Words of Advice from an Anti-Commencement Speech

This is the season of college graduation and all graduation ceremonies come with a complimentary commencement speech. Commencement speeches are always meant to be inspiring to the students. Graduation is a key milestone in every student’s life and it is a time when the future of one’s adult path is often obscure and, for many, unsettling. Colleges invite prominent dignitaries and luminaries of certain fields or professions to assure the graduates that it is going to be ok and these over-achievers impart their wisdom and experience in byte-sized nuggets so that the graduating students can digest them and be nourished with the essential knowledge needed for a successful and phenomenal future, in both professional and personal lives. Notable examples in this category include, Steve Jobs Speech at Stanford, J.K. Rowling’s speech at Harvard and, my personal favorite, David Foster Wallace’s ‘This is Water’ speech at Kenyon College. I am sure there are great many other that can fit into this category and they all offer philosophical and predominantly ideal lifestyle choices than they are more practical tips for the penniless, self-doubting graduate who is uncertain if his dreams will ever come to see the shining light of the day.

Charles Wheelan, who teaches at the University Of Chicago, took the unpaved road for his commencement speech at Dartmouth. Instead of being over-optimistic with his wisdom delivery process, he, using his years of research in studying long-term happiness in career and social lives, laid out ten simple and practical tips for the graduates to put into practice and, given the occasion of the speech, they are as practical as they can get. Here are some of the notable ones and what I think I they mean.

Some of your worst days lie ahead: Although this is not totally surprising to many students past age 22, it is a little reassuring that it is not just one’s life that is stuck in a rut. The idea is to just have faith that things will get better. They usually do. Sometimes it takes a while, but they do get better.

Help stop the Little League arms race: This is about the perpetual race of life. Realize that for some people getting to the top of the mountain is about the fastest time and for others it’s about simply taking a stroll. Not everything gets tallied up at the end for a big award ceremony. Try not to let other people drag you into their choices. Sheelan has an awesome line for this – ‘You’ll never read the following obituary: “Bob Smith died yesterday at the age of 74. He finished life in 186th place.”

Your parents don’t want what is best for you: This is a little startling, but it is true, not just for parents but for anyone who is emotionally invested in one’s life. They want to protect and make sure nothing wrong will happen to their loved one and as a result they almost always try to convince you to make the easy, or, to be exact, the normal choice. If you want to do something extraordinary, then you will have to pick some risky choices.

Don’t model your life after a circus animal:  The majority of the professional world is set up as a circus ring, in which for every correct trick you perform, you get a reward, like a small fish for a Dolphin after it jumps through a hoop. You do exactly as your boss says and he throws you a promotion. It is normal because that is what almost everyone does. There are few things in life where the reward is not a dead fish, but real happiness, and they come from meaningful relationships – family, friends and passions. Don’t miss out on these for some dead fish.

Don’t try to be great: This is way out of the usual advice for a speech at a graduation ceremony, but it is true. In the internet world, it is easy to feel really small and unremarkable. Facebook and YouTube can make trivial things and extra-ordinary things seem like equally great and it is easy to think that normal work is below greatness. In most cases, one will be doing normal things more than special things, in their daily lives, at least in the first few years of their career. So one shouldn’t despair on not being great, but, instead, try to enjoy the work no matter how it is judged by external world. With enjoyment comes pride, and any work that your proud of is by default great.

Hit up the Wall Street Journal link to check out all ten of Charles Sheelan’s tips for fresh-out-of-college grads. I know it’s customary to say this in this type of posts, but I do wish someone famous had told me these things when I graduated.

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2 thoughts on “Words of Advice from an Anti-Commencement Speech

  1. Wouldnt have made any difference. After 5 years of experience your mind understands these things thats all.

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