few years inside the institution that is the college campus, meant to teach you the necessary skills for life, so it may be strange to find out you’re woefully unprepared for what awaits you. But it’s true.
It’s not that they’ve failed you, it’s that they haven’t tried at all. You really shouldn’t be surprised. Most of your professors barely have any experience of employment outside the gated walls of academia. Tenure ensures some never will. Their departments are ruled by a corpulent bureaucracy that considers budgetary flow an unchangeable force of nature. The entire enterprise is an exemplar of undeserved inertia. Expecting this environment to prepare you for the perils of professional life is like expecting a sterile laboratory to strengthen your immune system.
Instead here are 8 simple lessons that will serve you well in the decade to come, as you try and make your way through the rest of your 20s.
1. Adults have no special power
You’ve spent your entire life in a system organized and graded by age. From now on, all bets are off. A person’s age will never again be a good indicator of their skill or performance. The main differentiator will be experience, and what that really means is the mistakes they’ve lived through. If someone is in a senior position, they ought to have war stories to share. If you meet someone who considers seniority to derive from their position instead, be wary. If their sense of self is tied to having underlings, run away.
Some people will coast by well into their 40s, making the same blunders over and over again. Don’t be them, don’t defer to them. Learn to learn from experience, both yours and others, or you will remain stuck in place. Pay attention to the why, not just the what.
2. Nothing is about you anymore
The school system revolves around getting you, the student, educated. Everyone is paid to help you succeed. This frame no longer applies. There is no clear trajectory for you to follow anymore, neither professionally nor personally. Your superiors will not be particularly invested in your personal development, only in how well you can contribute and create less work for others. You are being paid to help them succeed.
Job security is a function of how hard you are to replace, and the bad news is that you may be disposable. The silver lining is that finding and training up a replacement is work in itself. Just keep in mind, if you are irreplacable, you are also never able to take a vacation.
3. Companies are not your friends
Being friendly and informal with your employer will rarely work in your favor. A company is first and foremost a legal entity with obligations to investors and shareholders. It does not have a conscience or a moral compass. Squaring this with the fact that a company is made entirely of people can be difficult, even seem contradictory at first.
The key is to recognize that everyone is constrained by their own role and position, even molded by it. When push comes to shove, when conflicts occur, people will retreat to the absolute minimum that is obligated and required. No individual will want to fall on their sword for you, and no board will put decency above their own survival. Paychecks come out of bank accounts after all, not the goodness of people’s hearts.
4. Coworkers are not your friends
Nobody wants to be in a workplace where everyone hates each other, but that doesn’t mean you should become besties. Friends help each other move, coworkers help each other be able to move. Make sure to make clear distinctions to yourself and to each other. If you find yourself going above and beyond out of a sense of personal obligation, this is a sign your wires are getting crossed.
If someone is both a friend and a superior or subordinate, this creates extra opportunity for unreasonable requests to be made, and for third parties to leverage your mutual friendship as a side-channel attack against you. Resolving such situations will make you feel guilty, irresponsible and flaky. Professional distance serves primarily as a mechanism to prevent them in the first place.
Being able to clock out at the end of the day is a hard-won right, not a luxury. Crunch time is what happens when this problem becomes collectively pathological.
5. Get it in writing
Legal proficiency is a particularly glaring gap in education, doubly so because the golden rules are extremely simple. A promise you don’t have in writing does not exist. Anything you do sign is set in stone.
It is essential to learn to read a contract, and to never take “it’s just standard” as a justification for signing something. If a clause were not important, it wouldn’t be written down. If it were just a formality, you wouldn’t be signing it. If it’s important that you do, it shouldn’t be a problem to have a lawyer of your own look at it. The purpose of the exercise is to openly and precisely define the terms of agreement.
There’s an 80/20 principle here too: with some basic research and diligence, you can handle most of it yourself. Simply coming to a negotiating table well informed and prepared will do wonders. For the really important stuff however, it is absolutely worth to get a professional to do it.
6. Build your own paper trails
It is tempting to leave record keeping to departments and organizations entrusted with that. But if things go pear shaped, this will leave you with no independent paper trail of your own. Planning ahead for contingencies is essential, as is ensuring you can make your own case independently. Do not rely on access to other people’s systems which can be shut off at a moment’s notice.
A little organization can go a long way too. The more you wait to document something, the more unreliable and vague your recollection will be. Don’t underestimate how much time it takes to pull together information either, and don’t rely on an unsorted inbox as an archive. The more exceptional something is, the more useful it is that you keep a record. You are more likely to forget all about it.
7. Communication is an N² problem
Every person added to a group increases the potential for communication, but increases the burden of coordination. If this is done well, one person’s efforts save everyone else both time and effort. If done badly or not at all, one person’s lack of diligence forces everyone else to do the same task individually.
If you find everyone is chronically overworked, consider whether it’s actually a problem of workload, or merely a problem of coordination. If you find yourself abhorring meetings, is it really the meetings you hate, or the lack of an agenda and concrete actions decided on? If everyone’s repeating themselves constantly, are you capturing ideas properly, where others can find them? Interminable arguments are usually the result of arguing over taste rather than what can be usefully done next.
Most of all, you should fear the potential for negative work. One of the most unproductive things you can do is forward an entire conversation to many. Everyone will have to work through it, repeating what you already did. Better to summarize and send only actionable followups to the people who actually need to know.
8. Nothing is forever
The days of spending your entire adult life with a single employer are long gone. Changing jobs has become the primary method of career advancement, and this applies both for moving up as well as sideways. You should always plan ahead for the unexpected, both the pleasant and the unpleasant. If you have to move on, learn to do so productively and professionally.
This applies to employers too. If lay-offs are paired with lofty visions of a distant future, rather than a focus on the immediate present and how to cover the hole, it is likely management has no clue at all, and is mainly trying to save face. Ironically, the more approachable and egalitarian they think their company culture is, the more unpalatable the idea will be to expel someone from their happy little family, and the more the rulebook will be followed heartlessly and to the letter when the going gets tough. They just won’t do it in front of everyone else.
Keep in mind that HR manuals are not the universally accepted standard of excellence. They are merely the absolute minimum necessary so that even clueless, immoral people can successfully run companies. The right thing to do will always be a challenge to figure out, and requires foresight, compassion and situational awareness.
That’s all I got, and should be good homework for the next decade or so. For more, I’ll have to get back to you. I haven’t made enough of those mistakes yet to tell you about them. One spoiler for your 30s though: free-spirited nymphs and druids eventually turn into soccer moms and hockey dads.
Good luck in whatever you choose to do next. Success will come to you when you least expect it: the only thing that reliably works is to always be ready for it.