Those Who Are About to Graduate, I Salute You

06Jun14

This is the year of my 20-year college reunion, and of my son’s graduation from high school. Inexplicably, I have not been invited to give a commencement address this year. (I know, how could everyone have overlooked an obscure blogger with no notable career success?) In the spirit of graduation speeches, I give you my advice to the class of 2014.

  1. Keep open to learning. Formal education is great. If you’re graduating from high school, I recommend college for everyone… eventually. If you’re ready for it, get it right away, if not, then keep open to it for the future. Even if you don’t decide to go to college (or if you are graduating from college) remember that learning does not stop when you turn your tassel today. Make sure you keep learning for the rest of your life.
  2. Don’t just learn new skills, learn new ways to think. A liberal arts education is great for that, but even if you’re not interested in college, read some different philosophy, some classic literature, something about different religions’ beliefs, and some sociology. ‘Liberal arts’ probably doesn’t mean what you think it means, by the way: It means the studies worthy of a free person or citizen (it’s a training in learning new ways to think, as opposed to learning specific skills). It doesn’t have any political agenda, and it actually includes the sciences. It can enrich your life and help you in many ways.
  3. Learn how science works, but do not expect it to explain everything. Science probably doesn’t work the way you think it does. Look into the scientific method. You’ll find out that we don’t really know what we think we know, and that science is both about new discoveries and re-testing old ideas. Scientists stand on the shoulders of giants, but only after they’ve taken the giants out at the knees first. There’s also a lot that science can’t explain — or at least hasn’t yet. There may never be proof (or disproof) of God, or an explanation for love, so don’t assume that if science doesn’t explain it it doesn’t exist.
  4. Learn more about yourself. If you’re going to college or recently graduated, your career services office will probably be able to help you. If you don’t have that access, look online. Find out your Holland Code and an approximation of your MBTI personality type. Find out about what many people with same interests and personality types do for a living and as hobbies. Read (and do the work in) What Color is your Parachute. It’s better to start your career at 18 or 22 knowing what fields you’re most likely to be happy in, rather than finding out after (or by) being unhappy in your career for decades.
  5. Be prepared for change. When I graduated, social media did not exist. (Mark Zuckerberg was 10). Smart phones existed in Dick Tracy comics, and perhaps as a gleam in the eye of some computer scientists in Mountain View and Cupertino. Blogs were a few years on the horizon — vlogs even further away. There were no professional video game players. Change is going to happen, so make sure you’re ready for it. You can’t prepare for every possible future, but you can make sure you’re adaptable. Learning different ways to think can help with that, as can keeping an eye on the news — both in your field and beyond.
  6. Have a back-up plan. If what you want to do now doesn’t work out, or if you discover you don’t enjoy it, or if you outgrow it, it will help if you have another route to take. Re-evaluate both your career plan and your back-up plan every few years (again, learn more about yourself), so that your plans reflect your growth.
  7. Cultivate your passion. Your passions are an essential part of you, and you need to respect them as such. Whether you engage with your passion through your job, through a hobby, or through your family, you need to maintain your passions to maintain your sense of your self.
  8. Have a hobby. Even if you have a career in your chosen field, you’ll probably have passions that you don’t meet in your job. Don’t give up on one passion just because you’re feeding another with your job. If your hobby has a social aspect to it, like sports or performing, or anything that has a club, you can build up a network of contacts and friends that will enrich your life, and as a bonus might make your next career move easier.
  9. Volunteer. In addition to giving back to your community and our world, volunteering can give you a chance to indulge a passion that you cannot serve in your career. While you volunteer, you can build skills and a network of contacts that can help you with your next career move, especially (but not only) if that move turns in the direction of your volunteer work.
  10. Moonlight, if you need to, or if you can’t find a full-time job in your chosen field, you might be able to find a part-time one. You can build up your experience while a full-time job pays the bills until you can make your calling your full-time job. By that time, you hopefully won’t need to moonlight outside your calling in order to pay the bills.
  11. Look for job satisfaction, not just a paycheck. You’ve already put 13 or 17 years (or more) working to get yourself to a point where you can do what you want to do. Don’t spend another 30 years doing the same thing. Assuming that you have a 30 year career and get two weeks off per year, you’ll be spending 60,000 hours at work (working full-time, with no overtime), that’s 3.6 million minutes. Put another way, work takes up 36% of your waking hours during a typical week, not counting your lunch break and commute. That’s far too much time to spend doing something you hate. If you work exclusively for the paycheck, you will be spending your days waiting for retirement, which is the ultimate in delayed gratification. Believe it or not (and you probably don’t at this point), your 40th birthday will come sooner than you expect. Whether you need to express your creativity, help people, earn respect in the community, or build a successful business (or any of the hundreds of other needs you might have) your job should provide at least some of it. Your job doesn’t necessarily have to meet all of your needs, but it should provide you more than the paycheck. Take the time to work out the best career path to take. Make sure you take the do what you need to in order to get there. Re-evaluate your goals from time to time. It’s not a perfect plan, but it might keep you from dreading every Monday for 30 years.
  12. You won’t bet your dream job right away, if ever. I once heard that a majority of business majors planned on becoming a corporate CEO within five years. (If you’re a business major, be aware that if you’re aiming at being a major corporate CEO, five years from now you’ll be up against thousands of people with ten or twenty years of experience: the way to become CEO in five years is to found the company — so start looking for the need you’ll fill and start working on your business plan.) You might get your dream job, but probably not as quickly as you hope. On the other hand, you might spend your career trying to get to a dream job, or you might be on track to your dream job when your dreams change.
  13. Trust your employer — to look out for themselves. When your interests match (like their need for your work), it will be to your advantage, but don’t expect your interests to match for your entire career. Be prepared to strike out on a different path when the need comes up — whether on your employer’s end or on your own.
  14. Find a mentor. Your boss will look out for the interests of the business or department. That might include training that will help you do your current job better (even if that training might also help you in your next job). It might even involve a promotion. But you and your career might benefit more from changing departments, or even employers. A mentor can give you advice on new opportunities and career growth which can help you do that.
  15. Manage your own career. It was assumed that my parents’ generation would spend their working life with a single employer, or at least in a single career. They didn’t. My generation was told that we would have five careers in our lifetime. We’re probably on our way to more. You can’t expect to spend your working life looking for the next promotion step at the same employer. Even if you do, you will need to sell yourself to the new hiring manager as the best person for the job, against both internal and external competition. Keep your resume updated, and keep an eye on the openings in your field. Try to give a job a fair chance, but be ready to make a move when it’s time — and time might come earlier than you expect.
  16. Look for happiness, but don’t expect your job to provide it. Remember that happiness is often found in the search, not as a result of the search. Even the best job will have days that will suck. Your job might provide you with some of the things that help you to be happy, your best shot at being happy is in polishing the gems in your life while ignoring (or working around) the ore.
  17. Your dreams will change. You will grow. Your life will change. Your needs will change. Tend your new dreams and needs as they arise. Don’t be afraid to let a dream die once it no longer reflects who you are. Go ahead and mourn the death of the old dream, but embrace your new dream with gusto.
  18. Don’t expect the world to give you a living. Your generation has been stereotyped as feeling entitled. This is not true and unfair, but it’s also common. They said the same thing about Generation X (my generation) and about the ‘Me Generation’ (which was actually the last half of the Baby Boom generation), and probably about the early Boomers. It’s part of the narrative of generational decline that has been going on since ancient Greece. If we really were going to Hell in a hand basket, you  would think we would have arrived by now. But still, don’t. You can work hard, get an education, and still be unlucky. When that happens, have the education, have the work ethic, and have that back-up plan, and you’ll be better able to bounce back.
  19. Money can’t buy happiness, but not having enough can certainly prevent it. Shopping for happiness won’t help you any more than drinking for it will. On the other hand, it’s stressful to not be able to meet your basic needs, so you need to make sure you bring in enough to do that, plus retirement planning and savings. Beyond that, don’t spend your time trying to keep up with your neighbors, when you could be using that time to enjoy your life more deeply.
  20. Set aside some savings, and not just for retirement. You need to start thinking about your retirement now. Starting early has an amazing effect on how quickly you can reach your retirement needs. But you also need to have something set aside for emergencies, and to buy as many of your major purchases as you can in cash, because….
  21. Debt limits your options. If you have to make credit card payments, or student loan payments, you’ll need to earn more to meet your basic needs, which means that there will be some jobs you can’t afford to take, or some houses you won’t be able to live in. Yes, there is some debt isn’t as terrible, like mortgages and student loan debts (up to a limit). Up to a point, you’ll be better off borrowing money to get an education (or buy a house) than not, but it’s always better to get as much as you can without debt. And if you have to use credit cards to make ends meet, or if you can’t pay off your credit cards in full each month, you are borrowing too much.
  22. Any “sure thing” investment isn’t. How many people bought houses in 2007, having been told that real estate was only going up, only to find out that they should have waited until 2009? How many people thought that Bernie Madoff’s investment scheme was a sure bet? There’s a reason that investing is also referred to as speculation. There’s always risk, so never risk more than you can afford to lose.
  23. Question your values. There are billions of people out there who do not share your values, and most of them get by fine with their own value system. Ask yourself why that is, and why you value what you do. If, at the end of the process, you haven’t changed your values at all, you have a firm foundation for your values. If you have, it will because your values were not truly yours to begin with.
  24. Enjoy shared entertainments… in moderation. We used to get all our entertainment from storytelling and live music. We’ve developed many new forms of entertainment over the millennia, including writing, recorded music, radio, television, and the internet. The evolution of entertainment has meant that people can consume their entertainment more and more on their own terms — where they want, when they want, and only what they want. Shared entertainment is a big part of what creates our shared culture. TV used to give us ‘must see’ national events, more than just the Super Bowl, (Ask your grandparents, “Who shot J.R.?)  but it doesn’t as much any more. Viral videos might be the new shared medium. Remember to participate — set aside time with friends or family to watch a TV show or movie together each week, but don’t spend so much of your free time consuming any entertainment that you forget to live.
  25. Read… and write. Don’t just read your Facebook news feed, or Wikipedia, or the newspaper, or readings required for school or work. Fiction can expose you to new perspectives and new ways of thinking. If there’s a non-fiction subject you’re interested in, taking the time to read about it will help you expand your knowledge of it. Writing, whether it’s in a journal, on scraps of paper that you recycle when you’re done, or something you share either with friends and loved ones or with the world, will help you to distill your thoughts. Flannery O’Connor once said, “I write to discover what I know.” So write, and discover what you know.
  26. Open yourself up to love, and express it. There is nothing in your life that has so much potential to bring you joy — or to break your heart — as love. Love comes in many forms, including that for a spouse or life partner, that for a lover, that for a parent or for a child, that for a friend, and that for a pet. They can all enrich your life in a wide variety of ways — some of which you can guess at, some you can’t know before you experience them, and some you will never know. Choosing to express your love for someone always involves the risk that they will not feel the same way, but it is worth doing, because unless you express your love you will not allow them to share in your love of them… and lose out on the chance of sharing your love together. Yes, it will hurt sometimes, but it’s more worth it than it is possible to express.
  27. Let your heart get broken. You will probably love someone who doesn’t love you back. Your pets will die while you still love them. If you have children, they will grow up and leave home (just like your parents hope you’re doing now). You will experience losses, and they will make you appreciate the time you have with others. Your experiences will deepen your appreciation of life, but not without a huge dose of pain.
  28. Celebrate beauty. Yes, there’s a lot of ugliness in the world, but even on the worst day there is beauty. Appreciate art, poetry, the beauty of nature, movies, literature, sports, whatever you find beauty in. Let the beauty feed your heart; allow it to shine a light into the dark spaces of your light.
  29. Be mindful of your environment: human, built, and natural. Take the time to be kind to the people around you. If you leave smiles behind, it will make the world a better place. Take care of your home and work space, and look out for others’. Take care of your little part of the earth, and do what you can to help take care of the rest.
  30. Own plants. Indoor plants help clean the air indoors, and make a room feel more natural. Flowers bring beauty to your life. Fruit and vegetables from your own garden are free food. In short, plants make for a better world.
  31. Plant trees. They provide oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide and pollutants. They give shade, sometimes fruit — and some even make syrup. They also prevent erosion, help keep down strong winds, give birds a place to live, and provide beauty. If you don’t have room to plant them where you live, take a day (perhaps Arbor Day) to help with a planting project in a local park or in a forest.
  32. Do your civic duty. Give blood, if you can. Serve your jury duty. Don’t just vote, but be an informed voter. Be politically aware and get your news from multiple sources. If there is a issue that interests you, become an activist for that issue. Run for office, if it suits you. Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper.
  33. Take care of yourself. Exercise, get enough sleep, and eat healthily. What we know about exercise, nutrition, and diet will change (when I graduated, fat was scary and all carbs were good), so don’t go overboard in any direction, but take good care of yourself. You are the only you you have, and you’ll be happier healthy. Don’t forget to take care of yourself mentally and emotionally, and not just physically.

Phew, that was long… which is another reason why I haven’t been asked to give a graduation address.

As a reward for making it to the end, here are two bonus tips:

As the grandmother of one of my best friends used to say, “Moderation in everything… even moderation.”

And wear sunscreen:

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