Everyone makes mistakes. In starting your professional life, it’s important to know how (and when) to apologize. While your college life may let you get by with a quick “My bad!” I promise that your colleagues and bosses will quickly write you off if you glibly utter that response. Don’t mistake silence for approval or acceptance of your error.
Side hustles have never been easier. You’ve got platforms for selling like Etsy and eBay for the creators amongst you. There are virtualized connector app platforms that rely on flexible independent contractors like Uber, DoorDash, and Task Rabbit. These are great options for students working their way through who need to make money now, which results in less time for the extracurricular activities I’m championing. The flexibility of working for DoorDash or Task Rabbit works nicely with a changing school schedule. Even if you have a campus work study job, many of those don’t offer hours during the school breaks when you might still want to be earning. Same for athletes, who may be maxed out during the school sessions, but could swing being a Task Rabbit Ikea assembly expert at least a few weeks of the year. Some students may be nascent entrepreneurs, making and selling t-shirts, where this is a logical (and long-standing) effort for college students. Lots of colleges, like Juniata College have entrepreneurship centers to support undergraduate student efforts. Or maybe your passions don’t fit into the school’s extracurricular process at all.
Here’s the bad news right now: On top of everything else on your plate as another year of college kicks off, I’m suggesting you’ve got a little more to do. The good news is that I’ve made a four-year roadmap to save you a little time. While I was doing my summer homework and writing the book, Launch Like a Rocket: Build the soft skills you’ll need for your career by leveraging your entire college experience, I created a spreadsheet for you to save as a copy in your Google Drive or download to use in Excel. Since I’m still proofreading the final layout of the book, I’ll just do a quick post to cover the basics of the planning process to be sure you’re one of the few college graduates with the soft skills needed to succeed. For a quick briefing on soft skills, I like the Bloomberg Job Skills Report for 2016, even though they are talking about MBA recruiters’ wish lists for top candidates. (Master of the obvious: If MBA grads don’t have these skills, imagine how rare college grads with them are.)
Someone recently asked me is I could teach a small group of college-bound high school seniors how to set up their LinkedIn profiles. Funny, because we’d just come out of our monthly Lean In Circle meeting where we went through our profiles one by one and updated them. There are a ton of people blogging in detail about tips and it’s definitely a project to think about that first little intro blurb, but I’m just going to give you a quick checklist of things to do for that new empty little profile and link them to other posts that give you some tips on how to do those things.
This is the time of year when all the college acceptances start pouring in. You may spend April doing some final visits to figure out which school is right for you now. You may not know what you want to major in, but you likely have a couple of alternatives in mind. It’s not too soon to take a look at the classes your possible schools have and start roughing out a plan. (If you know which one you’re going to go to, you can get more detailed from the start.) This will make college a more valuable, productive experience, and any opportunity to practice this kind of planning will be critical to success in your career. Planning your classes yourself and continuing to rough out the plan as new information becomes available will help you graduate on time and save you a ton of money in the process. (The money aspect may make it tempting for parents to take over this spreadsheet, but if you are a parent who really must, at least use it in stealth mode, to prompt your student to double-check their facts. Land the helicopter and walk away.) It may also save you some false starts. For example, some science majors at some schools are not easily compatible with a semester abroad—taking a look now will help you pick the right school and go in to a chosen school aware from the start about any potential trade-offs between your interests.
By way of example, I thought I’d use one my sons’ college experience. To help you drill down into as much of the detail as you like, without my writing too much into the weeds, I’m linking extensively to the University of Puget Sound website throughout. His journey may be very different from what you imagine for yourself, but the twists and turns of his college career are probably far less than the average experience. The point of adolescence, college, and those first few jobs out of college is to help you figure out who you want to be and what you want to do, so you should expect you’ll need to adjust the grand plan constantly. (BTW, the same thing will be true of your career—see the animation in my last post.)
Luckily, my son, Nick, was willing to send me the College Schedule spreadsheet he showed me over the holidays and said I could share it. By way of background, Nick’s a senior at the University of Puget Sound, graduating this May (2016). He was admitted as a freshman with a Humanities minor and as part of the Honors program. Right off, getting accepted to both programs meant he had to take both program-specific freshman writing seminars (on his sheet these are the HUM classes in freshman semester, although they now have different SSI-1 designations in the link above). Our family thought that was a good thing, because while he was a strong writer and coming out of a large, well-regarded public high school, his classes typically had 30–40 students.
Here’s a reality check for the intense planners out there. The hot jobs change over time and some of the things that look like a smart, steady career path when you’re in college can disappear entirely a decade or two longer. Or you can change and decide the things that fascinated you at 19 bore you silly when you are 28. Planning for an unknown future with too many variables to isolate is impossible to do and discouraging to contemplate. And we live in a time of increasingly fast change. Whole industries are being disrupted while new ones arise. So here’s a statement taken out of context that really wouldn’t sound like me: Give up.
I’m proposing an entirely different way to think about your career, starting right now, while you are still in school that future-proofs you, whatever comes. Think of every class and activity as building specific skills, you can begin to create a narrative that helps you decide where your evolving passions lie. You can also plan a few steps ahead, as things gradually become clearer to you. And even those first internships or career positions post-graduation that turn out to be a terrible fit can still yield big value if you think about them in terms of skills. If you’ve got strong skills in a few areas and continue to build on those, I think you’ll be relevant for even those professions that arise from what’s just a sparkle in an entrepreneur’s eye right now. And when you come to a choice between activities, internships, or jobs, you’ll be able to evaluate them by their long-term worth to you, not just a short-term pay difference.
It’s hard for me to resist a book like Excellent Sheep with a subtitle reading “The Miseducation of the American Elite & the Way to a Meaningful Life” and William Deresiewicz delivers right out of the gate. Noting that “Questions of purpose and passion were not on the syllabus,” he drives home the point that students who excel early and consistently enough to even have a shot at the lottery ticket at the so-called elite American universities are fairly uniformly miserable, as with this horrifying quote:
“One young woman at Cornell summed up her life to me like this: ‘I hate all my activities, I hate all my classes, I hated everything I did in high school, I expect to hate my job, and this is just how it’s going to be for the rest of my life.’”
This isn’t an isolated quote of total misery in the book. I’m pretty sure most adults would say if something is that hateful about your life, it’s time to make a move to change things. While most of us well-ensconced in adulthood recognize you might briefly have to stick with a terrible job until you could replace it, I think we’d universally suggest that replacing it as quickly as possible was a good goal.
Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s earlier book, Academically Adrift, keeps coming up in my reading, but this follow-up, Aspiring Adults Adrift, speaks more to Launch Like A Rocket’s mission. Subtitled “Tentative Transitions of College Graduates,” in this book they “illuminate other aspects of collegiate experience that students themselves value, and also examine the relationship between collegiate experience and transitions to adulthood after college.” They note that often the experience students are getting in “getting along with others” actually involves getting along with similar people—not something the modern workplace team is going to value or reward. Their surveys show that students value the extracurricular experience and that, in fact, their references in surveys and interviews to academic performance is mostly focused on meeting the minimum requirements for graduation, clearly not demonstrating a huge value on the learning itself. They note that “Given students’ focus on social and extracurricular activities during college, we may have expected most respondents to emphasize soft-skill development above all else when discussing how college helped them perform their jobs.” And yet they find these skills are no more valued that any others by the students. They also quote more research showing 90% of employers highly value these skills and find “more than 90 percent of employers rating written communication, critical thinking, and problem solving as ‘very important‘ for the job success of new labor market entrants.”
This week I received yet another completely generic, one-line “I’d like to connect with you on LinkedIn” invitation from someone I didn’t know, whose job title is “student at XYZ University.” I admit, I am sometimes uncertain about the invites I get. Not because I am old and forgetful, but because I’ve been working since I was 16—I’ve met a lot of people in my life, from many different circles, and sometimes it’s hard to place them out of context. (And I started my career long before LI was invented, so there are people who suddenly join who knew me quite well years ago.) Giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, when I’m not sure I go check out the profiles of the unknown message senders on LinkedIn. This week’s uninitiated user profile has no photo, and relatively little info, given they are young and with little experience. They aren’t in a field that relates to what I do nor is their school one I have any strong personal connection to (there are two business school scholarships there in my dad’s name, but my last name is different, so I’m dismissing that as the reason.) I’m not accepting the invite and I’ll nicely mark the invite reason as “I don’t know Person X” (the other option is to mark it as spam). If you get too many declines for this reason LinkedIn can restrict or even terminate your account. This is not a happy outcome for this student (who by the way sealed their amateur status by having only 20 connections).
First of all, have a real profile, including a photo, when you are connecting with anyone. Start off by connecting to your classmates, professors, parents, friends’ parents. Try getting to 50 connections. Send invites after you’ve had a successful meeting or email exchange with someone new. If you’ve had only a brief conversation at a large gathering, follow up with an email or coffee invite, not a LI invite. Once you’ve actually met, then follow up with an invite. Give yourself time to get back to your office or the equivalent—at least an hour. Invites sent on your phone from the car five minutes after the meeting are a exclusive hallmark of overly enthusiastic teenagers. Cute, possibly accepted, but not as a peer.
In all cases the highlighting within the pull quote is mine, but just in case you think I’m exaggerating the urgency of the situation, I’d like to show you every so often the kind of statements that jump out at me as I work my through all my daily reading. These links don’t inspire me to a whole post, but I think they serve as proof of concept.
This reiterating the need for soft skills (and the genius of smart informational interviewing) from a senior Deloitte consultant, Elizabeth Lascaze:
(Elizabeth) started interviewing executives she thought she might want to work for one day, asking them where they saw room for improvement in new graduates. Many of them pointed to gaps in leadership ability and in understanding the people impact on an organization.
“As one executive told me,” Lascaze says, “you can teach anybody the technical stuff, but if you don’t know how to galvanize people around a mission, then all you have is a good strategy. That resonated with me and made me want to work in human capital, particularly in helping organizations fulfill their purpose and actually do what they were designed to do.”
And from BloombergBusiness last week, Dean Nick Allard of Brooklyn Law School, with another “wow, they just don’t get it” comment:
In a pinstriped charcoal suit and purple tie, Allard is the most formally dressed person in the classroom. Eighteen Brooklyn Law students are here for a special course to guide them through summer jobs at law offices. One student volunteers that she failed to finish an onerous one-day assignment to summarize a deposition hundreds of pages long. “How did you sleep that night?” Allard asks. Just fine, the student responds, not understanding his implication. “Well, maybe that’s a bad thing,” the dean mutters.
From a short Fortune column with IBM engineer Lisa Seacat DeLuca:
I stopped worrying that I didn’t fit the traditional computer science major profile because I fell in love with the creativity and challenge of technology. I quickly found out that my extra-curricular activities made me unique. Each experience I had outside a dark computer cluster only added to the new perspective I brought to problem solving. There is no cookie-cutter mold of what an engineer looks or acts like.
And why a really diverse group is the best possible team (and why one of my extracurricular suggestions is to be sure you are pulling diverse groups together in at least some of your work):
I have found that assembling a multidimensional group of colleagues is most successful. Recruit and elevate the best people at what they do, while seeking a mix of personalities: analytical, expressive, driven, amiable, energetic, etc. Together, they’ll be a powerful force to be reckoned with. Also, know your own leadership strengths and weaknesses and choose a team that complements them.