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Financial Planning > College Planning

5 Best Bits of Advice for College Grads: 2013

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Dear graduating class of 2013: Do what you know, don’t do what you love, and stop comparing yourself to other people.

That’s the latest career advice for college grads this month as they toss mortar boards into the air to celebrate their acceptance of freshly minted diplomas.

To be sure, commencement addresses have become an annual rite, with the nation’s movers and shakers delivering nuggets of wisdom crafted to inspire ambitious young grads as they step into the work world.

What is arguably the greatest commencement speech ever, commonly known as the “Wear Sunscreen” speech, was thought to be delivered by writer Kurt Vonnegut back in 1997. But the “speech” was in fact never delivered at all because it was actually a newspaper essay, “Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young,” written by Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich.

Among other bits of advice, Schmich urged graduates to wear sunscreen, keep old love letters and “do one thing every day that scares you.”

Over a decade before the financial crisis of 2008, Schmich also had the luxury of advising graduates not to worry about the future. “Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life,” she wrote, “The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.”

Today, in this fearful climate of lost U.S. jobs and scarce resources, much of the advice being meted out to young graduates is more doom-laden, practical and business-focused. In the following collection of current advice for college grads, the pundits talk a lot about going beyond hard work to bring value to the table. Read on for the best career advice from Thomas L. Friedman, the Harvard Business Review and more.

(Read ‘What’s a 529 Plan?’ Americans Ask at AdvisorOne.)

1) Do What You Know

Writing “How to Get a Job” for The New York Times on May 28, op-ed columnist Thomas L. Friedman received 400-and-counting angry online comments when he suggested that there has been a shift in the education-to-work model in America that goes beyond the huge drop in demand that drove unemployment to 9% during the recession.

“It is best summed up by the mantra from the Harvard education expert Tony Wagner that the world doesn’t care anymore what you know; all it cares ‘is what you can do with what you know,’” Friedman writes. “And since jobs are evolving so quickly, with so many new tools, a bachelor’s degree is no longer considered an adequate proxy by employers for your ability to do a particular job—and, therefore, be hired. So, more employers are designing their own tests to measure applicants’ skills. And they increasingly don’t care how those skills were acquired: home schooling, an online university, a massive open online course, or Yale. They just want to know one thing: Can you add value?”

The Winning Progressive blog objected to Friedman’s advice in the Times’ comments section, saying: “I find it quite amusing that Mr. Friedman tries to minimize the importance of an Ivy League education in the same paragraph in which he finds it important to mention that the ‘education expert’ he is quoting is a ‘Harvard education expert.’ While perhaps a small point, it demonstrates the fallacy of the claim that it increasingly does not matter if your skills come from ‘home schooling, an online university, a massive open online course, or Yale.’”

2) Don’t Do What You Love

“Sure, there are many people doing what they genuinely love. But how many of us love just one thing?” writes Carl McCoy, an English language instructor at the Showa Boston Institute for Language and Culture in Boston, in Dear Grads, Don’t ‘Do What You Love‘ in the May 28 Wall Street Journal.

“It’s romantic to imagine that each person is destined for a particular career path, one capable of being discovered with sufficient soul-searching,” McCoy says. “But most people have multifaceted interests and abilities and could probably be successful and happy in several fields.”

McCoy, a writer himself, acknowledges that there are people who love things that will never pay very well. But then he makes his point: “As someone who has tried living as a starving artist, I can attest that there’s nothing romantic or noble about being impoverished in pursuit of doing what you love. When you’re working two or three jobs, and you can’t pay your bills, it doesn’t matter how much you love any of them. You just get worn out.”

Like Friedman’s column in The New York Times, McCoy’s thoughts won him hundreds of comments, including a man who quotes from H.L. Mencken’s 1922 essay “On Being an American”:

Here in the United States we have no jobs for grand dukes…and none for palace eunuchs, and none for masters of the buckhounds…and very few for oboe-players, metaphysicians, astrophysicists, assyriologists, water-colorists, stylites and epic poets…There may come a day when the composer of string quartettes is paid as much as a railway conductor, but it is not yet. Then why practice such trades—as trades? The man of independent means may venture into them prudently; when he does so, he is seldom molested; it may even be argued that he performs a public service by adopting them. But the man who has a living to make is simply silly if he goes into them; he is like a soldier going over the top with a coffin strapped to his back.

3) Stop Comparing Yourself to Other People

The Harvard Business Review can always be relied on to deliver sound advice—to people of any age—but in “The Graduation Advice We Wish We’d Been Given,” HBR speaks directly to college grads by asking some of its favorite writers what they think graduates really need to know about the world of work.

“There will be obstacles, setbacks, challenges. Many things will be more difficult than you thought they’d be,” writes Heidi Grant Halvorson, associate director for the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia University Business School and author of Nine Things Successful People Do Differently.

“The key to success (scientifically speaking) is perseverance,” Halvorson continues. “You’ve just got to hang in there—there’s no other way to win. But how do you do it? A great way to be more resilient is to stop comparing yourself to other people, and compare yourself to your own past performance—last week, last month, last year. Are you improving? That’s the only question that matters.”

4) Be the Change

“Today, I ask you, my young friends, you who are the future hope of humanity, you who are the future leaders of the world; today, I ask you what Mahatma Gandhi once asked, “Can you be the change you want to see in the world?” said Deepak Chopra, in a commencement address to the 2013 graduating class at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y.

Chopra, the Indian-born holistic medical doctor, spiritualist and author, has created an excellent career for himself as a popular public speaker by ladling out advice about our life’s journey through this modern world.

Not surprisingly, Chopra’s message of hope is custom-made for recent grads, stating that there can be no social or world transformation unless there is inner transformation.

“Today,” he told Hartwick’s graduating class, “I ask you to face a fundamental truth. Today, I ask you to consider that there is no ‘you’ that is separate from the world. The gift of life, your own self-consciousness, is your key to inner transformation and wisdom, and that in turn is how you will transform the world. Today, I ask you to acknowledge that you are the world and that your transformation of consciousness will be the future of the world. This self-transformation is the wisdom for our planet’s survival.”

5) Never Give In

Perhaps the most inspiring commencement address is the one that Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Britain delivered in 1941 at his old school, Harrow, as he was busy rallying the world to oppose Hitler.

It was a short speech, but effective, and the thrust of Churchill’s message has been widely quoted ever since:

“Sometimes imagination makes things out far worse than they are; yet without imagination not much can be done. Those people who are imaginative see many more dangers than perhaps exist; certainly many more than will happen; but then they must also pray to be given that extra courage to carry this far-reaching imagination. But for everyone, surely, what we have gone through in this period…surely from this period of 10 months this is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”


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