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Dear Class of 2012: Your Degree Is Worthless -- Now Get to Work

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As we enter May we also enter the typical college graduation season. You're sure to see a bunch of high-profile speeches from Hollywood personalities and well-heeled men of business. (One of my personal favorites is Conan O'Brien's 2011 Dartmouth commencement address, for both the laughs and the life lessons).

So allow me to throw mine on the pile with my simple, stark and honest message for recent college graduates: That piece of paper you just picked up doesn't matter. Neither does your major, your GPA or any "honors" you graduated with.

From here on out, the only thing that matters is your work.

All writers know this harsh reality, because in our world the work we do each day is representative of our value. For me the quality and quantity of columns I write tells everyone in real terms what I am capable of, and what I have been working on lately. My impact is real via the words I write and clicks I generate. A fancy resume on 100% cotton, 24 lb, ivory-toned paper stock isn't worth a heck of a lot in that world.

Most people who work in finance know this black-and-white approach to the workplace, too. At the end of the day it doesn't matter what your pedigree or methodology is -- it only matters whether or not your calls are right or wrong. You lose money in the market and it doesn't matter what your resume looks like. You make money and you'll be fine, even if you're a high school dropout.

Some people gravitate to these kinds of jobs because they thrive in such a "high pressure" workplace, driven by deadlines and the bottom line. Others may dislike the bright spotlight of scrutiny and thus think they can gravitate to "safer" professions where your individual impact isn't obvious. However, demands for tangible performance over some trumped-up pedigree are now the norm in most industries. Thanks to the Great Recession and the more competitive job market, almost every workplace demands their employees prove themselves daily.

You may think this means nothing to you, since you aren't on the payroll yet and thus have a body of work to judge. Well think again. Many employers "audition" candidates with real work assignments to see how candidates perform out of the gate. I personally have assigned about three dozen sample articles to would-be job seekers in the last year alone -- with no compensation beyond the chance to continue the interview process based on the quality of their work.

The bottom line is that companies either don't have the budget or don't have the patience for on-the-job training. Thus they increasingly demand workers who can hit the ground running, and can prove their worth before they even punch their first time card.

Take Google, which in addition to quirky questions like "What color best represents your personality?" also requires programmers to write code in the interview. They want to see if you can walk the walk. Google isn't in the business of teaching people how to be coders, but using skilled coders to create the next big thing.

You may think programming is easily quantifiable, like writing or managing a portfolio, and thus easy to test for. Either the code works or doesn't. But less rigid disciplines are also subject to similar tests.

Even senior management candidates at major corporations must undergo "auditions" these days to win the job -- sometimes including developing project proposals and strategic initiatives without compensation as part of the interview process. After all, if a company wants a leader they want to know where they will be leading people to.

Even teachers aren't ex=empt from this trend. Prospective educators in the D.C. area have been asked to teach "tryout" lessons before a real classroom of real students to prove their worth, according to a recent Washington Post story.

The lesson here? Unless you do good work, nothing else matters. If companies demand good work just to get in the door, they certainly aren't going to accept dead weight on the payroll.

Lest you think I am telling you to happily shove your body in the corporate meat grinder for the next four decades, keep in mind that working hard is not just for the benefit of your employer. The most successful people in America not only do great work but more importantly love their work. And even these driven people know the importance of life outside the office.

In time, you will learn what kind of work really satisfies you and you will learn just how much you want your career to define your life. But unless you have some naïve notion of a life of luxury predicated on a winning lottery ticket, it's logical to think that work will play some role in your life for many years to come.

It's up to you to define that role, starting today. Some may get lucky through circumstance or connections and find themselves in a comfortable job a few years from now. But the vast majority of recent graduates will succeed or fail based on their body of work over these crucial first few years in the workplace.

So forget framing that diploma, friends. Roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Write Jeff Reeves at editor@investorplace.com.