The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Did you attend a college commencement? This is what the speaker should have told you.

(Seth Wenig/AP)

Commencement season is winding down on college campuses nationwide — that time of year when words of wisdom are shared with graduates by speakers from all walks of life. Many of this year’s commencement speeches focused on the political divide in the country, sprinkled with a heavy dose of the usual advice: take chances, don’t fear failure, keep learning.

In the last few weeks as I watched this year’s speeches in preparation for giving one of the commencement addresses at Johns Hopkins University, I heard speeches that were sometimes funny, often inspiring and a few times boring, I tried to remember the advice I received at commencement as an undergraduate and later as a graduate student some two decades ago. Few commencement speakers then could imagine the political environment we live in, or how much the world of work would change for graduates hitting the job market.

“Commencement speakers often think they need to be topical or share weighty advice, but the last thing graduates need on this day of celebration is another lecture,” said Aaron Hoover, executive speechwriter at the University of Florida and author of the Professional Speechwriters Association guide on crafting commencement speeches. “Instead, they’ll remember the speakers who tell candid and compelling stories about their own lives and the personal insights they’ve gained — especially if those insights depart from the usual cliches and offer wisdom that speaks to a universal truth.”

As an author who has spent the last few years with young college graduates and the employers who hire them, I have found that navigating the start of a career in one’s 20s is often more difficult than finding that first job after commencement. My advice to newly minted graduates is to consider the “long game” of a career. Up until this point in life, most young adults have thought in increments of the months of an academic year, or at most, four years of college. Here are three approaches for doing so:

Go deep. In my first newspaper job out of college, I covered the environment. After a year, my editor came to me and asked if I would like to cover education instead. “It’s good to learn something new,” I recall him telling me. It’s true that it’s critical to know a variety of subjects at a time when the skills needed to keep up in almost any job are churning at a faster rate. But simply being a generalist also increases the chances your job could be automated.

Burrowing into a subject builds expertise that few people have. It helps you carve out a distinctive brand. That expertise is difficult for a robot to learn.

The key is not to pick a niche too quickly after college. “We are living in an increasingly complex society with many more choices for occupations, more than anyone can reasonably explore while in college,” Henry Siu, an associate professor at the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia, told me. He encourages 20-somethings to explore the job market for a few years after college before choosing the occupation or field that might carry them into their 30s.

Be patient. Patience is one of the most important qualities in getting ahead. Impatience often ruins careers as people make mistakes because they are in a hurry to move to the next step. Just when you think nothing’s going to change, it changes.

In previous generations, when workers traditionally retired at 65, the 20s were a significant chunk of one’s career. But as we live longer, we’ll likely work longer, too. So the period of the 20s is much less about jumping into a career that one remains in for the rest of life.

This longer runway to a career is one reason today’s graduates are less financially stable than their predecessors. In the 1980s, college graduates achieved financial independence, defined as reaching the median wage, by the time they turned 26, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. In 2014, they didn’t hit that mark until their 30th birthday. The traditional markers, such as marriage and parenting, are now the culmination of becoming an adult rather than the start of it.

Be smart about building a network. I’m amazed after I speak to students how many email or send LinkedIn connections having never met me after the talk or even asked a question during it. I understand most people are just a click away now, but we also know that a vast majority of those emails are ignored.

Newly minted college graduates seem to think the size, not the quality, of their networks matters more. Instead, students should focus on building the foundation of a network that will last them a lifetime. Start by adding people who know you best: other students, professors, supervisors from internships, co-workers (even from campus jobs).

Starting out with a smaller, better-connected network also allows you to more easily curate it on a regular basis. Using your network is critical in those first years after college — talking to people in it on a regular basis to seek advice and help.

People will seek you out as you become an expert in something — so have patience and your network will build naturally over time.