Dear young(er) people,
I've always wanted to write a commencement speech, but that usually requires being invited to a commencement at which to speak.
And because I am not Jim Carrey, J.K. Rowling, or Oprah, I am not likely to be invited to commencement anytime soon, so I decided to write my own commencement speech, just for you, but also for me, because I am not happy unless I am writing. Or teaching. And with this "speech," I hope to do a little of both.
So here goes.
Congratulations! You are embarking on a path in a world embedded in contradiction. A world that is both uncertain and scary, and yet endlessly hopeful.
Given what is usually said about "Millennials," I have the feeling you haven't heard the very next thing I'm about to say:
The world is hopeful because you exist in it.
You probably do not have any answers right now, and that is A-OK. Ignore anyone who says otherwise.
If you still have no idea about what you want to do with the rest of your life, then you're in good company. On the other hand, a lot of people think that you should know exactly what you're doing. Ignore those people.
There are a lot of things you should do, moving forward. There are also a lot of things (and people) you should ignore. Here are some things I wish I would have been told when I graduated both high school and college many moons ago, and at the same time, not that long ago at all:
People will lie to you to make themselves feel better about their own lives.
You will encounter a number of people who pretend to have it all figured out. Bosses; friends; family; strangers. Recognize their façade for what it is: Lives veiled in lies. No one has it all figured out, and those who pretend to are doing so because it is easier to pretend than it is to face life's ambiguity. Ignore them, unless you want to experience the emotional turmoil and stress associated with the false belief that you should have it all figured out. This is where the art of smiling and nodding comes in handy. On the other hand, if unnecessary stress is your jam, then by all means, listen to a bunch of people who have no idea what they're talking about.
All that said, learn what it means to fake it until you make it.
Your degree will set you up; but be open to a career having nothing to do with your degree.
Take a good, long look at the degree with which you are graduating. Admire it. Relish in it. Be proud of it. Hug that degree if you're not afraid of bending it. And embrace the future fully accepting and expecting that your future-self might not be working in a field having anything (directly) to do with your specific college preparation.
Learning to say "thank you" is not just for five-year-olds; saying "thank you" will set you apart from those who never learned how.
Say "thank you." Randy Pausch has said that "Showing gratitude is one of the simplest yet most powerful things humans can do for each other." Whether someone holds a door open for you, writes a letter on your behalf, or simply responds to an email with answers you need, say "thank you." If you do not quite yet "get" the power of a simple thank you, make it a habit of holding the door open for random people in random places. Someone, somewhere, will not thank you, and in that moment you'll get it.
(And keep holding those doors open, regardless of what people say - or do not say - to you in return. Life is not about a return on your investment where acts of kindness and gratitude are concerned.)
Return emails and phone calls. You are not more important than the person who is contacting you with information you asked for, or questions and concerns they have, no matter your actual position, your schedule, or how busy you might be.
Working a crap job is probably inevitable.
People tend to say that finding the job you love means never having to work a day in your life. What people forget to point out is that finding the job you love requires sweating over jobs, experiences, and even careers that you do not love so much, and perhaps even for years. You have to toil in life's myriad experiences before you have any idea about what it means to love what you do.
Do not be afraid.
Do not be afraid to think. No one ever died by thinking harder than they wanted to.
Do not be afraid to ask the kinds of questions that you need to ask in order to succeed. Some people believe that asking questions signifies weakness and vulnerability. Stay away from those people.
Do not be afraid to help people, or to do favors. Do not be afraid to do (some) work for free or on the cheap. Only then can you truly identify the difference between those who take advantage of others and those who do not.
Stay. Out. Of. Debt. I repeat:
STAY. OUT. OF. DEBT.
Your degree probably cost you a lot of money that you'll be paying back for a long time. Try not to fret about this. In the long run, it's a lot more expensive to remain uneducated and ignorant.
That being said, exorbitant debt might be the "American way" (my dad likes to say this) but that does not mean it is smart to accumulate it. In fact, that's the exact opposite of smart, no matter how patriotic you wish to be. You have the rest of your life to buy a house, a new car, and that unnecessary state-of-the-art gym membership. You owe it to yourself to stay out of debt to the extent that you possibly can, at least for now.
FTW: A car is a utility. Not a lifestyle.
You have the right to balance your personal interests with your professional life.
Nothing in the world is more important than friends and family. Even still, practice the art of putting yourself first, as necessary. This might mean skipping out on a couple of Sunday dinners, or not flying home for the holidays every year, for whatever reasons you've decided make sense for you in a given situation.
You are entitled to work-life balance. No, this does not mean accepting a position and then immediately taking off for a month to backpack across Europe. That move is unprofessional, obnoxious, and ill-advised. Work-life balance means knowing that you are entitled to read for pleasure, go for a run, or do any of the day-to-day or week-to-week activities that allow you to feel like a whole person. Someone who requires you to live, eat, breathe, and sleep their ambitions/goals is not someone who understands much of anything.
I'm not talking about the occasional project that has you working overtime, or the boss who wears cranky-pants every now and again. I'm talking about the ceaseless, Monday-through-Friday-and-most-weekends kind of gigs. Those gigs are not worth your physical health or your sanity. Find another way to "pay your dues."
(Do not spend too much time around people who use the term "pay your dues" regularly. It is an obnoxious term often wielded by the self-interested. You will never, ever be able to please such people in any real way.)
Perfection is the enemy.
In the workplace, no one is watching your every move as closely as you are. Perfection is your enemy. Do not be afraid of failure. See what J.K. Rowling has to say about failure and the dangers of living too cautiously.
If it so happens that someone in the workplace is watching your every move as closely (or more closely) than you are, he or she is a micromanager. You cannot often choose who you work with, but you usually have control over who you work for. Do not work for a micromanager if you can possibly help it. It's not worth the aggravation.
A good boss wants you to do well and sets you up to succeed. They also want to hear that you've gone for a run (or read a book, or cooked an amazing meal), if that's what you need to do for sanity. A bad boss might say they want you to do well, but instead places a series of flaming hoops in your path.
A bad boss is cognitively dissonant on a regular basis.
The planet needs you. A lot of you.
You are valuable, and yet people will suggest to you that you're a dime a dozen. Don't listen to those people. Perhaps they're bitter. Or maybe they just like to hear themselves speak.
I believe that you are quite special. The power of change rests in your hands much more so than older generations. Think about that. You have the power to make change. You have the power to do the world some good. Do not ever listen to someone say you're a dime a dozen, when in fact, we need you by the dozens if we're going to see this planet shape up for the better.
Take care of yourself.
Get an excellent ergonomic backpack. Your back, shoulders, and virtually your entire upper body will thank you in about ten years. Trust me. On the other hand, your body will eventually give up on you if you continue to betray it.
The fun is (not) over.
People might try to convince you that the "fun is over," particularly if you are graduating college. The fun is not over. Here is what I've done since college:
- Attended three study abroad trips, one of which was three months long.
- Worked in a variety of jobs and positions and figured out exactly what it took to make me miserable.
- Found a career (and hobbies) I couldn't live without.
- Dabbled in more foreign-language learning.
- Lived in four different states (and one other country).
- Met amazing people along the way.
(In other words, the fun is not over unless you really, really want it to be.)
Save and invest your hard-earned money.
Save some part of your money so that you can be sure that the fun is not over. Many of you are 22 years old and have officially entered what Suze Orman calls "the compounding years." Look up the term "compounding" and understand why it's important. I wish I would have listened to Dave Ramsey and others who know a thing or two about money. Now I'm making up for 12 years of not listening to anyone, and let me tell you, that's a hard catchup game to play.
Look up the term "investing," understand why and how it differs from "saving," and learn why they are both important. To that end, both invest and save your money - your retired self has the right to a good life, much like your 20-something-year-old self.
The difference between the first 18 years of your life and the next 60+ is that you and you alone are responsible for the next 60+. No one else.
Live at home.
Live with your parents for as long as they'll allow you to. Respect them. Thank them.
To that end, trust that your parents are not always right. But you'd better pretend they are if you are still in a position to have to play by their rules.
Learn how to play the game.
Are you a stereotypical "Millennial"?
You might hear the term "Millennial" thrown at you in a condescending way, if you have not already. Investigate what it means to be a Millennial and decide whether you want to embody the stereotype.
(You do not want to embody the stereotype. It's a misguided stereotype anyway. I, for one, cannot wait until Millennials are in charge.)
And finally, if you want to hear the universe laugh, share your "plans."
Forge ahead with courage. Forge ahead with kindness. And for the love of everything holy, don't apologize for it.
Hey! Come hang with me!