The one skill you need to master in college to succeed at work

Never stop learning.
Never stop learning.
Image: AP/Seth Wenig
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Nearly 30 years ago, I had just crossed the podium at my college graduation. Diploma in hand, I remember feeling a whirlwind of emotions: excitement and optimism, hope and nostalgia, gratitude and awe.

But as the weekend of graduation celebrations drew to a close and I began to focus on what lay ahead, I also remember feeling extremely anxious. I was about to leave the safety of college and head off into the big, wide world.

I had already been hired as an accountant at EY, where I remain today. I already had a head start from serving as the controller for the minor league Single A team for the Chicago White Sox during college. I was excited to begin my career after college. But I had no idea what my life would look like beyond school.

I was still daunted by the overwhelming imperative I felt to succeed. In my mind, failure was not an option.

If I could go back in time, I’d tell that nervous, 21-year-old version of myself what I now know to be true: You already have everything you need to succeed.

I now extend that same advice to all the new graduates preparing for that next step.

Your education has hopefully encouraged your sense of curiosity and fostered a love of learning. As you set out into a world characterized by disruption and change, you’ll find these are invaluable assets. In fact, the ability to keep learning is really the only skill you need to find success in the working world.

Today, anyone can master a skill, only to see it superseded tomorrow. To prepare for all the uncertainty the future has in store, commit yourself to mastering the art of learning. Ultimately, what’s more valuable than whatever knowledge you’ve gained in your studies is a flexible mindset, and the ability to always embrace change as an opportunity.

When I was asked to lead our gender-equity initiatives as the Midwest client service and accounts leader, I knew this was my opportunity to make a different kind of impact within the firm. Women made up half of the company’s workforce in the Americas at the time, and I knew this was an opportunity to represent them further at the leadership level. As a result of that experience, I was able to leverage my passion for diversity and inclusion, and this passion has helped me stay ahead of the curve to this day. It also helped me change how I lead others at work.

I learned that sometimes the key to belonging is accepting and focusing on the many ways you stand out—meaning, appreciate the ways you don’t fit in. This is fundamental to unlocking the true potential of any person, including yourself.

I think back to a pivotal time in my career when I was asked to move overseas to Germany and Switzerland to lead an important client engagement for approximately five years. I was a new mother, and I had to uproot and relocate my family to set up a new life in an unfamiliar place.

But in the process, I learned an extraordinary amount about cultivating healthy teams, as well as the power in listening to and harnessing diverse perspectives, cultural differences, and thinking styles. In the end, not only was it an extraordinary opportunity for my career and for my young family to be fully immersed in different cultures, but it was also a transformative learning opportunity for me as a leader.

The community ripple effect

This May, I was honored with the opportunity to deliver the commencement address at my alma mater, Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana and some of my best friends from college traveled with me to the ceremony. Being surrounded by the same people I have known for years, through first jobs, and ups and downs, reaffirms the value of community.

There’s a myth that haunts the professional world: that you need to be self-interested to get ahead, and that if you want to make it to the top, you must push everyone else out of your way. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Professional success is not a zero-sum game.

Think of these relationships you cultivate now as a springboard to your next step, and as a blueprint for community-building throughout your life.

When I returned from Europe as a young EY partner, I had the opportunity to be named lead partner on a large account. I had that opportunity because of a senior partner who had always been a mentor to me.

Realizing that it was a critical time in my career, he vacated his leadership role so I could assume the post to gain the experience I needed to take the next step in my career. I will always be grateful for his support; and I remember his actions every time I face a decision that will support the people I lead.

Your community—not your conquests­—will be a source of confidence as you navigate and make sense of an unpredictable world. You may not see it now, but the community you hold close now is also a model as you create communities beyond your college world. They will be as inclusive and as long-lived as the ones you’ve found within them.

As you embark on this next stage in your life, remind yourself that you are ready. Ground your actions in a strong set of values, stay curious, and model empathy and inclusiveness in everything that you do.

As you’ll surely soon find out, graduation is not the end of your education. There will never be a time in your life or career where you cannot learn more, improve the way you do something, or re-think your approach.

As graduation season comes to a close, my advice to young graduates is this: Despite the uncertainty you may feel, you are ready. Even as you step out into an increasingly complex world, if you commit yourself to keep learning no matter what, you have all the tools you’ll ever need.