A few years ago, my professional journey brought me into the world of higher education, where I am now -- in addition to other things -- a professor. Some days, the unofficial responsibility and de facto requirement to counsel and mentor undergraduate and graduate students both surprises and amuses me, as I still can't believe I'm so many years beyond their perspectives and experiences myself. This professor gig includes things like wisdom-offering and advice-giving, which I do openly, enthusiastically, and as straightforwardly as I can, despite my shock in discovering that I am a fossil.
And then one day, I realized that so much of my "wisdom" or, more accurately, just "stuff that I say," comes from the actual wisdom of the great mentor of my life, the incomparable Norman Lear, for whom I worked during my formative early professional years when so much of one's perspectives on life and work are shaped. After many years of Norman's "Norman-isms" rattling around in my head, I've decided that graduation season is the perfect time to share them with my own students -- and the many other graduates who are beginning new chapters in their lives.
So, here's a list of six pretty good advice nuggets to those embarking on their professional journeys -- a mix of my best interpretations of my favorite Norman-isms, together with my own blunt advice from experiences accrued along the way.
(1) At the moment of commitment, the entire world conspires to assure your success.
(This was paraphrased by Norman, but originally thought to have originated from the philosopher Goethe.)
With a surface-level read, this may seem obvious and potentially overused -- as in, work hard and it will all work out for you. But to me, understanding this bit of philosophy in a deep, internalized way only came with age and experience. When Norman first said this to me, I remember thinking that the key to this mantra was the "world conspiring" part of it -- the thought that the world owed me success. But not only is this not the key idea, it misses the entire point. What I came to learn, through the messiness that comes from large and small professional decisions, is that the key is the commitment piece, which has everything to do with your own active engagement in your own life, pursuits and passions. At the moment in which you truly commit to a project, an idea, a version of yourself, you may find the world lining up in ways that allows the success to happen -- you meet people who make connections, you have a conversation with someone who tells you the exact thing you needed to hear, you find a partner with whom to collaborate, and on and on. In my own still-evolving professional life, I have encountered the most amazing moments of a world conspiring -- but only when I was fully, honestly engaged, with the kind of commitment that is felt deeply when no one else is around to see or validate.
(2) You matter.
If you are making a widget, do it with the best of your intentions and abilities. And while you're making the widget, stop and appreciate the big picture of how your widget fits into the universe of contributions to society or your community, however you define it. Your work is making a ripple -- a dent in the world -- during the time you're here, so don't forget to appreciate and celebrate the ways in which you matter. And then go back to making the best widget you can make so that the dent in the world will be even deeper.
(3) Deal in straight lines.
Be upfront, tell the truth, be transparent -- this is what it means to deal in straight lines. This one is tricky to accomplish in practice sometimes, particularly in the face of slippery maneuvering operators. But, if you do your best on this one, you'll have the deep internal satisfaction and integrity of knowing that you are a person who deals in straight lines, not crooked ones that are hard to follow at best and manipulative and dishonest at worst.
And here are a few of my pieces of "wisdom," which are far less eloquent than Norman's, but have practical, tested utility:
(4) Don't be a knucklehead (lots of other words apply here).
Workplaces are full of jerks. Don't be one of them. Collaborate honestly and generously, give credit to your colleagues, thank people privately and publicly when you appreciate them, give constructive (not meanspirited) feedback, follow through when you say you'll do something, don't miss deadlines, and communicate clearly and honestly. People go out of their way for other people who are good colleagues -- it's basic human nature -- and the work experiences will be so much better for you if you do your best to be a good colleague. And here's the other thing: If you are the smartest person in the room and find ways to make sure people know that you think they are inferior, believe me, they notice. Emotional intelligence counts.
(5) Apologize sincerely. Practice forgiveness.
I've made a lot of mistakes. Sometimes I apologized for them sincerely, and to be honest, sometimes I'm not sure if I did or not. The apologies that were sincerely felt and conveyed are the experiences with closure. The others -- wishy-washy apologies -- will eat you up if you are a person with a conscience. So, you'll make mistakes -- and you can't avoid them -- but make sure to build integrity and sincerity into your apologies. And then, when you get the chance to be on the other end of the equation, forgive sincerely. I have been the recipient of sincere forgiveness, and I can't express my gratitude enough.
(6) Don't lead with money -- find the thing that wakes you up at night with ideas and passion (and the money will follow).
Every job is a slog now and then -- it's a fact. I know there are plenty of folks who disagree with me on this point, but here's the thing: If you don't at least start with the idea that you are doing work that you like (or love), thinking about issues that interest you, then the slog may be long and painful and irritating, no matter how much money you make. Do you read stories about people making radical career changes late in life? This comes from that idea. So if you lead first with a firm sense of what you care about, what you're good at, and what you want to think about all day -- and then you become better and better at it -- the money will follow, most likely. Just don't lead with the money piece first.
And with this, I leave you with two final recommendations: wear sunscreen and have great adventures. Congratulations, graduates, and buckle up.
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