Advice for Graduates: 3 Tips You Won’t Hear in Any Commencement Speech

It’s that time of year again. The birds are chirping. The flowers are in bloom. And graduates everywhere are wondering what the heck they’re doing with their lives.

Graduate Advice

Listen here, graduates. Plenty of people will tell you to enjoy this time and not worry about what’s to come. And that’s just plain bad advice.

This season of life ahead of you is important. Don’t waste it. At the same time, don’t drive yourself crazy with the fear of missing out or the stress of making the wrong choice. You will miss out and you will mess up. This season is all a delicate balancing act.

The difference between squandering this time and making the most of it is understanding what to do with what’s ahead of you. So here’s some advice I’ve pulled together, much of it from my recent book, The Art of Work (which a reader recently pointed out makes for a great graduation gift).

Don’t worry about what to do

When my friend and former roommate Andrew Chipman was getting ready to graduate college, I asked if he was excited about completing his education.

“No,” he said. “My education will never end.”

He told me the one thing he was looking forward to was deciding what he would learn. He was eager to get back to reading what he wanted to read, not what he was told. His education hadn’t ended; it just changed shape.

Andrew was right. You never really leave the classroom. There’s always a new lesson life has to teach you, if you’re willing to listen. So don’t worry too much about what to do. Worry, instead, about who you are becoming.

Whether or not you’re continuing your education, never stop learning. Become a student of the world around you. Travel to new places. Meet interesting people. Read as many books as possible. Pray and meditate, reflecting on who you are and are becoming. These practices offer your soul the quiet it needs in a world where such practices are becoming obsolete.

As Parker Palmer once wrote,

Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.

Spend some time learning who you are and what you’re supposed to do will become more clear.

Stop trying to find the perfect job

One of the great illusions in our world today is the idea that there’s some perfect job out there, waiting for you. You can’t find the perfect job, but you can create it.

The world of work is changing. Companies are getting smaller, not larger. Organizations are shrinking, and employers are outsourcing more and more, hiring contractors instead of employees as they look for ways to decrease their risk. And this is actually a wonderful opportunity for those entering the workforce.

When I interviewed hundreds of people who had found their calling – people ages 18 to 80 – one recurring theme was almost every person was a business owner. From the college-aged computer programmer, to the couple in Burundi starting a coffee company, to the Singaporean doula – each person understood their life’s work would not simply be handed to them. They had to create it.

The job market isn’t great, and it probably won’t be getting any better in the foreseeable future. If the studies are true, by the year 2020, we will see over half the workforce functioning as freelancers, with no steady job but a portfolio of gigs that provide a living.

This may not sound like good news to everyone, especially those who are less entrepreneurial. But it is. If you embrace this reality, you won’t have to settle for a position that doesn’t fulfill your potential. You can create the perfect job for yourself.

Don’t chase your dream (yet)

I often hear older people tell young people that the best thing they could do is chase their dreams. Hogwash. Blindly pursuing your passion is the fastest way to the unemployment line.

The world is full of dreamers who hate their lives and blame their bosses. Passion won’t save you from failure and it won’t protect you from economic hardship. Deferring your dream, though, as the proverb says, “makes the heart go sick.” So what do you do?

“Serve someone else’s dream first,” my former boss Seth used to say. In other words, become an apprentice. Stop wasting your time in search of the perfect mentor and instead help someone else’s dream come true. I did this for seven years, and it taught me more than a master’s degree.

The world doesn’t owe you anything, least of all the privilege to do work you love. And chances are, there are already people out there doing it. So find them, help them, and learn from them. Don’t chase your dream; serve someone else’s.


In summary (or in case you skimmed all of the above):

  • Don’t worry about what to do. Worry about who you are becoming. Focus on continued growth and learning, and what you’re meant to do will become clear over time.
  • Stop looking for the perfect job and start creating it. The best way to do what you love is to build the perfect job for yourself. Start a small business, if even as a hobby, so you’re never completely on someone else to earn a living.
  • Instead of chasing your dream, serve someone else’s dream first. This will save you years of pain and accelerate your growth in ways you can’t imagine. And it will humble you.

So that’s my advice. Do with it what you will, but please do something. If you need more help, are some next steps:

Bonus resource: Watch this video from my friend Yahya. He highlights some of the same points I do.

And if this post resonated with you, please share it with someone you know.

What’s the best graduation advice you’ve either given or received? Share in the comments.

22 thoughts on “Advice for Graduates: 3 Tips You Won’t Hear in Any Commencement Speech

  1. Great post, Jeff! I haven’t graduated yet – I’ll be starting my second year of college this July – but your advice is still really useful. 🙂

  2. Great advice! I’m currently in my first year “out of school” (finished high school + 2 year associate’s degree). I would say quite simply to look for and take opportunities. I sometimes get told that I should just save my money so that I have something when I’m older. But I do look ahead at the future and know that once I get there I will regret not taking the chances that I was given now. So far I’ve spent 6 weeks in Europe, worked on a theatre show 2 hours away that involved driving every night (exhausting), I’ve attended reenactments and dances, learned how to cook better, and I’m writing my second book. And I’ve only been out of school since December.
    My point? Take the opportunities you are given. They are your life.

  3. Excellent advice for new and old graduates, Jeff and very true. Most people want to pursue their dreams right out of high school or college, yet without first knowing who they are and what makes their heart burn. I also believe that graves are full of untapped potential and dreams turned into nightmares. It is important to “be” before you can “do” and help many others get what they want in order for you to get what you want. Servant Leadership is very important if we want to reach the top. Thanks for the post. Got my juices going to challenge and encourage some graduates. I wish I had a commencement speech this year, I’d use most of your post 🙂

  4. Seriously – where were you in my twenties?! LOL Sometimes I fear whether it is too late – then I see a 60 year old run a marathon and slap myself for being so whiny 😛 hehe

    Thank you #HUGS




  6. I’d tell graduates to pay particularly close attention to this line from Jeff’s post:

    “Don’t drive yourself crazy with the fear of missing out…you will miss out and you will mess up.”

    I wish I hadn’t worried so much about “missing out”. I did worry about that, and I subsequently exhausted myself in the early years of my career by trying to do it all.

    My own list of advice for graduating high school seniors/incoming college freshmen echoes Jeff’s advice:

    “Don’t be afraid of missing out on things. Embrace the paradox that you’ll miss out on things only if you try to do everything.”

  7. Wish I read this 5 years ago, when I was finishing with high school. Still, I’m grateful that it wasn’t longer. Your advice is gold. Thanks Jeff!

  8. We should all spend time thinking about who we are becoming. In some ways, it keeps evolving, but if we start and hold onto a kind heart, we’ll likely be pleased with ourselves. Great post, Jeff.

  9. My advice was “don’t sign.”

    Don’t sign for an auto loan, an apartment lease, a personal loan, a credit card, upgraded cell service, a 90-days-same-as-cash offer or more student loans for grad school.

    At least, not unless you really think it through. Specifically, thought about what you’re PROMISING: months or years of your young lives spent repaying obligations to which you haven’t given sufficient thought or research.

    Of course you need things. But what you DON’T need is to spend wildly, drunk with the ability to incur debt but without the experience to truly understand the financial hangover that will almost surely result.

    I wrote about this for Wise Bread:

  10. I really love this article and agree with all the points, especially the third one. I started out as an unpaid intern, serving someone else’s dream, but during that time, I learnt so much about writing, SEO, and blogging and am now using those skills to help chase my dream of running my own blog. I still have a lot to learn, but that internship was so invaluable (and it also landed me a permanent job there as well)!

  11. Thank you, Jeff, I am fortunate to be doing what I love now even as I graduate, but it took me years to get here. One thing I have always found frustrating is the assumption that because I have opted not to further my traditional education that I am no longer learning. But I am. Even now, I’m in a course designed by someone in my field. Will it get me an official degree? No. But it will teach me things I can use in my business and that is priceless.

  12. Thanks Jeff! I think this is pertinent advice to hear even prior to graduation season! It’s the “real world” that teaches us the most about ourselves, and that advice sure helps to calm some of the graduation fears/ realizations that you have no idea what you want to do with your life!

  13. Thanks for bringing the future to the eyesight of us. Indeed, organizations are shrinking and consuming less number of employees.

    Thanks for impacting others

  14. Great stuff. Guy Kawasaki said, “Learn to like yourself or change yourself until you can like yourself”…..also great advice.

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