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Congratulations, You’ve Graduated! Now What?

What’s the best next step after graduation? Experts offer advice to new grads.

College graduates have traditionally been told by commencement speakers about their exciting future and all of the possibilities ahead of them. But while these themes were certainly part of this year’s speeches, there was also something different about what new graduates were being told.

Hillary Clinton, for example, speaking to Yale University’s class of 2018, congratulated them on what they have already done, citing their “character and courage” and resilience in “these tumultuous times.”

And while Chance the Rapper encouraged the Dillard University graduating class to recognize their heroes and then aspire to be better than they were, he was one of many commencement speakers who acknowledged that the future might look frightening. He said,

Many of you will strive to be artists, doctors, lawyers, politicians, scientists. And as you do that, there will be moments of fear, moments where you walk right up to the edge of what your heroes have accomplished and think to yourself, ‘What’s beyond this? I don’t know. I’m scared to go on.’

Psychotherapists, educators, and parents know that anxiety about the future is a normal, almost expectable aspect of the college graduation process. It is perhaps one of the single most obvious symbols of what the developmental psychologist Daniel Levinson called the “novice phase” of early adulthood. After college, you’re supposed to get a job, support yourself, live on your own (usually with roommates), and be independent. You’re also supposed to know what you want to do with the rest of your life and find a first job that’s a step on the path to that career choice. Right?

Apple CEO Tim Cook told graduates at Duke University, however, that this rite of passage is not nearly as easy as it might seem. He said,

if you’re anything like I was on graduation day, maybe you’re not feeling so fearless. Maybe you’re thinking about the job you hope to get, or wondering where you’re going to live, or how to repay that student loan. These, I know, are real concerns. I had them, too.

But this month’s graduates are facing a double whammy of anxiety. On the one hand, the fear of not knowing what to do is not just a developmental blip, but a genuine reality for many graduates. College seldom prepares anyone for a career anymore, and in many cases, it doesn’t even prepare students for life outside of college. And a first job has, for many years, not been lucrative enough for many young people to live independently, which means that many graduates end up living back at home with their parents for the first years of their adult life.

But there’s another reason for concern, and some of this year’s commencement speakers have been addressing another truth facing graduates – that the world we live in is disturbing, tumultuous, and frightening, not just to them, but to all of us.

While most of the speakers refrained from making political commentary, many encouraged them to bridge some of the gaps in our political situation, suggesting that students pay attention to their inner voices while also reaching out to others and listening to people with whom they disagree. Others reminded students not to be afraid to stand apart, to lead by doing, and to remain true to their own values and beliefs.

Tim Cook also encouraged his listeners to recognize another current reality, one that many of us, at many different ages, have difficulty accepting: that we often do not know where we are going. Fear of the unknown can be paralyzing, but Cook told the graduating class to take “the first step, even if you don’t know where it will take you.”

Which is important advice for those moving into the often confusing world of first jobs and nascent careers. Sometimes the only job you can find seems to have nothing to do with where you want to go – but over and over again I have heard stories of young grads who took what looked like dead end jobs, and because they worked hard and learned as much as they could about whatever it was that they were doing, ended up with a connection to a next job that eventually led to the career they wanted.

But I fear that some of the most meaningful counsel of the spring commencement speakers may actually have been missed by many listeners, because it might almost have seemed mundane, unimportant, or insignificant. It came from Oprah Winfrey.

Speaking to the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, she said:

"Eat a good breakfast. It really pays off. Pay your bills on time. Recycle. Make your bed. Aim high. Say thank you to people and actually really mean it. Ask for help when you need it, and put your phone away at the dinner table. Just sit on it, really. And know that what you tweet and post and Instagram today might be asked about in a job interview tomorrow or 20 years from tomorrow. Be nice to little kids. Be nice to your elders. Be nice to animals. And know that it’s better to be interested than interesting. Invest in a quality mattress."

A veteran meditator and practitioner of mindfulness, Winfrey knows the importance of paying attention to the small details of any moment in order to really feel connected to ourselves and our lives. And she knows that holding fast to important values, despite anxiety, disappointment, and fear can keep us connected to ourselves.

Life moves forward in tiny, incremental, and often not straightforward steps. And those steps often involve paying close attention to the small, seemingly unimportant details of your life. The psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan believed that the minutiae of daily life were at the core of who we are, which was why he developed an approach to psychotherapy that he called “detailed inquiry.”

I think Sullivan would have liked a book by Frank Bruni, appropriately enough about the process of applying to college. The book is called Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be.

The central theme of the book is that going to a big name college is not necessarily a ticket to success in life. The idea is equally valid after graduation. What job you get immediately after graduation will not determine who you will be as you get older. What is important is that you apply yourself, that you keep learning, and that you respect others with whom you work.

rawpixel / 123RF Stock Photo
Source: rawpixel / 123RF Stock Photo

Your first job will not define your last. But working hard at that job, even if you are not happy with it, and learning what you can (about getting to work on time, staying to the bitter end of each day, dealing with people, and managing difficult situations) will all help you get your next job; and the one after that; and the one after that, as well.

Finally, Bruni offered one other extremely important advice in his 2017 commencement speech at Johns Hopkins University. He reminded his audience that friends and families help make everything else do-able. He said:

"The years ahead will be magical and messy, full of the very rewards that you set your sights on and of setbacks you never imagine," he said. "But there's only one smart way to sail across the ocean of your future, and that's in the clutch of the people you love."

Staying connected to the ones you love, and who love you, while also moving into the world to make new connections, is not an easy path. But connections are what make us human. And our humanity is what makes future success genuinely possible.



The Seasons of a Man's Life: The Groundbreaking 10-Year Study That Was the Basis for Passages! Daniel J. Levinson, 1986

Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania Frank Bruni 2016