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The Graduation Speech I Never Heard

I normally try to avoid blogging about career advice. The topic is already so widely covered across the internet, and most of the articles are all very similar. However, over the past year I have been approached by a multitude of recent graduates requesting a blog devoted to this topic. I also felt humbled that anyone wanted career advice from me.

I still very much consider myself a student of the 21st century and am just desperately trying to keep up with everything that has been happening over the past decade. I am by no means an expert on anything I am about to say. I decided to name this blog “the graduation speech I never heard” because I wanted to come clean and say all the things most people who are asked to give career advice would never want to admit publicly.

I graduated from high school in 2003. At that time most people I knew still had some form of dial-up internet access. I was still a year away from owning my first cellular phone and was regularly burning CD mixes for myself and friends. My sister and I used to enjoy playing Nintendo 64 video games, and I was regularly backing up my word processing documents on 3.5 inch floppy discs. It still blows my mind just how much the world has changed over the past 13 years.

If we go back 13 years before that to the year 1990, most people had never even heard of the Internet or World Wide Web. Personal computers were just starting to be adopted for office work, although most people were still using typewriters. If you wanted to buy music, you likely jumped in your car and went to a record store at a nearby mall. Compact discs still felt like the newest and greatest thing, but at that time those stores were still predominantly still selling LP records and cassette tapes (at least they were where I lived).

Imagine what I might have said in 1990 (when I was 5 years old) if someone had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Just think about all the people today who are in their 40s and 50s working for industries that did not even exist when they were in high school or college. What might they have said if someone had asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up?

The first fundamental truth about the 21st century is that nothing will look the same in ten years as it does right now. The pace at which old jobs are replaced by new demands and technologies is only going to keep accelerating. For a long time many believed that only “low skill” factory work was in danger of being replaced by robots. However, that was 20th century thinking. In the 21st century computer software has begun replacing lots of “high skill” jobs as well.

Computers have already begun replacing humans for a great deal of accounting, legal, and administrative work at large firms. They are great at putting together stock portfolios, making weather forecasts, and diagnosing illness. They are teaching students, regulating nuclear reactors, and even driving cars. A 2013 study ( by two Oxford professors claimed that about 47% of all US employment is at high risk of being “computerized” within the next two decades!

Does this mean that we will all become unemployed? Most mainstream economists and economic historians seem to say no. At the turn of the 20th century it was believed by many in the business world that machines would likely replace the need for human workers by about the middle of the century, and we would all be out of work. This of course never happened. Unlike humans, machines are not compensated for their time and do not make purchases. Consumption is what provides the incentives to create things in an economy, and machines do not consume.

As machines replace humans in one line of work, human labor is freed up so it can be utilized to do something else. The mechanization of labor in the early 20th century ultimately created opportunities for brand new industries to exist. We likely never would have had Hollywood, Broadway, radio, television, or a great deal of what was once viewed as superfluous entertainment had we never automated our factories. Likewise, computerization has already started creating whole new industries for human labor that never before existed.

This is not to imply that the whole process will be a seamless transition. Economic transitions can be highly disruptive, particularly at the individual level. A given worker might have been able to command high wages in the old economy but cannot find their place as easily in the new one. Likewise, someone who may not have been able to earn much money in the old economy might be able to command higher wages in the new one.

In the 1700s one could command a good standard of living by having a strong back and being able to work well with their hands. There was not much of a place in that world for intellectual labor. Thanks to machines and industrialization, it is quite possible today to earn a very high standard of living without being able to lift much more than your fingers.

So what exactly should young people (and musicians in particular) be doing to prepare themselves to succeed in the 21st century?

1) Don’t view school/college as training for a specific occupation. When you graduate you will be looking for gainful employment that can provide for your entire adult existence. What jobs that currently exist will still exist 40, 20, 10, or even 5 years years from now? If they do still exist, the demands of those jobs might be entirely different than they are today. Develop and nurture a broad base of related areas of interest. Don’t ever assume that something you are studying in school will be useless to your future. In fact, assume the opposite. What you learn in school is not nearly as important as the process you develop for learning it. That process can be carried with you into other areas of your life after you graduate.

2) Don’t expect all your employment to come from one place. This is especially true for musicians. Most of us grew up in households where one or more parents had a full time 40-hour a week job with benefits. These types of jobs are leftover vestige from the heyday of organized labor and are quickly disappearing in the 21st century. Many of us now will depend on a variety of income sources to sustain ourselves. Even those of us lucky enough to find full time employment with benefits may benefit from various degrees of secondary employment. It is more than possible to survive and even prosper from having multiple little jobs and/or sources of income.

3) Don’t expect to work the same job for the rest of your life. Even if you absolutely love your current job, circumstances are always changing. The more comfortable and settled into a job you become, the more vulnerable you become to changes in the economy. Like we do with our technology, always keep yourself up-to-date. Never stop learning and finding new ways to grow. It is tempting to think that school is over once you graduate. School is never over. In a world economy that never stops changing, we must be continuously educating and re-educating ourselves. Always consider where you are at the moment and in what direction you are heading when making major life and career decisions.

4) Learn everything you can about these newer technologies. There is far more to owning computers, tablets, and smartphones than just sending messages, browsing the web, doing online shopping, and arguing about politics on social media. Figure out how to make high quality recordings of yourself on your own. Learn a computer language. Build a website to support your business needs. Design a database to simplify your income tax records.

5) Don’t live beyond your means. Young careers are very delicate. Keep that credit card debt down. Don’t go out to eat all the time. Sometimes you are better off with the cheaper apartment. Everything you will want to finance in your future (buying a home, starting a family, creating a business, etc.) depends on savings. The sooner you pay off your debts and start saving the better off you will be in the long run. This is especially true today when so many of us have been forced to over-invest in student loans to afford college tuition. It’s not always glamorous to live frugally, but if you do it when you are young you might not need to be so frugal as you get older.

6) Learn how to effectively communicate with people in person. So many of us have become reliant on email, text messaging, and other forms of asymmetric social interaction (asymmetric in this case means we can respond to one another at different times). These tools have revolutionized the world in so many amazing ways. However, what they offer in convenience they lose in depth. It has never been easier to ignore someone than to just delete an email or text message. It is so much more difficult to ignore someone in person. Strong face-to-face communication skills are usually the critical factor when it comes to getting the things you want from people.

7) Always be sincere in everything you say, write, think or do. Authenticity has in many ways become the defining value of the 21st century. We are increasingly demanding it in everything from our food and clothing to our celebrities and politicians. Don’t waste any mental energy thinking you can manipulate your way to success. Don’t pad your resume. Instead, become the type of person in whom others will confide.

8) Make sure the type of career you are seeking is compatible with the type of life you want to have. Do you see yourself living in a city apartment? Do you want a house out in the suburbs? Do you want to have a family? Do you want to set down roots somewhere? Do you want to be a world traveler? How much time do you like spending at home? How comfortable are you with risk and uncertainty? How much money is necessary to finance all of this? We often spend too much time trying to figure out how to get a particular job and not nearly enough time figuring out all that we would like to invite into our lives. A career is only one aspect of living, and life is so short. Don’t waste any time pursuing a life someone else wants for you.

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