Hey, Class of 2014. 'sup?
Graduation Weekend, huh? Have some fun. Take some pictures. I think you guys like selfies. Take some selfies. That'll stand the test of time for sure. You won't look back on that with regrets at all.
Things are about to get briefly sad. You'll say your goodbyes, you'll pack up your college stuff for the final time and you'll head out on I-81 as a student for the last time. Wistful.
After that, the excitement kicks in. Well, it's kinda excitement. Part excitement and part heart-stopping panic. The safety net of being a student is gone and now you (in theory) join the rest of us in "the real world."
I'm no expert on the ways of the world (#ProTip: No one is) but I've got a few minutes to kill. You're probably up to your elbows in advice and suggestions and outright demands for what you should do with your life. You might even be getting it from people barely much older than you, which, I mean, I guess, but, whatever.
So humor me as I throw down a few random thoughts that have been collecting in my brain for the past fourteen years since I snagged one of those diplomas.
Take Advice But Do What You Want
You know what's really cliche? Quoting the poem "Wear Sunscreen" in an advice column. But, seriously...
Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.
I can't possibly impress upon you how true this is. It's just something you'll have to realize as you go. Every piece of advice you ever get, including this one you're reading right now, comes tinged in the personal experiences of the person dispensing it. If that person has lived a life full of financial troubles, they're more likely to want to sway you towards options that provide financial security. If that person has had a lot of failed relationships, they're more likely to be wary of relationships on your behalf. It's not an exact science, but, you'll start to see it. You probably already do.
That doesn't mean everyone is going to give you bad advice. Far from it. Even if it's prejudiced advice, it might still be good advice. The only way to know for sure is to accept it, take it all in and then make the gut judgment that works for you. Actually, scratch that. We say you should go with your gut but that's not deep enough.
Go with your groin.
NOW, that doesn't mean what you might think it means, perv. I'm not talking sexually. I'm talking about that place deep down inside of you, that dirty, grimy space where the absolute truth lies. That place inside you that knows without a shadow of a doubt what you're good at and what you're not. That's not your gut. That's your groin.
Go with what your groin tells you to do. It might not work out but you won't regret a groin-choice.
Okay, this one got really weird. I probably shouldn't have started here...
Always Look Out For No. 1...But In A Good Way
I've got two stories to illustrate this point (Remember that thing about advice being tinged with personal experience?)...
Story No. 1 - I was 22 the first time I got laid off. I was working for a very small startup back in 2000, right about the time the first dot-com bubble burst. When I started with the company, I was constantly told about the family atmosphere. This wasn't just a small company, it was a family. We're all a team here. We're all looking out for one another. And things felt that way for a couple months...and then we all started to realize the company wasn't breaking through. Clients weren't signing up as quickly as we hoped and we weren't bringing in nearly enough money. I kept working hard, did what I could to help and tried to keep my family in business.
And then my boss told me he was letting me go, because, well, they couldn't afford to keep me around anymore. Family or not, the bottom line was in charge now. Thanks for stopping by, here's some parting gifts for you. I never spoke to anyone in that company ever again. Nice family.
Story No. 2 - Shortly thereafter I moved out to LA to take a shot at becoming a screenwriter. After a few years of kicking and screaming, I finally got a breakthrough when a certain Hollywood mover and shaker read my script and loved it. Bob, as we'll call him, called me into his office and told me he wanted to show my script all around town with the hopes of getting it made with him attached as producer. Bob had a way of coming off like a stereotypical Hollywood sleaze, or at least you could imagine that he was one. So I decided to ask some people way higher up than me for advice about whether or not I should work with him.
Every single one of them told me not to do it. They all told me he was bad news. That he would screw me over. That he wasn't looking out for my best interests.
Do you know how many of those people, which included a V.P. of Distribution at a film studio, offered to then help me achieve my dreams?
None. Zero. Zilch.
Despite their advice I went with Bob and he actually ended up getting me some great meetings as well as relationships that continued for years. The script never got made but it was through no fault of Bob's. Unlike all of those people who just told me what I shouldn't do, he actually tried to do something for me.
When I say "look out for No. 1," I don't mean that in the Machiavellian way. I just mean that at the end of the day, you're the only one who has to live with your choices. It's unbelievably easy to tell someone else not to make a choice when it doesn't affect you. What's not as common is someone with the ability to help you actually doing so. When that happens, don't be a schnook. Take advantage of it. Say yes. Just don't be too surprised if a lot of people you meet talk the talk but stick to walking their own walk.
You're going to get a lot of companies telling you why you should work for them and building a "family atmosphere" is going to be a huge sales point. And while that might be true when things are going well, it's not unconditional. Your actually family won't toss you out if you have a bad month. Your work family will. They've got actual families of their own to worry about.
Find Out What Motivates You
My first job out of Syracuse was with a startup called Dreamlife.com. Nowadays it's something else but back then it was a Tony Robbins website that offered online courses to better yourself. Actually not a terrible idea even if it was a bit ahead of schedule. Anyway, when they offered me the job, I remember that they gave me the salary offer (something in the 25K range) and included a bunch of stock options. I don't remember the exact amount but it was in the thousands, whatever that meant. I negotiated back for a higher salary offer and they came up...slightly. Instead of meeting my salary demand, they upped the stock option offer substantially. In theory, if the company hit big, those stock options would be like gold.
I remember clearly that I did not give one fuck about those stock options.
I took the job anyway because I was already two months out of Syracuse and freaking out that I didn't yet have a job (BTW, you've got that to look forward to). The company started to go belly up six months later and I left without any of those stock options ever becoming anything. Stock options remained a staple of the salary offer for my next few jobs, and I distinctly remember not giving any shits about them either.
I understood their value. I understood their potential. But they did absolutely nothing to motivate me. You know what motivated me? More money right now. Not in a Gordon Gecko way or anything, just, you know, enough money to live on. Considering it took a couple years to get to that level, it was a gripe that no amount of vested stock options could satisfy.
Now here's the thing. There are plenty of people out there who would look at those stock options and get super-excited. They might see that as a personal challenge to work hard to make those options as valuable as possible four or five years down the road. And that's totally cool.
But I didn't work like that. Still don't. I don't think about what will happen five years from now. I want to be compensated right now for the work I do right now. That's how I work.
You need to figure out how you work. Trust me, it'll make a big difference in the kinds of offers you accept, the kinds of jobs you do and the kind of effort you put in. The more taken care of and fulfilled you feel, the better off you'll feel about the effort you put in every day.
It's Not That Your Degree Is Worthless, It Just Means Something Different Than You Think
The few times when I was in a position to hire someone and I found a stack of resumes on my desk, my modus operandi was two-fold:
1. If I see a Syracuse graduate, they get an automatic interview. Not fair but that's how it works.
2. Otherwise, I disregarded school and focused entirely on experience. And if it comes down to a person with a college degree and little experience versus a person with no college degree but tons of experience, I'm taking the second person every day of the week.
Seriously, I can't stress how much more important your experience is than what you studied in college. I hate to spring this on you so soon after you've finished school (and just seen how much you owe in student loans). But, more often than not, I think you're going to find it to be true.
Your college degree is no longer an acknowledgement of classes, education and learnings. It's a box on a form that needs to be checked off.
You have a social security number? Check.
You have an address where you can receive mail? Check.
You have a college degree? Check.
Okay, now that we've gotten that stuff out of the way, let's talk about the important stuff, a.k.a. your work experience.
Honestly, you're about to be shocked how little people care about what you studied in school. If you're asked what your GPA is at any point after the age of 23, I'll eat my hat. And my hat is gross. I'd be surprised if anyone even actually checked to make sure you actually studied what you say you studied.
Besides, the other part of the issue is that there's a good chance you'll end up doing something that isn't exactly the same as the major on your degree. Find a random sampling of "adults" and ask them if their current job is directly related to their college degree and I'm willing to bet more people say no than yes. Life just has a way of leading you in directions you never could have predicted. It's better than it sounds.
Never Help A Stoner Move
I know I said that you shouldn't follow advice blindly but, in this one instance, disregard that. This isn't advice, it's a fact. Never, ever, ever help a stoner move. That three-hour pack-and-go will turn into an eight-hour stop-and-go before you even realize what happened. And you'll have to come back the next day to finish the whole thing.
It's a nightmare. Just say no.
Know Your Worth
I've spent a lot of time knocking you down a few pegs. Sorry about that. It's jealously, really.
So here's one positive thing to keep in mind. You have value. You're worth something. Remember that always.
Yes, your college learnings aren't necessarily why you're getting hired but they're still valuable. You've got information that other people don't have. You know how to do things other people can't. You have skills other people don't.
A lot of people out there have had to "pay their dues" and because of that, they're going to require that of you for no actual reason other than "that's how it is." That's bullshit, old-school thinking. They're the ones with the money and the jobs and the opportunities and the free soda machines in the employee kitchen. But you're you. And pretty soon you'll have the chance to prove your worth to them. And to yourself.
Once you know what your worth is, don't lose track of it. Sure, you might have to do some internships or low-wage jobs to get your foot in the door. But that should only be expected for so long. There's a difference between getting your foot in the door and being taken advantage of.
Remember what I said about looking out for No. 1? This is when it comes in. When the company that gave you a shot then balks at letting you move up the chain and tries to keep you in your place so they can squeeze more out of you without having to pay for it...remember your worth. When another company comes along and offers you a better opportunity cause they recognize your worth...don't hesitate.
Remember The Ballad of Sara Quse. Syracuse University took a lot of flack for jumping from a failing Big East Conference to an ACC Conference that took care of itself and its members. But if Syracuse was a person named Sara Quse, no one would have disagreed with the decision, regardless of her history with the original company.
Do Improv At Least Once
Improv's just for actors, isn't it? Well, yes and no.
Obviously, improv has roots in comedy and performing. But you can take improv classes that don't require you to get up on a stage and embarrass yourself in front of strangers. And I totally suggest you give it a shot, even just once.
You'd be amazed how much simple improv games can open you up and influence the way you live your life. You'll learn that everyone else is just as batshit frightened as you are. You'll realize that the only way you get other people to want to interact with you is to make yourself available in the first place. You realize how to say yes to just about everything. And you'll learn how much we don't do those things most of the time.
I'm not talking about a corporate retreat or something like that. I'm talking about signing up at an improv space for a beginner class. If you live in NYC, Chicago or LA, you've got your pick of quality improv companies to choose from. Take a non-actor class if can. And do your best to leave your fears at the door.
Worst case, you'll know what it feels like to make a fool of yourself in front of people. And that's actually not a bad thing to get out of the way in a space where it doesn't matter.
Take A God Damned Chance, Will You?
At the age of 23, the company I worked for laid me off (2nd one in a year) and I found myself unemployed. Are you kidding me? I'm a Syracuse University Graduate! How the hell can I be unemployed two years out of school? That's not how this works!
And yet, here I was. While I studied business at SU (barf), the writing bug that had burrowed into my brain during my formative years never quite died. During this "hiatus," it remerged from the deep recesses and forced me to recognize the truth. I wanted to be a writer.
Up until this point in my life, I fully expected to live in the general vicinity of New York City forever. I grew up in New Jersey, went to school in Syracuse and now lived in Hoboken. I figured I might move around a little bit but the idea of moving outside the Tri-State Area just seemed...well, unthinkable.
But now I was starting to think it.
I happened to have a relative in Los Angeles who worked in showbiz and I called him up one day to pick his brain. I told him my situation and what I wanted to accomplish and he launched into a series of question that I've never forgotten.
Him: So, you don't have job, right?
Him: And you're not married?
Him: You don't own a home?
Him: And you don't have kids?
(A beat, then...)
Him: I don't understand why you're not on a plane tonight.
Neither did I. I didn't quite leave that evening but pretty soon I did venture out West, lucking my way into an internship with a movie studio and beginning my journey from an office worker into a full-time writer. I can't say I accomplished the goal I had when I was 23 but I look at where I am today and know it was 100% the right choice. I'd do it again in a heartbeat (I just might have moved away from LA sooner this time around...). The alternative was to stay where I was and keep plugging away at a career I didn't want in a place I didn't want to be all because that's what "you're supposed to do."
Thank God for not doing what you're supposed to do.
Try it at least once.
And seriously, if a stoner asks you to move. DO. NOT. DO. IT.
Good luck and G'Orange!