Some Words of Wisdom From Peter Drucker to My Daughter

5 minute read

Dear Emma,

Next week you will graduate from college, a milestone that calls for a little fatherly advice—advice, to be precise, from the “father of modern management.”

So here, with an assist from your own dad, are half a dozen insights courtesy of Peter Drucker, a man who earned his degree more than 80 years ago and then spent the next six decades mulling what it takes to be successful. I must warn you that Drucker believed “education should confer duties rather than privileges.” In other words, none of what I’m about to tell you is going to be easy.

For starters, have the courage to quit your first job. I know, I know. You aren’t even gainfully employed yet and the labor market is brutal, especially for recent grads, and I’m suggesting that you already be prepared to give notice.

But “on the whole,” Drucker wrote, “young people have a tendency to hang on to the first job . . . beyond the time when they should have quit for their own good.” So, as crazy as it might sound, be ready to bolt if you aren’t learning enough, or if you don’t work for an employer that, as Drucker put it, is willing “to heap responsibility on people in junior positions.”

“Your first job may turn out to be right for you—but this is pure accident,” Drucker noted. “Certainly you should not change jobs constantly or people will become suspicious rightly of your ability to hold any job. At the same time, you must not look upon the first job as the final job; it is primarily a training job, an opportunity to analyze yourself.”

Second, Drucker isn’t kidding about analyzing yourself—or “managing oneself,” as he termed it in a famous essay that you and all of your classmates would be smart to read. As you step off campus, now is the time to begin to understand: What are your strengths? How do you perform at your peak? What are the core values that you would never compromise? What kind of work environment would provide the best fit?

And then there is the most important question of all: Where can you make the most meaningful contribution? “Odd as it seems,” Drucker remarked, “you will achieve the greatest results in business and career if you drop the word ‘achievement’ from your vocabulary. Replace it with ‘contribution.’”

Third, as you contemplate contributing, be bold. Stretch yourself. Yet don’t overreach, either. “To aim at results that cannot be achieved—or that can be under only the most unlikely circumstances—is not being ambitious; it is being foolish,” Drucker wrote.

Fourth, steel yourself for plenty of ups and downs as you make your way. In fact, one of the worst things that can happen to a person, Drucker asserted, is “too much success too soon.” One of the best things, meanwhile, is to get knocked around at an early age. It teaches you how to cope.

“Anyone who has been through earlier setbacks has learned that the world has not come to an end,” Drucker wrote. “But the person who comes up against it for the first time at the age of 45 is likely to collapse for good. For the things that people are apt to do when they receive the first nasty blow may destroy a mature person, especially someone with a family, whereas a youth of 25 bounces right back.”

Fifth, take stock regularly and honestly assess how it’s going. Drucker did this every summer, judging his work from the preceding year, “beginning with the things I did well but could or should have done better, down to the things I did poorly and the things I should have done but did not do.” With this unvarnished view, you’ll be well positioned to reset your priorities going forward.

Finally, keep in mind that, while you’re about to receive your diploma, it’s up to you to continue learning. There’s simply no choice in an era where knowledge quickly becomes obsolete.

Drucker liked to tell the story of the man who attends his 40-year college reunion and sees his former professor just as he is about to administer a final exam. The old grad looks at the test and says, “Professor Smithers, these are the same questions you asked us 40 years ago!” Smithers nods and says, “Yes, but the answers are different.”

“We always thought it was a joke. No—this is wisdom,” Drucker explained. “The answers to questions do not remain the same. . . . You learn to do a little better, to push back that infinite boundary of ignorance just a bit.”

Of course, you must never stop learning for another reason, too. It’s the one thing that keeps life interesting. And “boredom,” as Drucker cautioned, “is a deadly disease.”

By offering these guideposts, Drucker’s ultimate intention was clear: for everyone to find “personal satisfaction” and to “feel that she contributes, performs, serves her values and fulfills herself.” Mom and I couldn’t wish for you any more than that.

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