We live in unprecedented times. After all, you are reading this letter rather than listening to a speech at your Commencement. But this moment of upheaval can be an opportunity if you keep a few things in mind.
First, achievement is not linear.
For years, there was an acknowledged formula for success: study hard, get good grades and get into the right school. Do that, and your future was fairly defined.
No longer. While academic prowess is still rewarded, other attributes have risen in prominence. Think of your career not as an equation you solve, but a journey you take.
My career is a great example. I studied political science at Binghamton University, went on to get my JD at NYU and joined a large law firm. That was supposed to be the endgame. But as I worked with clients, I quickly found myself drawn to the strategic and creative aspect of the business, rather than the legal. This was not the plan, but I wouldn’t change a thing.
All of this is to say, don’t be afraid if you are taken off of your intended route.
Which brings us to my second piece of advice: Resilience is a required quality in the best of times, and more so at this moment.
Most of you had an idea of the company or industry you wanted to work in after graduation. Many of you had jobs lined up. Just five months ago, your careful planning would have paid off. Now you are taking flight amidst a perfect storm.
In your career, you will encounter turbulence, crises and the unexpected. If you stay true to yourself and are prepared to reorient yourself when you encounter challenges, you will come out the other side better for it.
As pilots say, “No matter what else happens, keep flying the airplane.”
Third: Prioritize the problems you are solving for rather than the title you want.
Don’t ask yourself, “What do I want to be?” but instead, “What am I solving for?” This question will likely lead you to certain skills or experiences that can be gained across a varied set of jobs rather than a checklist of positions, ultimately making you more flexible when you have to fall back on plan B.
And timing is everything. I had my kids early in my career and I needed fewer commitments at the office, as I had plenty at home. But as I was able to achieve a semblance of work/life balance, I began looking for bigger roles and challenges at work and beyond. I joined the boards of Nuance Communications and The GRAMMY Foundation, and recently took on the leadership of an investment bank.
Fourth: Know that success demands passion.
I have worked with innovators who upend industries. They are smart, have incredible drive, can-do attitudes and take risks. But none would achieve what they have without loving what they do.
Life is too short. Find a way to derive joy from your work. It will make all the hard work, sweat and tears worth your while.
Congratulations, Class of 2020. I wish you my very best.