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Top 10 Things College Graduates Can Learn from David Letterman

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David Letterman retired this week after 31 years, making him the longest serving host of late night television. Like recent college graduates, he’s leaving one part of his life behind and starting another. So in the spirit of the thousands of Top Ten Lists that Letterman created, here is a list of Top 10 Things graduates can learn from David Letterman.

10. Be thankful and gracious. When Letterman underwent a quintuple bypass, he brought out the doctors and the nurses who cared for him. In his finale show, he profusely thanked all the people who worked with him over the years. It’s impossible to be successful without help. Acknowledge those that help you along the way.

9. Perfect your listening skills. Letterman was the master of listening carefully. No matter who Letterman interviewed, he showed genuine interest in finding out something new about them that went beyond their career or fame, and he was a master of hearing what was behind his guests’ words. Listening carefully is what allowed him to be so entertaining.

8. Don’t shy away from people you don’t like. Letterman didn’t like every celebrity that made an appearance on his show and not everyone who sat at his desk liked him. Cher famously let him know exactly what she thought of him, and it took Oprah Winfrey 16 years to return between shows, spawning rumors of a feud between the two. But that didn’t stop Letter man from inviting them to sit beside him and exploring the issues.

7. Don’t let career disappointments stop you. On his last show, Letterman joked, “I’ll be honest with you. It’s looking like I won’t be getting The Tonight Show.” All laughter aside, Letterman had his sights on becoming the host of The Tonight Show, but was passed over by NBC. That didn’t stop him from pursuing his goals and claiming his own spot in the coveted night time spotlight. Circumstances that are a disappointment to you may eventually lead you down a better path.

6. Understand that personal mistakes can impact your career. Letterman lost lots of respect by cheating on his wife, but he made a public plea owning up to his mistakes and asking for her forgiveness. “Let me tell you folks, I’ve got my work cut out for me,” he said to his audience. Understand that your actions away from your job may impact how you’re perceived on the job. If you make a mistake, own it, apologize sincerely, and try to fix it.

5. Be innovative. Eric and Justin Stangle, former head writers, said that Letterman “changed television forever.” He broke the framework of traditional late night TV, and connected more deeply with the “common man” by making oddballs and ordinary people the stars. His “stupid pet tricks” were born out of a need to fill airtime, but were so popular that more than 130 segments aired over Letterman’s shows.

4. Discover what is working for you and stick with it. Regis Philbin was Letterman’s guest 150 times, including during the pivotal first show that aired after the September 11th attacks. Tom Hanks made his 60th appearance on the show this week. Bill Murray who was Letterman’s very first guest when Late Night debuted in 1982, bookended the show with his 44th appearance on Letterman’s finale episode. And each appearance was better than the last. Recognize what is working for you and refine it to make it better.

3. Use your position to do good. Letterman was the first American comedy performer to return to TV after the September 11 attacks and was seen by many as the leading voice to help bring back the nation from tragedy. He put words to the confusion, anger and sadness that all Americans were experiencing and showed the audience that it was okay to be somber, cry and to laugh. And then he encouraged everyone. “There is only one requirement for any of us and that is to be courageous because courage, as you might know, defines all other human behavior,” he said.

2. Find the humor in awkward situations. An awkward 10-minute chat with Joaquin Phoenix on February 11, 2009 showcased Letterman’s ability to use humor, quick thinking, and persistence to salvage his show. When Lady Gaga became upset about Letterman’s questions regarding various rumors, prompting her to rip up a piece of paper and eat it, Letterman quipped, “That’s not what you think…It’s chemically treated. You’re going to be sick for weeks.” You will be put in awkward situations by coworkers and clients. Roll with the punches and improvise. Humor can help you get through and find a solution.

1. Simplify. Letterman’s Top 10 lists allowed him to explore a topic and whittle it down to its most basic elements. From Barack Obama’s campaign, to popularity in high school, he boiled all of it down to ten simple points. Don’t be overwhelmed by the complexities in life. Sometimes it’s better to keep things simple.

Thanks Dave!

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