What sets successful students apart? And not success during school, but what is it that makes students successful after they graduate?
As I watch students graduate with advanced degrees, and try to build careers with them, there is something that fascinates me about the process.
Why is it that some excel? Some will have no problem sailing into an amazing career, they will have lots of offers, and they will earn a great salary to sustain them.
Others, will struggle for months and years, never really finding direction or “success” ( by this I mean success on their standards, not on outside observers.)
The differences between these two groups isn’t easy to spot. While some might assume that it simply boils down to a chosen field of study or a powerful, pre-existing social network, I haven’t found this to be true.
People from all walks of life succeed in building great careers. And people from all walks of life fail and struggle.
So, taking inspiration from Charles Covey’s book, I want to ask, what is the difference between effective grads and those who struggle to build a life with their degree?
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I tell the story in my book about two grads. They’re loosely based on most students I meet.
Each of these two grads has an internal voice.
One of them tells themselves, “I can’t succeed. I did the wrong degree, and nobody wants to hire me.” The other one says, “I know I can succeed. I’ve figured out hard stuff before, and I’m going to find a career I love, even if I have to talk to everyone in this city.
Which of these grads do you think are most successful? It shouldn’t be a huge surprise to find that the second one is. Every time. I watch them.
Now, there are people talking about the law of attraction and positive energy. I don’t put much stock in that. But I do put a lot of stock in attitude. It’s everything. And if you can convince yourself that you’re worth it, and that you’ll have an amazing future no matter what, you will. I know it.
Pro Tip: You don’t fall into a good attitude. You cultivate it. Write some affirmations every morning. Meditate. Leave notes for yourself on your mirror telling you that you can do it, or ask friends to remind you periodically. Whatever works for you, your attitude is something that can grow and change.
Confidence is a tricky beast. I am all too aware that, writing this is a white man, I’ve got a bunch of privileges that not everybody has, so let’s put that on the table.
But the fact remains. The more confidence you can build, the more it will affect your career. Confidence looks like a lot of different things, but there is no denying that the world rewards it.
- The confidence to speak out.
- The confidence to volunteer to do the presentation.
- The confidence to ask for a raise or promotion.
- The confidence to make the cold call.
- The confidence to hit “Publish” on social media.
No matter who you are, or what your identity, studies show that we all need a little more of this. There have been books written with advice for different people on generating confidence, for example, The Confidence Code, which is directed towards women in the workplace.
Find ways to build your confidence. One of the best ways that I know it’s through positive affirmations, which I use every day to build mine. But figure out what works for you.
How do you define leadership? There are a lot of cheesy sayings, and some corny motivational posters too (like the one above).
But the one quote that stands out to me is from personal finance expert, Dave Ramsey. He defines leadership in this way: “Leaders make decisions.”
Leaders make decisions.
I don’t really know any better way to put it. Because, whether it was in a school project or running projects for work, I realized that people hate to make decisions.
Why is this? Because nobody likes to get the blame if things go bad. People also don’t want to be too pushy. Some of us even hate making decisions in our personal life, afraid that committing to something will eliminate other options.
And so, we don’t. We waffle.
Let me tell you what happens in every single group presentation in an undergrad class. The prof creates the group. They tell them that they have to do a presentation on X thing. And in the first two minutes of the group, when none of you know each other and you stand there awkwardly staring, one of you will finally speak up and say, “Ok, so here is where maybe we could start.”
That person is usually the leader.
If you watch the group dynamics, people will often look to that person for their opinion.
Who knows why that person speaks up?
- They might have great ideas and know it.
- They might be uncomfortable with silence.
- Maybe they are, like me, an oldest child me who has a psychological need to step up and take responsibility.
It doesn’t much matter.
The world rewards those people every time.
They do well at work. They get promotions.
If you want to be a highly successful student and grad, do what you need to become that person sometimes (not necessarily all the time).
When Lindy Ledohowski left a tenure-track, English professor job, she didn’t know what was going to come next.
When she told me her story, she told me how she went to every neighborhood function, every store opening, and started knocking on doors. She told people that she was looking for consulting work, and eventually, she built a consulting income. She now runs an ed-tech startup, EssayJack, and you can see/read my interview with her here.
While we might attribute Lindy’s success to confidence, which certainly played a part, I want to point to something else.
When I meet successful grads, the universal common denominator is that they have had to put themselves out there into the world. The world can be cruel, they risk rejection, and at times they will work jobs that don’t fit them perfectly in order to get some experience.
When I meet these people 10 years after they graduate, they’re almost universally remarkably successful.
But it takes tremendous humility to put yourself out into the world, exposing yourself to potential ridicule and rejection.
Hell, it takes courage!
I meet many people who aren’t willing to do it. They are too proud to face the embarrassment of not knowing something or having to pay their dues. And, not surprisingly, their career suffers for it.
A lot of this is tied to personality. Some people have an easy time putting themselves out there, while others suffer crippling anxiety.
I think the only answer is, find ways to put yourself out there that you are comfortable with. If you are not comfortable cold calling people, try to take the step of reaching out to people in your existing network to ask for advice. Start small. But do it!
5. Growth Mindset
When should you stop learning?
And where does learning happen? Does it have to be in an ivy-covered building?
There’s nothing worse than a student who believes that the only place they can learn is in college or university. I’ve even had grad students tell me, “I don’t love it here and I don’t get paid well, but I get to research. Where else can I do that?”
The answer–Tons of places! There’s lots of research out there.
AND, Lots of workplaces have learning involved.
In between my Master’s and PhD, I walked onto a highway construction site and asked for a job. I realized that there was a ton of learning there too. Provincial traffic regulations. Principles of construction. Project management to keep the project moving without delays.
It was all learning, and it taught me a lot. So much, in fact, that I considered foregoing my PhD to do it permanently. I loved the mental challenge, never doing the same thing twice, and if I hadn’t been working 70 hours a week, I might have stayed.
Students who excel don’t limit their learning to the stuff that happens in the classroom. They recognize that opportunities to learn are everywhere. If the job posting has a skill that you don’t have, in many cases you can go and learn it. Especially if it’s a hard skill like coding, data analysis, or web design. (I recommend our sponsor, SkillShare, for a lot of these).
Successful students have a growth mindset.
Networking is a vital life skill. As I’ve told people so many times, networking is not about standing in a room giving a business cards.
It’s about nurturing relationships. It’s about recognizing value in everyone and trying to learn from them. About building relationships with people you can help, and who can help you.
Successful students network. Not at networking events. Not because of what they can get out of people. And not by handing a business card.
They just build relationships.
I’ve written a lot of posts on how networking works. I will list them below. But the one piece of advice I would give is to talk to everybody that you can. Talk about work. Talk about life. When you get into your place of employment, find out what people do. Ask questions. Be friendly.
At my last employer, I was surprised to find out that people I chatted with in the elevator found me later to offer jobs.
This is the ineffable part of networking. Don’t stress about the outcome. Just try your best to connect with people, and to understand what motivates and moves them, and you will be amazed at the effects it has on your life and career.
More Posts on Building Your Network
What is it that will make some people quit, while others will keep going no matter what?
Honestly, I don’t know. Determination is a funny thing, sometimes driven by our insecurities and the need to prove somebody wrong, and sometimes driven by our self confidence and vision.
Wherever it comes from, determination is a fundamental trait of successful students and successful grads.
And, in case you’re wondering, I don’t always mean determination to reach a certain goal no matter what.
It can be more fuzzy than that. It might mean determination to do work that you love. It might be determination to make a lot of money or determination to get a job at Google.
Oh boy, this one is important.
I talk to grads all the time, and the one thing they are mostly missing is vision. They have no idea where they want to go with their life, so they are stumbling through waiting for somebody to tell them.
This is a recipe for a miserable career. If you want to be one of those highly successful students, create a vision for your life. It might be the type of career you want. It might be the amount of money you want to make. It might be the type of house you want to own or the nomadic work-life you want to have.
Start to write down things you want to be true about your life in 5-10 years, and then work your ass off to make those come true. Because those are what matters. Your vision.
I made a video about this here.
These 8 traits will make for super successful students and will set you up for life after. You can grow each of these, none of them are written in stone. So work on them! Plan to increase your abilities in these areas every day, and watch your possibilities grow.