Bad Girl, Good Business

Caps & Gowns: Everyone’s Graduating

Reading Time: 4 minutes

We’re in the midst of graduation season. 

Facebook is filled with videos of commencement speeches and happy families on campuses (and at nursery schools and high schools too).

I was rummaging through a giant box o’ memorabilia this weekend and came across a hoarder’s delight of artifacts from all my school years and graduations…signed yearbooks, final papers and exams, reports cards and transcripts, and prom photos. I also found all the boxes I took with me when I left jobs, old resumes, and even my original portfolio of clippings when I embarked on my very first job search.

We all go through passages from childhood to adulthood…from grade to grade and school to school…from boss to boss…and some of us are lucky enough to become our own bosses. (I also found my ancient client files and print samples, neatly organized in folders and binders — long before we had Google Docs and the cloud.) Yikes!

As I reflected on my own graduations, I realized that many of us go through similar experiences. Our adult graduations do not involve caps and gowns, but they have many things in common with the rites of passage of our early years.

As I looked back on each box of memorabilia, I reflected on how the things I learned came into play in later years.

  • The Start of Survival and Social Skills. When we go from elementary (grade) school to middle school, we must learn to navigate in-between strange new classrooms and deal with a wide range of teachers. We (hopefully) learn to get along with various personality types and, even if we were teacher’s pet at 12, we may find ourselves adrift in a sea of new faces. For those of us who went to urban schools, it was our first exposure to true diversity. Homeroom and shop class were melting pots of academic superstars, brooding creative types, and young criminals. I learned how to react when I was shaken-down for quarters and which bathrooms to avoid. We discovered the opposite sex too, and began to learn to flirt, pine, and withstand heartache and drama.
  • The Caste System and Clubs Begin to Rule.  The theater kids, the artists, the jocks, the student government leaders and the geniuses all seemed to find a place in high school. We played to our strengths, experimented, misbehaved, and pushed limits. Electives were sparingly permitted, and we got a taste of freedom of choice. We learned to drive and to fall in and out of love. (I left high school early to take an internship…the sitting at a desk thing was starting to feel old even back then…a sign of things to come.)
  • Freedom!! College was a true tipping point back then for many of us. Our parents didn’t take us to campus and make our beds. I was simply left at the airport with a trunk. I’m not complaining. It was a great experience. I learned to navigate in a new state (and sometimes an altered state). We chose most of our own classes and made our own (good and bad) decisions. Some of us were fortunate enough to meet and interact with people from all over the world. We weren’t in Kansas anymore (except for those kids who actually went to college in Kansas).
  • Caps Were Thrown in the Air and Souls Were Thrown Adrift. Watching my two daughters graduate college a few years ago and talking to interns who moved from academia to the “real world,” I was reminded of what an exhilarating and terrifying time this can be. After years of waiting for the homework and structure to end, kids are faced with seemingly unlimited decisions. The job market was awful when I graduated and, despite my very respectable grades and accolades from professors, I had to take a grunt job for $130/week, rent my own apartment, eat dinners at happy hour, and battle cockroaches and mice. But I was not alone. My peers were all there too (except for the “greed is good” guys who went into investment banking…and we all know what happened to that industry.) Today’s graduates have a different mindset and expectations. Many of them don’t mind living at home or taking time off to travel. Entrepreneurship is an option too. But that step from dorm life to “adult life” is a big one, no matter what job path one chooses.
  • Promotions, Downsizings, Job Hopping, Office Politics, Teachers’ Pets, Dunces, and Class Clowns. As we all learn to navigate the working world, we learned new skills and new lessons. The kids we knew in high school just got bigger. Like middle and high school, the “teachers” changed — sometimes without any notice. Instead of turning papers in by deadline, we learned to rock PowerPoint, kiss ass at times, work and play well with others, and appease the schoolyard bully. We all got graded. (As I was emptying out my boxes, I found my annual performance reviews and 360 feedback…what was I planning to do with them? I know not! But they were fun and insightful to read.)

And then I “dropped out” of corporate life. Or perhaps I just graduated. I started my own business almost 13 years ago and re-lived all those phases of learning all over again — except for Drivers Ed. During the recession, I suffered failing grades. Of course there was some boy/girl drama along the way. The opposite sex thing is still a challenge. But I digress…

If this were a commencement speech, here’s what I would say:

  • Be nice to everyone. Even the seemingly weird kids. (I was one of them once.)
  • Do your homework (especially math).
  • Knowing how to write well is always an asset.
  • Treat your “teachers” with respect. Think of every person you meet as a teacher.
  • Get to sleep at a decent hour.
  • Don’t spend all your time in the library. You’ll miss the fun.
  • Raise your hand — but only when you have something intelligent to say or need to ask a provocative question.
  • Think for yourself. The cool kids aren’t always the smart ones.
  • Avoid the scary bathroom.
  • Don’t ever be afraid to take hard classes and sign-up for lots of “electives.” You’ll need all kinds of new skills in the brave new world we live in.
  • You can always switch majors. And minors.
  • You never really graduate…we just keep turning those metaphorical tassels around and throwing those caps up in the air. You may never have to rent a gown again, but you’re never really done with school.

Happy graduation season…this year and every year for the rest of your life!



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