College graduates should heed ‘Real World 101’ advice

Mickey Kim

A college education is one of life’s most costly investments. Graduation season is a good time to update a past column discussing what you should do after you’ve earned your diploma to protect and enhance the return on your investment.

Bryan Burkhart is a founder of H. Bloom, an innovative subscription floral service. Seventeen years ago, he was a freshly minted graduate of Wharton, one of the top business programs in the world.

In his column in The New York Times, “A ‘Not-to-Do’ List for Recent College Graduates,” he mused about a commencement speech he might give.

“Congratulations. You’ve just earned your college degree. I’m glad to be here as the first person to speak to you as college graduates. I have good news and bad news. First, the bad news: Despite your newly obtained degree, you don’t know anything. You have no skills. If you are really lucky, you will soon land your first job. You are not entitled to that job. Quite the contrary, there are many people just like you who would love to have that job. If you get it, you should be grateful for your good fortune and make the most of it.

“It will be hard work, sometimes backbreaking work, and you may feel that the work is beneath you. But the reality is that nothing is beneath you, because you don’t know anything – yet.

“Now, the good news: You live in the United States of America, the greatest country in the world. If you work really, really hard, if you are happy to start at the bottom and work your way up, if you are ready to grind and scratch and claw, and if you catch a bit of luck, anything is possible. Anybody can be anything in America. You just have to be willing to learn fast from those around you and work really hard.”

When he started his first job at software vendor Trilogy, he knew it all and was ready to conquer the world. In retrospect, he was “terribly naïve” and “totally whiffed” on his golden opportunity.

Here’s what he wished he knew then:

  • “I knew nothing.” In spite of graduating from a top school, there is a “vast difference between studying business and doing business.”
  • “I didn’t know that I didn’t know anything.” This is actually worse than not knowing anything.
  • “I missed the opportunity to learn.” Trilogy had a number of extraordinary folks who went on to accomplish amazing things. Because he believed he already knew everything, he missed the chance to learn from them.
  • “I thought I was entitled to something.” Since it was Trilogy’s good fortune to have him, he was entitled to be a strategic thinker and leave the daily blocking and tackling to others.
  • “I was confused about the meaning of hard work.” If he was in the office and thinking big thoughts, he must have been working hard. In reality, he should have been doing the heavy lifting of calling potential customers, learning about their problems and presenting Trilogy’s solutions.

My friends run Elwood Staffing, a $1B revenue business headquartered in Columbus, Indiana. We’d add:

  • Work is not an extension of college. Your degree/academic pedigree may get you in the door, but your GSD (Get Stuff Done) will be the key to your success.
  • Be low maintenance.
  • If you’re not 10 minutes early, you’re late.
  • Casual is great, but if you want to be taken seriously, dress and act professionally.
  • Make your boss look good and focus on how you can generate more value than you receive in compensation.

Keep these thoughts in mind as you embark on your career. They will help you protect and enhance the return on the investment of time and money you and your parents have made in your college education.