Stedman Graham’s unconventional advice for young professionals

“College is supposed to prepare you for success. … Taking sociology courses, drop it? Read a book.”

Debby Wong / Shutterstock

“Taking a sociology course? Drop it. Read a book,” Stedman Graham joked to Ladders. The New York Times bestselling author was quick to pepper, measured responses with short bursts of dry humor, though never at clarity’s expense.

The pleasure of our correspondence regarded his new book, Identity Leadership: To Lead Others, You Must First Lead Yourself – a meditation on self-actualization and productivity, on route to becoming Graham’s 12th publication.

identity leadership
Center Street

Follow Ladders on Flipboard!

Follow Ladders’ magazines on Flipboard covering Happiness, Productivity, Job Satisfaction, Neuroscience, and more!


“Age of skills”

In honor of the approaching release, in addition to a partnered launch of a diversity, and inclusion initiative, Graham spoke at Thrive Global about the mission statement of his latest book and all of the seminal passions that inspired it. “Identity,” Graham remarked, in his introduction and pointed out again in our one-on-one chat.

Making the most out of time is purposed by a thorough and conscientious knowledge of one’s self-a practice Graham believes many Americans employ much too late.  He frequently evidenced a frustration at all the hours wasted by a generation that ultimately lacks orientation. Graham once contended that there are 6.5 billion people (the population of the world) that don’t know who they are- “they have no process for organizing their life around the 24 hours that they have.”

This assessment is endorsed by a survey featured in Grahams’s new book, directed by Harris Poll,  that underscores the most common menaces to productivity. Fifty percent of respondents reported losing time to personal calls and texts, 42% confessed spending the majority of their day gossiping,  and 39% occasioned the internet – a vice that earned a bit more charity from Graham than the others. In his estimation, the educational system is outdated, which means young professionals must rely on other means to stay enlightened, and relevant in the 21st century.

Currently, the consensus regarding the practical necessity of college education is in limbo. As of 2019, Americans owe over $1.56 trillion in student loan debt, segmented among 45 million borrowers. When higher education stopped being about developing skills germane to our interests and turned into an institution that determined how much we ought to earn every year, ambivalent young adults decided having a degree in something was better than taking a year or two to figure out what it is they actually want to do. Information only becomes knowledge when it is attended by purpose.

“[Today,] the educational system teaches you to memorize, take tests, repeat the information back, you get labeled with a grade, If I asked what you learned two weeks later, the student will probably say ‘I forgot.’ Nothing for nothing equals nothing,” Graham commented to CBS back in 2012.

Seven years later, Graham still celebrates the process of rumination. I asked the author if there were simple direct ways to focus an anxious trajectory, specifically for those that already cowed to the college myth. History has taught me that big questions often relent to an army of small ones.

“College is supposed to prepare you for success,” Graham told Ladders. “Is what you’re studying preparing you for the workforce? Taking sociology courses, drop it? Read a book. [Are] you taking psychology courses? Drop it, read a book. You taking liberal arts? Drop it, get you some books. Focus on skills. Not generalized information. This is the age of skills.”

An efficient tactical approach to determining whether or not enrollment is costing you valuable time is conditioning your mind to think like an employer. Graham added: “I wanna know what you can do. I don’t care about what school you went to, or how smart you think you are. What can you do? And does it bring value to my company? Does it bring value to my organization?” Figure out where the industry is going and what you should be focused on. ”

Drive, knowledge of one’s self, and trust are all neatly defined as “Self Leadership.” Unraveling the “process to success” begins by organizing the things that you’re passionate about. Similarly to interviews, Graham has done in the past, the word “love” punctuated virtually every proclamation. He defines “love” as the fidelity to the things you care about, “making love practical.”

Instead of reacting to habits, Graham implores us to organize information toward a foundation of growth and development.

Leaders, not labels

The fruits of self-leadership extend beyond the professional realm, of course. Members of marginalized groups are particularly at risk of being amputated from a sense of self-worth. Graham lamented the pervasion of labels that keeps so many young women and minorities from discovering pertinent things about their desires and passions. Too often, labels, are just limitations disguised as cultural appreciation; the kind of hackneyed blurb that reins MLK’s efforts, or Virginia Woolf’s influence.

Coleman Hughes is a brilliant writer and student currently enrolled at Columbia University, as a philosophy major. The well-reasoned undergrad is a frequent contributor to Quillette, Heterodox Academy, and the Columbia Daily Spectator, he also happens to be a person of color- a superficial distinction that ensures the quality of his writing play second fiddle to tribal urges. Graham dedicated some time to address the kinds of controversies that call Coleman’s authenticity into question.

At multiple points, he mentioned his objective to do away with all of the barriers that keep opportunities and education out of the reach of disenfranchised groups, some of which are institutional, and some of which are philosophical. In reference to the latter, i.e. the fear that the outlay for obtaining certain kinds of success, or adopting certain kinds of world views, is the right to your culture, Graham declared that we have to “belong to ourselves,” first and foremost. For many years, Graham confesses to not knowing who he was by reason of his “race-based consciousness.” When you relinquish your power of identity to social constructs, you forfeit control of your development.

“Early in life, I let other people define me. I let people define me by my race.” Graham continues. “I couldn’t make plans for my life because I had no concept of who I was or what I was capable of.”

Our passions paint a more faithful image of our character, not arbitrary features like race or gender. As Graham pointed out, “the list of labels get very long when you let other people define you.” When we acquiesce to labels, we concurrently “develop mindsets to inequality, which leads to us making poor choices and limiting our own potential and opportunities.”

“Write down all the things you love. An organizational process-organize then you gotta think. Identify your skills. Eliminate all the things you don’t want to do. And narrow it down to the things that you might want to do. From here, ask yourself, which one of these things would I do, even if I never had to work for a living? If you didn’t have to get paid, what would you do?”

Once again, when mapping success, Graham motioned that love is the most faithful navigator and that time offers the truest mark of egalitarianism. “Everybody’s got 24 hours, that’s what makes us equal. The question is how are you going to organize that 24 hours so that you can become a learner.”


You might also enjoy…

CW Headley|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at cheadley@theladders.com.