Five things I wish I knew at 22

At left, Elizabeth “Lisa” Abell ’85 and Matt Harrington ’84 on Commencement Day in 1984. At right, the Harringtons 29 years later with their daughter.

My youngest daughter just graduated from the College of William & Mary. It was a weekend marked by extraordinary traditions, as William & Mary, chartered in 1693, is the second oldest college in the country. The contrast of tradition with the future-facing graduates was quite striking and for this Dad, more than a little bittersweet.

My mother often told me: “the only constant in life is change.” As the rate of change accelerates, the graduates of 2013 — and the rest of us — have but one thing to do: embrace it.

Fumbling for words of wisdom of my own to share with my daughter later, I wondered what I wished I had known at my own graduation to prepare me for the many changes that lay ahead. As I looked out at the mosaic of caps and gowns, I wondered, if I could turn back the clock, what would I tell 22-year-old me as I graduated from Denison? Here are five things I wish I knew at 22.

  1. Relish the sense of possibility. There is nothing quite like this particular life moment, being in one’s 20s and starting the journey of work and adult life. This sense is captured beautifully in the book, Rules of Civility, A Novel by Amor Towles. Set in 1930s Manhattan, the book follows a young woman who is striking out and seeking to make her mark. Serendipitous opportunity is around every corner. This time is one to be relished, not rushed. It’s one of life’s glories.
  2. Channels change, core skills and common sense don’t. When I joined Edelman 29 years ago, public relations was pretty straightforward. For example, we sent an earnings release to BusinessWire, Dow Jones or Reuters. Now, the SEC has issued new guidelines that permit transmission of corporate news via Twitter or Facebook. Tomorrow, who knows what the media options might be. But one thing is certain: the need for thoughtful communications is critical, no matter the medium. Keeping a laser-focus on objectives instead of shiny objects will continue to achieve results.
  3. A global mindset is not optional. It’s critical to stay informed about what’s going on in places far from where you live. Read international publications or a local paper that isn’t your own, and watch trends emerging across the planet. For example, in Jakarta and Ho Chi Minh City, an entire generation of public relations methodologies are being leapfrogged as the power of social media, the availability of mobile phones and the entrepreneurial profusion of new apps is connecting brands to consumers directly. I follow and engage in these trends in order to better counsel our clients.
  4. Be a perpetual student. Graduation doesn’t mean one stops being a student. We continue to study our clients’ businesses and our own business as digital and other emerging channels and technologies continue to disrupt the status quo. When we maintain the mindset of a student, we have the ability to adapt to change.
  5. Don’t strive to be celebrated. As I pulled away from the William & Mary campus with wagon loaded from floor to ceiling (how is it our daughter managed to be on the top floor of every dorm all four years?!) I pondered the common thread of remarks from commencement speakers, FBI Director Robert Mueller and the student speaker Devin Braun. Mueller said: “We must all find ways to contribute to something bigger than ourselves. We must cultivate patience, each and every day. We must maintain a sense of humility. And most importantly, we must never, ever sacrifice our integrity.”

Braun offered that while relatively few will become the celebrated for their achievements, all should strive to contribute to society. In a world of “liking” and “sharing” there is value in not being famous. He said, “I’ve realized there are a lot of people who really make a positive difference in the world around them without anyone really necessarily knowing who they are. It is possible to be a positive agent for change without being famous.

”Embrace change, live a life of integrity and don’t strive to be celebrated.

Matthew Harrington ’84 is the global chief operating officer at Edelman, the world’s largest public relations firm. He earned an English degree from Denison and is currently a member of the college’s Board of Trustees. This post originally appeared on Harrington’s Edelman blog, “Peri Orbus.”

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