Sunday, January 19, 2014

Beyond the Gates: Advice from a Recent Graduate

Sewanee has a great weekend for juniors and seniors the weekend before the spring semester starts, called Beyond the Gates. It's a great weekend that brings a lot of alumni and parents of Sewanee students to the campus to talk to current students about anything and everything that we should expect once we graduate. One of the lunch speakers, Jay Morgan, is a graduate from the class of 2012. His speech had a lot of great advice, and because I'd known the speaker as a student his transition to a 'real-life employee' was much easier for me to relate to. I felt that the advice he had to share was definitely something that would be helpful to other people around my age who're figuring out where life is going to take them after May, so I've included parts of his speech below. Enjoy!



Those of you who have seen ‘Elf’ remember when Santa tells Buddy:
“Well, there are some things you should know. First off, you see gum on the street, leave it there. It isn’t free candy.”  

I was a lot like Buddy when I moved to Denver. I was a kid who had spent his whole life in small towns and all of a sudden I was alone in a city 275 times more populated than Sewanee. Those of you that know me know that I’m a very social person. I went from knowing what felt like everyone, to knowing almost no one. Needless to say, my first months in Denver were very humbling, which leads my first observation.

(Observation #1): After graduation, you will likely be more vulnerable and overwhelmed than you have ever been before. Nothing truly worthwhile is ever easy, and you may come to appreciate this newfound vulnerability. You will soon become one drop in an endless ocean of millennial graduates. It’s a shock to realize that although you have worked very hard to get where you are now, you still must stand out from the rest of this ocean of your peers.

My first day at my workplace, I thought that because I had an undergraduate degree from Sewanee and secured an internship, I had accomplished a new level of personal success. I quickly realized that while my foot was in the door, nothing but hard and often tedious work was going to keep it there. This leads to my second observation.

 (Observation #2): Internships are nothing but very long interviews. Thankfully, this one gave me a chance to get a good idea of the questions and answers that would be asked during the job interview to follow. Don’t get comfortable in an internship. It is your purgatory. Everything you say and do is being assessed before the final judgment.

This leads me to my favorite and final observation;

(Observation #3): Perception is reality. While this is not an actual fact, it should always be applied when you’re around people that you don’t know. While this will prove true throughout your career, you should be especially mindful of this rule as an intern or entry-level employee. You are under a microscope, and everything you do or don’t do can mark either for or against you. Therefore, don’t say anything in the workplace that you wouldn’t say while looking your grandmother in the eye.
You want to be perceived as someone who takes good care of yourself. You’ll hear people say things like “dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” If you can’t be responsible for looking and sounding your best, both in person and on paper, you shouldn’t expect to be given more responsibility.

Obviously you want to work hard and work smart, but it won’t matter if no one notices. You need to be perceived as someone who works hard and works smart. Those behind the microscope may not take the time to know that you’re the one who spent 4 hours preparing that executive summary on quarterly earnings if Carly Rae Jepsen is blaring through your headphones as you crouch in your cubicle with your back to a group of executives passing by. Be mindful of your surroundings. Don’t be that guy.

As a general rule, if you have to question whether a certain behavior is appropriate, it probably isn’t.

Now that I’ve mentioned some observations, I’d like to recommend a few things to pay attention to.

Recommendation #1: Keep promises to yourself.
While in school, workloads ebb and flow and there are periods of quiet. Professors dictate your workload, and you have a cut and dry ability to meet their expectations. The workplace can be a bit more complicated. It’s more of a steady bombardment of continuous deadlines. There is no month long gap to re-group after exams. There is no summer vacation. There is just work.

At Sewanee you don’t set the expectations, you meet them. At your future workplace, you’ll be required to set and meet expectations. You will likely need to set most of your own goals and meet your own deadlines. Don’t expect any coddling. Chances are that your boss will be fifty times busier than you, and therefore incapable of micro-managing your work. Know the boss’ expectations and set personal deadlines accordingly. This will take some getting used to, but it’s also very nice to be your own boss some of the time.

Since I moved from Denver, I’ve been working remotely from my home office when I’m not travelling. Therefore, I’m the only one who can truly judge my day-to-day performance. So, as you can imagine, it’s imperative that I keep promises to myself that keep me working throughout the day, every day.

Recommendation #2: Read 
It sounds almost too obvious to mention, but read continuously. Study your business. As a matter of fact, read everything that you can get your hands on. I barely did any reading that wasn’t assigned at Sewanee, and honestly I missed out on some of the assigned stuff too.

The bitter irony is that when I no longer had reading assignments, I realized that I actually love to read. So, I recommend that you set an amount of time away each day and comb through trade journals, newspapers, and any other pertinent material you can get your hands on.  It’s amazing how much big business comes down to small conversation. You don’t want television and your immediate environment to be the only knowledge you’re bringing to the table.

No matter the problem, someone out there has experienced it, solved it, and written about it. Reading is the best way to stay fresh and ahead of the curve, and the benefits far outweigh the effort spent. If you don’t get into the habit of reading more than your emails and the ticker on the television, you’ll be surpassed by your peers who do.

Recommendation #3: Listen more than you talk.
As you start out, a good rule of thumb is that if you can’t write a succinct paragraph on the subject matter, you probably shouldn’t talk about it. God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason. I don’t mean to sound preachy, but I’m often the anti-model for this recommendation.

Discussing topics that I’m not fully aware of simply proves how much I don’t know. Truly listening is particularly hard for those of us who are extroverted. By opening my mouth without a clear understanding, I not only make myself look bad, but I might also take away a chance for a real subject matter expert to teach me something that I obviously don’t know. 

So, to wrap-up, after graduation you will likely be more vulnerable and overwhelmed than you’ve ever been. If you’re stepping into an internship, try to remember that it’s just a extended interview. And also remember, perception is reality.

You will never get enough feedback, particularly the positive kind, so you’ll need to learn to constantly self-evaluate. Yes, you will feel discouraged; yes, you will feed underutilized; yes, you will be exhausted, but something about freedom and a paycheck can settle these negative feelings. Just try to keep the promises that you make to yourself, read tirelessly, and listen more than you speak.

Thank you.


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