It’s college commencement season! And it’s a weird one. A year ago, graduates had to cope with shuttered campuses and canceled ceremonies while Zoomed-in speakers tried to cheer them up about a pandemic and a cratering economy. Now, the class of 2021 will be celebrating in half-empty football stadiums while commencement speakers try to convince them to stop day-trading Bitcoin and join the sharpest economic recovery in history. The world moves fast.
In the spirit of our whiplashed moment, and drawing from the immense wisdom of my fifteen-odd years of adulthood, here’s a little advice to get you through those early, uncertain years of working life.
Go into the office. I’ve been working mostly from home since 2018, and it has some real advantages. But I also know how much I learned about life during those early years in an office. The working world is a crash course in adulting, one of the few places for young people to meet mortgage-holding, child-rearing, pants-wearing grownups up close. My bosses taught me how to buy clothes that fit, how to save for retirement, and how to create healthy boundaries between work and home. None of that translates easily on a screen. Even if you’re starting your career from a laptop balanced on an IKEA dresser, find ways to meet your colleagues.
Be social to stay employed. The pandemic accelerated the robot takeover of the economy, and it’s not just factory jobs any more. Artificial intelligence is coming for paralegals and IT analysts, too. The way to cope with this shift isn’t to become more machine-like in your technical prowess, but to become more human-like in your creativity and emotional intelligence. “People who are skilled at creating social and emotional experiences will be better positioned for the future than people whose primary skill is making or doing things efficiently,” writes Kevin Roose, tech reporter for The New York Times, in his book FutureProof. “When machines can do many of the basic, repetitive functions of our jobs as well or better than we can, what’s left for us will be the social and emotional parts.” So learn to deal with humans. They aren’t going away.
Be social because it’s good for you. Not that anyone needs reminding after a year of canceled events and social distancing, but relationships = health and happiness. UNC researchers found in 2016 that strong social networks (the IRL kind, not the online kind) have a bigger impact on health than diet and exercise. By all means, work hard. But job titles impress people only for a moment; being a generous friend, neighbor, and life partner will endear you forever.
Be open to being wrong. My daughter’s favorite song right now is Taylor Swift’s cardigan, which includes the line, “When you are young, they assume you know nothing.” This is both funny and poignant when belted out by a four-year-old strapped into a car seat. Older people do sometimes underestimate young people, and that is frustrating to toddlers and recent graduates alike. But don’t mistake grown-up caution for a lack of conviction. Other people may care about the same things you do and still come to different conclusions about how to change the world. Learn from them at least as much as you rage against them.
Guard your attention. Some of the smartest and best-paid people in our economy spend their time designing wildly profitable distractions. In that world, being able to focus your mind is a superpower. Learn to ignore your phone — that is, develop the discipline of really deciding where your brain will spend its energy instead of letting other people decide for you — and you’re golden.
Contributing columnist Eric Johnson lives in Chapel Hill. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.