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Special Reports

Lessons to Carry Forward from Commencement

Robin Landa

When Ashley graduated from Kean University with a major in graphic design, she told me that one of the most useful courses she took outside of her major was a course in personal finance. Understanding personal finance affords better long-term financial prospects; a solid financial future relies on wise investments and planning for retirement.

Looking back, an undergraduate course in personal finance would have served me well. I made too many investment mistakes to talk about (lest I weep); I didn’t know anything about investing wisely when I first took random advice about investing in the stock market. But I did know something about personal ethics because during my graduate studies I read French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre’s work and focused on “existence precedes essence.”

For those graduating as well as for CEOs and elected officials, there is much to be gleaned from commencement speeches that often offer portraits of leaders that are remarkable within a society that still prefers newly-minted graduates to make wise decisions despite not being explicitly taught to do so. Some commencement speeches offer questionable advice without a caveat, such as, “Find what you love to do.” Telling graduates to follow their passions doesn’t necessarily equate to earning a living wage or long-term growth as an individual. Understanding key aspects of adulthood, career fulfillment, employment, and leadership undoubtedly would aid navigating life, industry, careers, and leadership.

Having sat through thirty graduation ceremonies as a professor plus my own, my cap and gown have had a good workout; and, I’ve been privy to wisdom from esteemed keynote speakers. Here’s some solid advice as well as some, well, shall we say, less plausible.

Put it out in the universe and you’ll get it. Nonsense. Perhaps if you say something out loud you’ll in some way be more likely to follow through but the universe is not going to do anything on your behalf to help you achieve your goals. That’s on you.

Vote in every election. Voting is every citizen’s primary voice in a democracy. An alarming number of citizens do not vote. And while presidential or other national elections usually get a significant voter turnout, local elections are typically decided by a much smaller group of voters.

Obtain multiple perspectives. Hearing multiple perspectives allows you to look at a situation, an idea or an event from the viewpoints of people who are different from you, who have had different experiences. That shift in perspective adds a fuller dimension to your thinking and problem solving. We each have our unique worldview shaped by our experiences, our communities, families, and education–the lens through which we see the world and ourselves in it. Gillian Ku, professor of Organizational Behavior, and chair, Organizational Behavior Faculty, London Business School, defines perspective taking as “the active cognitive process of imagining the world from another’s vantage point.”

Understand how the world really works. And I don’t mean science. I’m referring to power and the fundamental dynamics that govern survival, hegemony, capitalism, and prosperity.

Learn something about how the world actually works. Now I mean science. Everyone should possess a field guide to our planet. When we’re children we ask important questions concerning our observations of the world, curiosity, and desire to skillfully navigate our environments, for instance, Why does the Earth rotate? Why do people catch a cold? Or, What are the scientific uses of bumblebee vomit? (OK, that one might be a bit arcane but you get the idea). Whether you’re a CEO or a senator, understanding environmental science and the life sciences might help you honor our planet.

Be skeptical. When I was an undergraduate, one of the most important lessons I learned was from a radical professor who relished skepticism. He advised us to “be crap detectors.” That was the first time I heard the phrase, which I imagine he borrowed from Ernest Hemingway, as told to Robert Manning in an interview in The Atlantic, “Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him. It also should have a manual drill and a crank handle in case the machine breaks down.

Merit wins. Not necessarily. Excellence is important. Perhaps equally important is having a sponsor, someone who has your back and advocates for you.

Make good choices. At some point in your career as a leader or even a novice, you might be asked or pressured to break the rules or violate your code of conduct. Whether you take Jamie Lee Curtis’ improvised line and advice, “Make good choices,” from the 2003 film Freaky Friday, or you read Jean Paul Sartre’s work, Existentialism is a Humanism, you realize that we have to make choices. Sartre writes, “existence precedes essence.” What does Sarte mean by this tenet? Humans first exist and only afterwards define themselves. Some people might believe you are what you eat, however, when it comes to leadership, you are what you do.

Written by Robin Landa.
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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - Special Reports - Lessons to Carry Forward from Commencement
Robin Landa
Robin Landa is a distinguished professor at Kean University and a globally recognized ideation expert. She is a well-known creativity expert and a best-selling author of books on ideation, creativity, branding, advertising, and design. She has won numerous awards and The Carnegie Foundation counts her among the “Great Teachers of Our Time.”

She is the author of twenty-five books including Graphic Design Solutions, 6th ed. (Cengage, 2019), Strategic Creativity: A Business Field Guide to Advertising, Branding, and Design (Routledge, 2022) and The New Art of Ideas: Unlock Your Creative Potential (Berrett-Koehler, 2022). Now she is co-authoring a book for Columbia University Press titled Shareworthy: Storytelling for Advertising.

Robin Landa is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with her through LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website CLICK HERE.