The Best (and Worst) Graduation Advice You Never Heard

Travis Stork"Benjamin...I want to say one word to you. Just one word...Are you listening?"
"Yes, I am."
"Exactly how do you mean?"

Along with the ties and fountain pens, recent graduates get a lot of advice. And, while most of it is better than the earnestly delivered career suggestion in The Graduate, it can often be contradictory, confusing, and even downright disastrous. With that in mind, we asked some leaders in business, entertainment, and publishing to share the best and worst advice that they ever received. And, while we were at it, we also asked them for the most useful suggestions that they could give the next generation.

What they said was surprising -- and, in many cases, gave us a good idea of how they got to where they are.

The Best Graduation Advice You Never Heard
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The Best (and Worst) Graduation Advice You Never Heard

Johnson remembers that the best graduation advice he got was to "Stay focused on your goals, but open to new and broader possibilities." He moved to Washington, D.C., after graduation, hoping to get a job in the State Department, but what happened instead showed him the value of flexibility -- and openness:

"My move to Washington allowed me the opportunity to work as a lobbyist for the cable industry, which led to me starting Black Entertainment Television."

His advice to recent grads? "The fastest growing innovation is digital technology. Pursue opportunities that will allow you to take advantage of what the digital space has to offer."

When Zagat, who launched his restaurant rating business with his wife, graduated from college, he received "a plethora of advice, most of which was the standard pap. I disregarded it." The worst advice, however, "was that I should do the expected, and live the way that everyone thought I should live."

His advice to recent grads? "The worst thing you can do is pay attention to everyone else's perspective of the way you should live. You need to do something that you enjoy: You won't feel like you're working, you'll work harder, you'll work longer, and, ultimately, you'll be more successful. You spend half your time at work. If you do something you really like, you'll do much better than someone who doesn't -- and, in the end, you'll be more successful."

When Cameron, who wrote A Dog's Purpose and Eight Simple Rules for Dating My Daughter, graduated from college, his parents gave him some of the best advice he ever received -- and some of the worst. On the positive side, his father told him to take his time getting to adulthood.

  "My dad told me not to be in a hurry to get married, settle down, and raise a family. Naturally, I got married, settled down, and started having children. Probably the best advice would have been, 'listen to your father,' but, alas, I was young and thought I knew everything."

But getting time and space to grow can also be a curse: "My parents told me that it was okay for me to live at their house rent free while I looked for work. In retrospect, what I heard from this kind offer was, 'You can continue to live like a child.' I needed to get out on my own, support myself, and face real life, not sleep in the same bed I grew up in."

His advice for recent grads? "Live in open rebellion against foolishness. When rules make no sense, call out your opinion loudly and often. You are an individual only so long as you declare your right to be one."

For Rowe, the years after college led to a series of truly odd jobs -- including a stint as an opera singer and work as a pitchman for QVC -- before he began his popular Discovery series and became an outspoken advocate for America's trade workers. When he graduated from college, he received some very familiar suggestions.

"Everyone told me to follow my passion, but when I was 22, my passions were limited to a short list of pursuits that would never lead to a paycheck, much less legitimate employment. Finding a job was daunting enough. So why did so many people advise me to limit my career options to something I felt 'passionate' about? Drudgery blows, but following your passion wherever it leads you doesn't guarantee happiness. Nor does it make you brave or artistic. It just makes you a follower."

His advice for grads? "That earlier bit about 'not following your passion' doesn't mean that you should take a job you're not passionate about. It means you should be passionate about whatever job you take. And if you aren't, act like you are anyway. Get in early. Stay late. Always volunteer for the skut work. If I've learned anything from Dirty Jobs, it's that meaningful work can be found anywhere -- sewers, maggot farms, funeral homes, oil rigs. I've met hundreds of very successful entrepreneurs who go home every day covered in crap. Literal, actual crap. These people love what they do, but they didn't follow their passion down the road to job satisfaction -- they brought it with them."

Stork, who now stars on the health-focused talk show, still remembers the worst advice he received in medical school.

"A doctor told me not to worry about how my chosen profession in medicine would affect my future family or my life outside of medicine. I've since learned that is rather naive advice." On the other hand, he also received some great advice that he's carried with him since graduation:

"Money is nice to have for one reason: It gives you the freedom to do the things you want to do. In and of itself, money will not make you happy."

His advice for grads? "First, find balance. If you don't have balance in your life it is very difficult to find long term happiness. Second, find something you are passionate about. It doesn't necessarily have to be your job. It can be your family, community service, playing an instrument, an athletic pursuit, none of the above, or all of the above. Third, pay attention to your health before it's too late. Finally, never stop learning. Real life education begins after college, especially when it comes to financial matters!"


Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at, or follow him on Twitter at@bruce1971.
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