The 3 Things Every College Graduate Should Know

young woman student wearing cap in front of question marks written blackboard and thinking about her future
young woman student wearing cap in front of question marks written blackboard and thinking about her future

At this time of year, as many people exchange their well-worn student IDs for brand new alumni discount cards, they are being bombarded with information -- from credit card offers, to (hopefully) job offers, to advice from authority figures -- irrespective of their actual authority or right to dispense worldly wisdom.

Some of the counsel you will receive is worth its weight in gold -- from Steve Job's Stanford commencement speech, to the ever-present wisdom in Dr. Seuss' Oh the Places You'll Go, to the seemingly eternally viral and oft-misattributed "Wear Sunscreen" advice by Mary Schmich in the Chicago Tribune. As a clinical psychologist, I often bear witness to the struggle that people encounter during these transitional periods. As a couple of my patients are nearing graduation, I have begun to consider the indispensable lessons that are worth sharing with recent grads, or actually anyone who is in transition.

Regardless of whether you have the rest of your life planned or you are as clueless as Homer Simpson was when he was about to graduate --

Counselor: Do you have any plans for after graduation?
Homer: Me!? I'm going to drink a lot of beer and stay out all night!

-- you will, undoubtedly, eventually bump up against that pesky seven-letter word that gets in the way of living: reality. And so, if you lend me you mind's eye for a moment, I will share with you the three things that every college graduate should know:

The Power of Failure, The Power of Words, and the Power of Kindness

1. The Power of Failure -- One of the things that they don't teach you in school (along with how to manage your money, but that's a topic for another day) regardless of how much success you have had up until this point, in life, you will, with any luck, fail. I hope that you fail early and often. In contrast to what may have been led to believe by overbearing parents or overreaching teachers, failure is good for you. When you truly fail, it means that you actually did something, or at least you tried to. You put forth the effort and you took action, but you didn't get the result you wanted. When failure comes a knockin' and you get that twisty feeling in the pit of your stomach or you experience the heat of shame that rises through your gullet, don't suppress it. Use it. Your emotions are a gift, and when properly directed, they will fuel your rise. This is a part of what I call intelligent failure. Pay attention to why you failed, take copious notes, re-tool, and try again. The only thing that matters when you fail is what you do next. Regroup and attack with more vigor and intelligence. Remember that everyone who has ever done anything worth doing has failed. You can join this crew if you craft your response to failure intelligently.

2. The Power of Words -- School is an absurdly verbal place filled to the brim with words. When you are in school, words have power and meaning. However, when you graduate, that changes. Words are no longer powerful. People will say things that they don't mean -- usually out of laziness, but occasionally out of malice. Don't be seduced by words. There is only one thing that counts: what people do. If you are spending time with someone -- a friend, family member, co-worker, boss, or lover -- who tells you lots of things but then doesn't follow them up with action, it's probably time to re-evaluate the relationship (or job). When I graduated college and was in the dating world, my friend JP used to say, "When a girl is nice to you but rude to the waiter, she's not a nice girl. It's time to move on."

"As I grow older, I pay less attention to what men say. I watch what they do." -- Andrew Carnegie

On the flip side, some people do more than they need to. Those people are kind souls, and guess what, they are out there too. It just takes a little bit of work to find them. But I swear to you, they are there too and they will help you.

3. The Power of Kindness -- If you do things out of genuine kindness for others and are generous with your time and effort, it will come back to you. This is not about karma per se, but simply about kindness. Doing things simply because of what they will get you leads to a transactional mentality in the world -- this is appropriate and necessary sometimes, but having a giving mentality is far greater, and in the long run better for you and the world. For a brilliant and scientifically-based reasoning on this, consider the book Give and Take by Adam Grant. When you are a nice person people are more likely to want to help.

I wish you well on your journey. I'm aware that these are just words on a screen, and but I do mean them and genuinely hope that they are useful to you. If you only remember one of these things, let it be the bit about intelligent failure -- Lord knows, I've had my share of those. And with any luck, you and I will have a lot more.

Congratulations to you -- and welcome to the rest of your life.

P.S. For those of you who are graduating or are in transition of any kind, I am giving away the electronic version of my book Your Next Big Thing away for FREE on Amazon for five days (5/17-5/21). Consider it a "graduation gift."

Dr. Ben Michaelis is a clinical psychologist in full-time private practice in Manhattan. He writes and speaks about mental health, creativity, and intelligent failure. Dr. Michaelis is the author of numerous popular and scholarly articles and is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post. Dr. Michaelis is a frequent guest on nationally syndicated TV shows such as, NBC's The Today Show, The Hallmark Channel's Home & Family, and MSNBC's Your Business. Dr. Michaelis is the author of Your Next Big Thing: 10 Small Steps to Get Moving and Get Happy. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or at