A Few Life Lessons for New Graduates

May 21, 2020

By Reba Hull Campbell


When May 23 rolls around every year, I put aside all the other renowned celebrations that fall on the same day  – Eliza Doolittle Day, Pick Strawberries Day, Buy a Musical Instrument Day, or Weights and Measures Day – and take a few minutes to appreciate May 23 as the anniversary of when I started my first post-graduation job. I like to call it my “adultiversary.”

May 23 was ten days after I got my journalism degree from USC and the day I walked into 123 Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill sporting big hair, a shoulder-padded power suit and aspirations to be a press secretary working for a freshman Congressman from Florence.

Each year on my adultiversary, I’m grateful for the fact I was able to land my dream job as my first job. This year, however, this milestone feels a bit bittersweet as I see all the new graduates flooding the market with no jobs to absorb them.

I had the privilege this school year of teaching a USC journalism class that prepared students for advertising careers. Each semester, I found myself not only teaching about creative briefs and campaign strategy, but couldn’t resist also throwing in some of my always-evolving top 20 career lessons.

Over the years, I’ve shared variations on these lessons with new graduates. This year, I’ve tweaked them a bit to reflect the fact that 2020 graduates have a whole different set of challenges facing them. Regardless, the basics of these 20 lessons have been my touchpoints for many years. I hope they may provide some inspiration for the class of 2020 beyond the challenges they are facing today.

  1. Establish your personal brand. Decide what you want your reputation in the workplace to be, and let your actions define you. Keep promises and make deadlines. Under-promise and over-deliver. Avoid behavior in your personal life that could hurt your professional life (even more true today with all the risks of social media in the mix). Remember that details count, especially when getting the details right sets you apart from others.
  2. Cultivate strong writing skills. Solid writers are the people strong leaders want around the leadership table with them. Be the one colleagues seek out to flesh out and articulate ideas clearly on paper with accurate spelling, grammar and punctuation.
  3. Keep up with the news every day. Read the newspaper, check news websites, podcasts and blogs, listen to NPR while you walk the dog between Zoom calls. Know what’s in the news about your organization or industry before your boss or client asks. Be able to discern the difference between facts and fluff in news reports.
  4. Seek out a mentor. I’m guessing many busy professionals may say, “I don’t have time to be a mentor,” but most mentor relationships happen naturally rather than being established formally. Be on the lookout for them. I bet my best mentors probably don’t know they even served in that role.
  5. Plan the work before you work the plan. Having no plan gets you nowhere. Plans will change either by force or circumstance. Be flexible, but have a plan regardless of whether it’s a work project, a trip, a job search, a major purchase or an important life decision.
  6. Don’t pass up a chance to learn. Find out what your boss or leaders in your profession are reading (books, blogs, professional publications, websites, etc). Seek out professional development opportunities; pay for them yourself, if necessary. Join professional organizations and get involved.
  7. Go to your boss with a solution, not a problem. Your boss is solving problems all day. Make her life easier by presenting a solution when you present a problem. Even if it’s not the solution that ultimately solves the problem, presenting an idea for a solution keeps your boss from dreading the sight of you at the door.
  8. Write thank-you and follow-up notes (handwritten, not emailed). Collect business cards or contact info from people you meet at events, in meetings, or just out and about. A handwritten “nice to meet you” note will set you apart and help the people you meet remember you. Technology is good, but the personal touch still matters (along with good penmanship).
  9. Travel any chance you get. Travel to small towns and big cities across the country and around the world. Don’t put off travel. You’ll never tell your grandchildren about that great trip you didn’t take because you were too busy at work.
  10. Be interested and inquisitive. Ask good questions and ask them often. Young professionals have a great deal to offer a work environment. Speak up when you have something to offer, but remember to balance your enthusiasm with senior-level colleagues’ experience.
  11. Remember that everyone carries his own sack of rocks. You never know what type of personal issues the co-worker who missed a deadline is dealing with at home or with his family.
  12. Get away from your computer and walk outside. Even if your desk is your lap on the couch right now, just walk around the block at some point a couple of times during the day. Your brain needs natural light and a whiff of fresh air, and your body needs to stretch.
  13. Stay in the loop, but avoid the gossip. Be a “boundary spanner”— someone who is respected and trusted by people at all levels of the organization. Just don’t be the one who everyone counts on to know “the dirt.”
  14. Look for “reverse mentoring” opportunities. You can be a resource to your older colleagues. Seasoned professionals can learn a great deal from their younger peers.
  15. Looking busy doesn’t equal being productive. The co-worker who crows about his heavy workload and long hours is probably much less productive than the one who is organized and prioritizes his days. This becomes especially true as #WFH looks to be a long-term reality.
  16. A good editor will make you shine. Don’t look at having your writing edited as you would look at a teacher correcting a paper. Editing is a collaborative process, and there’s always room for improvement in your writing.
  17. Don’t come to work sick. Especially now. No one appreciates the stuffy-nosed martyr. That’s why you’re afforded sick days.
  18. Cultivate contacts outside work. Your next job will probably come from someone you know through church, nonprofits, alumni groups, friends and professional organizations. Stay in touch with people you meet along the way. You never know who may be the connection to your next job.
  19. Take risks. It’s OK to mess up occasionally. No one can expect perfection. It’s OK to be a beginner. You can often learn more from mistakes than successes. Yes, really, you can.
  20. Strive for work/life balance. The “balance” will probably fluctuate daily, and it most certainly looks different in this COVID19 world, but keep focused on creative outlets, exercise and hobbies that let you have fun.

Maybe these thoughts will help others just starting out. I share them with huge thanks to all the bosses, mentors, friends, family, and colleagues I have had the privilege to work with and learn from over these 35+ years.


After more than 35 years working in politics, communications, management, fundraising and government relations, Reba Campbell is a rookie retiree deciding what she wants to be when she grows up while teaching at USC and freelance writing. Reba is passionate about travel, writing, learning to play the uke and keyboard, and staying connected with old friends. Reba can be reached at [email protected] or through her blog at http://randomconnectpoints.blogspot.com.