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Great Career Advice from Commencement Addresses

By Marty Nemko

This is the time of year when, at every college, an eminent person dispenses words of wisdom to an often bored graduating class.

It seems the older I get, though, the less boring such speeches become. This week, I actually sought some out. I read a dozen from a collection of outstanding ones archived at Here, from my two favorites, are excerpts I believe offer wise counsel for your worklife:

“For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something…Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life…Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” Steve Jobs, CEO, Apple Computer, at Commencement, Stanford University, 2005

“People often ask me how I, an American Jew, have been able operate in theArab/Muslim world for 20 years, and my answer to them is always the same. The secret is to be a good listener. It has never failed me. You can get away with really disagreeing with people as long as you show them the respect of really listening to what they have to say and taking it into account when and if it makes sense. Indeed, the most important part of listening is that it is a sign of respect. It's not just what you hear by listening that is important. It is what you say by listening that is important…

“I only converted to Microsoft Word when I started my latest book a year ago and that is because Xywrite, the stone-age writing program I have been using since the 1980s, just couldn't interface anymore with my new laptop. I am not a Luddite, per se, but I am a deliberately late adopter. I prefer to keep my tools simple, so I focus as much of my energy on the listening, writing and problem solving -- not on the gadgets. That is also why if I had one fervent wish it would be that every modem sold in America would come with a warning label from the Surgeon General, and that warning would simply say: ‘Judgment Not Included.’…

“Always remember, there is a difference between skepticism and cynicism. ….Skepticism is about asking questions, being dubious, being wary, not being gullible, but always being open to being persuaded of a new fact or angle. Cynicism is about already having the answers -- or thinking you do -- answers about a person or an event. The skeptic says, ‘I don't think that's true; I'm going to check it out.’ The cynic says: ‘I know that's not true. It couldn't be. I'm going to slam him.’

“Your parents love you more than you will ever know. So if you take one lesson away from this talk, take this one: Call your Mama, regularly. And your Papa. You will always be glad you did.”

Thomas Friedman, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist, and author of The World is Flat, at Commencement, Williams College, 2005.

I must admit that I’ve always wanted to give a commencement address. Alas, no one has ever asked. But here’s the essence of what I’d say to a group of new graduates:

Money is a false god. Beyond a bare middle class living, study after study shows that people with more money are no happier.

Status is a false god. Across my 2,500 career coaching clients and the friends and acquaintances I’ve made in my 56 years on this earth, I’ve found that there are as many unhappy, empty-feeling lawyers and executives as plumbers and janitors.

Ethical productivity is a true God. Whether it’s teaching or dishwashing, nursing or directing, the production of worthy products and services matters. There is no better enhancer of society, no better anti-depressant, no softer pillow than good work.

Oh, and there’s one other true God: love. At and outside of work, suffuse every action with love. That too enhances the world and yourself.

I can offer you no better advice than that: do good work and love.

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