You Are a Free Agent In This World: Go Forth and Earn the Best Life You Can

As we head into graduation season, I’ve been thinking a good bit lately about what I might say to the graduating class of 2014. Fortunately, for all you upcoming graduates, I’m the only one who has been wondering so none of you need to worry I’ll be at the podium anytime soon.

That’s not to say I’ve never been asked, of course. Way back in the Summer of 2004, I stood on stage at Angelo State’s Commencement and reminded students that Gold is Good.

Truthfully, though, I don’t really need an invitation to pontificate or profess. I’m more than willing to do so unsolicited and last year at this time, I blogged an updated speech, telling Graduates Anywhere to Keep it Simple. I had the speech, but no audience, something that probably worked out well for everyone involved.

Graduation speeches, though, strike me as really interesting events. Clearly, educational institutions hope to take one last chance to address their captive audience and impart some small nugget of wisdom.

Unfortunately, too often they invite people who don’t really have anything worth saying to talk to a group that just wants to get back to their cooler of cold beer or grandma’s tamales and pinto beans.

But first, the almost-graduates have to suffer through one last lecture.

If for some weird reason you skip your graduation this year and miss out on the speech or if you’re someone who just likes reading random graduation speeches on the internet (something you should probably never admit to anyone), here’s the speech I might give to the class of 2014.

Dear Graduating class of 2014,

Congratulations and welcome to the last time most of your lives will be measured in semesters or 50-minute blocks of time. Later today at your graduation party, someone, probably multiple someones, will offer you advice as you begin the next chapter of your life. Listen politely, but remember that those people are probably wrong. If they had anything worth hearing, they would be on stage (or posting to their blog) not standing next to the beer cooler spouting shade tree philosophy.

Any speech, I’m convinced, should be 10 minutes or less, partly because very few of us have anything worth saying that can’t be said in that amount of time, but mostly because after about 8 minutes we’re all ready for the next commercial break. I’m not implying we are a nation with attention deficit issues, but I’m fairly certain about half you are already wondering how long it’s been since I started speaking, wishing you could check your Facebook account, or watching that shiny thing flashing in the upper deck.

And that’s just the faculty.

Before we release you to the wild, though, I thought I would offer you a few things to think about as you make the leap into the unknown.

1. You don’t have to find your dream job to be happy. Don’t get me wrong: I hope you find a job that you enjoy and, if you’re really lucky, a job that speaks to some passion deep within your soul. At the end of the day, though, you get paid to do a job but no one has to pay you to be passionate. Your job should allow you to fulfill your passion, but your passion shouldn’t depend on your job. We’ve done you a great disservice these last few years of school by conflating the way you earn money with the manner in which you define your existence. Happiness, simply put, doesn’t come from a job: it comes from a job well-done, regardless of the job. Work hard, show up early, stay late, but never forget that you are a person first and an employee second. Recognize the difference between the two.

2. You’ve got to stand for something, John Mellencamp sings, or you’re going to fall for anything. If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice. While it might seem questionable to find philosophical truths in rock and roll lyrics,  Mellencamp and Rush remind us that our life is defined by our words and actions. Feel passionate about something, get excited about ideas, find your values and then live them. Be a person of conviction, but don’t be a person who finds it necessary to convict those who don’t share your values. You just spent four years of your life being told to think critically. Do it. The educated don’t get the luxury of apathy or intellectual laziness. Recognize, though, that you can stand for something without pushing everyone else down. The greatest enemy of democracy is the tyranny of ideologies that demonize, attack, and treat disagreement as treasonous. The well of public discourse has been poisoned by a system that rewards volatility and extremism. Help purify that conversation.

3. If the rules of your life, those values and things for which you stand, leave you unhappy or unfulfilled, what good are the rules? Life is about change. I hope you aren’t the same person you were four years ago. Certainly, you might hold the same values and ideas, but if we’ve done anything close to our job (and, most importantly, if you’ve met us at least halfway) your understanding of those values should be more nuanced and different. Those ideas should continue to evolve and change. Be prepared. Call into question the rules daily. Reaffirm them. Revise them. Reject them. Just don’t ignore them. Make the ideas and values earn your loyalty with positive results, but recognize that thinking critically and engaging with ideas doesn’t always provide neat answers. The world, despite what too many of our political leaders seem to imply, is not a dualistic and simple place. We exist in complexity. Embrace it. Value it. Live it. Never expect it to always be easy, though.

Your life, class of 2014, is now. In a few minutes you will walk across the stage, smile pretty, and feel that sense of relief knowing that this part of your academic journey will fade into a pleasant memory.

After this pomp and circumstance, I hope, as you leave these hallowed halls, that you never forget you are a free agent in this world. Please, for all our sakes, go forth and earn the best life you can.

Peace and joy to you and yours.


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.

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