It is traditional to give graduates advice on careers and life when they graduate, but they need it more at the start of their senior year when they desperately hunt for jobs. Seniors in college are like canaries in the mineshaft, or lemmings on the march - whatever is hot is in. In 1999, they all wanted to become dot-com godzillionaires and retire when they are 30. Today they all want to run hedge funds and retire when they are 30. What they need is some perspective on how careers unfold and why they went to a liberal arts college in the first place.
Steve Jobs gave an insanely great commencement speech recently at Stanford. His essential point: you connect the dots in your career after the fact. Readiness is all. The journey is its own reward. Ok, easy for him to say. He had really big dots in his career. Yet his point remains valid: one should not go to college for a specific career but to be prepared with the twists and turns - and slings and arrows - of life. The liberal arts colleges used to say that a liberal arts education was good for 'character' without explaining why character was good for graduates. Well, for one thing, a person with character will appreciate that a career is more than making money, more than drudging through work in a Scrooge-like way, where the gurney is its own reward.
Still, such generic advice is hopelessly useless when trying to decide what to do next. Worse, for most indecisive grads, there is always law school - and all too late they will learn why Dicken's entitled his law novel Bleak House. Life is full of choices, and often we do not recognize the dramatic importance of a decision until long afterwards when it is too late to rewind history.
The advice normally given to grads by well-intentioned parents and relatives is also usually hopelessly dated. In The Graduate, young Benjamin was urged to go into "Plastics," which by the late '60s was already past its peak of fun and excitement, if it ever even had any. Whereas the kids are canaries, the parents are mules, and stubbornly push their kids into career paths that THEIR parents had urged on them, laying on the kids a burden to do what they 'should' do which is so obviously flawed that by the time the kids escape the trap their parents have put them in, they are 30, married, and not about to retire for another 30 years of toil under the yoke of mature companies run by constipated bosses with legions of lawyers at their beck and call. And (not to make too much of lawyers) for kids who want to run the white-water rapids of fast-growing and exciting companies, remember that lawyers are like beavers - always building dams.
All is not lost. At each period of history, we can identify the great waves of change and opportunity that sweep like a flood across the landscape, and caught at the peak can be ridden to fun, fulfillment and funds with a career every bit as complex and rewarding as Steve's. Well, maybe not quite, but close enough for the rest of us. All we need to do is surf the great waves of our times and let the ripples carry us to specific destinations.
The wave to surf is the Internet. The first Internet Bubble has come and gone, but the Internet Wave continues with its tsunamic force across all sectors of the globe. We are now well beyond the only Internet opportunities lying with the techno-savvy, and are now into a broadening floodplain of opportunity across all of human endeavor. Let's focus on the three big ones:
* The Flat World. Great book by Tom Friedman. Written in the breezy style that captures the popular imagination. Point is that the Internet allows us to lower costs across the supply chain, advantaging all aspects of production and opening up globalization in a fashion never before as easy or rapid. What is any good company today without marketing from America, security engineers from Russia, programmers from India, hardware from China, design from Europe? This Globalization-By-Internet is a phenom that will continue for 50 years, with starts and stops along the way, and provides fabulous careers for anyone willing to go global. The travel benefits are pretty good, too.
* The Leveling of Information. While touched on by Tom Friedman, the essential truth was lost on him. The amount of information now available from Internet interactions is truly staggering. Advertising by demographics is rapidly giving away to advertising by feedback. No need to guess, let the responses from Internet interactions inform you. Self-organizing, emergent communities like MySpace or Skype are growing with dramatic speed and ease. Since much of what a business does is figure out which products to sell to which people, and making sure they hear about it, this direct feedback loop will become their lifeblood, the aorta of the marketing-media complex. A new professional layer is emerging to manage the data analysis and feedback systems, and on top of the geeks we will see new careers for marketing, sales, advertising, finance and all the rest to evolve to match the new ways of doing business. I suppose most grads given a chance would like to work for Google today (assuming those hedge fund spots are taken), and they are the fount of such information management for the marketing-media circulatory system. This wave is larger than Google; the marketing-media feedback phenom will infect all businesses and organizations as the Internet Wave crests.
* The Digital Economy. In the past, economic growth has been limited by some factor - land near a city; or energy to extract and manufacture products; or transport to markets to sell into. We are *finally* on the verge of a digital economy, where what is bought and sold is from the Net and remains on the Net. The bounds to such a world are no longer physical, but the limits of our imagination. Digital music is but the first step. Video, games, blogs, Flickr, and so forth will follow - and much more. It sometimes escapes us in a world where we hear Content is King that user-generated content and social interaction around it has always been a bigger marketplace - think phone calls as an example. People pay much more to yap to each other than they pay to consume entertainment. Email was the first killer app of the Internet. The Next Big Thing after the Internet will be Digital Media.
Surf's up, dude. Get in the right water. Catch the wave.