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5 tips for crushing it at your first post-college job

This spring, college students will don medieval vestments, march into auditoriums across the U.S., and sit for one final lesson. I’ve heard some great commencement speeches since my first year as an academic dean, in 1979. Maya Angelou stirred our hearts when she began her remarks by singing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” John Lasseter had us in tears when he pulled out an original Woody doll, tattered and frayed.

The messages of these addresses are lofty — grand occasion calls for grand lessons: Believe in yourself. Work hard. Be kind. Today, though, I’d like to offer a few lessons that are a little more earthbound that this spring’s graduates can use the moment they enter their first day in the real, actual, no-nonsense adult workplace.

Related: 6 life skills you better pick up if you want to succeed at work


A few weeks ago, I received an email from a friend who said her son, a recent graduate, had been offered a job with a large company, but he was thinking of starting his own business, and what did I think? So many of today’s graduates feel like they have to choose between “selling out” for corporate America or striking out on their own. My advice? Do both. Fashion oracle Pierre Cardin first honed his tailoring skills at the House of Dior before launching his eponymous label, and Alabama’s bridal sweetheart Heidi Elnora mastered her craft at children’s apparel titan Carter’s before founding her own atelier. New employees learn by osmosis and observation and can apply those lessons to their own future companies — and the name of a recognizable brand looks mighty good on a new graduate’s résumé.


One of the most important assets you, as a newly hired amateur, bring to your job is something that can often be in short supply: enthusiasm. Most employers are looking for passionate new colleagues. The word amateur has its roots in the Latin word for love, amo. That passion is key. Show up a little early. Stay a little late. Ask more experienced colleagues to lunch. Come to meetings with ideas. Prepare. Make a handout, if it suits you. This extra effort will get noticed. Zeal is the holy grail of the modern workplace.


The recipe for professional achievement is complex, but one habit of workplace success is simple: Over-deliver on assignments. Do what is asked of you and then some, even if you haven’t yet gotten the job. For example, prepare for networking meetings as though you’re interviewing for an actual job, because good employers are always hiring. Always. When aspiring art director and recent graduate Jessica Walsh approached a renowned designer for professional advice, she treated the encounter like an audition, and despite her youth — she was just 23 at the time — her assertiveness and well-curated portfolio convinced the firm to offer her a job on the spot. Two years later, her name was on the masthead.


New graduates can feel besieged by the working world: the competitiveness, the need for results, the demand that you come to work even on days with beautiful weather. You will be asked to complete tasks that test your limits — and the stakes are far higher now because of a strange phenomenon known as “rent.” In these moments, remember that your own past successes bolster you through present challenges. Remember that your boss and everyone in HR want you to flourish. Why? Because they hired you, and they don’t like being wrong. My colleague, a former head of casting at CBS, recently reminded me of this truth. Casting directors want every actor to be right for the role, she explained. Who wants to audition 100 more actors? Thus it is with bosses. Aside from the occasional carnivorous colleague, your new team wants you to flourish. Remember that in tough times.


Soon after graduation, you’ll start receiving email invitations to alumni receptions. Go. Contrary to popular belief, these are usually not fundraising events. Forge a strong network in your new city. Older alumni have a soft spot for you, trust me. They want to help. Let them.

This spring, as you parade across stages, remember that there’s a reason they call it Commencement. This occasion marks a time of beginning. You already possess the strengths to flourish in the workplace. So iron your pants, tuck in your shirt and jump in with both feet. All of us are rooting for you.


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