Shortly after graduating from college, I remember walking the streets of downtown Chicago and looking above at the looming skyscrapers. They seemed to reach up forever and came one after another after another. And in each window of each floor of each building were people who had something I lacked -- a job.
The first job search is daunting, especially given all the media coverage about record unemployment rates. In reality, however, 95 percent of college graduates in this country who want work have found employment. You will find a job.
That isn't the scary part; the real challenge is in choosing a career. Choosing a path for the rest of your life. Choosing your identity. Choosing how you think others will judge you and your success.
But this is an illusion.
You will likely be working for the next 45 to 50 years. Think about that for a second. For most of you, that is more than twice as long as your life to date, including your first few years in diapers. It is the same amount of time it would take to attend college twelve times. For all practical purposes, it is an eternity.
Very few people anymore have only one career over that span of years. In 15 years, you could go from entry level to CEO. Over the course of 45 years, you could work your way through three different professions -- from, say, an investment banker to a celebrated Broadway actor to a rabbi. In 15 years you can accomplish almost anything, and you get at least three chances. It is kind of like a video game in which you have three lives. You can fail and still rebound.
I barely made it through college, but came back to campus 15 years later to receive the highest honor they bestow on an alumnus of the University of Michigan. By the time I graduated, I was like a kid trying to hit a piñata after being blindfolded. My twenties were about removing the blindfold and finding my footing that I likely lost in kindergarten when I entered the education system.
The blindfold is the myth that the talent barometer is the same for everyone. Starting at an early age, I was taught that talent meant getting all A's. I was taught that a standardized test can define relative skills and intelligence. I was taught that taking exams and writing papers are the means of assessing ability. I was taught that acquiring knowledge was a sign of intellectual wealth.
When I returned to campus to accept my award with several other alumni, we found that we all had two things in common: none of us were exceptional students, and we had all focused on following our passions and values early on in our careers.
Being a student can blind you to what really matters: finding your strengths and passions and investing your time in them. We remain terrible at most things through our entire careers, but you can still find success by working with others who have complementary talents and enjoy and thrive doing the things you don't.
You probably won't fully know what your core talents are right out of college. It will take a few years in the working world to see them emerge. If someone asks you what you are looking for in a first job, the best answer is, "The opportunity to experience a broad set of responsibilities that will enable me to find my strengths so I can use them as the foundation for my career."
Your first job could be in a bank or in a circus. The key is to find a mentor and manager who wants to help you find your strengths.
It wasn't enough to be blindfolded by my educational experience. I was also spun around countless times, leaving me dazed and confused as I stumbled out of college. This was caused primarily by the false silos created by academic departments on campus. Do you want to be an English major, a sociology major, an economics major a political science major?
I was so confused by this view of the world that I ended up with a degree in general studies. Where I was blindfolded by the falsely all-encompassing definition of success, I was made dizzy by the flawed view that the world needs to be experienced in a silo.
In addition to identifying and harnessing our talents, we need to have a broad world view that enables us to see everything from multiple angles and empathize with the diverse and wonderful people we will come to know and work with in our lives.
When I took off my blindfold and gained my footing, I then realized that the piñata wasn't at all where I expected to find it. It hung much higher above my head that I realized.
Success is not an absolute and stationary thing. It is relative. It is not about how far up you are on the ladder but instead about how many rungs you are able to climb.
I had my share of hardship and challenges, but I was born to tremendous privilege and good fortune -- perhaps not economically (my father drives a school bus), but in all the other ways that are hard to quantify.
This month, my sister graduates from college at the age of 35 and is a proud mother of a great kid. She was born and raised by the same family as I was, but she battled an addiction in her teens that very nearly took her life. It was a battle that took tremendous strength and mettle to win.
But she did overcome, and furthermore, she had the courage to go back to school and get a degree. She had the courage to sit with kids 15 years younger than her year after year. She had the strength to be an amazing parent while also being a great student.
This is an accomplishment that makes my sister a hero to me and defines success. She was at the bottom of the ladder and was able to climb the toughest rungs knowing the cost of falling back down.
For those of us who have never had to stand at the bottom of the ladder, our definition of success needs to be inspired by people like my sister and others who faced overwhelming challenges, from being openly gay in an evangelist household to being raised in the foster care system.
For us, it is not enough to graduate from college. It is not enough to have a well-paying career. It is not enough to be considered good at our work. It is not enough to retire to the toasts of our peers.
Success for us comes from having the courage to make a difference, and one that matters. We need to positively impact the lives of many and take on challenges that could potentially knock us off the ladder.
This is why our piñata is hung so high.
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