Forget About Jobs, Young Graduates; Go Slay Dragons Instead

There are as many dragons as there are graduates. It may be tackling illiteracy, releasing that great novel from deep inside or building an app that we don't realize we need until we can't live without it. The size and shape of the beast doesn't matter; what counts is your passion.
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Soon-to-be graduates: you are almost there. A few more weeks and a few more finals, and you'll be putting on your gowns and marching into your real lives. Likely, one question looms larger in your mind than any other -- the question of gainful employment. Let me tell you a very well-kept secret: finding a job doesn't matter.

I do not, of course, mean that literally. Most of us have no choice but to seek pay to support ourselves and our families. But how we do it matters, and making a job your goal is, almost always, a waste of your real value. Instead, I recommend something very different: go slay dragons.

Let me explain. When I was a very young boy, my mother died suddenly from a brain tumor. One of my earliest recollections is sitting on my physician grandfather's knee, asking him what had taken my mother from me. In simple and crystal clear language, he explained why neurosurgery options for her brain tumor were extremely limited. "Someone," I remember saying to him, "should do something about that."

That is the dragon I seek to slay. The result is that 14 years of medical school, neurosurgery residency and post-doctoral research training were never a "job" to me. Twenty years after that, as a neurosurgeon-scientist and CEO of a research institute, I continue to stalk the dragon -- fewer toddlers missing their parent. Less illness. Less suffering.

There are as many dragons as there are graduates. And that is good news for the future. It may be tackling illiteracy, releasing that great novel from deep inside or building an app that we don't realize we need until we can't live without it. The size and shape of the beast doesn't matter; what counts is your passion and plan to kill it.

This is not "sloganizm." As a scientist, I'm intolerant of ideas that are not associated with a goal and a plan. And as the father of four daughters, two of whom will soon face their own graduations, the question of what to do next in this economy and era is personal. So, let me offer three practical suggestions.

First, decide what you want to do next year, in five years and in 10 years' time. Some will consider this to be obvious advice. It isn't. We've grown so obsessed with achievements, so focused on stacking the afternoons of the average teenager with a thicket of extracurricular activities, so keen on getting ahead, that we frequently allow no time and no space for the wondering, wandering spirit of free inquiry to work its magic. Stop and think about what it is you really want to do and why. Begin by writing it down, then saying it to yourself in the mirror. This is your dragon, and you will know it as soon as you see it.

It's OK if you don't know what it is at first, but it is inexcusable to be young and not invest the time, the work and the effort into seeking it. Once you can identify the dragon clearly enough to shout about it from the rooftops, to a city block full of strangers, then you are ready for step two: work a blue-collar job. Labor with your hands so that by day's end, your back is sore and your body is tired. Your soul will be satisfied. Looking at my own schooling and career training, I didn't take internships or fret about improving my prospects. I drove trucks, set up tents in the wedding catering business and worked in gas stations and fast-food restaurants, work that taught me more about how things work in this world than years of training in the OR. I worked these jobs to be the best at them, learning that dedication to task accomplishment is not reserved only for complicated, life-saving procedures, but to everything in life. I urge you now to do the same.

Finally, with your minds made up and your hands achy, there's one more step. Seek your dragon's lair, and make a plan to slay it. It is not easy to do -- those dragons, you know, are tricky creatures. But you will be motivated by success in helping others, and, eventually, you will succeed. Your quest will consume you, but doing battle will be as natural as waking, dressing and deploying the intellectual and emotional gifts that you have accumulated in your life from your family, friends and school.

Once launched on this quest, you won't be able to resist the thrill of the chase, or the joy of the travel itself. If you find along the way that you have accumulated some money, titles or fame, terrific! But this will not make you happy. Happiness only comes from pursuing what gives meaning to your life.

So congratulations on your big day. I applaud you as you toss your mortar board in the air. The fortunate among you can aim their throw at a discrete target; the rest of you should take some time off before you do anything else and find your dragon. Then, have fun slaying it.

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