great commencement speeches, and it's always something I feel I'd enjoy doing. Well, I'd like to WRITE one, anyways. I have not the ego to stand in front of that many strangers and pretend that I have the charisma or wit to entertain and enlighten them when all they really want to do is get out of a stuffy gymnasium.
I have another four years or so before my son graduates High School, and not nearly enough fame or fortune to warrant being asked to speak anywhere, so what you read below is likely the only commencement speech I'll ever write, unless one of my stories require one. In that case, it will have to serve the story first, so this will only ever be the one that contains what I would say if I were given the chance to address a group of freshly minted adults. Knowing "me" as well as I do, it's probably wisdom best left on this secluded corner of the internet, because I'm not sure how well it would go over in a room full of academics and family.
I wanted to condense all of the advice that I have been saving up for my son, waiting for that day when he has to throw off the mortar of student and start making choices as an adult. So here it is, my first, and very likely only, commencement speech, written as a writing exercise to shake off a bit of "Writers Malaise", which is what Writers Block would be if it could only block you from writing anything good. I have a few pages of bad writing to dispose of, so I can't really call it a block.
The excessive comma's, italics, and parenthesis are there because I wrote it in the same poorly structured manner in which I would read it. That's my story, anyways.
Regardless, on with the show.
As I look at the group of young men and women behind me, I'm reminded of the time when it was my turn to don the cap and gown, walk down that aisle, and experience the eclectic combination of emotions that is commencement.
I had no idea what to expect, but I knew it was going to be a blast. At 17, as I was when I graduated High School, I hadn't seen enough of the world to know that the fun parts were going to be a lot harder to come by from there on out. Oh, they were still out there, but they weren't free anymore, I would have to earn them.
Mixed in among the congratulations from family and friends, there were plenty of warnings as well. Warnings about my future, what it could be, and what it should be. Like most people my age, I blew most of this advice off with a smile and a nod of my head, and it's right that I did so.
Not that the people giving me advice wanted me to fail, or that their advice wasn't sound. It was. Well, most of it, I'm sure. The reason I say that is that what was right for them, might not have been right for me. I thought I was a fairly respectful person, a well adjusted young man, if you will, and whatever the big bad world had in store for me, I wouldn't be able to prepare for it no matter what I did, so I might as well live my life the way I thought best, and clean up my messes as best I could when I screwed up.
I didn't expect to have all of the answers, but coming from a family well versed in the ability to improvise on the fly, to "figure it out" as I go along, I thought I was as well equipped as anybody starting off. I'd already learned that it's better to have tools than answers, and that's really what I'm trying to impart on you today.
Answers are all anyone cares about in public education nowadays. If you can pass the test, if you can produce the correct facts in the correct order, it is assumed that you are more intelligent than those that filled in the wrong circles on that sheet of paper.
I'm going to tell you a few shocking truths about the "Real World" while I'm up here, and this is the first one. Outside of education, nobody will ever hand you a sheet of paper and ask you to color in dots on a page. Not while you are stocking shelves at a department store, not while you are performing brain surgery, and not when you are laying concrete. It's a marginalization of the education process that even the teachers that are forced to administer them hate. Look at the teachers in the crowd, and tell me what you see in their eyes. Their bosses are sitting with them, so don't look for them to nod, but read their eyes.
That's another tool I'd like to pass on, probably the most important thing I have learned in my decade and a half on the outside- pay attention. I know, I know, you've got that bit down, right? You've been harassed into paying attention for almost two decades of your life. That's not what I mean, though. I don't mean pay attention as in listening to what someone is saying, to take the information from the board and from your teachers mouth and file it away, so that you can channel it into those lettered circles of the next test placed in front of you.
I'm speaking of paying attention to the details. Paying attention to the details will help you learn motivations, what people want. The main difference between this world, the manicured properties and carefree weekends of school, and the world outside these walls, is that here, people are paid to care about you. Sure, many of them care because they want to do their part in improving the world, and education is one of the best ways to go about that, but on the outside, people don't care about you, by and large. They care what you can do for them. I realized that during my first college class, a Biology lecture at the University of Maine.
I sat there in an amphitheater, surrounded by hundreds of other students, and the lack of support I felt was palpable. I remember thinking, "How is this any different than watching a movie, or reading a book, and then being asked to know it?" The safety net had been removed some night when I wasn't looking, and it was a bit of a wake up call. It did keep me from being more surprised when I would have been a few years later, when I was given a job, a minimum of training, and expected to make sure it got done.
I knew how to run the machine (assuming no problems arise), when to show up, and when lunch was, but other than that, I was expected to figure it out. Like I said earlier, I was raised with a baseline level of ingenuity, so I did manage to figure it out. I had a few jobs like that, early on, the kinds of jobs that will inevitably be taken by machines because they don't miss sleep, come in hung over, or otherwise make mistakes out of inattention. No doubt many of you will have jobs like that as well, if you're lucky. The rest of you will have to figure something else out, because most of those "horrible and under-appreciated" jobs are now being done elsewhere, by people who started out with less, and as a result will work for less.
Then, in a manner of speaking, I "graduated" to white collar work, where I was judged on what I knew and how good I was at getting others to "figure it out." In most ways, this was better, but not in every way. The blue collar work force is a lot like a sports team. You're stuck in a taxing situation, all given a shared goal, and everybody learns early on that it's going to take everything they have to get it done, so people making waves are dealt with directly because they make everyone's job harder/impossible.
In these jobs, "paying attention" means keeping your eye on the machine and your coworkers so that you don't get hurt, or cause one of them to. It's simple, but it's rarely easy. Eventually, fatigue or someone dropping the ball will cause someone to get hurt, they will reset the "This workplace has gone ___ many days without a lost time accident" board, and everyone will be a little more careful for a while.
In white collar work, it's less honest. I don't mean white collar workers are crooks, but there is less of the "team" atmosphere in most places. That's not a mark against any of the places I've worked, but it is a fair enough observation in general. Here, "paying attention means making sure that your good work is noticed, and that you notice the few people (there's always at least one) that will try to take you down a peg or two by claiming your work as theirs, or that your work is not as good as it appears to be, or by pointing it out when you inevitably fuck up.
And yes, everyone fucks up. (This is the part where I would likely be excused from the rest of my commencement address.) The goal is to do what you can to minimize it, and hope that enough of it slips through the cracks unnoticed for you to keep your job, or until you actually "figure out" just what the hell you are doing.
But it's not all bad. There is still fun to be had. I'm sure you've seen all of your adult friends on facebook talk about "being happy", like it's some secret bestowed on only a few. Anybody can be happy, and I've found the secret to be both incredibly simple, and incredibly difficult/impossible for some people. You want to hear it?
You do things that make you happy, and eliminate the things that don't.
That's it. If you enjoy painting your face purple and running through the field lathered in honey, go do that. If you enjoy helping out at homeless shelters, go do that. Happiness isn't all, "Everyone thought I was the prettiest/best looking person in the room, so I felt good about myself for five minutes, then went back to self loathing". It's a lot less complicated than that. It doesn't require you to be the best at anything, thought the world will try to convince you otherwise.
The world, and by world, I mean the media, reality television, and most of the people that care about either of them, need you to beat yourself silly trying to compete against everyone else. Reality TV, which has devolved into a ever broadening array of televised competitions, needs fresh starry eyed, egomaniacal fodder to operate each season. Thousands of people line up at America Idol tryouts, knowing that only one of them will win. And no matter how much you hear them talk about how happy they are to have reached Hollywood/top ten/finals/final three, they're still pretty damned disappointed when they fail.
Am I saying that we should stop competing? Absolutely not. What I am saying, is that somewhere along the way, we were taught that winning was the only way to be happy. If you fail, you're supposed to look up at all of the people who beat you in awe, and look at yourself in shame. We place so much emphasis on winning, most people think that if they don't win at something, they are a failure. So maybe it's not the competition that's the problem, it's our expectations. Expectations, in and of themselves, are fairly useless. The best you can do is meet them, or beat them slightly. Even when you're right, you're really just doing what you said you would.
"Type A" personalities are running things right now, but they tend to be pretty miserable for all they achieve. You might ask yourself, why would people that have achieved so much be so unhappy? I mean, they set out to do things, and they did them. Isn't that the very definition of satisfaction?"
You might be inclined to think so, but you'd be wrong. The problem is that Type A personalities are constantly driven. They accomplish one thing, they start looking for something else to conquer. It makes for great deodorant commercials, but if you're never able to satisfy yourself, to reach a level of contentment that will let you say, " You know, I'm at a really good place now, I'd be happy if I could just maintain this level of happiness the rest of my life", then you'll probably die with happiness being the only thing you haven't achieved.
That's probably my most important piece of advice. Stop to enjoy things every once in a while. Don't be one of those nomadic "Type A's", who have a hole somewhere in their soul that can never be filled. I don't care if the economy needs their mindless production because it itself is so horrible inefficient that the only way it can succeed is to continue to grow in order to hide all of the places where it doesn't work right. Yeah, ever wonder why the Government is so quick to bang the drum for more economic growth? That's why. The economy is a "Type A" personality, it can't function at equilibrium either.
Find things to enjoy, even if it's just a special lunch you packed yourself or a story you get to go back to once your job is over. Don't let your work define you, unless it's a career that you choose to devote your life to because it gives you happiness, like teaching. Find the little things that make you smile, and make sure you don't forget those as you wind your way through the world.
Stop to smell the roses,metaphorically as well as figuratively. Make something. Try new things in order to find the ones that you enjoy. And remember that the only "kinds" of people in this world that matter, the only distinctions that we should even worry about, are happy people, and miserable people.
The world has plenty of miserable people, and most of them don't even realize they are miserable. There are even different types of miserable people you will come across. Let me give you a heads up, so that maybe you can recognize them for what they are before they suck you into their unhappiness.
There are the grumps, people so obviously miserable that everyone spots them right away. They sound angry most of the time, assuming that everyone is going to do or say something to piss them off before they even have a chance to, because, well, more often than not their grumpy demeanor pushes people to treat them that way because both sides expect the other to be the asshole. It's an asshole snowball rolling down a hill, picking up steam. Push these people as far out of your life as you can.
Then, there are the deniers. These people appear happy, but eventually you will hear how the world is out to get them, how nobody helps them, and that no matter what they do, the only kind of luck they have is bad. These people are miserable because deep down, they think they deserve to be. Maybe they did something bad and feel the need to self-flagellate until Jesus (or whatever deity floats your boat/ark) tells you you've had enough. Maybe they just had a run of poor luck along the way, and didn't have enough support to dig themselves out before they started thinking that is just the way their life works. Once they lose the ability to see a life free of the drama/misery of their present existence, they become lost in their own snowball of misfortune rolling down a hill. They expect things to go wrong, so the good things that still happen don't have an equalizing effect because they are too busy waiting for something to go wrong. When it does, it feeds back into their expectations. These people will ask for advice, but rarely take it, because they think you just don't understand how hard their life is. Their life might be a lot harder than yours, but ultimately they are the ones that will have to choose to be happy, you can't do it for them.
And then there are the people that can't have anyone do better than them. You'll see many variations on this. From the people that fabricate wild stories so that everyone will be impressed with them, to the people on facebook bragging about how great their life is, hoping to cultivate jealousy sufficient to drown out anything that might compete with their accomplishments, to the people who treat every mundane part of their life like front page news, because they crave attention. Nobody can be the center of attention for long, and when their 15 minutes of fame run out, they spend the rest of their life trying to recapture it. The "Type A's" I spoke about earlier fall into this category, because nobody can keep up that kind of pace forever. There are people that relentlessly chase world records, because their drive to be the best is like a drug or Chinese food. Before long, they need more. Always more. Eventually, either the body or the spirit break down, and then they are left with unfulfilled expectations, breeding resentment.
The only way to be happy is to balance your accomplishments with a level of contentment. By all means, go out and attack life. Try stuff out, kick the tires. Don't be afraid to step out of your comfort zone, but also don't lose fact of what you're really trying to do with your life. You're trying to find some level of enjoyment from it. Somewhere between a hedonistic Las Vegas party and the two old people rocking their remaining years away on a porch somewhere.
Enjoy life, whatever form that might be, and don't set goals that are so far off that you can't make pit stops along the way to celebrate minor victories. Enjoy things because you understand that they are not owed to you. You are one of many, and that's okay. Your life will be better for it, and you will be surprised how little you miss the things you gave up because you decided there were other things you'd rather spend your time on.
So be happy. Do great things, but not because you owe it to anyone. Do them for yourselves, for the joy of discovery and the magic of selfish altruism. But most of all, enjoy the journey, I have it on good authority that you'll regret not taking the time to do so if you don't.
Thank you, and congratulations to the class of __________.