Career advice for recent graduates: Connect the dots of your own career backwards

I recently had the pleasure of sharing some of the insights I’ve learned throughout my working life with a group of AD2 students.


The night started with a panel discussion followed by small group discussions.

Two things stood out to me throughout the night. The first was how engaged, ambitious and willing to get down into the trenches to make a name for themselves everyone was. The second observation was how uncertain the job market they are entering is and how many of the jobs they went to school for have dramatically changed in the past four years.

This understandably makes some people anxious about all the unknowns surrounding their next move. But rather than worrying about the job market, I would argue this is one of the best times to be starting one’s career. In the past you would pick a path and spend your working life navigating that career until retirement without deviating, even if your interests changed.

Today it’s not unusual to find someone in the middle of their career identifying a job or industry they want to pursue, even if it means switching career paths and building on the skills they currently have to get there.

Here are some of the lessons and links to resources I shared with the group:

Career paths are no longer linear, so don’t focus on job titles

Figure out what an ideal job looks like to you, not the job description and not what others think you should do. Instead, think about what you want to actually be doing every single day and use that insight to select the jobs you apply to.

An entry-level position at a small agency is very different from an entry-level position at a larger company or startup. Figuring out what’s important to you is the first step to figuring out what to look for in the right position.  

What’s more important is understanding the culture you want to be a part of. Cool offices are great but the novelty will wear off quickly. The things that are going to benefit you the most in the long term will be the work you’ll be doing and the skills you’ll actually be learning. To illustrate this point, consider being an intern at a massive agency with lots of great clients but the only projects you get to work on are, well, getting or making coffee. On the other hand, you might find working at a smaller agency or startup isn’t as “cool” but it gives you the opportunity for hands-on learning in areas that will benefit you far into the future.

These books can give you a more in-depth understanding of the principles I find most valuable for beginning your career.

Be organized

I’m going to encourage you to take the 17 minutes needed to watch this TED Talk by David Allen to get an overview of the point I’m making here.

Being an amazing creative that’s unreliable is less valuable to a business than a reliable one coworkers can count on to get things done. Regardless of your career aspirations, reliability is one skill that will serve you extremely well.

To be clear, this is an ongoing process that requires time and energy to maintain, but looking back, it’s the single most valuable time investment I’ve made. As nerdy as it sounds it's also fun.

As I mentioned in the first step, the nature of work is changing so having a degree doesn’t guarantee success. Learning to learn provides a valuable tool for you to not only become better at the job you currently have but also to explore other interests.

Networking 2.0

Sometimes the people you want to connect with are busy and as we all know, grabbing a cup of coffee is more than coffee; there is travel time to the coffee shop, there is the time finding a place to sit, there is the conversation itself, then there is travel time back to the office and getting back into a groove. This can make connecting difficult for the people you’re trying to connect to and inefficient for you.

One thing that works really well as an alternative to traditional, in-person networking are video calls. Zoom and Google Hangouts are great tools for connecting. Someone might not have an hour to travel to meet you but 30 minutes between meetings are easier to find. So, reach out, request a video or conference call, come up with a few insights you’re hoping to gain, and include them as an agenda in the invite.

Bonus: Finding a mentor 2.0

Another way to think about finding a mentor is to focus on the outcome of the mentorship relationship. By doing so you open yourself up to learning opportunities outside of traditional mentor/mentee interactions. Don’t forget that you can have access to any number of leaders who share their insights on podcasts and YouTube. Here are a few I often recommend to students and recent graduates.

As an introvert

To the introverts I spoke with, don’t be discouraged, you have so much to offer. Reading Quiet by Susan Cain is a great first step in building your confidence.

When it comes to interviewing and promoting yourself as an introvert, I know it can be hard. Even the realtime nature of social media can be daunting at times. Sharing your ideas in writing on a blog or publishing platform like LinkedIn or Medium is a great workaround. Not only does it give you the time to organize your thoughts, it also gives you the space needed to share ideas that differentiate you from your peers.

Not sure what to write about? Check out Publishing on LinkedIn for College Students and Young Professionals on LinkedIn Learning.