SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

May 21, 2013

Column: From Silicon Valley, advice for graduates

Tala Strauss
The Salem News

---- — For many college seniors these days, the thought of approaching graduation is burdened by fear of unemployment and lack of direction. This isn’t helped by the fact that almost every day someone asks what we’re doing next. As a graduating senior at a liberal arts college near Boston, my answer has been relatively vague so far. Panic and apathy jostle for the upper hand. But I want to avoid pessimism and denial — because the reality is that college ends, and something, no matter what, comes after it.

So for spring break I escaped New England’s stormy weather and flew across the country to sunny California. But I didn’t dig out my bathing suit and head to the beach. Instead, I packed a skirt and prepared myself for two days of interviews in Silicon Valley. I wasn’t going for job interviews. I was going to interview professionals — to find a clue to the future.

I asked five people for their advice to graduates. It turned out that one piece of advice I received I was already following: Don’t ask for jobs, ask to interview people.

Informational interviews can help expand a graduate’s network and give them insight into various careers. But people also told me it’s a myth that I ought to know what I’m going to do by the time I graduate. I won’t know what I’m supposed to do until I’m about 35, they said. And it’s also a myth that my major will determine my career path.

Whew! That was a relief to hear, since I’m a philosophy and political science double major. Sometimes I worry that I should have majored in something like business or journalism. What do you do with a philosophy major? But I’m not as worried now. There are far more options than there are majors.

Another concern I’ve had is my lack of professional experience. I assume that as a young person I don’t have much to offer future employers without the skills and knowledge that others have built over time. But the entrepreneurs I interviewed reminded me that I have something that older, more experienced people don’t have: time, energy, and freedom from responsibilities. I can stay late and work on projects when other people have to rush home and pick up kids from day care. And I can relocate without worrying about uprooting a family from its established community.

After my second informational interview, I met a friend for coffee. In an antiques store next door someone had written a quote on a chalkboard: “Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.” It was a good thought to dwell on while sipping a latte in a sophisticated part of the world where cleverness is highly valued. Sure, I am bewildered by the future. But the quote reminded me that cleverness has only so much to do with success.

None of the people I interviewed talked about how being smart got them where they are now. Instead, they talked about being curious about the world and wanting to learn as much as they could about it. They were not trying to succeed so they could feel good about themselves. They were humble. All of them expressed a desire to serve others through their work and to help fix what is broken in the world. They were willing to try and fail and try again because it wasn’t about them; it was about making the world a better place.

I hope to take the advice I got and learn as much as I can no matter where I go or what I end up doing. You can do good work in almost any job if you work hard and look for ways to learn and serve the world. And, happily for soon-to-be graduates like myself, you don’t have to know what that will look like straight out of college.

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Tala Strauss is a South African Canadian and a philosophy and political science double major at Gordon College.