Speech at Fanshawe College -- July 22, 2003
Life and Career After College
I got dressed up for you, today. I usually sport bare feet and sandals. That’s one of the advantages of being self-employed. It allows me to dress as I like, hide away in my office, have music or talk radio blaring from my computer, and present my middle finger to the world.
And that brings me to my topic for today -- Life and Career After College.
I would like to thank Mrs. Wilson for inviting me. I hope the experience will have some value for you.
Occasionally, I like to leave my cave and get out to see if the world has changed since my last excursion. In particular, I like to interact with people younger than I. It gives me an idea of who is going to run our world after I’m gone and how well, or how poorly, they are going to do that. Generally, based on my interactions with individuals, young or old, I feel optimistic about the future of the world. When I deal with committees, boards, government departments or any other sort of officialdom, I sometimes feel that the human race is destined for extinction. But that is a topic for another place and time.
I hope you don’t mind if I speak bluntly. You are all adults and I think you are better served by hearing about how things really are, than in listening to some sugar-coated claptrap that will waste your time and mine. I remember speakers coming to classes I attended in high school and university and that their speeches were universally upbeat
and optimistic. They portrayed a life ahead of promise, excitement and happiness in our chosen vocation. In short, the messages they conveyed were simplistic and misleading.
It is hard to blame speakers for their pollyannish portrayal of the future. They want to be liked. They might want to be invited back to speak to other classes. They might not want to reflect badly on their employers. They might be nervous about painting too gloomy a picture of the future. In a world where it is typical to want to kill a messenger bearing bad news, they might want to avoid telling you that the world can be a brutal, unforgiving place, filled with unpleasant surprises and sometimes worse.
I’m willing to take a chance that you want to hear about the real world, not some utopian ideal out of someone’s imagination. I would have liked to hear the truth, myself, when I was your age.
Let’s find out if I’m right.
How many of you here today have a clue about specifically what you want to do when
you graduate, about what kind of job you would like to have?
How many of you have a clue about what will face you generally when you graduate, what responsibilities you will have, what sort of future you might reasonably expect as you mature, get married, raise families, and so on?
...Discuss with class...
When I was your age, I was largely clueless. I was clueless about what I really wanted to do for a living, about what life in general was really like, clueless about just about everything. I wish that someone had taken the time to explain life to me, about the importance of making the right choices, about responsibility, about so many things.
Come to think of it, several someones did try to explain life to me, beginning with my parents. I just didn’t listen. I wanted to make my own decisions, make my own mistakes, accomplish whatever I could on my own. In short, I suspect, I was just like most of you here today.
I’m not being critical of you, or of young people in general. Although career choices are much different today from what they were when I first thought about what I might do with my future, other life choices don’t change much from one generation to the next. Much as it might be difficult to believe, when it comes to these other life choices, I’ve probably already done everything you are likely to attempt in your life. And here’s a deep, dark secret -- so have your parents. You know only what they want you to know. They won’t tell you about all the silly, even stupid things they have done in their lives. If they harp at you about something they think is going to screw up your life, there’s a pretty good chance that they are speaking from experience.
So, even though my parents and others did give me advice, I seldom listened. Now, in hindsight, I realize that not everyone who tried to help me was an idiot, or was intruding ‘on my space’ or was being meddlesome. I would have done well to listen.
I want to make some very general observations to you about what life in general, and your chosen vocation in particular, will mean to you as you wind through the convolutions of your career. When I have completed that chore, I want to have a no-holds-barred discussion with all of you about what you think lies ahead for you.
But before we do that, let’s cover a few basics.
How many of you see yourselves working in a corporate environment somewhere, as a salaried employee, performing some clearly-defined service or function?
How many of you see yourselves being self-employed eventually, being your own boss and providing some special skill to your clients?
... discuss with class...
I always knew that I wanted to work on my own. I knew that I couldn’t work for someone else for any number of reasons, not the least of which was that I couldn’t stand having anyone tell me what to do.
I started my first business at age 17. I hired a bunch of kids to deliver advertising circulars for department stores and motivated them with donuts and soft drinks. When I tired of that, I started a teen-age night-club in St. Catharines, where I lived at the time.
I subleased a dance studio Saturday nights, hired a uniformed doorman to keep out rowdies, hired bands and comedians for the price of soft drinks and cigarettes and made a bunch of money. The entertainers benefited by the exposure. I benefited by the drawing power they had to get teenagers in the door. Drinking age was 21 at that
time, so anyone who didn’t want to cross over into New York State to drink, came to my club.
Club Unicorn, which is what I called my enterprise, netted me on average, $40.00 per Saturday night, for about 5 hours work. Before you laugh too hard at that meagre return on my time investment, let me remind you that this was in 1962 and I worked after school at the local A&P for $1.00 an hour. At my club, I earned as much in one evening as I would have had I worked a full 40-hour week at the A&P.
For me, this was a life-altering experience. I learned that I liked being my own boss. I
liked the excitement of making decisions and depending on my wits and creativity.
I sold Club Unicorn after about a year and ended up taking several years off from high school, working at various jobs in Ontario and Alberta. At age 21, I realized that I should finish high school, did so and enrolled at UWO at age 22. My intention was to major in English and philosophy and to become a university professor.
Now why in the world would I have made that choice? Becoming a professor!? Academia is a world rife with structure, rules, politics, and layers of bosses. Ask Mrs. Wilson. I’m not disparaging teaching as a profession. There is, after all, the emotional reward of teaching bright-faced, inquisitive, eager-to-learn, uncomplaining and grateful students. That’s you, right? The downside is that you work in a very controlling environment. Why did I choose to take that career path?
I was an idiot.
Why was I an idiot? Because I went against everything that I had already learned about myself while running my two businesses. Instead of picking university courses in
keeping with my nature, or finding a vocation that would match my independent spirit, I wasted more time trying something that could in no way have worked out for me as a fulfilling career.
By the end of my first year at Western, I realized I had made a mistake. I started Helix Courier Limited in the summer of 1968 and half-way through my second year, I quit school to run my company full-time. I was 23 years old, and have been a businessman, running a number of different types of business ever since.
What does this mean to you? It means that I can advise you to take inventory of yourself, your life, your preferences, your very nature. Take some time, all by yourself, and do some introspection. Have you had a part-time job or two? How did you react when someone told you what to do? If you respect the hierarchy inherent in any workplace, large or small, and see that someone has to delegate jobs and make
decisions, then you will probably be comfortable working in a company somewhere.
The rewards will be a regular paycheque, possibly a benefit package of some kind, paid
vacations, and perhaps eventual advancement to some sort of meaningful position.
What about those of you who cringed every time a boss told you what to do, or worse, how to do it? How long do you think you will last in a structured corporate environment? Many of our parents felt trapped in jobs they hated, because they needed the security of a steady income in order to raise their families. Like them, you will be miserable, feel unfulfilled, be impossible to live with and will have wasted your potential. Unlike them, you have more choices available to you than they ever did.
I hope that I’m being blunt enough for you. I am telling you that the decisions you make over the next several years will be possibly the most important in your life and that you should consider them carefully. Only you can decide what is best for you. Listen, if you can bear to, to your parents and to any other trusted advisors and then make decisions based on what you know about yourself.
Will it really matter whether you work for yourself or for someone else? Yes it will. Some of you will only be happy if you are independent, others will feel quite at home in
a corporate environment somewhere, as long as you are doing work that you enjoy.
I have a young son, about to turn eleven. I have told him, many times over the years, that one of the most important decisions he will ever make is what to do for a living. If you are happy at work, you stand a better chance of being happy at home. The corollary is, of course also true, but we’re not taking about relationships today. I’m afraid that when it comes to finding your dream mate, you’re on your own.
Being happy at work has very little to do with how much money you make. It has to do with looking forward to going to work every morning, enjoying the company of people you work with, delighting in every project you undertake. No amount of money will make you love a job doing things you detest and working with people you can’t stand.
The question becomes: “Well, Mr. Pedde, how do I find that very special job?”
My answer is: “It’s completely up to you.”
No-one owes you a living. No-one owes you an opportunity. No-one owes you anything.
If prospective employers aren’t beating down that figurative door, clamouring for your services, you will have to make them want you. Considering my admonishments about making careful, well-advised choices, think carefully about where you apply. Instead of applying everywhere, narrow your attention to those companies which most closely match your personal objectives and nature. Do they have the sort of job environment in which you will feel comfortable? Will you be able to do the sort of work that will make you feel fulfilled?
Once you have narrowed down the eligible companies, concentrate on getting their attention.
Well, most people simply send out resumes and wait for someone to respond. Do you think that is the only avenue open to you?
Think about it. What course stream are you in here, at Fanshawe? Aren’t you learning about advertising and marketing? What’s wrong with marketing yourself? Sure, send out those resumes. But also, think of ways that you might devise a very special, personalized campaign to get the attention of decision-makers at places where you might wish to work.
Do up a marketing and advertising campaign, selling yourself as the product. You might even discuss how you might undertake such a project with Mrs. Wilson or with other teachers here at Fanshawe.
To sell yourself, take the same approach that you might to sell shampoo or cereal. Have you learned about the importance of explaining both features and benefits in advertising a product or service? List your features, your education, your training, your experience (if any,) your attitude, your dedication. Be specific. Saying you are a hard worker means nothing. Giving an example of how you accomplished something significant means something.
List the benefits to any potential employer of hiring you. What would be the direct benefits to an employer of hiring you, with your education, training, experience and attitude?
What else could you do to market yourself? Perhaps use attention-getting graphics and colour in your presentation. But most importantly, use your copy-writing skills. More than just about anything else, any potential employer wants to know how well you can communicate.
When you’re done, don’t just send your work of genius to the personnel department of the companies where you would like to work. Find the names of the people who control the purse strings and make the decisions at your target companies. Send your promotional pieces to them, directly. Make sure you use their proper titles and please spell their names correctly.
Edit your writing carefully. Spelling and grammatical errors count against you in the real world. When I get applications with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, they go directly into the garbage. I don’t want anyone representing me who can’t communicate effectively. Ditto, for anyone I don’t know who writes or calls and addresses me by my first name. This is not elitism, this is a reality in the world of business. Addressing people properly is respectful and shows an understanding of business etiquette.
After a week or so, call the people to whom you sent your promotions. Again, remember to address them formally as Mr., Mrs., or Ms., not as Bob or Sally. Ask them if they have seen the personal promotion you sent to their attention. If they claim not to have seen it, ask them for permission to send it again and make sure that you get all the information you need to be sure that your piece ends up directly on their desk. If you sense that in any way the person you are speaking to is distracted or harried, ask if there is a more convenient time that you could call. You do not want to harass someone when they can’t properly concentrate on the subject at hand -- you. If they indicate a willingness to speak with you and confirm that they have seen your promotional piece, tell them that you researched their company and that it is a place where you would really like to work, and why.
What about if they say that they like your work and would love to give you a job but that times are tough and there is no room in the budget to hire you? If it is a large corporation, there might not be much else you can do except to stay in touch with them. If it is a smaller company, you might consider telling them that you will make them a deal they can’t refuse.
Think about this for a minute. By the time you are out looking for permanent employment, you will already have attended school for years. After that, there might potentially be months of looking for suitable employment. Even if employers are looking at hiring you, you will have to overcome the fact that you have little or no real work experience.
Why not face all of these facts right away and simply offer to work for free? That’s right. I said work for free.
Offer to give your targeted employers three months of your time and talent, without any risk or obligation, completely for free, just for the opportunity of working there. The only condition you might make is that you should be given real work to do, even if that means assisting some more senior person on staff.
What’s the worst that could happen?
The worst that could happen is that after three months you will have some solid work experience that you can add to your resume. This experience will be at a real company, doing real work, but unfortunately without any real pay. So what? There will still be the real benefit of having work experience in your chosen field. That translates into real value for your next employers.
The best that could happen is that the company will like you and your work, that it will find room in the budget for you, and that you will work there until you decide to move on to something else.
Whatever you do to try to land your first job, let me tell you a few things about the job market. The first thing I want you to know is that when you leave school, you have very little value to anyone. I’m not trying to be cruel here, I am simply stating a fact. You will have lots of book knowledge but very little, if any, practical experience. The book knowledge is very important, but it has to be used in the context of the real world, where an employer or a customer is going to pay real money for your efforts. Just because you complete a project the way you have been taught in school won’t mean that it will be what is wanted or needed by your employer or customer.
The single most important thing to do when you land that wonderful job that you have been dreaming about, is to listen. Initially, no-one will want to hear your opinions on how to do the job better. Unless you are asking a question yourself, or are answering someone else’s question, keep quiet. Learn about the company, its business philosophy, its products, its owners or managers. The more you know, the more valuable you will become. There will be a time when your opinions will matter. The way to ensure that your input will be sought and taken seriously is to make sure that you know what you are talking about.
When you are given an assignment, don’t simply do it the way you think it should be done, or necessarily the way you have been taught in school. Find out how the boss wants it done. He or she might have preferences which have resulted from years of experience and trial and error. Find out about these things before you waste a lot of time doing something that you might have to do over again.
Don’t presume if a boss wants something done that doesn’t dovetail nicely with what you have learned at school, that he or she is stupid, ill-informed or simply behind the times. That may sometimes be the case, but you should also consider that most any solution you are likely to think of has already been tried, sometimes more than once.
The way to get your opinions heard, your ideas implemented, is to come up with something fresh, and that actually works. Do that once, and the second and subsequent ideas you have will be listened to more quickly.
What if you don’t want to work for someone else? Let’s talk specifically, for a moment, about self-employment. If you know that you will never be comfortable working for others, at least work for someone else long enough to get some real-life experience. Learn as much as you can from others. Then, when you strike out on your own, at least you will have a fighting chance at success in your business.
Many businesses fail, for any number of reasons. Sometimes, the owner simply runs out of money, after having borrowed from family and friends, and can’t carry on any longer. Sometimes, it becomes evident that the customers that were expected to come, simply aren’t going to materialize. That could be for any number of reasons. Perhaps there are already too many other similar products or services. Perhaps the products or services weren’t promoted sufficiently. Sometimes, a spouse will have enough of the stress and uncertainty inherent in building a business and will suggest that it’s either her (or him) or the business.
In order to succeed, there also has to be the possibility of failure. There is no shame in failure. There is shame in not trying. If you fail at a business, don’t take it personally. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and say: “Next!”
If your business doesn’t work out, get on with your life. Do what you have to do to straighten out any financial mess that you might have created. Try not to leave any customer disappointed and thus unlikely to have a good word for you in the future.
The biggest impediment to success, as I see it, is that people become so preoccupied with their failures, large or small, that they are oblivious to the opportunities with potential for success that cross their path from time to time. Don’t get bogged down. Failed once? Big deal. Watch for new opportunities and decide whether any is a proper fit for you. If it is, go for it.
Life has the potential to be a bleary affair, filled with problems and despair. It also has
the potential to be exciting, filled with rewards and happiness. It’s all up to you.
If you wonder why I feel so passionately about how you are going to fare in the world, I’ll tell you. Individuals alive during the 20th century have been responsible for some of the greatest inventions and advancements since the beginning of time. During that same period, wars and other human idiocy erased the lives of approximately 175 million people. In addition, because of the prevailing gimme-gimme attitude of voters, your future has been compromised. The national debt in Canada, the United States and nearly everywhere else is unmanageable and you will end up picking up the tab, either by diminished lifestyles and opportunities or by dramatically increased taxes.
The future is in your hands. I hope you do a better job than my generation did.
Think. Listen. Make sound choices. Take responsibility for yourself. And good luck!