Nobody has asked me to speak at their college (or high school or 8th grade) graduation, but if that day comes, I’m ready with a few bits of advice:
You have more going for yourself than you think you do. No, finding a job (if you don’t already have one) might not be easy. But if you ask anyone in their 40s or 50s who’s trying to find a job, the one thing they’ll tell you is that they would seriously consider trading their experience for some youth. Employers love young workers. You bring energy, a willingness to try new things, an understanding of technology that eludes many older workers, and you’re less expensive than older workers. So play to your strengths.
Figure out how to handle your own finances, ASAP. If you aren’t already the master of your financial domain, become one right now. Ask your parents for a few sessions with a financial planner as a graduation gift. Learn how to budget, live below your means, set up a system for staying on top of your bills, start saving for retirement and an emergency fund (even if it’s a comically small amount of money each month), and stay out of debt. That might mean a less robust social life than you prefer, but the freedom you will achieve and the stress you will save yourself by having your financial house in order is so very worth it. (My favorite financial columnist in this regard is Michelle Singletary. Check out her syndicated “Color of Money” column, which is very much geared toward those just starting out.)
Wear sunscreen and floss your teeth. Basically, take those little actions every day that will ensure you stay in good health as you age. You will be shocked by how soon you’re 50 (and then 70 and then 90), and wearing sunscreen, taking care of your teeth, eating right, etc. will definitely pay off. (I, of course, stole this piece of advice from a1997 Chicago Tribune column by Mary Schmich, but it’s as true today as it was 20 years ago.)
Tend to your relationships. Ultimately, little else matters. And everything else flows from our relationships. Our career success is usually as much about the relationships we’ve nurtured as it is about our accomplishments. But, more importantly, our relationships with our family and our friends are what will determine our overall happiness. Strong social ties are the Chemical X to having a long, happy life. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work hard and put in the hours it takes to get good at your job, but don’t neglect the relationships in your life. They are what will sustain you in the long run.
Try not to quit working if you have kids. I’m not going to lie to you: being a working mother is hard. We expect so much (too much, frankly) from ourselves, mom-wise. And we don’t let up on ourselves work-wise to compensate. Most women who “choose” to leave the workforce after they have kids do so to save their own sanity and physical health – so it wasn’t a choice so much as it was a decision they made under duress. But if you have any way to keep working, keep working. Hire the help you need to make it work. Explore flexible schedules. Hopefully you’ve selected a partner who thinks your career is as important as theirs is, so you have someone willing to pull equal freight at home. My point is this: we need women to stay on the job. That’s the only way we’re going to achieve parity. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, and I won’t try to guilt you if you quit working to take care of your kids. Just know that we need you back as soon as you can get here.
Take some risks now. You are probably as untethered right now as you will ever be in your life. Even if you have some college debt hanging over your head, you probably don’t have kids or a mortgage. Now is a great time to get in some travel while you can do it cheaply (before business travel has turned you into a hotel snob), maybe even move to a part of the country you’ve never lived but always wanted to try. You are now living in the sweetest of sweet spots: old enough to live independently and young enough to have fun without regretting it for the next week. But your 20s are gone quickly, so enjoy the hell out of them while they last.
Finally, you’ve heard this before, but don’t beat yourself up if you fail at something, or several somethings. Losing isn’t about the falling. It’s about the staying down.
Congratulations to the class of 2017!