We are at the time of year when commencement speakers are delivering charges to our college graduates that they hope will help them go forth and accomplish. Some will describe golden possibilities to repair the world. Others might be more pragmatic and offer practical advice about getting started. Whether it is inspirational or instructional guidance, I believe the three most important words we can say to our college graduate is, “Embrace the zigzag.”
Why a sloppy zigzag when a drive on the autobahn can be so much more exciting? My advice comes from the opportunity I had to help twenty-somethings tell their stories. They wrote their piece to find their peace, and the process taught us some “simple” wants of this group, which include:
—Contributing to the world in some meaningful way: Paychecks were important but not sufficient. Aligning meaning and compensation was difficult.
—Applying their creativity and their personal stamp: Baby-boomers like me grew up following “marching orders,” but this group prefers to personalize their work in the context of an organization’s mission.
—Learning by doing: Formal education is not valued anywhere near as highly as real-life experience (importance rating 6.6 versus 9.2 on a scale of 1 to 10 in “At My Pace” survey).
—Building their brand: In a world where the ladder is rickety, and the gig economy is thriving, our newly minted graduates know that they need to build their brand to be self-reliant.
—Staying healthy: The gap between expectations and reality is chock full of rejection, anxiety and depression. Some of this is on us who protected our kids from experiencing rejection and instead fed them a bowl of promises and potential.
So why embrace the zigzag? Because it is the best way to figure things out incrementally. Zigzags tamp down expectations and allow us to experience a range of views, a few steps at a time. We get smarter along the way. A few stories of twenty-something zigzagging illustrate my point.
Meet Daniel, who is a software engineer by day and fantasy writer by night. Since graduating college, he has worked at a company that leads the market in online shopping (guess who), then went to a start-up that focused on environmental sustainability, and is now thinking that he can’t possibly write the book inside him if he doesn’t quit work and hole up.
Daniel wrote a few chapters awhile back and made them accessible to an online community. Before he knew it, he had 1,000 readers, which is a great beginning for building an author’s platform.
However, because life is never simple, he is weighing an offer to work at an elite technology company (think “search engine”) or stay home, write his novel and offer an after-school coding camp to ease finances. Someway, somehow, Daniel will zag his way into writing while keeping his finances and software skills on solid ground.
Then there is Kimberly, who as an attorney left law so that she could advocate for deeply held causes such as access to health care and sex worker rights. In her 20s, she came out and describes herself as a “consensually non-monogamous, polyamorous person living with my family — my two life partners.”
Beyond how she defines her personal life, Kimberly’s zigzag has included being a tight-rope-walker instructor, a yoga teacher and a forensic anthropologist. This fall, she will be entering a doctoral program in sociology to investigate the ways that law interacts with alternative family structures — the perfect symbiosis of her beliefs and training. At 32, Kimberly has found passion and peace and looks forward to making her mark and advancing her beliefs with a legal basis.
Finally, meet Carla. When I first met Carla she was harkening to a moment in her life where she was a recent college graduate with no money and piecemeal work. Living in Chicago and trying to make ends meet, she nannied, worked as a temp at Groupon, fought depression, and spent her free time just walking, because “walking is free.”
Carla decided she needed a new beginning and moved to Colorado, whose great outdoors was appealing. The transition was difficult. She began at a well-established company where she felt pigeonholed and dissatisfied. Eventually she moved to a start-up where she developed project management and other technical skills and co-started a philanthropy program. For the first time in her life, she can envision a career path and is happy that, “I no longer feel anxious or overwhelmed.”
My take-away from these stories and others is that embracing the zigzag is the best advice we can offer. Even if the process means skinned knees and bruised egos, the experiences will serve our college graduates well. They will learn in the way that works for them best, and just like Daniel, Kimberly and Carla, their zigzag will bring them to a place of belonging.