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Unusual Advice for New Grads

If you’re a recent high school or college graduate, there’s no shortage of advice for you online or in print. Articles on this annual topic often focus on money management or getting the most out of a new career. 

This kind of information is helpful, but I’d like to pass along some unconventional guidance I believe is well worth considering.

One important observation comes from the commencement speaker who told my daughter’s high school graduating class that it’s okay if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. Some graduates have a very clear career path ahead of them. But if you’re not sure what you want to do, pick something you think might be interesting, and just try it. You might like it; you might not. But at this stage in your life, finding out what you don’t want to do could be just as valuable as deciding what you do want to do.

The other recommendation comes from a client whose children were getting old enough that the subject of college was starting to come up. When I asked what the eldest child wanted to study, it wasn't surprising that there was no clear answer—high school graduation was still several years off.

I don’t really know why I asked the student’s mom what she hoped her child would major in, but I'm very glad I did. She shared an insight I’d never heard summed up before. She said her children should study a subject they love: they’ll be likelier to get excellent grades. If they happened to choose a major with a natural career path, like engineering or accountancy, fine. But whatever they might study, the student should learn skills that are needed to be successful in life:

  • How to express themselves clearly when speaking, and in writing

  • How to walk into a room of strangers and have mature conversations with everyone they speak with. She noted four specific behaviors to make these encounters successful

    • Introducing themselves

    • Giving a firm handshake (a skill both men and women should have)

    • Looking their conversational partner in the eye

    • Truly listening—not just waiting for their turn to speak


These skills, she said, will give a student a significant advantage in virtually any career. And observers of the future job market agree. Advancing technology and automation will continue to displace traditional jobs in many fields. Positions that require an irreplaceable human touch seem more likely to persist.

To my client who gave me kind permission to share her insights, thanks.

And to recent grads, congratulations on a job well done, and best of luck for the future. If you want to improve your odds of career success, consider spending some time on communication and interpersonal skills. And if you don’t know what to do with your life, try something. Anything.There’s value even in knowing what you don’t want to do.


—Ken Robinson