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Lifehack Readers’ Advice for College Graduates

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Lifehack Readers’ Advice for College Graduates
Advice for College Grads

    Last week, I asked lifehack.org readers, “What advice would you offer to a recent college graduate entering your field?” The response was great, with a dozen readers offering excellent advice not just for their fields, but for college graduates faced with the prospect of building a life as well.

    My own advice follows the same pattern; although directed at future academics, it is applicable to anyone looking to enter almost any career: NETWORK!

    We like to imagine that in academia at least — the so-called “ivory tower”, somehow removed from the “real world” — ideas and their bearers are judged solely on merit. The truth couldn’t be further from the truth. Although merit plays a role, the fact is that good thinkers aren’t as rare as you’d think, and almost anyone with the drive and ability to make it through the grindhouse of graduate school is going to be about as able to do the idea-based part of any academic job as anyone else. That applies to teaching as well as research, grant-writing, administration, medicine, whatever academic field.

    So academics — and, I’d argue, everyone else — have to distinguish themselves on other grounds besides mere talent. There are plenty of brilliant people out there whose ideas are as good as lost to us because they never learned this lesson! Networking is an important part of the process of distinguishing yourself.

    I don’t mean just schmoozing at conferences, either. I mean a sustained effort to build relationships with other people in your field, both those already well-established and other up-and-comers like yourself. If I had it to do all over again, I would make an effort every year I was in school to write or email two or three of the luminaries in my field, expressing my admiration of their work and offering my own questions and critiques. I would ask to see drafts of upcoming work, promising to comment on their work. Or, I might discuss recent work that touches on their own. Anything to begin building a relationship with the people in my field I was working to model my own career after.

    I didn’t do that very well when I was in school, and I’ve paid a pretty heavy price for it as far as getting my career off to a solid start. What I did do well is create strong networks among my academic peers, creating a group-written website in anthropology and participating heavily in online forums and email lists. The people I’ve interacted with online became people I’ve worked with offline, collaborating on books and other projects, sharing ideas, and generally supporting each other in building our careers. We send each other job announcements, articles of note, and assignments we’ve had success with in our classes. And, of course, we’ve become friends, the most important thing.

    Networking was only one of the topics that lifehack.org readers mention in their response to this question. Among other things, they advise recent graduates to cultivate their own sense of curiosity, to keep learning, to spend some time to work out their goals, to jump into projects that advance those goals, to get and stay out of debt, and to seek out the work that is most fulfilling for them — even if it’s not the most financially rewarding. The advice they give is so good that it is hard for me to add anything meaningful to it, so for the most part, I’ll let them speak for themselves.

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    Sam Davidson suggests taking it easy for a while, planning out the next 4 years and seeing where life takes you and racking up some experience rather than trying to plot out your entire career all at once.

    Learn the practical things you didn’t learn in college. Find your passion. Work jobs that interest you. Discover yourself. Commit to four years of process, reflection and introspection so that you’ll be able to know what it is you want to do for the next chapter of your life. Chances are, that history or poly sci degree isn’t all that employable right now – but it will be if you combine with some unique experiences that allow you to discover what it is you want to focus on.

    Sangrail concurs, writing “Take the lowest paying job with the best job description and title, rather than the best paying job with the worst job title – where best also means ‘most interesting’.”

    Stepping into something easy and comfortable and ’short term’ can be *death*. If you’ve already done this though, remember that it’s not really death, you’re generally just stuck because of your own opinion, not other peoples, so go back trying to find a job related to what you *actually* want to be doing, and come up with a good reason as to why you were in a dead end job for so long (hint: focusing on other areas of your life, wanting some stability while doing *blah* personal projects, or even go to the extreme of pointing out the crazy overseas trips or Burning Man projects you did, as that will contrast with the idea of ‘dead end jobs’ or give the impression that you really were up to more).

    As audall writes, this may be the only time in a person’s life when they have few responsibilities and the luxury of doing practically anything:

    Obviously, you need to eat, have shelter, etc. But there are ways to obtain these things with less than you think. Get out and travel. Go ski bum in the alps. Go teach in Mongolia. Try a business idea. In your 20’s, you can do things and try things that won’t be as easy later down the road. You can “get away” with doing these things. You can even make them help you to stand out from all the other poor saps who will look exactly the same and have the same experiences. Most importantly, it’s likely that you will find these experiences to change you and shape your life far more than any entry level job ever could. That’s worth more than 5 years of entry level paychecks. We’re lucky to have the opportunities that we do, and they’re not as difficult to seize as many think. Get it.

    Dave also suggests new graduates develop and start working on their own project, creating a record of achievement to go to employers, clients, or funders with:

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    Accomplish something measurable in the first month no matter how small you may think it is. A good way to make a positive impression on your peers and (your boss) is to actually finish a job you started.

    Follow-through” is a great characteristic to be known for when you are first hired. Small projects executed without a hitch will lead to larger and more interesting projects.

    Quite a few of you had specific advice for people entering information technology careers, much of which applies easily to life outside of technical fields. For instance, Yellik tells recent grads to “always be curious”:

    This industry is always changing and the best people never want to stop learning things. They are always picking up new technologies, reading tech books and consuming RSS at a great rate. Even if they don’t have job responsibilities that require them to know stuff they are participating in open source projects in their areas of interest and blogging their experiences for all.

    Jason Johns puts it this way:

    “Be a Sponge!” Soak up as much knowledge from your peers and superiors as you can. Sure they may seem out-dated or fixed in their ways but there is a lot of experience and information that can be gleaned from the old-timers.

    He goes on to explain simply and clearly how to exercise your sponge-hood (and it doesn’t necessarily involve wearing square-shaped pants!):

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    • DO your research: make sure you’ve exhausted all of your resources before blindly asking a question.
    • DON’T spend so much time researching that you put yourself at risk of missing a deadline. With all of the search tools available today, if you can’t find the answer in an hour or so, ask someone.
    • DO have some guesses available. Let the person know you’ve thought about what you’re asking.
    • DO make the person feel like an expert. We love that sort of stuff.
    • DON’T ask the same question over and over. Take notes, make a FAQ for yourself that you can reference later.
    • DON’T forget to say thank you.

    Starting off is kind of rough, so you offered plenty of advice for young people on how to deal with their financial lives.

    Jtimberman writes:

    • Learn how to do a written monthly budget and do it every single month. This is your homework now and forever more.
    • Pay off your student loans and credit cards as fast as possible.
    • Don’t buy a car. Especially don’t borrow to buy a car. If you already did, SELL it, get a beater car that you can pay cash for and drive that.
    • Do not buy a house. Rent cheap like you did in college. Live frugal. Save a heap of cash so you have enough of a down payment that you either pay 100% down, or you have enough that your mortgage is no more than 25% of your take home pay on a 15 year FIXED rate loan. Find a mortgage company that will do MANUAL UNDERWRITING. Do not buy a house until you meet this criteria. Your friends will make fun of you, but they’re broke and house poor.
    • Live frugal. Likely you learned how to do this while going to college. This doesn’t mean you are a cheapskate and you can’t spend any money. It means you live within your means, you find bargains by shopping around and negotiating prices with vendors and you know the opportunity cost of your money.

    ChrisR, a college freshman, seconds the advice not to buy a house, writing:

    Move back home! Living expenses are difficult to shoulder on your own if you are also paying off college debt and just starting out your career. Why not get some support from your family?If it’s a viable option for you, by all means, move home long enough to start off your career and pay off your debt, start saving money and preparing for life. Those few years will give you an INCREDIBLE boost, and give you more freedom to explore opportunities you may not have been able to look into due to money issues beforehand.

    Jon advises:

    • Get and stay out of debt. Keep living mostly like a starving student until you pay off what you owe.
    • Don’t get too attached to your first jobs. Unfortunately you’ll probably have to change jobs at least twice in the first five years just to get to the right job title and salary.
    • Start saving money right away. Learn a bit about investing and don’t give away free money like a 401k matching program.

    And Jacki Hollywood Brown offers a piece of financial advice of special relevance to women:

    Ask yourself when (if) you will plan your family. Take that into consideration when planning your career. Women especially should take into consideration exit and re-entry strategies when career planning.

    Finally, Jens Poder offers a catch-all of good, solid tips:

    1. INTERPERSONAL SKILLS
      • Listening to the needs of other
      • Negotiating
      • Assertive Communication Skills
      • Guarding your integrity
    2. How you get along with colleagues will greatly influence your ability to achieve success. Building relationsships and trust is key to get things done in organizations. Key skills in this field is.

      When people trust and like you, you will get by better. But you have to be able to push your own agenda as well.

    3. LEARN ABOUT YOUR INDUSTRY
    4. When you arrive fresh from school, there’ll be much to learn. Find experienced people who can tell you about your company and it’s business. Perhaps find a mentor. Learn about the competition. And most important: Learn what creates VALUE for the customers.

    5. KEEP LEARNING NEW STUFF
      It’s great to learn new stuff all the time. New insights and ideas will emerge from the strangest sources. After a while you’ll need to renew yourself. Don’t be to critical about what to learn. A course in calligraphy can bring fresh insights to your business, as Steve Jobs demonstrated.

    A big “thank you” to everyone who took the time to comment over the last week! The responses this week were phenomenal, and I know you’ve touched more than a few college graduates (and soon-to-be grads) with your excellent advice.

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    8 Simple Ways to Be a Better Listener

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    8 Simple Ways to Be a Better Listener

    How would you feel if you were sharing a personal story and noticed that the person to whom you were speaking wasn’t really listening? You probably wouldn’t be too thrilled.

    Unfortunately, that is the case for many people. Most individuals are not good listeners. They are good pretenders. The thing is, true listening requires work—more work than people are willing to invest. Quality conversation is about “give and take.” Most people, however, want to just give—their words, that is. Being on the receiving end as the listener may seem boring, but it’s essential.

    When you are attending to someone and paying attention to what they’re saying, it’s a sign of caring and respect. The hitch is that attending requires an act of will, which sometimes goes against what our minds naturally do—roaming around aimlessly and thinking about whatnot, instead of listening—the greatest act of thoughtfulness.

    Without active listening, people often feel unheard and unacknowledged. That’s why it’s important for everyone to learn how to be a better listener.

    What Makes People Poor Listeners?

    Good listening skills can be learned, but first, let’s take a look at some of the things that you might be doing that makes you a poor listener.

    1. You Want to Talk to Yourself

    Well, who doesn’t? We all have something to say, right? But when you are looking at someone pretending to be listening while, all along, they’re mentally planning all the amazing things they’re going to say, it is a disservice to the speaker.

    Yes, maybe what the other person is saying is not the most exciting thing in the world. Still, they deserve to be heard. You always have the ability to steer the conversation in another direction by asking questions.

    It’s okay to want to talk. It’s normal, even. Keep in mind, however, that when your turn does come around, you’ll want someone to listen to you.

    2. You Disagree With What Is Being Said

    This is another thing that makes you an inadequate listener—hearing something with which you disagree with and immediately tuning out. Then, you lie in wait so you can tell the speaker how wrong they are. You’re eager to make your point and prove the speaker wrong. You think that once you speak your “truth,” others will know how mistaken the speaker is, thank you for setting them straight, and encourage you to elaborate on what you have to say. Dream on.

    Disagreeing with your speaker, however frustrating that might be, is no reason to tune them out and ready yourself to spew your staggering rebuttal. By listening, you might actually glean an interesting nugget of information that you were previously unaware of.

    3. You Are Doing Five Other Things While You’re “Listening”

    It is impossible to listen to someone while you’re texting, reading, playing Sudoku, etc. But people do it all the time—I know I have.

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    I’ve actually tried to balance my checkbook while pretending to listen to the person on the other line. It didn’t work. I had to keep asking, “what did you say?” I can only admit this now because I rarely do it anymore. With work, I’ve succeeded in becoming a better listener. It takes a great deal of concentration, but it’s certainly worth it.

    If you’re truly going to listen, then you must: listen! M. Scott Peck, M.D., in his book The Road Less Travel, says, “you cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” If you are too busy to actually listen, let the speaker know, and arrange for another time to talk. It’s simple as that!

    4. You Appoint Yourself as Judge

    While you’re “listening,” you decide that the speaker doesn’t know what they’re talking about. As the “expert,” you know more. So, what’s the point of even listening?

    To you, the only sound you hear once you decide they’re wrong is, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah!” But before you bang that gavel, just know you may not have all the necessary information. To do that, you’d have to really listen, wouldn’t you? Also, make sure you don’t judge someone by their accent, the way they sound, or the structure of their sentences.

    My dad is nearly 91. His English is sometimes a little broken and hard to understand. People wrongly assume that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about—they’re quite mistaken. My dad is a highly intelligent man who has English as his second language. He knows what he’s saying and understands the language perfectly.

    Keep that in mind when listening to a foreigner, or someone who perhaps has a difficult time putting their thoughts into words.

    Now, you know some of the things that make for an inferior listener. If none of the items above resonate with you, great! You’re a better listener than most.

    How To Be a Better Listener

    For conversation’s sake, though, let’s just say that maybe you need some work in the listening department, and after reading this article, you make the decision to improve. What, then, are some of the things you need to do to make that happen? How can you be a better listener?

    1. Pay Attention

    A good listener is attentive. They’re not looking at their watch, phone, or thinking about their dinner plans. They’re focused and paying attention to what the other person is saying. This is called active listening.

    According to Skills You Need, “active listening involves listening with all senses. As well as giving full attention to the speaker, it is important that the ‘active listener’ is also ‘seen’ to be listening—otherwise, the speaker may conclude that what they are talking about is uninteresting to the listener.”[1]

    As I mentioned, it’s normal for the mind to wander. We’re human, after all. But a good listener will rein those thoughts back in as soon as they notice their attention waning.

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    I want to note here that you can also “listen” to bodily cues. You can assume that if someone keeps looking at their watch or over their shoulder, their focus isn’t on the conversation. The key is to just pay attention.

    2. Use Positive Body Language

    You can infer a lot from a person’s body language. Are they interested, bored, or anxious?

    A good listener’s body language is open. They lean forward and express curiosity in what is being said. Their facial expression is either smiling, showing concern, conveying empathy, etc. They’re letting the speaker know that they’re being heard.

    People say things for a reason—they want some type of feedback. For example, you tell your spouse, “I had a really rough day!” and your husband continues to check his newsfeed while nodding his head. Not a good response.

    But what if your husband were to look up with questioning eyes, put his phone down, and say, “Oh, no. What happened?” How would feel, then? The answer is obvious.

    According to Alan Gurney,[2]

    “An active listener pays full attention to the speaker and ensures they understand the information being delivered. You can’t be distracted by an incoming call or a Facebook status update. You have to be present and in the moment.

    Body language is an important tool to ensure you do this. The correct body language makes you a better active listener and therefore more ‘open’ and receptive to what the speaker is saying. At the same time, it indicates that you are listening to them.”

    3. Avoid Interrupting the Speaker

    I am certain you wouldn’t want to be in the middle of a sentence only to see the other person holding up a finger or their mouth open, ready to step into your unfinished verbiage. It’s rude and causes anxiety. You would, more than likely, feel a need to rush what you’re saying just to finish your sentence.

    Interrupting is a sign of disrespect. It is essentially saying, “what I have to say is much more important than what you’re saying.” When you interrupt the speaker, they feel frustrated, hurried, and unimportant.

    Interrupting a speaker to agree, disagree, argue, etc., causes the speaker to lose track of what they are saying. It’s extremely frustrating. Whatever you have to say can wait until the other person is done.

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    Be polite and wait your turn!

    4. Ask Questions

    Asking questions is one of the best ways to show you’re interested. If someone is telling you about their ski trip to Mammoth, don’t respond with, “that’s nice.” That would show a lack of interest and disrespect. Instead, you can ask, “how long have you been skiing?” “Did you find it difficult to learn?” “What was your favorite part of the trip?” etc. The person will think highly of you and consider you a great conversationalist just by you asking a few questions.

    5. Just Listen

    This may seem counterintuitive. When you’re conversing with someone, it’s usually back and forth. On occasion, all that is required of you is to listen, smile, or nod your head, and your speaker will feel like they’re really being heard and understood.

    I once sat with a client for 45 minutes without saying a word. She came into my office in distress. I had her sit down, and then she started crying softly. I sat with her—that’s all I did. At the end of the session, she stood, told me she felt much better, and then left.

    I have to admit that 45 minutes without saying a word was tough. But she didn’t need me to say anything. She needed a safe space in which she could emote without interruption, judgment, or me trying to “fix” something.

    6. Remember and Follow Up

    Part of being a great listener is remembering what the speaker has said to you, then following up with them.

    For example, in a recent conversation you had with your co-worker Jacob, he told you that his wife had gotten a promotion and that they were contemplating moving to New York. The next time you run into Jacob, you may want to say, “Hey, Jacob! Whatever happened with your wife’s promotion?” At this point, Jacob will know you really heard what he said and that you’re interested to see how things turned out. What a gift!

    According to new research, “people who ask questions, particularly follow-up questions, may become better managers, land better jobs, and even win second dates.”[3]

    It’s so simple to show you care. Just remember a few facts and follow up on them. If you do this regularly, you will make more friends.

    7. Keep Confidential Information Confidential

    If you really want to be a better listener, listen with care. If what you’re hearing is confidential, keep it that way, no matter how tempting it might be to tell someone else, especially if you have friends in common. Being a good listener means being trustworthy and sensitive with shared information.

    Whatever is told to you in confidence is not to be revealed. Assure your speaker that their information is safe with you. They will feel relieved that they have someone with whom they can share their burden without fear of it getting out.

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    Keeping someone’s confidence helps to deepen your relationship. Also, “one of the most important elements of confidentiality is that it helps to build and develop trust. It potentially allows for the free flow of information between the client and worker and acknowledges that a client’s personal life and all the issues and problems that they have belong to them.”[4]

    Be like a therapist: listen and withhold judgment.

    NOTE: I must add here that while therapists keep everything in a session confidential, there are exceptions:

    1. If the client may be an immediate danger to himself or others.
    2. If the client is endangering a population that cannot protect itself, such as in the case of a child or elder abuse.

    8. Maintain Eye Contact

    When someone is talking, they are usually saying something they consider meaningful. They don’t want their listener reading a text, looking at their fingernails, or bending down to pet a pooch on the street. A speaker wants all eyes on them. It lets them know that what they’re saying has value.

    Eye contact is very powerful. It can relay many things without anything being said. Currently, it’s more important than ever with the Covid-19 Pandemic. People can’t see your whole face, but they can definitely read your eyes.

    By eye contact, I don’t mean a hard, creepy stare—just a gaze in the speaker’s direction will do. Make it a point the next time you’re in a conversation to maintain eye contact with your speaker. Avoid the temptation to look anywhere but at their face. I know it’s not easy, especially if you’re not interested in what they’re talking about. But as I said, you can redirect the conversation in a different direction or just let the person know you’ve got to get going.

    Final Thoughts

    Listening attentively will add to your connection with anyone in your life. Now, more than ever, when people are so disconnected due to smartphones and social media, listening skills are critical.

    You can build better, more honest, and deeper relationships by simply being there, paying attention, and asking questions that make the speaker feel like what they have to say matters.

    And isn’t that a great goal? To make people feel as if they matter? So, go out and start honing those listening skills. You’ve got two great ears. Now use them!

    More Tips on How to Be a Better Listener

    Featured photo credit: Joshua Rodriguez via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Skills You Need: Active Listening
    [2] Filtered: Body language for active listening
    [3] Forbes: People Will Like You More If You Start Asking Follow-up Questions
    [4] TAFE NSW Sydney eLearning Moodle: Confidentiality

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