What to expect over the next decade and beyond (CS graduation speech)
May 2015 (perspective of an assistant professor)
This article was adapted from a 10-minute speech I gave at the University of Rochester computer science department graduation ceremony on May 16, 2015. My target audience was students who were graduating with bachelor's degrees in computer science. That speech was, in turn, adapted from Academic High Achievers At Age Thirty.
I'm really excited to be here today because it's been exactly ten years since my own college graduation. I was in the Class of 2005. Ten years ago, I was sitting where you're now sitting, listening to some older person give a speech. My friends and I all graduated in our early 20s, and now many us are turning 30, the big three-ohh.
Today I'm going to give you a glimpse into the future, to show you what to expect over the next decade.
I know you're going to hear this same bold claim from every single graduation speaker this weekend. So why should you trust what I say? I'm just one person. Well, you shouldn't trust what I say, no more than you should trust what everyone else says. Because we can all provide only one perspective – our own.
To overcome this limitation, I ran an experiment to get more perspectives. I sent an online survey to 160 of my friends, mostly from college. 66 of them responded. Many are like yourselves – computer science, electrical engineering, and other STEM majors. In the past decade, they've gone into a wide variety of careers.
My survey asked two simple questions to people who are now around 30 years old:
I'm going to tell you the three most common responses to both questions. I'll start with what people thought they have less of now at age 30 versus 20, and then I'll conclude with what people thought they have more of now.
Let's start with the less category. The implication here is that as you get older, you're going to have less of certain things, so you might as well take advantage of them while you're still young.
The number one answer for what people have less of as they grow older? I'm wondering if you all can guess ... maybe the parents here know? [The parents in the audience yell out “TIME!”]
Yes! Free time was by far the most common answer. My friends wrote how, back in college, they had so much free time to explore their interests, to get together with friends, and to do wild stuff. But as they got older, there were more responsibilities with jobs and families and such, so now they have much less free time than they used to. So take advantage of the unstructured time that you have during your first few years out of college, because that will always decrease no matter where you go in life.
The second most common answer was less physical energy. People wrote responses like, “Back in college I could pull three all-nighters in a row and eat junk food and live off of nothing but pizza, but now if I try to do that, then I can't function at all.” Less raw physical energy to travel, to stay up late hacking on projects, to do all sorts of other stuff. Keep this in mind, and use up that potential as much as you can in your early 20s.
Finally, people had less of a desire for novelty. As they got older, due to having less free time and more responsibilities, they felt like they also had less of a desire to try brand-new sorts of things that they would've tried in their 20s. Remember, this isn't just my own opinion – this is what my friends actually wrote in the survey, completely unprompted.
To summarize: less free time, less physical energy, and less of a desire for novelty.
OK, this talk sounds mildly dismal so far, like “oh your best years were in college, and it's all downhill from there.” You might have heard older people spouting the cliche “college was the best years of my life.” But I think that people who say that are pretty sad. If the best years of your life were when you were 18 to 22 years old, you still have 3/4 of your life ahead of you. That's pretty sad.
Fortunately that's not the case. The best years of your life are not in college, even though you might have had some really good times in college. Life does get better as you get older. How? Here are the three main things people had more of at age 30, according to my survey responses.
The most common answer was more expertise. As you get deeper into your career or perhaps go to graduate school, you naturally gain more technical expertise in your chosen field. You had a good foundation in college with classes and projects, but as you specialize in an area, you'll be able to do a lot more in the future, which is an empowering feeling.
And I don't just mean expertise in technical matters, but also expertise in how to deal with people at work. Many of you are probably going into technical jobs where you'll do programming, engineering, or design. But most of your work life will be dealing with other people – managing relationships with your peers, with your bosses, and with external clients. As you get more senior, more and more of your work time will be spent on the people-related aspects and less on the technical aspects of your job. Even if you're a die-hard engineer, you'll eventually become the senior member of your technical team and need to work with and mentor new team members.
The second thing people had more of – which goes along with expertise – was more confidence. For my friends and I, our 20s was a time of growth for our self-confidence. We suddenly got thrown out into the world, all this stuff came our way from all directions, and we had to deal with unexpected situations as they arose. Also, look around at your parents. They were once your age, believe it or not. They were students too, and over the next 10, 20, or 30 years, they've grown more confident in how they've dealt with the world.
The final category was a bit hazy, but people felt like they had more perspective. More perspective about what the world is like, what options there are in life, and other fuzzy thoughts that I clump under the term “perspective.” I want to end by reading two great survey responses related to perspective. Here's one:
“I have better perspective about what success looks like, what it takes to achieve success (it's never overnight no matter how much it looks that way). Better perspective about who I am, what I stand for, what motivates me, what deflates me, what I'm good at, what I'm not good at.”
And finally this one:
“I am less naive about the challenges in life. Some things don't go as planned or are not what they are cut out to be. When I was 20, I had a specific mindset about how my life would play out. I thought I knew what I needed and what I didn't need. But in that decade, I really learned that life is rarely like you plan it to be, and I experienced a lot along the way. I guess that also means I've become less conservative and more of a risk taker.”
There's something universal about these insights. As a new college graduate, you've spent the past 15 years of your life going through a very regimented process. Ever since you started kindergarten, every semester you took classes, you made the grades, you checked off the right boxes, and then every year you rose and rose and rose. Then you took more tests, got more grades, and so on. Now it's wild because for the first time in your life there isn't a grading rubric. There aren't exams or problem sets every week. You've been so used to that mindset of having everything be fixed and regimented, and all of a sudden that's completely blown out of the water as you enter adulthood. As you'll see, life never goes as expected.
To sum up, people turning 30 felt like they had less free time, less physical energy, and less of a desire for novelty, so enjoy those as much as you can in your 20s. Then what you can look forward to in your 30s and beyond are more expertise, more confidence, and more perspective about life.
Class of 2015 ... congratulations again, and best wishes in the next decade and far, far beyond!