The best professional advice I received in graduate school.

It was the first day of graduate school at UNC Greensboro in January 2011. I just quit my job two weeks earlier and dove headfirst into a full-time Masters in Communication program, relying on my wife’s salary as a teacher and a low-paying graduate assistantship. I bounced my leg under the desk as I readied my notebook and the syllabus.

My first course was with a professor I knew well from my undergraduate program, David Carlone. In his mid-30’s with a wife that taught in the School of Education and two small kids, I aspired to a life like Carlone. His affable nature, calm demeanor, and critical intellect were all traits I naturally mirrored. This first class was a comfortable start during a life transition.

Carlone welcomed the class with a metaphor that’s stayed with me for nearly a decade. It was his way of framing graduate school and life beyond, as well as setting expectations for each of us. As I progressed through the program and into my career, the metaphor has never felt less true. Its implications have affected how I approach working with others and diving into unknown subjects.

I’ll paraphrase a bit, but Carlone’s metaphor in his class introduction went something like this:

Life is like a big dinner party or social gathering that’s been going on for quite a while, but you just arrived. Groups of people are spread around the room, each with their own ongoing conversations filled with interesting people. At an early age, you know a little about a few things. You wander around the room, socializing to varying degrees between different groups.

Then, you find a group talking about a thing that really grabs you. You dig in, learn, participate, and give back. You join the conversation in a meaningful way. While you are not committed to stay in this conversation forever, it can become comfortable. Maybe you’ll socialize with other groups to a lesser degree, but find yourself returning to one group over time. People evolve, including you. The conversation meanders and advances. New people continue joining the party.

I’ve extracted a few key lessons I’ve learned during my professional life using this metaphor. They may be true for you too.

  • Explore a wide range of conversations.
  • Listen more than you talk.
  • Pull from one conversation and add it to another.
  • Respect the legacy of the conversation, but challenge established ideas when necessary.
  • Contribute by building on top of the conversation.
  • Don’t be afraid or feel guilty about leaving a conversation.
  • Brevity and levity are attractive qualities.

Seven Lessons for Succeeding in Life