Random Thoughts / "Commencement speech"
Published 1:01 am, Friday, June 25, 2010
As I think about what I would say on the podium I realize that giving people advice about how to go forward in life is not so easy. If you are going to speechify to the young, you ought to be sure of what you are talking about. Unfortunately, when I think about the guidance I would give, I realize that there is not much that I am sure of. Here are the things I can give advice about with complete certainty: making chicken soup, handling curly hair, burping a baby, writing an essay and giving good hugs. These things are not the makings of a good speech.
There are other things that I am pretty sure of. Like most advice however, these pointers may not be so easy to follow. I would, like many others, tell the graduates to find work that they like. Sadly, right now this is almost cruel advice to give because many new graduates will be happy just to find work at all. But even so, telling young people to find a job they like can be quite unrealistic. How many entry level positions are enjoyable? Most first jobs consist of tasks that no one else wants to do. The best career advice would probably be to find a job at a place where the people who have been there a couple of years seem really happy -- and have dental insurance.
I would also tell young people that finding love is as important as finding work. Again, that is not advice that is easy to follow because as hard as some people look, even with the assistance of Match.com that "one and only" can be elusive. It's not just finding love that is important, anyway. It's finding the right kind of love. Most people graduating from college still have a lot of frogs to kiss before they will find their princes or princesses.
Perhaps the best advice to give to college graduates is to set their priorities and live their lives according to them. The problem is, what 22-year-old really has a good sense of his or her priorities? What may look essential at the moment will almost certainly turn out to be less important later in life. A college grad may consider travel to be a major goal. When that person has a child, travel will very quickly become much less desirable than a good night's sleep.
Maybe in my commencement speech I should talk about the things that I wish that I had known when I graduated from college. Here are the things that I have learned are essential for a good life: friends and family, work, kindness, laughter, fun, books and movies, outdoor recreation, hot baths and good food. I think I already knew that these things would make me happy even before I went to college.
What about the less obvious things that I have learned in my years of living, the things that have surprised me in life? For instance, the fact that time is not a constant. An hour can seem like five minutes or five days. The bad parts of life seem to go slowly and the good parts fast, unless you are timing contractions at your child's birth when the time is both glacial and speedy.
Another surprising thing I have learned is that everything changes, which is both good and bad news because a happy situation will probably not last, but a miserable one will also be temporary. I believed in my youth that I would figure things out and that they would stay put. The husband, the family, the life's work, the house, the friends. Not true. Marriage has its ups and downs, children grow up, work grows stale or morphs into something else, friends can come and go. The only thing that is certain is that things will change.
A surprise that defies the lessons you learn is school is how little control we really do have over our fates. We hope that hard work and intelligence will get us what we want, but life happens. There are so many variables of fortune, health, and happiness in which luck plays a part, and there are so many other people who want or deserve control, I've discovered that sometimes the best course is to let go. Perhaps this is not something you should tell people who are starting out in life, but letting someone else navigate the trip sometimes gives you a chance to look at the scenery.
The most surprising thing of all that I have learned, however, is that there is no one right thing. In college we are looking for the right career, the right friends, the right road to our future. But when Robert Frost talked about how taking the less-traveled path made all the difference, he didn't say that it was the right one. Any choice will take us in a different direction than the alternative and we'll never know what would have happened if we had chosen differently. All we can do is choose the path we think is best and not waste energy on regrets.
So my commencement speech can be boiled down into this simple advice: Choose your road carefully, travel with people you love, accept that there will be bumps along the way that you cannot avoid, enjoy the journey, and don't look back to try to see what you missed or you'll fall on your face. And bring some chicken soup.