Graduation HatsI recently attended the high school graduation party for one of my cousins. I remember when she was a newborn baby in the hospital, and now she’s 18 years old and going out into the world. Kids grow up so fast. I’ve seen it in my own children who in the blink of an eye have gone from helpless newborns to confident, rambunctious little kids (age 4 and age 2), and before I know it my own children will be putting on their caps and gowns and walking across the graduation stage.

So I have a personal interest in the lives of the graduating class of 2012. My 15 year high school reunion is this month, it’s been 11 years since I graduated from college. These past 15 years have gone by in a flash, but I’ve been fortunate to have had some great experiences: I’ve lived in Japan, worked in politics, worked in the corporate world and started my own business. I want to offer a few lessons I’ve learned from my past 11 years as a full-fledged “adult” in the world of work – my own personal “commencement speech” for the class of 2012.

These are tough times for new graduates. Half of young college graduates are either jobless or underemployed. The economy has been tough ever since the financial crisis of 2008, and it’s been hitting young people the hardest.

So if you’re part of the graduating class of 2012, what are you supposed to do next?

Here Are a Few Ideas

  • Broaden your horizons by going abroad: Whether you study abroad as a college student or work abroad (like I did, teaching English in Japan), getting international experience is one of the best ways to make yourself stand out in a crowded, competitive job market.
  • Keep learning: The best entrepreneurs are lifelong learners who are never afraid to say “I don’t know.” You need to seek out new information, ideas and perspectives. Be a sponge for knowledge. Be curious. Find energetic, interesting people to surround yourself with. Read a lot of blogs (like my favorite blogger, Seth Godin). Watch TED talks. Absorb the ideas and expertise of the thought leaders in the career field(s) that interest you most. Most of the information you need is freely available online – you just have to put in the time and effort to read it. For example, would you like to learn how to be a computer programmer? Why not? You can use Code Year to learn the basics of writing software. For free. Some of the most valuable skills to help you in your career can be learned on your own, outside of the classroom. What’s stopping you from learning and investing in yourself?
  • Think like an entrepreneur: Whether or not you decide to start a business, your best bet for career success is to be the kind of person who “thinks like an entrepreneur.” Cultivate a sense of seeking out opportunities. Learn how to make money. Hustle. Always add value to every professional interaction. Be the kind of person that people want to work with and cannot imagine living without – make yourself indispensable.
  • Learn how to network: Everyone you know, and everyone they know, can potentially become part of your professional network. Whether you want to get a summer internship or a job or even just a low-key informational interview to find out more about a particular career field, start with the people closest to you. And be generous with your networking – don’t just ask people to help you, also ask other people, “What can I do to help you?” Even though you’re young, you might be able to help more experienced people with your own network of contacts or your own skills and interests.
  • Start early: Whatever you want to do for your career, or whatever interests you want to explore, start now. Do you want to design websites or write software apps or make video games? You can start doing these things in your dorm room. Want to be a social media marketing consultant? Build a Facebook page for your favorite non-profit organization and help them get 1,000 new fans. Want to be a photographer or a writer or a graphic designer? Start building a portfolio of work by working for free for friends, relatives and your favorite local small businesses. Do you have a business idea? Get it off the ground with a cheap website and a lot of hustle. No one is stopping you.

Above all, the graduating class of 2012 needs to understand this: don’t wait around expecting that the world will recognize you and reward you. Don’t expect that just doing things “by the book” and by having a good resume and good grades is enough to get where you want to go in life – because the rules are changing and what worked 20 years ago won’t necessarily work today.

The good news is that America still rewards talent, energy and hustle. Today’s graduates need to have a clearer sense of focus on what you want to do – you need to be ready to sell yourself and give people a clear understanding of the value that you can offer to them.

Think like an entrepreneur. Keep learning. Start now….and Congratulations Graduate!

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