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It has been about 15 years since I heard my college graduation commencement speech.  The speaker?  Ralph Nader.  (Google him if you don’t know who that is – he used to be a fairly important figure) I can’t say I remember very much of the details except that it was a speech about growing up fast and being an adult in the real world (can he remember back that far? – the guy was like 70 years old).

But his overall message was fairly simple:  Question things. Pay attention to what is going on.  Do not accept the status quo.  Be a mover and a shaker.  Do not get caught watching the paint dry.  If something is broken, fix it.

With so many students recently graduating school and watching so many people in their early 20’s struggle with their career paths, I thought back to what I would have loved to know in 1998 and how much it would have helped me over the past 15 years. Young people in the Y generation will undoubtedly be getting unsolicited advice from friends, family, professors, and then inevitably a biased media that appeals to the masses.  Well, here are five things you probably won’t hear from them, but you will hear it from me:

  1. It’s Tough to Get to the Top – Most young people have some idea about what they want to do for a career. Most dream of getting to the top and making six figures and more before the time they hit 25. However, school and the commencement speaker at graduation hardly ever spend the time to tell you just how hard it is to get to and maintain being at the top. Generally, the first three to five years you go to work out of school you’ll be overworked and underpaid. Don’t be discouraged by this…keep your head down.  Even if you get into a new job and people at your new employer seem less skilled than you do, it will be a lot of effort to work your way up the food chain. Not to mention the notion of company politics that they never teach in college. Or, what the people in human resources will think of you. If you aim to go at it being an entrepreneur, most of you won’t become independently wealthy before age 30. Get prepared to spend 5 to 7 years busting your butt and being humble before you’ll really see something steady and big with your career. No matter what, getting to the top is still hard work.  Work smart and not hard?  Whoever said that was lazy.  You need to do both!
  2. It’s Not What You Know It’s Who You Know – Got straight A’s in school? You scored a 98 in your course in statistics at college? You graduated from U.S. News and World Reports top 50 schools? Once you get into your first job, a lot of these statistics don’t matter a heck of a lot for your career. Of course, it does help a few times a year if your team is good at college football or basketball. The truth is, the time you spent at your fraternity, playing intramural sports, or being active with your Alumni group (and how powerful they are in business) is what will begin to matter. Growing your career within a company and finding new jobs in the market place often come down to who you know not what you know. If you plan to stay local in your state, sometimes a state school will have a much larger and more powerful Alumni base than some small well ranked independent school.  I can’t tell you how many times I have been annoyed by the guy from college that got drunk every night and never studied who now is in a sales job pulling in $300k per year.  It’s because he focuses on personal relationships, not the textbooks.  This doesn’t mean you should work in sales, but I’m just saying.  Always remember this:  People do business with people they like.   If you remember anything, remember that.
  3. Follow Your Passion, Don’t Follow The Money – A lot of kids coming out of school are in pursuit of getting a high paying job. You can quickly go through your 20’s climbing the corporate ladder and getting to a six figure income. However, once you hit your mid 30’s you end up trapped in a career and job you really don’t love, but it’s hard to get out of because you have financial and family responsibilities. What you should do irrespective of what income you make is to follow the passion of what you love to do. If you are good at it the income will follow. No matter what you think, you will change over the next ten years and begin to value your quality of life if you like your job.  And, again, the money will follow if you do it with passion and work hard.
  4. Blue Collar Businesses Are OK To Own– If you went home to mom and dad and told them that you were going to open up a plumbing company or start a scrap metal business, what would they say? In fact, most parents would probably flip out if their new college graduate came home and said that they were going into a blue collar business. The truth is I see millionaires by the week now who run and operate very successful blue collar businesses. Sometimes I think we have too many consultants, financial people, lawyers, and other ‘professionals’ based upon what pressure society puts on how we use our college degrees. There are some great opportunities to get involved in and own blue collar companies that you should keep your eye in the future. And oh yeah, nobody tells these people what to do or what hours to work.  They run their own lives in complete freedom.
  5. Save, Save, Save (Become financially independent – ASAP) –In the first few years after graduating college, I think a lot of us fall into the trap of believing that our incomes will continue to rise and it’s only a matter of time until we get that six figure salary or start our own business that makes us millionaires.  Or, if that’s not your cup of tea, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing the money will never stop coming in.  Well, it’s a fantasy.  Companies get sold, they downsize, they reorganize. I don’t care how smart you are…all you have to do is rub the wrong person the wrong way and you’ll be looking at a severance package.  That’s reality.   The economy has ups and downs, and sometimes it happens fast, like the dot com bubble burst in the early 2000s or the real estate burst in the late 2000s.  I wish I had more of a realistic view of the world and the economy and of the working world in general and had saved more money when I was in my 20s.  Here is what you want to make sure you do: as soon as possible, free yourself from the chains of a paycheck.  If you lose your job, it should not be stressful.  It should be a time that you can go to Hawaii for two weeks to get some rest and think about your next move.  Or, you should be able to quit your job anytime if it’s not working for you and be able to take the time to find the next job without being rushed.  I can’t stress how important this is to both your career and to your personal well-being.

When Ralph Nader gave that commencement speech to my graduating class in 1998, I doubt he had our best interest in mind.  During that time, he was still a political figure and was still getting votes for president of the United States.  His message was certainly slanted toward his agenda.  However, his message was simple enough:  Do not get caught sleeping on the job!  Be realistic, be aware, and be smart of how you play this wonderful game called capitalism!

Go get ‘em!

Dan Lucas, CPA/ABV, Five Star Professional©

Managing Partner, Credo Financial Services

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