This is an interesting time in the lives of young professionals: those who will soon or have just graduated from college, or those who have been working for a few years.

We are basically starting anew….completely anew.  To date, most of the challenges we have faced have been similar to each other: class, homework, mastery of extracurricular activities, part-time jobs.  But for most of us, graduation from school and involves undertaking life from an entirely new paradigm: one of complete and total responsiblity for our actions, void of a safety net to fall back on.

Of the many times it was possible to graduate and move into the working world, I feel like now is one of the more difficult times.  My father recently told me that when he graduated from the University of Delaware in the early 1970s, he was able to get an accounting job with basically no effort.  And that was true of many of his friends as well.

I think that many people are quite fearful of the future, especially given a general economic downturn that makes finding jobs difficult.  Many people are worried that they have yet to find a job, even though school finishes in three months (this article is being written on Feb. 18 2012).  They worry about paying bills, about having money to start a family, and about having enough money for retirement.

But I think, lost in the fear of the economic downturn and finding a job, there are actually a tremendous number of opportunities for young professionals right now.  The thing is, the opportunities are just not in the places that we are used to looking.  And they are not necessarily the kinds of opportunities that they would want to take anyway.

The problem is the lens through which most young professionals see the situation.  Young professionals think:

  • Their options are limited because they don’t have much experience.
  • There is a set career path for the major I graduated with, and I had best not diverge from it.
  • It’s not a good idea to take risks.  They don’t have money to fall back on, and I need to start building a solid foundation for themsleves now, not later.
  • See their lack of knowlege as a disadvantage that means they will not be taken seriously.

The problem is that the “path most travelled” is a tough road to be on: a path towards having your destiny and well-being controlled by forces beyond your control.  A path of (in a large number of cases) general dissatisfaction with work, salary, and the way you are required to spend your time.  I hear older people complain about this all of the time, and looking forward to retirement that is five years away.  I think, “why would they let this happen to themselves?”  But when you think about it: they were once young men and women as well.  Surely they were wary of living a life of monotony, and longed with vigor and passion for an illustrious and relevant future.  So what happened?

I don’t want to sit here and come across like I am making sweeping criticisms of people.  But I can’t shake the thought that this proves two things: 1.) the “road most travelled” is usually unsatisfying, even if it does provide security (which is still a dubious claim), and that 2.) these people must have cast the die that holds them when they were us.

So we already know the “path most travelled” and where it will lead us.  If we believe that we should not follow that same path, and want to live a life of relevance, success and interesting undertakings, what can we do now to start making that a reality?

A note- I’m not here to convince you to seek the road less travelled.  I think, even at this young of an age, many people are set in their ways of doing things, and would be wholly uncomfortable living like this.  Maybe some people have been brought up without ever considering the notions I mention, and are fine continuing on as they are.  My opinion on “whether or not you should live the strenuous life” is exactly like what I wrote on the home page of this blog: what I write here is for smart, movitated people that have the inclination that they want to do something interesting and marvelous with their life or career, but don’t really know how to make that a reality; not to try to convince everyone and anyone to see things my way.  It’s a call you have to make.  But if you do decide to make it, what I write here can help.

So how do we overcome the weaknesses mentioned above?  Actually, we don’t, at least not in the short term.  Waiting to try until you have more experience to try, except that only by trying will you gain experience, is circular reasoning.  The idea is to shift our paradigm, and take our “weaknesses” and make them our strengths.  After all, what else can we do?  We’re broke, we just got out of school, and there’s really not a lot we know.  Why not use these things to our advantage?

Rather than seeing the weaknesses list above as true weaknesses, I strongly believe that young professionals seeking to live the strenuous life:

  • See that they have many options because they don’t have much experience.
  • Only follow the “career path” for a major if it’s what they actually want to do, and do something else if not.
  • Realize that this is the best time in our lives to take risks.
  • Believe that lack of knowledge–when coupled with an insatiable ambition and drive to learn–means we will be taken seriously, and that  people will actually be more prone to help us as a result.

Young professionals have many options because they don’t have much experience.

You might think that, because you haven’t had a job before (or you’ve only worked in your current job for a few years), that you are unqualified to seek a different job.  That might be true in some circumstances, especially if your goal is to work up the experience ladder in a particular profession.  But in another sense, you actually have more options, because you probably haven’t specialized beyond use to other fields.  Since I don’t seem to others like I would only be good at doing one type of work, I get the chance to try work across a large number of fields.  If you want to try to do something interesting, why not try it now?

Only follow a “career path” for a major if it’s what they want to do.

Do you remember when you were choosing a major upon entering college?  I remember the first semester very distinctively.  We had a one-credit hour class where, each week, a professor from each of the Business School’s majors and concentrations came in to talk about that major.  The speeches usually consisted of the major’s attributes (classes, topics learned, etc.), the expected salary upon graduation, and certain expected career paths.  For example, in public accounting, it is usually said that newly minted graduates will work in public accounting for a number of years, and then transition into an industry job.

Fast forward four years.  You find that, unsurprisingly, most people have done exactly those things the professors talked about in class freshman year.  Accounting majors go into public accounting.  Supply chain majors go into logistics at a huge corporation.

But is that really the way it works out in the future?  Do we really all follow the “paths” that school sets for us?  I think it’s always interesting to talk to successful people in their forties and fifties.  I can’t count the number of times I have talked to people whose professional career or their business are not within the specific auspices of their major.  So, even though they may have received an MBA from a prestigious business school, they’re not all working in management consulting at a huge consulting firm.

Recognizing that now, don’t you have to wonder if following the “traditional” career path, simply because a school says that it is so, is inherently the right thing to do?  I’m not saying it’s not the right thing to do.  The point is that we are usually not challenged to think about ways that our degrees can be used aside from the traditional path.  What if you don’t want to take the traditional path?  There’s no encouragement for that. You just have to figure it out on your own.

I would say a much more relevant way to use your degree is to recognize and respect it for the background information it actually gives you, and realize that most of what you actually “learn” will be from the School of Hard Knocks, not from your university.  So, if there is something else that you are more passionate about–such as working with start ups or managing a nonprofit organization–why believe that because your major was communications, you can’t do that?  I know plenty of people with nonbusiness majors that work in start ups and in business.

I would say, though: be careful.  Realize that going off the beaten path, especially with career choices, takes a true and honest dedication.  Using this as an excuse to goof off or take it easy isn’t the point I am trying to make.  Rather, the point is: if you have a true passion for something, and think you can monetize it in a way that meets your needs, why not pursue that passion, rather than just “believing” that your major restricts you?  If anything, your major might actually help you, if it is from a unique background compared to most people who work in the field.

Realize that this is the best time in life to take risks.

I believe that, in the first few years after graduation
(for younger individuals), there is almost no reason whatsoever to vie for a stable, secure and easy life.  This is your golden opportunity: you’re right out of school.  You’re used to living without much.  Just imagine the relative difficulty of starting a business or doing something interesting in ten or fifteen years, when you have a family, children, and a mortgage.  It is likely that, compared to other times in your life, failure will have the lowest repercussions at this age.  If your risk turns out poorly, you still have plenty of time to rebuild.  If it succeeds, you accomplished what you wanted, and a lot earlier than most people do.

Believe that a lack of knowledge–when coupled with an insatiable ambition and a drive to learn–means that they will be taking seriously, and that others will be more willing to help them as a result.

One thing that has amazed me is just how excited older professionals are to talk to me.  Whenever I cold call or cold e-mail someone I want to meet, I always mention that I am a student.  If I had already graduated, I would mention that I am a young professional just getting started in my career.  And it works like a charm.  I’ve met lots of interesting leaders and business executives by doing this.

It’s easy to assume they’d just be annoyed that some young, uninformed whippersnapper is wasting their time with dumb questions.  But my experience proves to the contrary.

I’ve found that older people have an indelible desire to instruct those that are just getting started.  I don’t know why: maybe they just like talking about themselves!  Maybe they see you and remember themselves from twenty years ago.  Whatever the reason…take advantage of it!  I’m sure this does not work as well in ten years, when you are one of their competitors.

In closing: to young professionals who seek to lead a strenuous, interesting life, there is no time like the present to start.  The articles I write on this blog should be directly of use to you as you plan your endeavors.