Graduates: choose your own 13th grade

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This week and next, approximately 12,492 students here in Maine will graduate from high school. Of that number, an estimated 7,665 will enroll in college, 860 will join the military, and the balance, 3,967, will presumably enter the work force.

For those choosing college, I wish you all well with a few tidbits of advice: formal academic learning can be a vital and dynamic process, but don’t pursue a college degree merely for its symbolism of achievement. Your G.P.A. is a numerical value that represents something to some people – but it’s rarely the most important value going forward.

Grades have no intrinsic value – they are merely representative value that is short-lived once you graduate from college. I see people every day desperately clinging to their credentials like a safety blanket that often fails them in the long run.

A higher objective with greater potential returns should focus on combining your academic studies with dynamic life experiences, a refined work ethic, and a dedicated focus and self-awareness in the study of character, perseverance, compassion, honor, integrity, loyalty, hard work, responsibility, etc.

To those young Mainers joining the military after graduation, simple words on this page cannot begin to convey the incredible gratitude and respect that you all deserve for your commitment to serve our country. Thank you and godspeed.

Finally, my message to the 3,967 high school graduates who, through either deliberate decision-making or an absence of any plan to date, find yourselves on the verge of entering work “life.”

It’s a scary transition from being responsible for school work one day to being responsible for supporting yourself as a young adult the next. I remember my own abject fear connected to this process almost 40 years ago. I was meeting with my high school “senior adviser” to discuss my future plans beyond the walls of Needham (Massachusetts) High School.

Like most high school advisers in the 1970s, the man charged by the school system to guide my future had no actual training, skill or interest in the subject of educational or vocational planning himself – it was just another random faculty assignment (cafeteria duty, bus monitoring, smoking in the bathroom police, etc.) In this case, he was the school’s wood shop teacher.

In that fateful meeting with my adviser/wood shop teacher, I remember him shaking his head as soon as I sat down, before launching into, “Let’s not waste any time discussing college options.” That proclamation was followed by his perspective that I was basically a lousy student and that I should give up any dream or aspiration for an advanced education.

Though this adviser/wood shop teacher was an uninspired and undereducated jerk himself, destined to spend the bulk of his adult life overseeing the mass production of student-made wooden bird feeders, I remember nodding my head in agreement with his “expert” prognosis.

I left that meeting erasing any thoughts of attending college from my future plans. I also left his office carrying a small index card with the handwritten words, “Stock Boy – McCormack Dodge,” and a street address in Newton, the town next door.

His final advice was for me to visit that “car dealership” to see about a stock boy job that had been posted with our high school, “something you should be able to handle,” was his parting shot.

As it turned out, my high school adviser/wood shop teacher/jerk inadvertently did me a huge favor. The company looking to hire a stock boy wasn’t a car dealership called McCormack Dodge, but instead one of the first software development companies in the country named McCormack & Dodge.

I took the job of stock boy during my senior year and, within one year, was promoted to a management role overseeing the company’s business conferences. In that role I booked one of the most famous entertainers in the world at the time, The Amazing Kreskin, to perform at a McCormack & Dodge conference in Las Vegas.

Shortly thereafter, Kreskin hired me to be his road manager and, for three years, I traveled all over the world with Kreskin, coordinating more than 950 shows. From there, I ran “Starsearch” – the national talent platform that went on to spawn “American Idol,” “The Voice,” and many others.

Later I became an adjunct professor at four different universities over a nine-year period, joined Coca-Cola as an executive followed by 20 other jobs, roles and positions, with stops in New Jersey, Michigan, Texas, Tennessee, California and Georgia while working in all 50 states and more than 35 countries before moving to Maine in 2001 and starting six businesses.

Now, almost 40 years later, I can trace the direct linkage from my first job as a stock boy to my career today. Though unconventional, it’s a path common to many entrepreneurs – powered by the mantra “Don’t give up.”

My message to those young 12th grade graduates now entering the work force – you can define and create your own 13th grade if you’re willing to work hard and commit yourself to being the best at something – anything.

Be the best truck driver, carpenter, software programmer, landscaper, hair stylist, painter, advertising executive, writer, mechanic, elevator repairman, etc. Just keep working at it and don’t give up.

If you find something that you like (even better if you’re passionate about it) then fully commit yourself. Have faith that your efforts will be recognized and rewarded. It doesn’t matter if you start out as a stock boy or stockbroker, the great equalizer when it comes to success in business is the results born from hard work and a personal commitment to excellence.

Finally, don’t let anyone (parents, relatives, friends, etc.) make you feel bad or inferior for choosing a less common path in regard to work versus higher education.

Much like any street map, there are many roads people can take to get to the same place – some quicker, some more enjoyable, some more challenging.

The important thing is to own your path and keep moving in a positive direction.

Best wishes to all of this year’s Maine graduates.

Steve Woods is from away, but fully here now, living in Yarmouth, working in Falmouth, traveling the world, and trying his best. His column appears every other week. He can also be heard each Saturday at 11 a.m. on WLOB-AM 1310.

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