To Graduates Anywhere–Keep it Simple

I’ve been on a sort of forced vacation from blog posting here of late. Between grading papers, administrative tasks, my oldest son’s impending graduation, my other son’s baseball (and subsequent injury, doctor’s visits, and rehab), free time has become an increasingly precious commodity. By the time I sit down to write, all the blog posts running through my mind during the day have, evidently, leaked out my ears. My brain, when it’s tired, returns to that blank slate state, focused much more intently on a cold beer and a soft couch.

Somedays, heck, some weeks, that seems to start about 10:00 in the morning.

Even so, I’ve been thinking a good bit about graduations lately. Angelo State just minted around 400 new college graduates. My son’s high school will push around 650 kids out into the “real” world in the coming weeks.

Fortunately for them, hiring is trending up, they have all those graduation gifts (to use or pawn), and their student loan payments don’t start for 6 months (the high schoolers aren’t even in debt yet!).

Unfortunately for them, to get that diploma they have to listen to a variety of speakers offer advice and words of wisdom. As someone who once delivered a graduation speech, I’m fairly certain no one sets out to be boring.

Some people, though, can’t help it.

Beyond the cliches and awful advice usually delivered in a speech designed less to inspire than to avoid offending anyone, too many graduation speakers forget the first rule of commencement addresses. Rule #1–No one really cares what you have to say. These poor kids just spent 4 (or 6 or 8) years listening to lectures. They have drinks on ice and life to live. The most important thing to remember in Rule #1–all graduation speeches should be 6 minutes or less.

As I prepare myself for my older son’s graduation, and after listening to somewhere around 30 commencement addresses at Angelo State, I’ve decided to write my new and improved commencement address.

To set the stage appropriately, anyone reading should be sure your bladder is half full, your sight lines are partially obscured, and start playing a tape of a baby crying and an old person coughing in the background. Since acoustics are usually awful at most venues, please also skip every 15nth word. You wouldn’t hear those during the ceremony anyway.

I stand tall in my regalia at the podium and clear my voice:

Graduates of the Class of 2013. I am the only thing standing between you and being officially classified as unemployed. As such, I want to be the first to welcome you to a life that will no longer be lived in 50 to 120 minute increments, there is no make-up work or extra credit, and you don’t get a break in the middle of spring to re-charge your batteries.

In the coming weeks, you will have advice thrust upon you from every direction. Your parents, your crazy, half-drunken Uncle Joe, teachers, politicians, and, for some of you, total strangers who just feel compelled to impart wisdom.

Much of this will be contradictory and some of it will be incomprehensible.

Some of it might even be illegal and immoral.

Even though I’m standing here, dressed in a medieval robe as we re-enact an odd ancient tradition, I am fully aware that by your graduation party I will just be “some guy” who delivered the commencement address. And yet, the price of your diploma will be the next 5 minutes of advice.

1. As you leave the coliseum today, I ask you to enjoy the simple things in life. Many of you, way back in your sophomore year, read (or were assigned) Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. Wilder’s play focuses our attention on the seemingly mundane daily life of Grover’s Corners. Before we start the play, I ask my students to figure out how many hours they have been alive. The math is pretty easy: There are 168 hours in a week, 8765 hours in a year, and 19848 in 22 years. How many hours, I ask my students, include amazing, incredible, life changing events?

Not many. In fact, one of the major take-aways from Wilder’s play is that our cultural emphasis on weddings, funerals, child-birth, graduations, etc. causes us to miss the joy we might see each morning at breakfast. If you total up all the amazing moments in your life, even including the moments from today (this speech!), you might have a couple of hours. Total. Over the course of 22 years.

But it’s more than simply focusing on living in the moment. I want you to literally enjoy simplicity: a short drive to work, an ice chest full of cold drinks on a hot day, a moment of rest on a busy day, shade, a pretty woman and a handsome man (or a handsome woman and a pretty man), a good cry and a belly laugh. Life can seem like a complex series of interconnected paths. Revel in moments of clarity and ease.

2. Don’t worry about finding a job that you love. Find a job that lets you do what you love. But most of all–find a job.

We’ve been bombarding you for years about following your passion and creating a coherent path to success. For years now, we’ve given you tests and surveys to find the ideal career for your personality. I’m sorry. We’ve sold you a bill of goods.

The ugly reality is that many of us don’t love our jobs. I like my job. It pays the bills, but most of all it lets me travel, think, read, and hang out with smart people. If you love to play softball on the weekends, find a job that feeds that desire. If you like to work in a quiet place away from stress and crazy people, find a job that let’s you do such things. If you want to make a lot of money, find a job (or two or three) that let’s you put money in the bank.

Simply put: where you work doesn’t define your life. We call it a job; we call it work. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean you can’t do it. You learned to like broccoli: you can learn to like your job.

3. Make enough money to live the life you want but live on the money you make. It’s pretty simple math. Don’t spend more than you make. You can’t graduate from high school or college and expect to live a middle class life next week. Your parents had to work to get all that stuff. So do you.

4. Do what you want in life, but want what you are doing. All choices have consequences and we are a product of those choices. I hate to get all existential on you so close to graduation, but you are faced at any given moment with thousands of choices. You could stand up right now, sling your cap in the air, and throw your chair at the stage yelling “Chuck Norris is god.” I’ll pause to see if anyone wants to take the chance.

You can go out drinking on your anniversary, skip your child’s birth for a business meeting, move to a city you might not like, and visit your in-laws every Thanksgiving.

Or not.

If you choose to visit the in-laws, don’t pout. You are doing what you want because you made a choice. Own that choice. Make it yours. Don’t be a victim. Or a martyr. You always have a choice in those moments. If you embrace the power to choose, you can seize control of your life.

Just outside of Weatherford, TX there is a sign that says something like “Your are His child. Make Him proud.” I’m not a particularly religious man and most religious advertising usually offends me, so I’m going to secularize the sign and remind you that you are someone’s child. Make her proud.

Remember, too, that you are someone’s graduate. Make us proud.



About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

8 Responses to To Graduates Anywhere–Keep it Simple

  1. Pingback: You Are a Free Agent In This World: Graduate and Earn the Best Life You Can | Consistently Contradictory

  2. Therefore, taken frequently, there’s always an opportunity that it might prove to be damaging for your health. If left unchecked, it could cost businesses more, in the form of absenteeism, increase health care costs and falling productivity and staff morale. Unlike other back conditions, like degenerative disc disease (which is actually a form of arthritis), pain caused by a bulging disc tends to remain constant throughout the day and may even increase when the person is engaging in certain activities.

  3. Mom says:

    You are my child. You have made me proud. Love, Mom

  4. Pingback: Trying to reblog | Getting to the "After" Life

  5. John Wegner says:

    Thank you for the comments. It’s worth noting, of course, that if graduation speeches could change the world, we would all be better people.

  6. No. 4 is tough one, even for a few of us seasoned adults!

  7. barbaramudge says:

    I’m trying really hard not to cry because of this post. I hope they take your advice. I really do. Those are very had lessons to learn at 39. Very hard indeed. Well done Sir and thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for the advice.

  8. *stands up and applauds passionately* I love this! 🙂 I admire your honesty and pragmatism. Graduating students being launched into the reality of adult-hood often do so with unrealistic expectations. With a healthy knowledge of what LIFE expects of them, they have a good foundation to grow into good,enlightened and responsible citizens. Kudos to you sir !

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