It has come to my attention that among the 8 or 10 million things I will never do (live in a mansion in Hollywood Hills, jump out of an airplane, keep a tarantula as a pet), I will also never give a commencement speech. Having heard a few more than I can remember, I thought I would draft one in some seriousness for all those graduates who will never hear it.
First, of course, congratulations. You have finished something. Not everyone does, for a plethora of reasons. Of this you can be proud. Perhaps you learned things. Until I entered graduate school, I was never serious about retaining much that I learned except to pass a test. As I congratulate you, I also ask that you don’t put off the learning part for as long as I did. No, you may not need all those theorems you learned, but you might, and you likely will encounter a lot more things you actually need.
What I’d like to do today is present a list of best practices. It’s the stuff of commencement speeches—the captive audience model. These ideas are not my own but a compilation of thoughts I’ve heard from others, with proper attributions to sources, naturally, where appropriate.
- Make up your bed every morning. This just in from Jordan Peterson, author of 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. The author is apparently the target of much negative press as explained in lengthy detail here or briefly here. Now your mother could tell you to make up your bed, but Dr. Peterson, a clinical psychologist aiming to correct the ills of Western culture, may have more sway. He suggests that this one simple action in the morning sets your day on the right track, regardless of what happens afterward. It’s a matter of controlling your environment, improving your outlook. He summarizes it here. When I was young, my mother made up my bed and put my gown or PJs under my pillow. It was one of the sweetest acts ever. But when I left home, neither the nice-looking bed nor the carefully stowed sleepwear came with me. I did start making my bed in my thirties. Not too late, but you can do better.
- Can’t never could. Source unknown, although it appears on this list of distinctly Southern sayings. I never heard it until I was an adult but have taken it to heart. It has the motivational quality of all the motivational posters ever made, in three short words. It offers its own antidote to the “You can do anything you want” hogwash baloney you may now be graduating from. They love you, your teachers and advisors and principals and deans. If they’ve said that to you, love is their reason, and pride in your abilities or at least your IQ and potential. I expect you didn’t believe it anyway, but don’t let that lack of acceptance stop you. Perhaps you can’t be a brain surgeon or an astronaut, a Nobel-winning writer or an Oscar-winning director. You could follow your passion in whatever direction it leads you: the human mind, the moon and stars, words, movies. It’s a road to happiness.
- Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Stephen Covey wrote the ground-breaking 7 Habits of Highly Effective People in 1989, thereby beginning an effort to establish character as the basis of business and personal interactions. “Seek” is fifth, and to me the most important for most of us. We are so anxious to make sure that we are understood, that we are heard, that our “rightness” is established. Back when Saturday Night Live was great, Gilda Radner had a character named Miss Emily Litella. She would give an editorial reply to some topic of the day, but when she was told she had the key topic wrong, she’d always smiles and say, “Well, that’s different. Never mind.” Here she rails against violins on television instead of violence. Her arguments are so good the anchor always hates to stop her, but it has to be done. Think of the benefits to future relationships, job success, world peace! All you have to do is be quiet.
- Don’t skip steps. As obvious as this seems (like save early and save often), the temptation not to do everything you’re supposed to every time you’re supposed to do it is great. The great secret of this wisdom is that it counteracts Murphy’s Law: If anything can go wrong, it will.
- Forget yourself and go to work. Gordon B. Hinckley’s father Bryant wrote him this advice after receiving a despondent letter. The son was serving a church mission in England in 1933, sick and despondent. Nothing was going right, and he wrote to tell his father he was wasting time and money. Rather than a lecture about duty, his father summed up in five simple words one of the purest ways to feel right and do well. The world expects us to think of ourselves first. We can decide to go a different way. The work is actually the easier part.
I could go on, but “Brevity is the soul of wit” (which you’ll recognize from Hamlet as spoken by Polonius who was never brief and had no wit, which you’ll know if you really read the play.) To conclude, I’ll draw your attention to the word “commencement.” It means a beginning, at an event that graduates see as an ending, a culmination even. A go-forth-and-conquer speech this is not. Be good, do good. That will be enough regardless of what else happens.