It’s hard for me to believe that it has been 15 years since I graduated from high school, but as the years pass further along, one memory from my high school graduation resonates more than the others. My father, a high school teacher with over 40 years of experience in the classroom, and a man who had certainly seen his share of high school commencement ceremonies over the years, gave me two simple pieces of advice, one perhaps more thought-provoking than the other.
The first was a brute taste of reality. As my friends and I had just finished a terrific year where we practically ruled the school, Dad brought me back to earth when he said, “Mike, I want you to enjoy your graduation today, because in 90 days, you’ll be a freshman all over again.” I was hoping to avoid that truth as long as I could.
The second piece of advice was something that took a little longer for me to comprehend. At the close of graduation, after my classmates and I had just belted out our final renditions as students of the school’s fight song and alma mater, Dad made sure to remind me of one more thing. He said, “Don’t ever fall in love with a school because a school will never love you back.”
Now, I’m not trying to paint my father as some sort of misanthrope who always finds the negative in things. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’m lucky that I was raised by someone who always made sure that I took a moment to learn something about myself throughout my life’s experiences. But when Dad cautioned me against falling in love with my high school, or with any institution, for that matter, I didn’t quite know what he meant at the time. But out of all the advice he’s ever given me, it’s probably the piece that means the most.
I think about this story a lot this time of year as my colleagues and I pour over thousands of applications. We have the pleasure of reading tremendous stories from such a diverse group of students, but in the end, the process requires us to say “No” much more than we can say “Yes.” In fact, at my particular university of employment, we issue the former decision about 80% of the time.
But as this blog is a reflection on my journey through the role of middle management, I thought I would use this month’s entry to think about how I got here. Perhaps this will allow me to connect more with the students in our applicant pool, as I imagine that the emotions I felt while applying for higher-level jobs is similar to the emotions of students applying to college.
When I decided to start applying for management roles in 2011, the road turned out to be much bumpier than I would have hoped. I would comb the NACAC Career Center, or the WACAC job board, and look for something that seemed appealing, made sense for my wife and I in terms of location, and played to my strengths. I didn’t want to apply for any job that had a fancier title or a higher salary because that just seemed like a reckless approach.
I was fortunate to receive some call backs, some phone interviews, and even some face-to-face interviews (in total, five, to be exact), and in the first four, I struck out each time. After years of reading college applications, and receiving numerous angry and confused phone calls from students and parents alike, I now found myself asking questions similar to those they would throw at me: “What more should I have done to get your approval?”; “I have the qualifications you were looking for, and we seemed to connect during the interview. What went wrong?” And of course, it was only natural for me to think that the whole ordeal just wasn’t fair, whatever “fair” means.
But when the going got tough, I harkened back to Dad’s graduation day advice: “Don’t ever fall in love with a school because a school will never love you back.” After years of giving this some thought, I think what Dad was trying to tell me was to cherish memories more than the place where those memories took place. He wanted me to realize that it was me and the people I came to know who made for all the good feelings, and those feelings could continue no matter where I ended up. The school, or the employer, wasn’t going to make me happy. Only I am in control of that.
As I continued to go on job interviews, and continued to hear “No” time and again, I reminded myself to not become enamored with any one particular place where I was interviewing. Instead, I turned my focus to the process, and felt that if I could learn to love the experiences I was gaining throughout the process, then I would come out better in the end. And sure enough, when I eventually did get the job offer from American University in 2012, I was able to reflect on the path I had taken to get there, and that just left me with so much confidence to tackle the role ahead.
So now, as I continue to work with thousands of high school seniors across the country, hopefully, this story from my high school graduation can be of value as they prepare to walk across that stage and begin the next chapter in their lives. My advice is to take some time to think about the journey you took to get here, and how it has left you prepared for whatever’s next. Oh, and remember: Enjoy it, because in 90 days, you’ll be a freshman all over again.
By Michael Gulotta