Last night I found myself sitting in a graduation ceremony. The high school has outgrown the school auditorium, so we were inside the local college’s basketball venue. There were a number of speeches given by graduates who spoke of encouragement, looking forward, fond memories, and the usual things that you hear at graduations in speeches given by students who perhaps don’t have a lot of life experience. Kind, well-meaning speeches, to be sure, but… they are what they are.
It occurred to me that I have things to say to these students. The problem is that I am neither rich, famous, or associated even remotely with the school, other than I myself am the parent of twins who will hopefully graduate themselves in a few years, so it’s not likely that I will be asked to give the speech. So I’m going to write it down and blog (and if you steal this to use at your commencement, you darn well better give me credit for it!) What exactly would I say?
Here it is: Good evening graduates, parents, families, and friends! You are all here tonight because your child, grandchild, relative, friend or neighbor is on the verge of the rest of their life. While we are all wishing them the best, there are things they should know, and as an older and hopefully wiser adult, here is what I would tell you.
1) Take some time off (I’m stealing this straight from Guy Kawasaki: look it up!). You have worked your butt off for a period of years… or maybe you slacked all the way through, I don’t know. Either way, whether you like it or not, you will find yourself becoming more responsible very soon. If there is any way you can make it happen, you need to go have some fun: this summer, or maybe between semesters, but do it. You may not get another chance. Some of you are headed to college for four years, followed by graduate school, or law school, or medical school, or to the military and boot camp, or to a mind-numbingly boring job, so the next four/six/eight/ten years of your life will be spent with your head in a book, or a lab, or a practice room, a kitchen, a fox hole, or somewhere that is not very fun. Go do something fun. Not something stupid, or ill-advised, or illegal, but something fun. Get a backpack and knock around Europe for a month. Go to New York City and take in a half dozen Broadway shows. Spend every penny you can get from your parents, grandparents, relatives, friends and neighbors. You need to do this because you may not get to do it again. You should do it because this will give you perspective, a life experience, and a good memory that may carry you through dark times in the future. So enjoy it, and don’t feel guilty about asking your mom, dad, grandparents, etc. to let you do it. I wish I were you, and trust me: they do, too!
2) I have words of wisdom for you that don’t involve traveling, slacking, partying, or backpacking, too! Here are the first: Some of the best lessons you will ever learn will not be in a classroom. (This is the part that makes the educators in the room mad. But they know it’s true and will get over it). You will learn these lessons by doing what we older adults call “living”. While “living”, you will learn by failing. You will learn by screwing up. You will learn by doing. You will learn by making choices. And the smartest of you will learn by watching others, and seeing them fail, screw up, and doing. This is OK. As you live your lives, you will make choices, and then hopefully have to live with those choices. I say “hopefully” because some of you are severely protected by your parents, grandparents, relatives, friends, and neighbors. You make decisions and when bad things happen, these loved ones bail you out so you don’t have to live with the consequences of your decisions. That may seem like a good thing now, but sooner or later it will be bad, because no matter how much these people love and care for you, they won’t always be there. Sooner or later your decisions will come back to haunt you, and the older you get, the bigger those decisions become. What is the best thing? This is the hard part for the parents and loved ones: let your children make decisions, and make them deal with the fallout and the aftermath of those decisions. The sooner your kids learn personal responsibility, the sooner they make good decisions, and the better they get at it. Also, when they learn this sooner the bad consequences are usually much smaller than when they learn them later. Yes, it’s hard to let your kid screw up, but it’s much harder when they are thirty, or forty, or fifty.
3) Graduates: failure will come. You will encounter things in life that you can’t overcome, or run into things that will get to you or mess up your life’s plans. That’s ok: you can learn from failure. Failure represents opportunity, too. Michael Jordan (he was an NBA basketball player, kids) missed more shots than most other players, but he made more, too. Babe Ruth (baseball player; your grandparents knew all about him) struck out a lot back in the day, but he also created a home run record that stood unmatched for decades. What’s the point here? Trying begats failure, but also begats success, and success can’t come unless you try. So keep trying. One more tired sports analogy: you can’t win if you sit out the game. You can be carried by others, but you personally do not win.
4) Luck can come to anyone, but it comes most often to those who work their butts off for it. It also comes to those who have a good plan, who follow through on the plan, and who work hard to execute their plan. Armand Hammer once said “When I work fourteen hours a day seven days a week I get lucky”. Edna Mode in the movie The Incredibles said “Luck favors the prepared”. Yes, sometimes you will fail (see item 3 above), but sometimes you succeed. And if you don’t try, you get nothing. Don’t settle for nothing. And here is some more good news: this whole planning thing? It can be taught. It can be learned. It can be practised. It can be a habit. What does that say about luck? I think that is saying: You can make your own luck. Luck can be many things, but at some point luck is a choice.
5) However you got to wherever you are right now doesn’t mean you can’t be somewhere better tomorrow. The decisions you made in the past have certainly influenced your path, but you can make better decisions, starting right now. Maybe you wait until the night before to study for your test? How did that work out for you? The smart ones make different choices the next time. Making the same decisions the same way over and over and expecting a different result is insanity, so…be sane.
6) Never, ever stop learning. None of you is going to die one day and get a tombstone that says “I wish I had watched more TV”, or “I should have played more video games”, or “I wish I had worked more hours a week”. I’m not saying these things are bad, but learning will expand your mind and keep you moving forward more than these other things will. I was once told “You either are growing or you are dying”. Your mind is the same way: keep expanding it. Keep thinking. Keep trying new things, considering new ideas, and challenging what you believe you know. William James once said “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” Open your minds and honestly consider other ideas… but when you see they are wrong, don’t be afraid to reject them. Just make sure you do it in a way that leaves dignity and respect with those that have other ideas and cultural backgrounds than you do: in the end we all still have to get along and share this earth. And hey, that trip and fun stuff I told you to do way back at the beginning of this little talk? Those are also ways to learn (and another great reason to ask for that money!) Never stop learning.
7) Give back to mankind. In the course of your lifetime, some of you will earn millions and millions of dollars, maybe more. Don’t do this by stepping on those around you. Find ways to be compassionate and caring. Yes, you will want to win in life, but winning is useless if you are alone and hated. That boy or girl sitting next to you? They are a soul. They are just like you, but different. They have hopes and dreams and fears, though maybe not all of the same ones you do. Don’t be afraid to help someone else meet their hopes and dreams and escape their fears; it will make you a better person, too. And in ten, or twenty or thirty years when you get back together for the big high school reunion? The best of you will not be bragging about your money, or houses, or cars. And if anyone does, most people won’t want to hear it. Trust me; wait and see.
There is so much more I would tell you graduates, but it’s very likely that by now you are already thinking about tonight’s party, or hopefully tomorrow’s big trip. The last thing I will tell you: this room is full of people who care about you. If you ever need help, these are most likely the people who will do it. Try not to need it, but don’t be afraid to ask if you do. And congratulations! And take some time off, maybe go on a trip…?