When I graduate in December of this year from UGA it will be exactly 10 years since I earned my undergraduate degree. It is amazing to me how the past decade has truly flown by. Ten years ago I never would have suspected that I would be completing my eighth year in the military, or preparing to move to my tenth city in a few months. As some of you prepare to enter the “real” world for the first time, I thought I would share some of the lessons I’ve learned through the years that have helped me to make this decade what I consider a personal success (insert eye roll here).
1. Eliminate the word “never” from your vocabulary.
I said I would never live in the state of Georgia* when I was a kid, and I swore I would never make a career of the Coast Guard. I’m now living in Georgia for the SECOND time in 10 years, and it has taken me 8 years to accept that the Coast Guard is the right career for me. The surest way to make something happen is to declare that it will never happen.
* So as not to offend all you Georgia natives, this is really because my only experience with the state was as a little kid traveling through the state on I-75 to get to Florida; long, and BORING.
2. You don’t always have to have a five-year plan, but make sure you set some goals for yourself.
Some people thrive on having every aspect of their life planned out. I’m not one of those people, and never will be. Never feel like you are stuck on one path for the rest of your life. Life will present you with opportunities; take those opportunities! Decisions may lead to change, but change is always a good thing. Nothing in life is constant, so you must learn to adapt or risk being left behind. I have found that making tangible goals for myself is key to my growth as a person. Now that I have attained my goal of attending graduate school, the time has come for me to set a new goal. I’m not sure yet what that goal will be, but in the near-term I plan on running in Athens half marathon in the fall. This will give me something small to strive for while I try to come up with the next big life goal.
3. Realize what you know… and especially what you don’t.
One of the biggest challenges many people face in their careers, especially when placed in management positions, is to recognize that you won’t always know exactly what to do in every situation. As a junior officer, I am often in charge of people with infinitely more experience in certain positions than I have. You must recognize when these people know more than you, and when they don’t. Be humble about asking for assistance, and never be afraid to admit that you need help. The biggest challenge many have with this situation is to understand how to ask for help without compromising your position of authority.
4. Every perceived failure is an opportunity for growth.
I enlisted in the Coast Guard not because I wanted to gain valuable work experience before going to officer candidate school, but because I applied after graduation and was not accepted. This was the first time I had ever been rejected. Rather than giving up, I decided it was more important to me to be a member of the Coast Guard than just to be an officer. Enlisting was the best decision I could have made for myself. I appreciate my commission far more now because I really had to work for it.
5. You can’t always be the best at everything.
This is probably been the most challenging for me. At work, I’m not the best ship driver, or the fastest runner, or the most knowledgeable search and rescue controller, but I am very good at understanding people. Find the thing you’re best at, and use that to your advantage. This is not to say that you shouldn’t continue to develop your weaker areas; you should never stop trying to improve yourself. It simply means that if you know you gave your all to a project, then count that as a success.
6. Your parents/friends/loved ones don’t always know what’s best for you.
If I had allowed my parents to make decisions for me regarding the school I would attend, the career I would pursue, the location in which I would live, or who I should date/marry, I would be an architect right now. I would be living in Lexington, and I would probably have a couple of kids. None of these are bad things, but they just aren’t me. You must define success for yourself, and trust yourself to make the right decisions about what’s best for you. Most of my family members were emphatically against me joining the military, but if I hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t be here in Athens, Ga. and earning a free master’s degree in mass communication.
7. It’s okay to change jobs, but make sure the new position will help you grow in some way.
Some of you may know that the first job I had after graduation was as a quality control technician at a sausage factory. Was it awful? Absolutely. But it did lead me to my next position as a chemist at an environmental testing lab. I also had multiple jobs in retail and the service industry, and I took each new job because it offered something more, whether it was a higher salary, added responsibility, or a better working environment. Realize that more than likely you won’t fall into your dream job immediately after school. Work hard, make smart decisions, keep a positive attitude, and forge relationships with your coworkers. If you do these things opportunity will come knocking.
8. Cultivate your friendships, because they can help get you through hard times in ways that your parents can’t.
I can’t stress the importance of quality friendships enough. When you decide to make that move across the country, or take that job in New Mexico, you will not want to tell your parents that you’re homesick, or that your boss is a jerk. This is one the most important things about great friendships. You can complain to your friends about life’s little irritations, without worrying your parents. They’re already worried enough about you, so why worry them with the little things.