I was recently very privileged - and humbled - to be asked to deliver the commencement address at Baruch College Campus High School. I've spoken at many forums and in many cities around the world, but this one had me pretty nervous. As I spent time working on the remarks I was going to make to this bright group of high school graduates, my biggest questions were: How do I make this relevant, interesting, and engaging? And--yes, of course--could I possibly even try to make it cool?
I started my prep with thoughts around when I graduated from high school. Hmm, no cell phones, no Internet, my goodness I don't think fax machines had even been invented. Well, clearly that was not a good angle. These Baruch College Campus High School grads, apart from being some of the best and brightest kids on the planet, are launching themselves into a world driven by the kind of technology, data, and innovation that I couldn't have even imagined when I was their age. They're tech-savvy multi-taskers who will--and do--challenge the status quo. They stream ideas just like they stream music.
And not only are they a different product of a different technological era, they're entering a business world that is nothing like the one in which I began my career. These kids were using computers, smartphones, and tablets before they started school. They live in a world where one of the largest hotel chains, Airbnb, owns no real estate. Where the fastest growing transportation companies--Uber, Lyft, and their imitators--can go global without owning a single car. Where you can order something online and have it within hours. Where you can get a coupon offer that follows you around the city, from store to store. And where there is no such thing as a schedule, because everything is on demand.
So what did we have in common?
I finished high school with no real idea about what I would do with my life. I had no career plan--such things weren't discussed in my household, though my parents were incredibly supportive people. In their eyes, I could do anything, and they made sure I knew that. But they would have been happy to simply see me get married, settle down, and have kids. And it's a safe bet I'd have done that if I hadn't translated some of the things they taught me--like being confident about my abilities and intelligence--into action on a bigger stage than the small town where I grew up.
Some of the Baruch grads may already have a big idea. They may know their passion and be chasing it. Some who think they know what their career will be will change their minds later. Some will be content to remain near home, others will travel and live in far-flung places. Some haven't got a clue about what they're going to do, or even what they might be capable of (I certainly can relate). But that's okay, it doesn't matter. The journey is what's important.
What sets my generation apart from theirs is technology. It's staggering to think of how much that has changed since I was young. These high school grads are digital natives, while I am a digital immigrant. There is a big difference in how we see and operate in the world.
These kids grew up with the Internet, and at a young age became adept at using computers, smartphones, and tablets, creating entitlement and instant gratification.
But that's where a cautionary note comes in. The world may be at their fingertips when it comes to media or shopping, but building a career still takes time and hard work. Too often I see younger people looking for their next job before they've mastered the one they're in, before they've really proven themselves. They need to slow down.
That's why I offered five lessons in my speech to the Baruch grads. The advice is as relevant now as it was when I was starting out. I'll distill the lessons quickly here:
No. 1: Your reputation is the foundation of your personal brand, and without that foundation you have nothing upon which to build a career. You should be diligent about maintaining it.
No. 2: Maximize sponsors, mentors and role models. Seek them out and cultivate relationships.
No. 3: Color outside the lines. New experiences broaden our thinking and expand our horizons.
No. 4: Be courageous and take risks. You need to put yourself out there and stretch your limits.
No. 5: The best way to move ahead is to excel at what you're currently doing. Your strong performance in one effort will pave the way for your next step. Forget instant gratification in a career.
My advice to the young grads at Baruch, and to all young people today, is simple: You inhabit a world with the most incredible technology the world has ever known. Take advantage of it to follow your passion and expand your horizons, but don't forget that regardless of the bells and whistles at your disposal, building a successful and enduring career takes hard work. It always has.