The Commencement Address I’d Give

One of my life’s more rewarding experiences was giving Columbia College’s (MO) commencement address. If I were to give another, here’s what I’d say.

Perhaps you’ll want to pass it on to recent or future grads, see if there’s anything in it for yourself, or, who knows, maybe even invite me to say a few words at your institution.

Dear Graduates of 2019, I must be honest and tell you that I remember not one thing from all the commencement addresses I heard as a student—from elementary school to graduate school. So, although I’m going to offer my top-10 ten tips for the life well-led, I’ll settle for your remembering (and maybe trying?) even one.

My first five exhortations are about your career:

Consider under-the-radar careers.  It seems that half of new grads want to work in just one of three fields, sports, non-profit, or media. So it’s tough to get hired, even as a volunteer, let alone for a stable, well-paying job where they treat you well. After all, employers know that a horde is salivating in the wings to take your save-the-whale job. It’s easier to land a good job and you’re more likely to be treated well in an under-the-radar career. To whet your appetite, here are a few: optometrist, program evaluator, patient advocate, grant proposal writer, political campaign staffer, forensic accountant, and yes, government worker. Surprised at the latter? Remember that government is the last major bastion of secure, well-paying jobs—You’re less likely to get gigged. And government’s wheels, while turning slowly (Some would say glacierly,) turn in a pro-social direction.

Focus more on contribution than on happiness. The key to a well-led life is maximizing your contribution. Happiness, less central, is, by the way, most likely found in simple pleasures like creative expression and good relationships than in Beemers and big abodes, let alone bongs.

Speaking of Beemers, being materialistic will hurt you.  Many people end up forgoing a career they’d enjoy more and be more contributory. Why? Because less likeable careers often pay more because few people are intrinsically attracted to them—Coming to mind are marketing luxury products, hawking insurance, and trading bonds. Your life will likely, net, be better for if you forgo the frou-frou address, maintenance-hog luxurymobile, fancy-label clothes, and ripoff vacations in favor of doing work that would, day in and day out, feel more rewarding.

Procrastination is a career killer.  Thanks to grade-inflation, you may have gotten away with procrastination. You waited until the last-minute to get that paper done or to study for the test, relying on the adrenaline to get you cracking. And lo and behold, you got a good grade! But grade inflation hasn’t metastasized to quality workplaces. So try to cure or at least manage your procrastination. For example, when facing The Dreaded Task, remind yourself of the benefits of getting it done well, the liabilities of procrastinating, and then ask yourself, “What’s my next one-second task?”  It feels good to make even a bit of progress. Getting a few one-second tasks done may be enough to get you rolling: As they say, an object at rest tends to stay at rest, an object in motion…well, you know.  And yeah, although it’s a cliche, baby steps help. When you’re overwhelmed, after doing any needed planning, just put one foot in front of the other.

Talking too much is a career killer. Raise your hand if you’ve ever had to listen to someone you wish would shut up already. (I see one person who didn’t raise his hand. He’s probably a big talker.) Keep all utterances to less than 45 seconds and, in dialogue, speak 30 to 50 percent of the time.

My next four tips are about the people you interact with.

Don’t overvalue physical appearance. Why do so many people prefer a silly, manipulative, games-playing, selfish, and attractive person over an ugly, intense, honest, kind one?

Is s/he good or just nice?  Some people are nice as a way to compensate for not being good.

Value honesty over flattery. How feeble are we that we may be swayed more by dubious flattery than by valid suggestions? Try to stay open to benevolently derived constructive criticism. Such critics are brave and well-intentioned, worthy of our respect and, often, friendship.

Recognize that changing others (or yourself) is hard, very hard. Even PhD-wielding psychotherapists have a tough time fundamentally changing their clients, even after expensive years on the couch. Yes, fine-tuning is possible, indeed desirable—We all should be growing. But whether it’s your coworker, family member, friend, romantic partner, or yourself, it’s usually wise to accept the person’s basic essence, and if you can’t, rather than trying to flog major change, minimize interaction with that person or, even extirpate him or her from your life.

My final suggestion is about your mind.

Understand an opposing view.  This is particularly important in these polarized times. Try making the best case you can for a position you disagree with. That will make you a wiser, more nuanced and perhaps more open-minded person, which, if we’re to solve problems, societal or interpersonal, is crucial.

And with that, I’m sure you’ve now suffered from more than enough advice, mine on top of  what your parents and friends have piled on you. And so without further ado, I shall shut up and simply say congratulations, class of 2019.


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