College graduation: lofty commencement speeches are given, bright futures anticipated and, for some lucky college graduates, new jobs await. While commencement addresses may be inspiring, I wish someone would take the opportunity to deliver a more practical message to new college graduates who are about to enter the work force. It would go something like this:
“Congratulations. You’ve just earned your college degree. I’m glad to be here as the first person to speak to you as college graduates. I have good news and bad news. First, the bad news: Despite your newly obtained degree, you don’t know anything. You have no skills. If you are really lucky, you will soon land your first job. You are not entitled to that job. Quite the contrary, there are many people just like you who would love to have that job. If you get it, you should be grateful for your good fortune and make the most of it. It will be hard work, sometimes backbreaking work, and you may feel that the work is beneath you. But the reality is that nothing is beneath you, because you don’t know anything — yet.
Now, the good news: You live in the United States of America, the greatest country in the world. If you work really, really hard, if you are happy to start at the bottom and work your way up, if you are ready to grind and scratch and claw, and if you catch a bit of luck, anything is possible. Anybody can be anything in America. You just have to be willing to learn fast from those around you and work really hard.”
Unfortunately, I was not invited to deliver any commencement speeches this year. So I’m doing the next best thing and reflecting in this post on my first job. I hope that it can provide a bit of help and guidance.
I’ll start with a summary: I totally whiffed on my first job experience. When I graduated from college, I knew nothing, had no skills and was not owed anything. But that’s not how I felt at the time.
I had just graduated from the Wharton School, the country’s oldest undergraduate business school and one that consistently lands the top slot in college rankings. I studied entrepreneurial management and tried to drop out of school to start a business during the winter break of my junior year. (Thankfully, my parents forced me to stay in school.) I finished my studies early in my senior year and spent the remaining weeks waking up early to read The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and then using the rest of the day to consume voluminous amounts of coffee while devouring Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.” I was biding my time until I left academia to do what I thought I was meant to do: run a business.
Like all Wharton undergraduates, I interviewed with companies that came calling on campus: investment banks, strategy consulting firms and technology companies. At the time (I graduated in 1997), there was a company called Trilogy, based in Austin, Tex., that was getting a lot of press. Trilogy had been started by Joe Liemandt, who dropped out of Stanford to start an enterprise software company that was selling multimillion dollar software applications to big companies like Boeing, Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard. While the software seemed esoteric — who understands what product configuration software does and why another company would spend millions of dollars for it? — Joe’s success was tangible. He was on the covers of business magazines and was ranked as one of Fortune’s 40 richest under 40 in 2001. He was the type of entrepreneur from whom I could have learned a tremendous amount.
But I didn’t think there was anything I needed to learn.
I was recruited to Trilogy by Ajay Agarwal. Before joining Trilogy, Ajay had graduated from Stanford, then Harvard Business School and worked in strategy consulting at McKinsey & Company. Today, Ajay is a managing director at the venture capital firm Bain Capital Ventures. Ajay’s recruiting pitch was particularly compelling: come to Trilogy to work in an entrepreneurial environment with extremely smart people. The problem was that I believed I was ready to be the entrepreneur immediately.
Still, I accepted the job, and after a summer schedule meant to shed a wanderlust that I assume most college seniors have, I moved to Austin. I was paired with Jason Wesbecher, another Wharton undergraduate who had been working at Trilogy for about six months. (Today, Jason is the founder and chief executive of Handshakez in Austin.) Jason was the epitome of inherent intelligence, hard work and focus. He was driven to acquire customers for Trilogy, understanding that revenue was the lifeblood of a fast-growing start-up. At the time, I could not have been less impressed with that role.
I was ready to start a company. I felt it was my destiny to do so. It was what I had dreamed about since I was a child. In retrospect, I was terribly, utterly, naïve. Now, 16 years later, here are my reflections:
1. I knew nothing. Yes, it is true I studied business in college, and the college I went to is a good one (if you were to ask Donald Trump, it is without question the best). But there is a vast difference between studying business and doing business. Until I had actually done it, I knew nothing at all.
2. I didn’t know that I didn’t know anything. This is actually worse than not knowing anything. I thought that I had something to contribute. In fact, I thought that my presence at Trilogy was a real gift to the company. I was wrong.
3. I missed the opportunity to learn. Because I believed that I already knew everything, I missed the chance to learn from the incredibly smart people who did know something. Trilogy was an exceptionally good company at recruiting. It produced a Trilogy Mafia well before anyone talked about the Paypal Mafia. Former Trilogians have gone on to accomplish absolutely amazing things. And the people I had the chance to work with directly — Joe, Ajay, Jason and many others — were all truly extraordinary businessmen.
4. I thought I was entitled to something. Somehow, I arrived at Trilogy thinking that it was to their great benefit to have me as an employee. As a result, I thought I was entitled to the opportunity of doing something “strategic.” What I came to understand afterward was that many college graduates would have loved to have that job, and that it was my opportunity, but not my right, and certainly not something to take for granted.
5. I was confused about the meaning of hard work. I thought I should spend my time thinking big thoughts. I assumed that if I were in the office a lot, I must have been working hard. I didn’t know that I should have been doing what Jason was doing — the hard work of calling potential customers, learning about their problems and presenting our solutions. That was hard work and meaningful work. I didn’t realize it until after I had left.
My time at Trilogy was a missed opportunity. I realized it at the annual Trilogy Prom, where the entire company gathered at a luxurious location to celebrate the year’s success and to recognize extraordinary individual performance. Jason (deservedly) won a Trilogy Star Award based on his exceptional contribution to the company. As I watched him walk to the front of the room to accept his prize, I was of mixed emotion: proud of him but disappointed with myself. The experience proved to be a turning point.
After just over a year at the company, I decided to leave. Thankfully, I started to figure out what it took to achieve success. It was Jason’s focus and do-whatever-it-takes attitude that caused me to re-evaluate my own disposition. Once I did, I realized that I needed to start afresh. I looked for a small start-up where I could join on the ground floor. If I proved my mettle and the company grew, I might be able to take on more and more responsibility, learning essential skills to start my own company someday.
Originally Posted On: boss.blogs.nytimes.com By: BRYAN BURKHART
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