Innovation You

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The Graduation Speech I Didn’t Give

Congratulations to all the new graduates.

Well, it’s that time of year again. College graduation season is upon us and a temporary feeling of joy and optimism abounds, as it should. As for Mom and Dad relief may be a more apt description – there were days they had serious questions about your commitment to the project but now thankfully they can turn their attentions to that little matter of rehabilitating whatever is left of their retirement savings.

In the past I have been honored to give the commencement address at some lauded institutions that I’m not sure would have granted me admission as a student. Of course I did my best to celebrate the occasion and impart some inspirational encouragement to the uninitiated and unsuspecting. But something rather remarkable happen recently that got me wondering about the advice I give – my daughter graduated from university. Given my surname it’s safe to assume that I am able access my inner Dutch Uncle on demand whether it’s appropriate for the affair or not. Thus I thought I would take this opportunity to impart some real world suggestions to my own brood as well as those of you who are graduating:

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  1. Less Dreaming; More Doing: So you have big dreams. So does everyone else on this planet. Just watch your favorite reality television program and witness what enthusiasm without considerable practice or natural talent gets you. As your grandparents might say, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” By the way, while you are daring to dream right now there is a student fueled by ambition in some developing country learning English and taking that entry level position that you don’t want. Better get to work now if you hope to really make your dreams to come true.
  2. Opportunity is More Important than Money: Take a good look at your folks. Maybe your Mom always wished she could have been a painter or your Dad wanted to ride a motorcycle across Australia - or was it the other way around? Years on the unfulfilled aspirations of youth linger. Sure outrageous fortune intervenes. It always does. But when you are young the table stakes are minimal. With each passing season you will become more responsible to those entrusted in your care and the price of these memorable opportunities will be well beyond your limit. Build up your experience reserves and draw on them later when it’s time to make some money.
  3. Lose Your Friends Who are Losers: Your drinking buddy will develop a drinking problem. Your sorority sister will ride the relationship roller coaster the rest of her life. If you are a reasonably resourceful and responsible person they will latch on to you like a drowning demon and will do their best to pull you to the bottom with them. What makes a good friend never changes but the circumstances do. Yes, be the very best friend you can but understand that you can’t help those who won’t help themselves. Sometimes you just have to let go.
  4. Live Where the Cool People Don’t: Do the numbers. The popular press would have you believe that there is only a small scattering of cool cities with hot jobs. If you are only one of a hundred new graduates migrating to these places your buzz will simply become part of the white noise – just another pair of designer shoes and a fancy haircut on the bus looking for fame and fortune that probably will never arrive. Improve your odds. Move to some place that actually needs your creativity, energy and sense of destiny. Chances are you may even develop some choice skills that make an impact right away. You might even come to like the place. Oh yeah, and the rent is considerably cheaper.
  5. Get a Dog so at Least Someone Always Loves You: Yes your folks love you – most of the time. And your boyfriend loves you too – for now. But there will be days when your life sucks – the itinerant job, the maddening boss or the belligerent client. But dogs love you the way you wish everyone loved you – all the way – all the time. They heal your booboo and warm your toes and make the sunshine on a cloudy day. Of course you should only get a dog if you can take good care of it for the duration of its life. Who wants a treater? Cats are nice too if you are up for a little more sophisticated relationship.
  6. There Are No Self Made Men…or Women: Sure your Dad talks about how he worked in the factory all summer to make tuition when he went to school. The truth is that he was lucky to get a good union job that paid enough to go to college back when it was actually affordable. More so, somebody that he knew from the neighborhood or church or the baseball team gave him the inside track to that job. That’s how it was done back in the day. We are all indebted to someone who gave us our first real chance and all we can do is repay it forward to the next generation. Those who believe themselves to be self made are overshadowed by their own ingratitude. Be sure to appreciate those who help you along - and remember to tip your waitress.
  7. Everyone Reads their Own Horoscope First: Nobody cares about you as much as you do. Your friends and colleagues will talk about the great us but from the limited perspective of their particular me. What this means is that you may be passed over for promotions or invitations or other happenings precisely because they aren’t thinking about you first. So try reading their stars instead. What do they want? How can you help? What’s in it for them? Understand how others are navigating by starlight and you have a better chance of successfully reaching your own destination.
  8. Luck is Way Better than Talent: Ask someone you really admire how they got their first big break and they will ramble on about wondrous luck or a blessing bestowed or how they were in the right place at the right time. This doesn’t mean that they didn’t crack the books or work hard or live well but rather that they were prepared when fate did indeed intervene. The point is you have to be ever vigilant in looking for your opportunity or it will surely pass you by. Embrace it - its kismet - give it a comfortable seat so it will stick around.
  9. Love Isn’t the Answer, Like Is: John Lennon was wrong. It happens. Watch the old couple holding hands in the park. Listen to them talk. They still enjoy being around each other. They share interests and history and friendship and perhaps even intimacy. They are compatible – “capable of existing or living together in harmony.” OK, maybe it’s just a different kind of love – the version that can’t be sent by your cell phone. But while the red hot embers of passion bring you together when you are young it is in liking your mate that keeps you together.
  10. What You Put In Is What You Get Out: Shortcuts usually lead to bad neighborhoods, traffic jams and dead end streets. Go to medical school for only a year and you will probably do more harm than good to patients in need. Flip houses and the day will come when they flip you. Get married on the third date and you are undoubtedly in for some unpleasant surprises. Regrettably, we are becoming a nation of short-cutters – get rich quick, true love via speed dating and the four hour work week. If you like what you do you will seek out ways to do more of it - not less. Take your time. Life is short enough. Enjoy the journey.

Congratulations to all the new graduates who have successfully accomplished this most impressive of endeavors.

JEFF DEGRAFF is a professor, author, speaker and advisor to hundreds of the top organizations in the world. He is called the “Dean of Innovation” because of his influence on the field. To learn more about Jeff and his work on innovation please visit www.jeffdegraff.com. You can follow Jeff on Twitter @JeffDeGraff and Facebook @deanofinnovation.

Jeff DeGraff, Ph.D., is a professor at University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.

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