It’s graduation time, that time of year when we celebrate our young people moving from high school into the adult world. It causes me to ponder what advice I can give to these young people as they enter the world. They aren’t much different from newborn infants. They are about to be thrown into a world where you learn as you go.
As a little background, I graduated from high school in 1980 from James A. Cawood High School in Harlan County, Kentucky. It was the first consolidated high school in Harlan County. It also no longer exists. Who was James A. Cawood? He was the long-time Superintendent of Schools in Harlan County. When they consolidated Hall, Wallins and Loyall High Schools, he decided that James A. Cawood was a good name for the school.
When I graduated, I did not give the commencement address–mostly because I was not asked to do so. Okay, that’s entirely the reason. I think I was in the top 10 of my graduating class, because I looked like this:
My brother–four years older and much smarter than I–gave the Valedictory address when he graduated. That’s because he was the Valedictorian, which I wasn’t. Our Valedictorian and Salutatorian both spoke, as I recall. I’m sure they did a fine job, just as my brother had done. I don’t recall anything they said, but they were all quite bright, and I’m sure they said nothing inflammatory.
It’s just as well that I didn’t speak. First, I hadn’t spoken in public since the 1st grade when I read Psalms 100 at church. I’m sure I would have been terrified. Second, I was only 17 years old. I would have had nothing useful to impart to my fellow graduates.
I’m over 50 years old now with a veritable life time of experience behind me. I’ve made decisions–good and bad. I’ve done impressive things and baffling, hideous things. Now, it is my time. So, I offer my services.
Here is my commencement speech:
Good [morning/afternoon/evening]. I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the graduating class of [INSERT SCHOOL NAME] High School. I am over half a century old. This means two things: One, I am much older than all of you–hopefully. Two, I know more about everything than you do. Regardless of your experiences, I know more and have done more. Any story you can tell, I can top it, unless it involves farm animals and dwarves. Even then, let me hear the story, and I’ll be the judge of whether I can top it.
You are now high school graduates, along with tens–if not hundreds–of thousands of other people doing the same thing this year. I am not impressed. Indeed, it would likely take more effort to not graduate than it would to sit in your seats. Assuming he didn’t drop out, a fairly bright chimp could achieve the same thing.
Of course, some of you are impressive people. Let’s take the ones who come from dreadful families. You know who you are. Your parents don’t care about your academics or your social life or your behavior in general. Perhaps they are even abusive. That you have overcome this is impressive. Any achievement should be embraced. To you, I say this: Leave those people behind. You owe them nothing. Do not be shamed into believing that you are indebted to people to whom you are connected by nothing more than biological accident. These people will be millstones hanging around your neck. Cast them off. I am not suggesting that you sever all ties, unless that is necessary. That they fed and clothed you creates no obligation. They were supposed to do that. Take a long look at these people. You can and must do better.
There are also those of you who excelled academically. You, too, are impressive. Regardless of your course of study, that takes hard work. Hard work is good. You have the chance to go to college and excel, because you know the value of hard work in school. You may have the chance to go to any college you wish. Good for you. Here’s a suggestion: If your family can afford to send you to college, by all means choose the very best school. If, however, attending the college of your choice means saddling yourself with debt to pay for it, carefully consider your choice. You might paying that loan back when you’re my age. That’s a bad plan.
A rare few of you may have been born into money and have no concerns about your future. I don’t begrudge you that good fortune. Just do us all a favor and don’t pretend it’s an accomplishment. Do something with your life. Warren Buffett’s children are productive. You can be, too.
Some of you just barely got here today. You did the minimum to get your diploma. The good news is that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. I’ve known people who were poor high school students and did quite well in life. Notice that I didn’t say that I’ve known many people like that.
Even some of you laggards and wastrels will go to college. That is good. I’ve never known anyone who didn’t benefit from at least trying to go to college. Here is the catch: If you apply yourself in the same sorry-ass way you did in high school, it will likely be a short stay in college. Then, it’s into the work force you go.
Perhaps you have no desire to go to college and you plan to join the nation’s work force now. To you, I say: Good luck with that. Your diploma qualifies you for a vast array of minimum wage jobs. The minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. Assuming you work a 2000 hour year, you’ll make $14,500. That’s not much money. Oh, and it won’t be a fun job or even a good job. You’ll be easily replaced. Don’t think about buying a house or a nice car or much of anything else. You’ll need a room-mate to help with your rent.
Understand, too, that college isn’t for everyone. Whether you lack the drive, motivation or old-fashioned brain power, you may not be college material. There’s nothing wrong with that but be realistic. For example, there aren’t high-paying jobs for video game players. Under no circumstances should your career plans include mooching off your parents. You’ve wanted to be an adult and have your freedom. Your time has arrived.
When I graduated from high school, some people–all young men in those days–considered the military an option. Often, they had good reasons for this choice, an admirable one if there ever was. A few, however, thought of it as just a better option than work. They were wrong. People in the military take it seriously. Nowadays, they would be extra wrong. Our military is in a constant state of war now. The folks who run things take that very seriously. You should, too.
You may have already derailed your life with bad choices–drugs, alcohol, pregnancy and the like. You can overcome these bad choices, but it won’t be easy. You’ve dug yourself a nice hole. You have a choice now–try to get out of the hole or decorate it and make yourself at home. One thing you can’t do is spend any time blaming other people. Your parents may be vile. It’s almost certain that your friends are. Maybe you are, too. Perhaps people have treated you unfairly. You are now an adult, and here is one hard, cold fact: No one cares about any of that. From now on, you are 100% responsible for your actions. Act like it.
What of those of you who are the outcasts? You’ve spent your high school years as a non-conformist. You don’t do things the way others do, and you don’t give a damn what anyone thinks. The world doesn’t work like that. If your face is covered in hardware or you’ve tattooed your neck, that goes over even worse in the real world. The real world seeks normalcy. If you are abnormal, it’s a problem. I’m not suggesting that you kowtow to people, but use some judgment. If you really don’t care what anyone else thinks, you’re probably going to be treated accordingly. Be sure you’re okay with that.
A small number of you are the nerds, the bookish sorts for whom high school might not have been much fun. Take heart. You will sign the paychecks of many of your classmates. That, my friends, is sweet revenge at its finest.
All you need to know can be summed up in a few points. Write them down, for you shall refer to them often throughout your life:
- Life is not fair. It is random. Fairness is not random.
- Don’t underestimate good luck. You’ll need a dose of it every now and then.
- You are not judged on merit alone. How you look, act, dress, speak and carry yourself matter. Again, it’s not fair.
- If you are the type who won’t follow rules, life from this point forward will become increasingly difficult.
- Money is good, but once you have your necessities covered and a few toys, it doesn’t make much difference in the quality of your life.
- Bad things will happen to you, many of which will not be your fault.
- No one you know will live forever, including you.
- If you are the same person 20 years from now that you are at this moment, you have done something wrong. Grow up.
- Learning from your mistakes is natural, but it is not the best way to learn. The best way is to learn from observing other people make mistakes.
- Play to your strengths. You are good at some–maybe many–things. Find out what they are, and do them.
I should now tell you that the world is your oyster and you can do anything you want, but that would be a lie. You can’t do anything you want, but you can do some things you want and many things that you must do. You will do some of them well and fail miserably at others. That, my young friends, is life and life is good–not easy but good.
Finally, you have spent the past few years believing you know more than you do. You are about to find out all the things you don’t know. One day soon, you will be 50, too, and you will fear that you must depend on the next generation. You will hate their music, their clothes, their attitudes, the way they talk and even the way they look. Take heart, though, somehow it always works out.
Before you depart, take a good look around at your classmates. I leave you with these words from the late Kurt Vonnegut: “True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.”