What I Would Say If Someone Asked Me To Give A Commencement Address (Which They Won’t)
The other day I saw clickbait on the Internet called something like “10 Things You Find In Every Graduation Speech.” I didn’t click, but the headline stuck in my mind. Graduation is supposed to be a celebration of your hard work, a launch into the adult working world. A graduation speaker is someone chosen to offer wisdom and insight into this momentous rite of passage. Have graduation speeches really gotten so formulaic that they can slapped together with GIFs on BuzzFeed? (I guess they must? I only graduated nine years ago and I don’t even remember who my speaker was or what she said.)
I’ve been thinking about this lately because today, our editorial assistant Claire is graduating from college. Yesterday afternoon, we broke out the pink booze and mini eclairs to toast to no more finals and 10-page papers. As The Frisky staff sat around — all of us between five to 15 years out of college — we all had advice for Claire about being launched into the grownup world. Some of it was practical. Some of it was financial. All of it was honest and most assuredly more useful than whatever’s being said about “character” and “grit” and “passion” at graduations across the land this week. Those things are important, too, but they’re so vague you can make a GIFicle about them.
It made me wish I was the sort of “important person” who could be asked to give a commencement address. Seeing as I’m not an famous actor or a famous editor or really anyone important in particular, I don’t really see that happening. So for Claire, and for everyone else who may or may not have deeper thoughts on life than Charlie Day from “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia,” here’s what I would say if someone asked me to give a commencement speech.
1. First of all, always love yourself. Respect yourself. Be proud of yourself. Challenge yourself. Forgive yourself. Love yourself. This will be of more use to you than any job or degree.
2. Remember life is long. It’s longer than you can really comprehend at 21 or 22 years old. You’re going to make changes, quit jobs, end relationships, move houses, and you’ll worry that a past decision has led you on the wrong path somewhere. (Oh, how you will worry.) Even if you did go down a wrong path — and that’s a big if — you have the rest of your long life to get back on the right one.
3. The world is not a true meritocracy: success is a combination of hard work and luck. I used to believe that everything that I wanted in life I could earn through hard work. That was true in a lot of cases (smaller ponds), but not all of them (bigger ponds). Especially in my early and mid-20s, I had a difficult time coping when hard work alone didn’t lead to the success that I desired. Someone else would get a job that I wanted or an important email would go unanswered and usually there was no better or more complicated reason other than plain old bad luck. That made me wonder if some of the good things that happened to me hadn’t just come from working hard, but were a matter of good luck. There are lots of factors at play in why our lives turn out the way they do, of course, like power, charm, nepotism. But the sooner you make peace with the fact that some things are just ineffable and beyond your control, the easier a time you will have.
4. Having good intuition about people is probably the best life skill you can have. All the degrees or fellowships in the world won’t protect you from coming in contact with toxic people who don’t have your best interests at heart. (Actually, toxic people don’t really have anyone’s interests at heart, not even their own.) Developing a good intuition about the decency of other human beings can keep you from being unnecessarily screwed at work, in relationships and in life. Filtering out the fakes, the liars, the insecure people will save you headaches down the road. “If you lie down with the dogs, you wake up with the fleas” is a cliché for a reason.
5. Learning to cope with difficult people is the second best life skill you can have. Most of the people I know who have complaints about their jobs don’t complain about the work as much as the people. If you don’t like most of the people you come in contact with every day in your job, you should find a new job. But if you don’t like one person who you come in contact with every day at your job, you should consider yourself very lucky.
6. It’s okay if you need extra help. Anti-depressants? Therapy? Yoga practice? Mid-life religious conversation? This is all totally normal and shouldn’t be a source of shame.
7. People who get things handed to them are usually, on some level, aware they didn’t “earn” it. I had a big chip on my shoulder for most of my 20s because all the people that I knew working in journalism seemed to be coasting on someone else’s name. Celebrities’ kids. Editors’ kids. That kind of thing. My dad and mom are a computer programmer and a homemaker; they could do nothing for my career (other than what they’d already done by encouraging my aspirations and supporting me through college). It seemed, and still seems, unfair to me that people should get jobs just because of their parents or relatives. Yet the harsh and shitty truth is that this is the way the world works. Whatever field you go into, there are going to be people like that — it might be the boss’s son, it might be the British prime minister’s daughter. You can’t do anything about nepotism other than refuse to engage in it yourself, if you are in a position of power to do so. At the end of the day, content yourself with knowing that the people who get things handed to them are usually, on some level, aware that they didn’t “earn” it and they struggle with feelings of worthiness. That may not be much, but it’s something.
8. If you are a young woman, beware of middle-aged men who are interested in mentoring you. I’m not suggesting all of them have less-than-generous intentions. I’m not even suggesting most of them have less-than-generous intentions. But keep your eyes very open.
9. Friendships are going to change. One of the hardest parts about going through my 20s —one which I was naively unprepared for — were the changes in my most special, important friendships. But friendships change because people change; it’s not rational to expect anything different. The person someone is at 16 is different from who that person is at 21, which is different from who that person is at 30. But also remember that life is long — friends may come in and out of your life. That’s okay, too.
10. It’s really, really hard, but do as much as you can to have some financial savings to fall back on. Learn from my mistakes: I’ve screwed myself by getting stuck in bad situations when I had no savings to help myself get out. Have some savings to fall back on. Your car might break down. You may get kicked out by a roommate. You may get dumped by someone who you moved to another state to be with. You may have a soul-destroying job that makes you cry every night and you have to quit. Having a few thousand dollars — or hell, even a few hundred — in the bank will give you options. Options are power.
11. Ask. Ask for a raise. Ask for a mentor. Ask for more time. Ask him or her out. Don’t wait around waiting for people or opportunities to come to you. Ask. I hate to sound like your mom here, but the worst you will hear is “no.”
12. Become impervious to “no.” Imagine every “no” you receive is being conveyed as “not right now” or “not this way.” Or better yet, receive it as “there is something for you somewhere else.” The worst, absolute worst, thing you can do is give up. Even procrastination isn’t as bad as giving up.
13. Couple up with the person (or people) who makes you the most “you.” Dating can feel like an epic distraction a lot of bright, shiny objects. That guy is really kind and funny! This guy is really handsome and adventurous! That other guy has a lot of money and is smart! There are endless partners you can have a good time with (and by all means, have a good time with as many of them as you want, as much as you want). But couple up with whomever makes you the most “you.” Because you love yourself, remember? And “you” is the person you most want to be.
14. Always keep learning. The end of “school” isn’t the end of learning; in fact, you’ll probably learn a lot more about everything now that your brainpower isn’t hemmed into neat little categories like “biochemistry” and “American history.” There are books. There are movies. There are TED talks. There are MOOCs. Learn everything you want to know about anything that interests you. The best part of life is how big it is. The best part about the world is how much there is to know. You’re a blank slate right now. Go out and fill it.
That’s all I’ve got.
[Image via Shutterstock]