5 Rules for a First Job

Yet again, I was not asked to give a commencement speech at a major university this spring — or any school, for that matter — but if I had, here is what I would have said to grads entering the workforce:

  1. Get after it. No gap year, extended tour of Nepal or time off to “chill.” For most of you, chilling is exactly what you have been doing the last four or five years. Two hours of attention-challenged “study” before a kegger does not constitute hard, grinding work. Go out and start looking for a job, any job.
  2. Don’t wait on the perfect job. I’ve yet to find the perfect job, and would be in sorry shape if I had been living on my parents’ couch the past 40 years looking for it. As I said in rule No. 1, start doing something that gets you out of the house and into the workforce. “Kiss some frogs,” is what former Merrill Lynch CEO Sally Krawcheck says, advising graduates to be prepared to work in jobs you don’t particularly like for a period of time until you figure out what you are good at and what you aren’t. Then search accordingly.
  3. Find out what you don’t want to do. I have not yet figured out exactly what I want to do next in life, but I have very firm ideas what I don’t want to do — mostly things involving hard work, tons of accountability and indoor activity (unless there is a jukebox in the corner). But for each of you, it is different — discover what doesn’t work for you, and avoid it like a police cruiser at 2 a.m. And forget looking for meaning in your first job. Lots of my friends in positive psychology talk about the importance of meaning at work. It is a staple of the standard graduation speech, but the new graduate is struggling to balance a checkbook, not find inner truth while waiting tables. Your mission or purpose in life will come to you over time. And it will probably involve rule No. 4.
  4. Discover and apply your strengths. I have written about this many times, and built my masters in positive psychology capstone around it, but it bears repeating: happiness, performance and career satisfaction comes from discovering your strengths and how to apply them in your career. If you are preternaturally self-aware, good for you — but you are an exception: Most of us discover our strengths over time through trial and error. Keep track of those times when you perform really well at a task in a way that seems almost effortless to you, and find ways to do it again or places where that skill is rewarded. If you nail your first presentation to the boss, maybe a sales career is best for you. If you lose yourself in ecstasy auditing tax returns, avoid sales and go into finance or accounting.
  5. Have fun. Life is not a dress rehearsal, as one of my favorite bosses used to say. Work hard, but never lose sight that evolved from playful chimps, not cows, and are hardwired for fun and play. Work hard — even if you are in a crummy first job — but laugh, get out of the office, enjoy friends, live life. Sir Richard Branson agrees: “If I were 22, I would be out working hard, playing hard and having the time of my life.” Couldn’t have said it better myself — and I didn’t even start an airline.

This is updated from an earlier version of the author’s commencement speech he never gets asked to give, but publishes here instead.