Ten things we forget to tell graduates

I just attended my 16th graduation ceremony (twice as a student myself, and 14 times as a proud member of staff). As I listened to the usual speeches, I realized that, as inspiring as they are, there is so much that we don’t say. So here are my top ten things that we often forget to tell graduates. Keep reading, because number 10 is the big one.

1. The number is less important than the stuff
How many times have you thought “I just really want to get my 2:1 or a GPA above 3.0”? With all the pressure to get a “good degree” and find employment, it’s not surprising that everyone has got fixated on the numbers. The problem comes when this focus on your marks obscures the view of what you have learned. Forget the number for a minute. What do you know now, that you didn’t know when you started your degree? How do you think and behave differently? The knowledge, skills, and understanding that you now have will be far more important in the long run than what arbitrary number you did or didn’t hit.

2. You know more than you think but less than you need to
As lecturers, we remember the first year students that wandered in to our classes, looking scared, stressed, and/or hungover. The difference between those students and those I have just seen graduate is huge, even if you don’t recognise it. You have a specialist knowledge that many others can only dream of, and have shown that you have the commitment to achieve your goals. The flip side of that is that you have so much more to find out, and often from people that you may not consider. Education is far from the only source of knowledge, and as you progress in your careers, you will realize the importance of the skills and insight of people with different experiences to you. Never underestimate how much you can contribute or how much you can still learn.

3. Everyone is blagging it. Which means it’s not really blagging it.
For years I felt like a jumped-up student who was faking it as a lecturer. I worried that someone would find out that I wasn’t as good as they thought. I realized, though, that most people felt the same way. There’s even a name for it – Imposter Syndrome. The problem is, you are always aware of the things you haven’t done or don’t know; with everyone else, you only see what they choose to share. So you see their best side, and your worst side, and assume that you’re not as good as them. Thinking about that reassured me for a long time. More recently though, I realised something even better. If everyone is blagging it, then it’s not blagging it at all. It’s just doing your best, focusing on your strengths, and mitigating your weaknesses as well as you can. We can all do that.

4. You are not meant to have your shit together, but it’s time to be a fully functioning adult.
Whatever anyone tells you, it’s entirely normal not to know what you want to do with your life when you graduate. Only a lucky few students will know exactly what they’re going to do next. Now’s the time to experiment, take risks, and figure it out. However, I also want to remind you that you’re not a kid. Avoiding doing the washing up, because you know your mum will do it, is not cute any more (it wasn’t that cute when we were kids either, but we got away with it). Whenever I seek praise at home for completing some household chore, my partner says “congratulations, you’re nearly a fully functioning adult”! It’s so true. You’re an independent person now, whether or not you’ve found a job or your heart’s desire. Do your own housework, be reliable in your commitments, and if you can’t afford it, don’t rely on others to buy it for you. If that’s really patronizing because you already do all those things, congratulations, you’re a fully functioning adult!

5. You won’t see most of your fellow students ever again.
You won’t. I’m sorry. You’ll see random updates pop up on social media, some of which will make you smile and others will make you want to block them. Mostly you will get on with your life and your cohort will blur into a warm memory of a nice bunch of people that you once knew. There will be a special few though, who have connected with you in a way that transcends the university boundaries. They are a core part of who you are and you will move through the next stages of your lives together even if you do completely different things. You’ll find yourself talking about houses, and pensions, and careers, and marriage, and divorce, and pregnancy, and somehow you will still laugh at all the same crap that you used to. It doesn’t matter that you won’t see most people again, as long as you keep the important ones forever.

6. You will probably break up with your partner.
Yeah. Sorry again. You might be the exception – I know one or two of those – but most likely you will break up with them. I’m not saying this to be horrible, but to remind you to think about this when you make decisions. I, and many of my friends, made choices about where we wanted to live and what we wanted to do based at least partly on the partner in our lives at the time. If they’re right for you, you’ll make it work whatever you end up doing, so you can pursue your dreams alongside them. If they’re not right, they shouldn’t be influencing a future that they won’t be involved in. Don’t be selfish, but be honest with yourself about what you would be doing if you weren’t with them. Don’t give up too much.

7. It’s not about wanting it the most.
This one drives me bonkers. Whether it’s the X Factor, or a high powered career, so many people say “you’ve just got to want it more than anyone else”. It’s not true. Wanting it is an internal process. It’s in your head. No one cares that you want it. They need to know how hard you are prepared to work to make it happen and whether you’re any good at it. Instead of wanting it more, make yourself better than anyone else. Seek out every learning opportunity, practice, risk failure, keep going. Don’t want it. Do it. I recommend reading Cal Newport’s “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” for inspiration on this point.

8. Do listen to people who tell you that you can’t do it.
If you’re ever told, “don’t listen to your critics” or “JK Rowling was rejected loads of times before she was accepted”, ignore them. DO listen to your critics. Listen, evaluate what they’re saying, and judge whether it has a shred of accuracy to it. Think about whether they are someone whose opinion you value. Ask others what they think of the opinion. If you realize they’re just being trolls, THEN ignore them. If not, work to improve the weaknesses they identify, and try to understand why they aren’t appreciating the strengths that you see. I don’t know JK Rowling but you can guarantee that the version of Harry Potter that was rejected from the first publisher was not the same version that was published in the end. I’m afraid there will also have been other people that were rejected many times because they simply weren’t good enough. That’s OK too. Sometimes your critics are telling you something you need to hear, so that you can refocus on different strengths. Listen, evaluate, and learn.

9. Whatever you choose to do, you are swapping your life for it. And if you don’t choose, you are still swapping your life for it.
It’s so hard to decide what you want to do with your life, particularly when there isn’t exactly a flood of job opportunities. Then you throw into the mix some amazingly persuasive marketing from major employers, and suddenly you start to believe that a graduate trainee scheme is what you’ve always dreamed of. Maybe it is, and if so, fair play to you. But I once heard some great advice that, when making decisions, we should think of what we want to have in our obituary, not what we want on our CV. Will you care that you did this work in thirty years time? If you haven’t found your dream job yet, what can you do in the meantime that you’ll be proud of some day? Randy Pausch reminds us that you can always earn more money but you will never get back the time you spend on anything. Be careful what you swap your life for.

10. Your degree was never for you.
This is the ultimate lie that we tell graduates and society as a whole. We tell you that by doing a degree, you will learn knowledge and skills that will make you employable, give you better prospects, and a higher salary, and that you’ll have an amazing time while you do it. And that’s all true. So what’s the lie? We fail to tell you that degrees aren’t just for you. They’re not just about helping YOU to have a better life. Your degree is for everyone. Everything you have learned has given you the capacity to make this world a better place. You have learned to think critically, to apply knowledge to problems, to communicate your ideas, and to understand complex information. You have learned subject specific knowledge and a whole swathe of transferable skills. You have also learned that small actions can add up to big effects. You are the graduate that the world needs; what are you going to do to make a difference?

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