Graduation speakers generally stick to generalities about following your dreams, and never giving up, sprinkled with a few self-deprecating anecdotes, congratulations on your accomplishments, and reminders to thank your families and do some good in the world.
What they leave out, though, is specific, practical information about the steps you need to take to move from the world of school to the grown-up world of work and relationships. So I've put together 10 very simple, easy tips that are guaranteed to help you adjust to life after school and to help you succeed in jobs, relationships and life.
1. "On time" means 15 minutes early. If where you are going is more than an hour away or in an unfamiliar location, make it 30 minutes. Adjusting your schedule to plan to arrive early means that you have a built-in margin of error for transportation delays and time to check for any last-minute developments and freshen up before a meeting starts. Or a date.
2. No one is getting paid to teach you any more. You have to seek it out. You are about to begin to appreciate the luxury of all the feedback you received in school, from your marked-up papers to the opportunity to ask questions of the most knowledgeable people in their fields.
From now on, it is up to you to make sure the people around you let you know how you can do better. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg knows that. In her best-seller, Lean In, she says that when she accepted the job she insisted on regular, private meetings with her boss, Mark Zuckerberg, several times a week with a candid assessment of how effectively they are working together. She understands the importance of asking for criticism.
I learned this lesson years ago when I had a client who was driving me crazy with his picky criticisms of our new product. My boss correctly pointed out that he was giving us information about what we needed to improve that. Most clients would never bother to tell us and consultants would charge us a fortune to provide it. And no outsider could ever understand what was wrong as well as the clients who were actually using the product. Since then, I've tried to do more than welcome criticism; I try to encourage it. We gave that cranky client a discount on the improved version of the product as a thank you.
Whether at work or in relationships, take criticism it as a challenge to make things better, which, after all, is what everyone wants, right?
3. Write lots of thank you notes. On nice stationery. Mailed in an envelope. It communicates something that cannot be said in email. If someone interviews you for a job or acts as a reference for you, write a thank you note. If people give you gifts, do you favors, or entertain you at their homes, write a thank you note. If you are lucky enough to supervise others, write them thank you notes to show your appreciation for their hard work. Bonus: writing thank you notes is the best way to maintain a sense of gratitude that will help you in every part of your life and illuminate your days.
You can even write thank you notes to people you do not know. In Carolyn See's marvelous book, Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers, she advises sending a "charming letter" every day to someone you admire, just a few lines to let them know that you are a fan, without asking for anything. Needless (I hope) to say, these letters should be thoughtful, intelligent, well-written and brief. If you find yourself in a job that is not all that you wished, writing these letters is a wonderful way to reach out to the world you hope to be a part of.
I advised one of my favorite young employees to learn to send thank you notes. Years later, after he had gone back to school to get a law degree, he was hired for a prestigious clerkship because the judge was so impressed with the thank you note he sent after his interview. How do I know? Because he wrote me a thank you note for giving him such good advice.
I also know of a talented young man who lost out on a job he wanted because he asked someone for a second recommendation without ever thanking her for the first one.
4. Stop the snark and trash talk. My dad once gave a talk to the young lawyers in his firm, telling them that the most important thing they could do was to get the clients to trust them. "How do we do that?" asked one of them. "Well," said my dad, "you can start by being trustworthy." Your put-downs of your teachers, friends, significant others, and even yourself may seem hilarious in college. But now you are a part of something bigger. Earn trust by showing that you respect yourself and the people around you enough to protect their dignity, confidences, and privacy.
5. Be nicer, classier and more generous than whoever it is that is annoying you. As my mother says, "Take the high road. It's not just the right thing to do; it has the side benefit of driving the haters nuts."
6. There is only one appropriate answer to the greeting, "How are you?" It is: "Great! How are you?" Learn the difference between a genuine inquiry (as when there is illness in the family) and a rhetorical greeting. "How are you?" is not an invitation for you to provide a litany of complaints. Put on your game face and use it as an opportunity to show that you understand the social niceties. And never, ever say you are busy.
7. When you have a problem, try the Chinese finger puzzle solution. The woven bamboo finger trap gets tighter the more you try to pull your fingers out of it. The trick is counter-intuitive: if you push your fingers toward each other, the trap loosens and it is easy to escape. Sometimes when problems seem intractable, it can be surprisingly effective to try a thought experiment by considering the opposite of whatever you have been trying or assuming. It may not be the answer, but it will provide a fresh perspective to help you get closer to it.
8. Yes, and. The first rule of improv is "yes, and." You have to build on whatever your improv partner tries. If she says, "Boy, it's hot here in the desert," you are not allowed to respond, "What desert? We're standing on a stage." Or even, "What desert? We're at the North Pole!" In Bossypants, Tina Fey writes about how this lesson from improv class became one of her core principles in all elements of her life. She says that "yes, and" means "don't be afraid to contribute. It's your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you're adding something to the discussion." Whatever is thrown at you in improv is there to build on, not knock down. "In other words, whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don't just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles."
9. No complaining without a proposed solution. If you see a problem that needs to be resolved, figure out what it will take to fix it before you take it to the boss/significant other and present the problem and solution together. That way you are not whining, you are demonstrating your constructive attitude and commitment. Keep in mind that if the solution is not less expensive than the problem, it sharply reduces the odds of implementation. A big part of problem-solving is being able to show that the benefits outweigh the costs.
10. Follow the Boy Scout rule. The Boy Scouts are right about one thing: leave the campground better than you found it. Apply that rule to your place of work, your home, and your relationships, and you will find that you get better as well.