Why 2009 College Graduates Will Win Big

On campuses all across America you can practically feel the fear. But despite schools closing with sick students, kids and parents aren't afraid of the swine flu. In the wake of the economic crash, they're afraid that the jobs flew.

If you scratch below the surface of this recession-triggered fear, you quickly discover two key realities. First, what really has graduates most disturbed is not the scarcity of jobs -- it's the disappearance of business-as-usual jobs. Gone are the big-ticket positions on Wall Street; the blue-chip jobs at management consulting firms have dried up; the high-end jobs at old and storied companies and sexy technology start-ups aren't there for the picking. In other words, the cool jobs that top students effortlessly slid into in the past, complete with signing bonuses and ego strokes, aren't in the cards for the Great Class of 2009.

The second reality is that the Great Class of 2009 is better off because those jobs aren't waiting for them. This year's graduates dodged a bullet. It's the bullet that nailed the CEOs of America's car companies when they mindlessly flew to Washington, D.C. in their private jets to ask Congress for a bailout. It's the bullet that hit the Wall Street bankers who mindlessly handed out bonuses to their bailed-out executives using money from the public treasury.

Here's the truth: The game has changed and this year's graduates are the beneficiaries. They have the opportunity to write the new rules, establish the new expectations, and explore the new territory that lies ahead. Instead of lamenting the loss of illusory jobs and phony careers, the Great Class of 2009 is in the unique position of asking new questions that they can learn from -- and they can teach the rest of us.

Having just published a book with 52 rules of thumb designed to make sense out of this time of turbulence and transition, I can offer a couple of rules here to help guide this freshly started quest for our newly-minted graduates.

Start with Rule #3: Ask the last question first -- what's the point of the exercise? In other words, why are you doing what you're doing? Before this transformative economic re-set, college and business school graduates were trooping off to lucrative jobs without bothering to ask themselves why they were doing it -- other than for the money. Now there's an opportunity -- even a necessity -- to dig a little deeper. It's a chance to explore more personal and profound goals, and not just for college grads. It's a new national priority: Who are we going forward? What matters to us? What kind of future do we really want to create? Or, simply, what's the point of the exercise? Interestingly, one soon-to-graduate Wharton student put her finger on the opportunity recently. She commented that she didn't actually know what an interesting group of school friends she had until Wall Street collapsed and banking jobs disappeared. Now she and her friends are free to explore new, previously off-limits opportunities -- in other words, jobs they'd actually like to have!

The second new rule I'd suggest for today's grads is Rule #44: When it comes to business, it helps if you actually know something about something. The good news is now that you've got your degree, you can actually start to learn something! And the even better news is you can devote yourself to learning as much as you can about something you actually care about, not something you're told you have to learn. That's how real entrepreneurs are made. They become the most knowledgeable people in the world about the one thing they care about more than anyone in the world. And in this post-meltdown economy, one way or another we're all entrepreneurs.

So here's how to get started: Ask yourself what you're most passionate about and dig into it. Surround yourself with the details and artifacts of your personal passion. Become an expert so that you know all there is to know. I'm not saying you'll end up rich this way -- or even employed. I'm saying that you'll find your way in the world by relentlessly pursuing what matters most to you.

And finally Rule #52: Stay alert! There are teachers everywhere! Now that you're a graduate, you can begin your real education -- the work of learning from everyone you meet and everything you do. The world is a large and endlessly fascinating place -- and getting larger and more fascinating every day. This economic crisis has blown away all the old categories. Things that never were true have been revealed as profound lies: You don't have to go to get your ticket stamped by the powers-that-be, you don't need validation from the old-school brokers. Your path to the future can lead you to China or India, Australia or New Zealand. You're as likely to make an important contribution working in a not-for-profit or a social business as you are at a law firm or a hedge fund -- in fact, more likely.

The bottom line for today's graduates is this: There's a world waiting to be born, and you're the young men and women for the job. Your parents -- and all the rest of us -- are rooting for you. Now please, go to work!