12 Things No One Told Me Before I Tossed My Cap

after high school

It’s Graduation Season, when mortarboards soar and new professionals take wing into the workforce. In their flight to the C-Suite, they’ll surely remember the sage advice dispensed at their ceremonies by wizened, or famous, or (best case) funny keynote speakers . Though truthfully, I don’t remember a bit.

I may never be a Celebrity Commencement speaker, but with some distance from my own graduation day, I decided to give my own personal re-commencement address. So I wrote this letter to my matriculating self.

master's degree

Dear self,

You did it! Well done. All those good times…are blurring together now. But they sure were good. And you’re going to have even better times ahead, I promise.

Now with graduate student loans looming, let’s get on with the practical stuff, shall we?  Here are some things I’d like you to know ahead of time, just in case we get a do-over:

  1. Learn the useful things you didn’t learn in school.
  2. Put off work a little longer. Take a gap semester. See a part of the world, or country, or city, you haven’t seen. Live like the locals. Get perspective. Think you can’t afford it? Join a work program like AmeriCorps
  3. Don’t have all the answers. A growth mindset is essential to success. If you already think you know it, you won’t have room to learn.
  4. Stop thinking about how to sound smart. Start listening more, and asking deeper questions. Be more curious.
  5. Take a good seat at the table. If you enter a conference room and a prime seat is available, sit at it. Don’t defer to others who may enter later; and don’t sit at the edge of the room; you’ve just told everyone you don’t intend to contribute as much. Sit right across from the boss and make eye contact.
  6. Don’t make a career plan. Make career principles. The types of work where you shine, things that interest you, and work that pays you fairly. Preferably all three at once. Think about 2-3 roles you want, potential paths, and ways you wish to grow personally and professionally. Commit to development steps that enable your best options in the near future.
  7. Be Chairman of your own board. Recruit a personal Board of Directors to help you find opportunities, make introductions, advocate for you, and hold you accountable to your principles.
  8. Cultivate your tribe. This is your support group, your sounding board and your cheering squad. It’s great to have a significant other, or a best friend, but it’s unrealistic for a single person to be your panacea. Investing in the diverse wit & wisdom (and availability) of a trusted tribe will pay dividends.
  9. Keep your resume ready. Career opportunities can come when you least expect them. Update your resume or C/V a least yearly. The act of updating it makes you feel better about the job you’re doing! Also be flexible —open yourself to investigating roles you never imagined, and follow up. The people you meet in this process may be valuable parts of your network later.
  10. Don’t stay in your sweet spot. It will move either due to technology, time or gravity.  eave your comfort zone often. Growth isn’t comfortable, so get used to stretching yourself.
  11. Don’t do too much. Your boss only really has 1-2 top priorities. Learn what they are and how you can make an impact. Focus on work of lasting significance.
  12. Make bold asks. You get what you negotiate. Whether an offer or a raise, don’t be afraid to share what’s really important to you. Don’t wait for the system to recognize your accomplishments and reward you. Go get it.

That’s good for now. You have enough on your mind — like where the graduation party is!

Oh, just one more thing – sometimes you have to go with your heart. That guy who tells you he loves you on graduation day? He’s the one.

This guest post was authored by Sheryl Tullis

Sheryl Tullis is the co-president of mBolden and head of strategic communications for TA Group Holdings, a private equity and investment firm. She lives in Seattle with the guy who told her he loved her at graduation years ago.


Ms. Career Girl

Ms. Career Girl was started in 2008 to help ambitious young professional women figure out who they are, what they want and how to get it.

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