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Eight Things I would Tell my Graduate Student Self

Eight Things I would Tell my Graduate Student Self

A few months ago in an article called Would you rather have a Happy life or a Meaningful life?, I pointed out that:

“The ancient Greeks, Aristotle among them, viewed happiness not as feeling good in the modern-day sense but, rather, as something much deeper and purpose-driven, embodied in the concept of happiness as … “human flourishing”.

Writing that article started me thinking about what I would say to my graduate student self if I could go back in time. What would I share with a much younger me that I know now but didn’t know then?

I pondered this seemingly imponderable image of an “elder sage” sharing words of wisdom with a twenty something clone. There is so much to say. For one, I would tell him that happiness is not about feeling good or amassing material things but, rather, it’s about “human flourishing”.

And eight other things jumped out at me. I thought I would share them in the event that they might resonate with you.

1. Never underestimate the importance of relationships

In the early twentieth century, 1918 to be exact, readers of the NY Tribune would have opened the newspaper on a September morning to the following words:

“It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.”

This was one of the first instances, at least as far as I have found, of these words in print.

In graduate school, those words meant little to me. I was convinced that knowledge and personal achievement would take me wherever I wanted to go, regardless of the close relationships I formed or didn’t form. My attitude was that knowledge trumped everything … “it’s not who you know but what you know”. How wrong I was. It wasn’t until well into my career that I grew to appreciate the importance of building deep and lasting relationships with people. Relationships mean everything. More than knowledge. More than credentials. More than any title or letters appended to the end of my name.


2. Never forget the power of a smile

Debasish Mridha has been described by Goodreads as a physician, philosopher, poet seer, and author. He said this about smiling:

“A smile has a magical power; it makes everyone smile back.”

Never, ever forget the transformative power of a smile. It will make all the difference in the relationships you build with others and in your ability to influence the people around you. And the added bonus? It will transform you as well. Always remember to smile.


3. The most generous thing you can do is listen to, and pay attention to, another person.

Simone Weil, the French philosopher and mystic, said it best:

“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

It’s so easy to be distracted these days. We are inundated with attention diversions from all directions. I sometimes feel as if we are suffering from collective attention deficit disorder. When interacting with others the most generous thing you can do is stop … take a breath … block out the things around you … look the other person in the eye … listen … and pay attention. This is a gift you can provide to people that will cost you nothing., but is priceless. And frankly, if we are true to the relations we purport to build, those around us deserve nothing less.

People remember us most for how we make them feel … and attention is the first place to start if you want to have a lasting, positive impact on others.

4. Choose and embrace a mentor

“Every great achiever is inspired by a great mentor.” – Lailah Gifty Akita, Ghanaian founder of Smart Youth Volunteers Foundation, in Think Great: Be Great!

Merriam-Webster defines a mentor as “a trusted counselor or guide.” A mentor is a source of wisdom, a role model, a teacher, a personal advocate.

Like most graduate students, I didn’t have the foggiest notion of the importance of having a mentor. Now, these many years later, I can confidently say that I have never met a great achiever who did not express gratitude to a mentor in their lives as a major contributor to their success.

5. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you

Confucius said:

“If you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room.”

Success derives in large part from surrounding yourself with people who are smarter, more experienced or better connected than you. David Jelinek said it best in Success.com: “Regardless of all your hard work, unique talent, good timing or good luck, success is largely a factor of the people you make a part of your journey.”

Surround yourself with very smart people, and make them an integral part of your journey.


6. Take risks and push yourself out of your comfort zone

“The biggest rewards in life are found outside your comfort zone. Live with it. Fear and risk are prerequisites if you want to enjoy a life of success and adventure.” – Jack Canfield, internationally recognized personal development and peak performance advisor

Shortly after the death of David Bowie, I wrote a short piece called What David Bowie Said About Innovation about his views on the importance of getting out of our comfort zones. That’s where real change occurs. He said: “If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”

I have spent most of my professional life taking risks, pushing myself outside of my comfort zone. But it wasn’t always that way for me. For the first few years after graduate school , I found myself following a seemingly low-risk, comfortable corporate career path. But I wasn’t happy and knew that a change was necessary. I left the corporate world and pursued a series of entrepreneurial ventures. Some were successful. A couple were decidedly not (and I learned more from those “failures” than anything else I’ve done). But I never looked back and have never regretted the decision.

Regardless of the life path you have chosen, entrepreneurial or not, continually push yourself further into the water until your feet are not quite touching.

Business Colleagues Together Teamwork Working Office

7. Collaboration is much more important than individual achievement

Ten simple words from Ken Blanchard pretty much sum up the importance of collaboration and teamwork:

“None of us is as smart as all of us.”

One of the unfortunate characteristics of graduate school, and for that matter of college in general, is too much focus on individual achievement. But that’s not the way the real world works. Great things are accomplished through collaboration and teamwork. Exceptions are rare. Michael Jordan said that talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships. Heed these words of wisdom, and embrace the power of collaboration to achieve greatness.


8. Play the long game

“As a nation, we’re forgetting that our lives are so much more than what’s happening this evening or this weekend or this year.” – Psychology writer Heidi Priebe

We live in a society that is obsessed with instant gratification, quick fixes and easy answers. The strategies of Fortune 500 companies are shaped by one-quarter lookouts. We have, in Heidi Priebe’s words, “instant meals, instant money and instant messaging.”

This problem is exacerbated by uncertainty and rapid change, which seem to get in the way of any sort of long-term vision. While it’s true that predicting the future is an exercise in futility, we fail to prepare for the future and pursue our long-term visions at our peril.

Don’t let your short-term desires, or short-term distractions, get in the way of your long-term vision. Play the long game with your life.

Please reach out. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Mike Cobb