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The Two Most Important Questions for Graduates

The Two Most Important Questions for Graduates

by Brandon Busteed

When it comes to advice for recent college graduates, Gallup research offers some very powerful and clear guidance. It's probably not the kind of counsel that the typical parent or commencement speaker is offering students. The good news is that it's not complicated. It all boils down to how graduates answer two critical questions -- distilled from what Gallup research suggests are two of the most important elements for success in work and in life.

Unlike most of the personal advice commencement speakers shared with graduates this year, Gallup's guidance comes from the collected wisdom of the world and the workplace. Gallup Daily tracking interviews a representative sample of 1,000 adults in the U.S. each day, and the Gallup World Poll conducts nationally representative surveys in more than 160 countries, which are home to more than 99% of the world's population. Together, they provide a platform of endless insights about how people think about and experience their work and their lives.

Gallup also works with many of the world's best companies, nonprofits and government agencies to measure important elements such as employee engagement -- the degree to which employees are involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace -- and well-being -- how they evaluate and experience their lives. Insights from this research are incredibly relevant to college graduates as they seek their first job out of college or consider graduate school.

Across more than three-quarters of a century, Gallup has asked tens of thousands of questions of tens of millions of people. Gallup's goal is to pose meaningful questions -- ones for which the answers really matter. We do this by validating the responses against important outcomes, such as worker productivity or individual healthcare costs, for example. We've discovered that how people answer is predictive of all sorts of important outcomes for them, the organizations they work for, their communities and their countries.

So after decades of research -- and after asking tens of millions of people tens of thousands of questions, Gallup asked itself: "When it comes to success in work and in life, what are the most important elements?" Across all our research on workplace engagement and well-being, Gallup has essentially discovered what it means to have a great job and a great life.

Gallup has asked more than 27 million employees worldwide how they feel about their jobs. In studying workplace engagement, we've learned that things like salary, benefits and perks are less important to how workers perform their jobs.

Well-being, we've also learned, is not about how much money you make -- at least, not after you make $75,000 in annual earnings. Research has shown that a person's emotional well-being doesn't improve over this amount of annual income. So if your only definition of success in life is how much money you make, you may end up sorely disappointed with your daily experiences.

After whittling down all our best thinking on what it means to have a great job and a great life, these are two of the key elements that hold the secret to success in work and in life. They are:

Is there someone who encourages your development?


Do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?

If you're a college graduate looking for a job -- or searching for the right grad school program -- nothing is more important than who your manager or academic mentor will be. It's more important than the name brand of the company or the school; it's more important than what you'll be paid or what your benefits or financial aid packages will be.

The single most important thing you can do to help ensure your future success is to find a great manager or a great adviser and mentor. Ask yourself: Does your manager or adviser care about you as a person? Does he have a track record for developing others in their careers? Does she ask what you do best -- and do you know how you'll answer that question when you're asked? If you work for the wrong manager, it's a disaster. People don't leave companies; they leave managers, Gallup research tells us. Great managers and mentors focus on your growth and development and put you in a role where you can do what you're best at each day.

This may sound simplistic, but you can only become the best you. If you try to be someone else, you fail to become the best you. Talent, Gallup has learned, is like a fingerprint. Every person's talent makes them unique, and the key is to use yours to become the best you. Don't dwell on your weaknesses. Everyone has them. But weaknesses don't develop; if you focus on them, at most, you can become average at things you're not naturally good at. But if you focus on your strengths -- the things that come naturally to you -- there's no limit to your development. Development is fundamental to being human. People don't want to be "satisfied" in their jobs; they want to grow and develop.

One of the Latin root words for educate means "to lead out" -- which is ironic, given that our education system is primarily designed "to stuff things into" you. But think about what that implies: The purpose of being educated is to "lead out" your potential and to develop it so that you can do what you're best at each day. This may very well be your purpose in life: to reach your full potential by doing what you do best each day.

Every morning when you wake up and look in the mirror, ask yourself these questions:

Is there someone who encourages my development?


Do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?

If you can't give a resounding yes when you think about these two questions, that's not a surprise. Only about 30% of Americans strongly agree they have a chance to do what they're best at each day. But if you don't, work to make it so. And don't do it just for yourself. Ask whether you are also encouraging others' development and helping them do what they're best at each day.

The wisdom of the world tells us this is the secret to success in work and in life. With this advice, college graduates can go forth and conquer.

This article is adapted from a speech delivered by Brandon Busteed as the Commencement Address at Augustana College's 155th annual convocation in Moline, Illinois, on May 24, 2015.

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