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This week, my fiance and my sister graduated back-to-back, earning a Masters and two Bachelors degrees, respectively. Clearly, I am incredibly fortunate to be part of a family that kicks academic butt. I am so proud of them.

One moment in the speaker’s address for the Masters commencement caught my attention. He was praising the graduates for their innovation and perseverance, and urging them to dream as big as possible, and he said, “Do you know why a lion doesn’t chase chipmunks? He knows if he does, he’ll starve to death.”

My first reaction was wow, that makes a lot of sense. Pouring my time and energy into busywork is a great way to burn myself out without accomplishing anything I’m proud of or receiving a sustainable reward. It’s the reason I don’t write $5 content mill articles. It’s also the reason I tend to let the apartment get messy when I’m working on a midterm project or trying to finish NaNo–having a clutter-free coffee table is nowhere near as important as polishing my short story.

But then I started thinking about a conversation I recently had with my supervisor, Teresa. She told me the story of a freelancer we work with–the freelancer timed her switch from a 9-5 to freelance life poorly, leaving her company when another member of her team was on maternity leave so that the company ended up feeling forced into a corner to work with her freelance  because they didn’t have the in-house resources to cover her work while they found someone new. The freelancer also apparently asked to be paid a steep hourly rate–nearly twice what Teresa’s encountered other, more experienced freelancers charging. Her company cut her off as soon as they could. Our company still works with her, so I guess that’s a sign that being a little pushy can get you what you need, but she comes off as greedy and a little underhanded in how she went after her goal.

Working for goals too small can kill your spirit.

Setting your goals too high can cross the line from assertiveness into entitlement, or can leave you with nothing at all.

I’m only 3 years postgrad myself, so I am still figuring things out. It occurs to me, though, that although the lion will die if he only eats tiny chipmunks, he won’t be any better off only trying to catch the strongest, fastest antelope. And in fact, by claiming the older or weaker animals, the lion not only satisfies his hunger without working to exhaustion, but strengthens the herd.

So my advice this year for graduates is this: Know what kind of animal you are. Know what you need to fuel your goals and do not underestimate or cheat yourself from going for what inspires you. But don’t undervalue the ones around you, either. Creativity, passion, drive, and innovation reach far enough to benefit more than one.

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