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Thursday, July 19, 2018

Killer Career Advice for College Graduates

School Work vs Career Work

Imagine leaping out of bed excited to get to work. You look forward to the next day every time you go to sleep. You love the work you do and your coworkers. You don’t feel trapped in your job but you’re also confident that should you want to change jobs, you could. You control your career. It doesn’t control you.

Few students bound out of bed for classes or fight to work with specific professors, even if they enjoy their studies. Work doesn’t have to look like the drudgery of classes. School work and career work rarely look the same. The real world is messier and less-straightforward than a classroom. In fact, the habits and ways of thinking you picked up in school often run counter to what you need to be successful. Your degree is a credential and little more.

If you want to be successful in your career, get your dream job, and navigate the workplace confidently, you’ll want to start by humbling yourself to what you can learn. This guide will help you identify the best opportunities to find work you love, learn from masters, and build a career that grows with you.

Forget About Finding Your Passion

Finding a job you love is not about “following your passion.” Your passion is not a Platonic form waiting for you to discover it. Passion is something that extends from competent and meaningful work, not the other way around. If you focus on finding your passion, you’ll float from job to job frustrated that you have yet to find it.

Instead, focus on becoming good at something valuable. From there, you discover that your passions change with you. Building a portfolio of competent and completed projects opens more doors for you than following an abstract passion. As a recent graduate, your opportunity cost is low. You have the unique ability to invest your time in becoming better than most of your peers in valuable and complex tasks. Don’t let an unfocused culture of finding “passion” distract you.

How to Get Hired at a Great Company

Remember, your degree is just a credential. It’s a basic signal of your ability to sit in a classroom for a few years. The reality is that as more people acquire this credential, it becomes less meaningful for employers. You need to signal more to employers than the basic credential.

Start by looking for opportunities to create value inside of companies. Put together value propositions — ways that you can create value right now for them — instead of sending in resumes. Look for unique opportunities to meet with founders, hiring managers, and CEOs. And highlight the experience you have that shows you are competent, driven, and willing to do what it takes to create value for them. Even if that’s unconventional experience.

How to Set Up Your Career for Growth

Early in your career, when your overhead is low and you have decades to work, it’s better to focus on high-growth opportunities than high-prestige or high-pay.

Focus on sending out value propositions and setting up meetings with companies that will let you grow with them, not those that will make you stick in the same role for years.

Understand that nominal pay is not the same as the value. Taking a lower-paying job might bring you more long-term value if it means you can grow, learn new skills, and build an influential network while at the company.

Make sure you know how businesses and profits work. You have to provide more value to the company than you take out in a paycheck. Here’s a video that explains why your boss might get paid more than you.

Focus on competence. Under-promise and over-deliver. Businesses hire based on the value you bring them and the reality is that few recent grads can justify that value.

How to Network with Influential Decision-Makers

Despite what your college admissions marketers told you, your network from college won’t really help you land that first job. You need to network with people older and more experienced than you who can vouch for you.

Don’t focus on networking events. Like career fairs, they’re full of other people looking for jobs and salespeople. Instead, do great work for your employer and ask them for introductions. You can absorb your employer’s network while simultaneously going out of your way to meet and learn from decision-makers elsewhere.

Once you do meet people, don’t leave it there. Follow up. Give them reason to remember you. Take responsibility for the relationship and don’t feel like just because you met somebody they will immediately refer you to new opportunities. Relationship-building takes time.

How to Get Started Now

Don’t wait until you feel “ready.” You never do. Everything most grads are taught about building a career is so backwards that you’ll feel weird when you get started on this process. While your peers are chugging out resumes, you want to do outreach to decision-makers and research for value-propositions. When they take the highest-paying job they can get, remember to focus on value, not just pay.

If you’re still in college and reading this, one of the best ways to prepare yourself for a fruitful career is to start your own business. Entrepreneurship is hard and not for everybody. But learning firsthand how businesses work and how business owners make hiring decisions will teach you more than any business class ever will.

  • Zak Slayback is a venture capital and private equity professional and a small business owner. He is the author of How to Get Ahead (McGraw-Hill, 2019) and wrote the foreword to John Taylor Gatto's Dumbing Us Down (New Society Publishers, 2017). He lives in the United States and writes at He is a Eugene S. Thorpe Fellow and FEE alum.