All that is gold does not glitter,J.R.R. Tolkien
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
Last week, I was asked to send a video greeting to a recent college graduate for whom her sister was collecting well-wishes. The collection of vignettes was shared with the well-wishers and I was able to see how others approached the project.
Along with the heart-warming entertainment of watching the various personalities share their congratulations, I was left with a sense of the surreal as I considered the strange world in which the young graduate now finds herself: no graduation ceremony, a pandemic with no clear end in sight, 30+ million unemployed, nearly 2 million new bachelor degreed graduates entering the workforce along with another 2 million with other degrees, and a sense of uncertainty unlike any they or their parents have ever seen. Wow.
Today’s young people often get accused of lacking grit. The “anxiety” generation that grew up with equal playing time, trophies for all, and an entitled sense of their “fair share” of whatever rewards are divvied would seem to be particularly vulnerable to the doubt clouding our horizon.
For those of us with “real” problems, missing a graduation ceremony or having to live with mom and dad for a few more months while student loan payments get deferred isn’t the end of the world. Buck-up, we say, welcome to the real world!
Why? I’ve personally encountered too many bright, energetic, and capable young graduates to believe such nonsense. In addition to much other silliness, our propensity to broad-brush entire generations with such simple categorizations is one more in a long line of disservices we’ve heaped upon this and other groups of intelligent and talented individuals.
So, in honor of this year’s graduates, I am going to share a few secrets that many of us with a few more years logged may know but often forget and that will not appear much of anywhere as you navigate the rough waters ahead. Rough waters is a perfect place to start.
- Rough Waters Ahead. Yes, there are rough waters ahead. Guess what? There will always be rough waters ahead. Ours is a rough, often unforgiving, world. That glittery veneer we call culture and the society it infuses tries to whitewash the difficulties but they remain. Your first best gift for yourself is to shift your perspective. Don’t look at the challenges as burdens, see them as opportunities. Those waters are sent to shape us. The difficulties help us become stronger, more resilient, and more able to deal with life. The rough waters help us to become our best by developing the skills and traits we need to survive.
- You Are Not a Lottery Ticket. In Zero to One, Peter Thiel uses this expression to make the case that your future is not simply a game of chance. The rough waters will come but they do not have to dictate the extent of your success. They shape you but they don’t define you. You can take definite actions. You can make definite plans. You can move in definite directions. Your zip code, demographics, lineage, or your parents choices do not have to define what or who you become. In the same way, the pandemics you face do not have to dictate how far you go or limit your dreams. Things happen but your life doesn’t have to be left to chance. You can and must choose to live your best life and aspire to all that you can be within the framework of whatever is going on around you. The choice is yours.
- There Is No Set Path. As much as colleges or parents may try to guide and direct, there is still no set path to your best life. The rough waters that shape us are also the rough waters that wind and weave across the landscape of our lives, offering us new directions, new tributaries, more often than we realize. You get to choose your path. You get to decide which direction you take. Yes, the rough waters will come and winds may blow you off-course but you are still piloting your ship. A college degree or first job is only the start. Neither guarantees security, certainty, or even much clarity – they are just points along the way. Those first faltering steps into our best lives are part of rough and placid waters, both still shaping us. Walk boldly on that path but be prepared to leave it and strike out in new directions. There are no sure things along your path. Your best laid plans will not be enough and things will change and change again. Keep your perspective and remember, you choose the path and react to what you find along the way. All the while, you are being formed, shaped into the next version of yourself.
- The Best Jobs Are Built. We all want a set formula. Clear direction. If I do “this” then “that” will happen. Alas, the formulas frequently break down when they come into contact with the rough waters of reality. So often, we place our hopes in job postings and the hope that someone will pick us out of the thousands of other applicants. “Surely they’ll see my amazing gifts,” we think as we click one more submit button. The reality is that many of the best jobs are rarely advertised and the best, most enjoyable, and most fulfilling positions likely don’t yet exist. You may ask, “how is that possible?” How do you think a job gets created? Someone, somewhere determines that some kind of work needs to be done and a position is created. This is the structured world of open positions built on the logic of linear hiring and response to demand that we typically see in the corporate world. Budgets, hiring managers, and human resources. There is also a world out there in which the positions do not yet exist. In this world, people are building something new and creating roles as needed based on the rough waters and opportunities they face along the way. Here, positions are often created based on great people rather than the other way around. Every member of our executive team was hired into a position that did not yet exist. The same is true for most of our staff. We came across the right people, and the position was created for them. My point is this: find the right company with the right people and the right possibilities and get on board. If it is the right place for you, the best job will be built to leverage your gifts and aspirations.
- Real Relationships Matter. After the point above, you may be asking, “How do I position myself to have a job built for me?” There are two paths: referrals and direct connections. Both require real relationships. in order for you to position to build your dream position or influence its creation for you, someone else has to know how amazing you are. Guess what, this is very difficult to do on social media, over the phone, on Zoom, or without ongoing exposure. My favorite place to hire is from the world of people I know. I don’t like personality tests – I want to know the person and you only get to know someone over time. The next best option is when someone I know and trust, tells me that someone they know might be a great fit. How do you position yourself? Get out and meet people. Build relationships. A good place to start is to give value first. Seek to help others with no expectation of payment or returned favors. Share yourself and your gifts – we can’t see them when they’re locked away. Sometimes this means taking a job that isn’t directly what you want and killing-it by exceeding expectations. Sometimes this happens through volunteer work. Sometimes this is just being out in the world interacting with people in different settings. Perhaps it happens by simply being interesting or engaging. Think of your best relationships. How did they begin? What makes them work? How do you form similar ties outside of the obvious circles? There is no formula and you cannot force yourself down this path. All you can do is make it a part of your being. Seek to engage others. Seek to give of yourself first. It always comes back to you; often in the most unexpected ways.
- Seek a Relationship With God. I realize that this may be a challenging statement for some and perhaps surprising in the context of this post. A bullet point within a brief post is not the place to argue the broad implications of this call. However, I believe there is a place in each of us that hungers for the Divine. We’ve watered much of that hunger down, hiding it behind the scorn heaped upon the notion by arguing against structured religion or pointing to the failures of individuals within institutions. My point is this: no matter where you are on the spectrum of belief, if you are not pursuing the questions or exploring your doubts with intention, you will end up filling that Divinity-seeking void with a variety of distractions ranging from less than ideal habits to outright destructive inclinations. To seek a relationship with God is to seek Hope. Without hope, purpose and a sense of belonging in a world that seems bent on breaking us remain elusive and anxiety appears to fill their void. I’m not suggesting blind, vain, or feel-good faith, but a sincere, open-hearted, and intellectual exploration of your deepest hesitations and most hopeful desires as they relate to God. Just remember that when you cast your mind into this direction, you must find the quiet to hear the response that comes to you. It will most likely not not be a “burning bush” experience. Our ongoing formation as human beings seeking our best selves happens over a lifetime amid and through the experiences that shape us. If we quiet ourselves periodically, we will find moments of clarity in the most unexpected places.
- You Always Have A Choice. My last point for this post is a simple reminder. No matter how difficult, frustrating, narrow, or seemingly impossible your circumstance, you always have a choice. You always have options. You can choose to run. You can choose to hide. You can choose to despair. You can choose to believe. You can choose to love. You can choose to hate. You can choose good. You can choose evil. You can choose to push through. You can choose to give up. You get the point. These are difficult times AND you still have choices. There are still jobs. Companies are still hiring. In fact, there are tremendous opportunities for those willing to seek them. Don’t give-in to the narrative. Falling to the doubt or fear is also a choice. When it all seems overwhelming, choose to find that smallest ray of hope. When the world seems frightfully big and uncertain, choose to take one small step. Choose to narrow your focus and block out all that is beyond your control. Need more specifics? Make a list of every possible thing you can do. If you can’t list more than 50 actions, you have yet to engage your creative energies. How much action should you take? As much as required to get you where you want to go. You can always do more. You can always find another option. You always have a choice.
The times in which you find yourself were sent to shape you. You should find this notion very reassuring because it means you have what you need to move through it. The moments ahead will continue to challenge you. Good. This means you have the opportunity to rise to the occasion.
Thinking about those videos for our graduate, I wonder about the fears and uncertainties hidden behind the well-wishes. Will we cower in fear of the unknown, the uncertain, and the unpleasant? Or, will we hope in the face of doubt, believe in the face of the unknown, and dream in the face of the unlikely? Yeah, you guessed it. The choice is ours.