Kerrying On

Rock Stars Still Sleep in Buses—and Other Graduation Thoughts

This week my wife and I attended a graduation exercise. I’d rate it just below running naked through an apiary. Don’t get me wrong, the music was lovely. The student speakers were refreshing and on point. But the adult speakers . . . whew. It’s hard enough to listen to hundreds of names of total strangers being read aloud—by other total strangers—but to throw in speeches that were positively sleep-inducing—it wasn’t fair. And I wasn’t the only one who grew bored. Two minutes into the first non-student speech and, I’m ashamed to say, hundreds of crass audience members turned to their phones for entertainment. They merrily played games as the speakers plowed on. It was embarrassing. It was rude. I racked up my highest Tetris score ever.

I mentioned my frustration with graduation speeches to a former university president and he explained that speakers who are brought in from the outside are rarely selected for

their elocution chops. “It’s political,” he explained—plus there’re always the “intangibles.” (What?) Apparently, speaking ability doesn’t count for much when it comes to selecting . . . speakers. I, for one, would like to see this change.

In addition to finding more engaging speakers, commencement organizers may want to redouble their efforts to select orators who offer helpful advice. Speakers, of course, try to be helpful, but most aren’t career experts and end up stringing together a list of feel-good homilies that warm the heart but inform no real action. Graduates, be warned. Right now someone is standing at a podium and saying: “Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” This old saw sounds clever enough, but it’s really nothing more than a useless tautology. It simply suggests that job-searching graduates need to find a job they like doing and then, when they actually do the job, they’ll like doing it. A fat lot of good that does anyone.

According to recent surveys, seventy percent of American employees don’t secure a job they like. In fact, they find a job they dislike. Plus, if graduates happen to land a job they enjoy, it needs to pay a livable wage. A lot don’t.

The most common advice speakers give on how to actually find an enjoyable and well-paying job is contained in the oft-spoken expression, “Relentlessly pursue your passion.” This maxim suggests that in order to succeed in your quest for a dream job, you need to throw yourself completely into your vocational passion, stop worrying about the job market, work hard, become the best in your field, and take comfort in knowing that a job will be waiting for you. People believe this because it happens. My neighbor, pursued his passion—oil painting. He became a master, loves what he does, and now lives in the nicest house on the block. He would be the first to tell you to pursue your passion.

Following this same advice, a different neighbor spent five years pursuing his PhD passion. When he finally graduated, he learned that there were only two tenure-track jobs available in his particular field—in the world. Worse still, dozens of scholars were gunning for those two positions and they all secretively believed that they would be among the two who would grab a brass ring. All but two were wrong.

In the end, tens of thousands of individuals who relentlessly pursue their passion don’t secure a paying job in their chosen field. In some cases, their passion becomes a lifelong hobby. That’s nice. As the years pass, others find a way to tolerate their job, so not all is lost. Plus, joy can come from a host of sources outside of work. However, in the spirit of full disclosure, most dreamers end up making a living by joining the unfulfilled seventy-percent. If you catch them during a truthful moment, many lament that they haven’t been able to become the marine biologist or the art critic they spent so many years preparing to become.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take that increase your chances of securing a job you enjoy. Allow me to share seven research-based tips that I’ve prepared for recent college grads.

First, it’s okay to relentlessly pursue your passion. However, as you chase your dream, keep an eye on the job market. Check job statistics on the internet and regularly talk to seniors in your major (who are either finding or not finding jobs.)

Second, learn to enjoy performing a host of different tasks. Take your cue from college administrators who require students to take a wide range of courses during their first two years. As you sample classes from a vocational pu pu platter, stacked high with degrees and specialties, study each topic with an open mind. Don’t confuse uninspired teaching with a subject being boring. Most importantly, don’t dismiss all of the arts or all of the sciences with a single wave of your hand. Instead, work at shaping yourself into a Renaissance person. Become an individual who loves and masters several fields of study. Remember, the more activities you enjoy (at both work and at play), the easier it will be for you to find enjoyment.

Third, prepare yourself for the fact that all jobs—no matter how cool sounding—require you to perform some tasks that aren’t exactly enjoyable. Be satisfied with being mostly satisfied. Rock stars sleep in buses. Park rangers deal with drunk tourists. You get the point.

Fourth, search for a job where you can relate to the organization’s mission. You may find little enjoyment in laying bricks all day long, but if the crew you work with is building an architectural masterpiece, you can find joy in your combined results.

Fifth, find satisfaction in your work by doing it well. From repeated and well-guided practice comes proficiency. From proficiency comes enjoyment. One day you’ll look down at what you just produced and think to yourself, “Look what I did!” Pride in one’s work inevitably ripens into joy.

Sixth, land a position where you relish working with the people around you. The vast majority of the thirty-percent who say they like their work, when asked to be more specific, explain that they like the people they work with. Don’t be afraid to switch jobs if members of the team you hire into don’t get along. Don’t consider camaraderie a luxury—make it a necessity.

Seventh, since camaraderie matters, be a good teammate. Make decisions with others’ best interest in mind. Carry your fair share of the work load. Pitch in when others fall behind. Stand up for your colleagues. Speak kindly to others. Willingly do tough jobs. Give others the benefit of the doubt. Deliver on your promises. Master your craft. Be the person you’d like others to be.

Here’s my wish to the soon-to-be, and recently, graduated. May your commencement exercises be both exciting and informative. For those of you who desire to land an enjoyable job, search for recommendations that you can easily put into actions, and then take action. If you really want to boost your chances of landing work you enjoy, be a genuine teammate. That is, be the person who makes everyone else’s job more enjoyable. In this you’ll find true joy.

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

19 thoughts on “Rock Stars Still Sleep in Buses—and Other Graduation Thoughts”

  1. Great words. I’m fortunate I pursued a passion in engineering, with a lot of work in communication, and am not part of the 70% today. But I see so much poor advice given, and so many fresh grads in jobs they don’t like full of student loans, so glad you shared this in an easy to read way.

  2. Re. Fifth tip, “find satisfaction in your work by doing it well.” To expand on this point I submit that a successful person will do their work well even when it is a crappy job. While keeping their sights on the next step of the ladder they excel at the task at hand and seem to be first in line for the next level.

  3. I work at a Community College. This article has the best advice I have ever seen! This would be great for graduates to read, hear, understand.
    Thanks!

  4. Nice article. These recommendations should be in every high school and college career center. And thanks for challenging the college president to think about the audience—especially students—when selecting speakers. Such a radical idea!

  5. If you want to listen to a meaningful and thoroughly enjoyable graduation speech, I suggest listening to Father Greg Burke’s speech at Pepperdine University

  6. Kerry, you are an answer to my recent prayers about my current situation. I’ve been with my employer for 12+ years and LOVE working here! I’ve had the opportunity to dip my toes into several functions and have found a passion in change management. A few weeks ago i was informed my position was being eliminated. I have 60 days to find something internal or terminate and receive severance. I’ve been struggling with what direction to take: try to retrofit my skills into a role i might like to stay with the company or go external where there is significant desire for my ocm skills. I worry about losing the network and brand I’ve built. Plus, regardless of being a change management leader, change is still hard and scary. I read your post this morning and finally realized that having the opportunity to do something I’m passionate about and getting paid well for it is worth making the change. Thank you for your focused insights and practical advice for this ‘well passed graduation age’ person!

  7. Wonderful advice that we all, not just recent graduates, would do well to appreciate and follow.
    I am not sure when this idea that we have to have fun and enjoy everything we do to be successful became so prevalent. As you said, there are many things in life and work that are difficult, challenging and uncomfortable. If it was all fun, it would be called play and not work. Success comes from meeting challenges and learning skills that when first tried are awkward and difficult. As someone much smarter then me once said, every expert started out as a beginner. It is hard being a beginner but it is sometimes equally hard being an expert too.
    Thank you for regularly writing such wonderful pieces and for putting so much of yourself into them. They come across as genuine and relatable.

  8. The unmentioned tip that I find most important is: save, save, save your money so that one day you no longer have to work! Having money invested is a huge source of freedom, and can give you the confidence to make your work situation better by demanding improvements or taking a risk and jumping to a new job. Your future self will be very grateful you made the wise decision today to save.

  9. Kerry – I’m going to clip your tips and share with my friends and the graduates I know. As I was reading, I also thought about how important it has been to me to look for people who have been willing to give me clear, specific feedback on how I can get better at what I do. The incremental ways I’ve changed my approach and developed my skills along the way has given me great satisfaction – and with that I’ve literally seen things in my life change – for the better:)

  10. Thanks for pointing out the problems with those old saws. It’s true–you can have a reasonably happy life even with a job that isn’t inherently all that exciting. The important thing is to figure what factors matter most to you–whether you are the kind of person who is willing to risk stability, sacrifice family time, and/or move anywhere to pursue your passion, or whether you’d really rather settle down in a place you want to be with good health insurance and some semblance of job security (if you’re lucky enough to find those things, of course).

  11. Well said! At my college graduation (from a state school with a few thousand graduates), the outside speaker was apparently someone who had just earned his PhD in Fish Biology. If I had paid attention I might’ve learned something about fish, but when he started using terms other than “fin” I was lost…and frankly I don’t even like to eat fish let alone know something about them. Conversely, my brother’s graduation had Gary Larson, the cartoonist of The Far Side (who had graduated from that school). He imparted thoughts on leaving school, where he got his inspiration and drew a few cartoons.That was fun!

  12. In June 1973, our commencement speaker was famed Pulitzer-winning NYT columnist James Reston. He opened with a soporific speech discussing the customary platitudes. Then he said, “For these occasions, I always promise myself that I will speak for at least five minutes before talking about Watergate.” He then launched into a searing indictment of political corruption surrounding that scandal which at the conclusion brought the audience to its feet. Sometimes good things come to those who wait. BTW aside from the subject matter, he was a wonderful speaker.

  13. That is why I am an accountant instead of a park ranger. After first year of college I discovered only 4% of wildlife biologists with masters degrees were getting low paying jobs in state or federal parks. I switched my major after discovering I could work anyplace with an accounting degree. Now I work in Public Health. Love the mission and the work is mostly fun. Just wish this advice was printed in every high school year book. Would have saved my son $100,000 for his education that got him a nice job driving truck to pay the bills. Luckily he enjoys truck driving, because he is going to be paying on student loans for a long time.

  14. I think Kerry would be a great commencement speaker! I often feel encouraged and inspired by the stories he shares.

  15. Great article! I never understood why universities spend millions of dollars inviting politicians to commencements to blather and further their careers while studiously ignoring the graduating class. Oh, they will say an opening sentence or two generically acknowledging the occasion and then move on to their agenda! Pathetic waste of tuition money.

  16. Kerry, your post is an answer to some heart felt prayers. I’ve recently been laid off and have a choice to try to retrofit my skills into available internal jobs or leave the company i love to actually do what i love externally. You are correct in saying if you can do what you’re passionate about and get paid for it, there’s nothing better! So, that’s what I’m going to do. Thank you!!

  17. One of the greatest 🙂 non-graduation speeches I’ve ever heard. Highly recommend sharing with all high school graduates as a heads up to use college wisely and/or to be more positively realistic if they are not going on to college. Many thanks. Am sharing this with my FB friends.

  18. Useful article! Going to share this with my recent high school grad son to steer him in the right direction.

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