Facebook and YouTube are full of graduation speeches that go viral and become memes representing personal life views, political stances or just feel-good, philosophical pablum.
Usually, speakers invite you to follow your passion, love what you do and learn to overcome failure. In other words, graduation speeches motivate you to change the world (like the speaker has) but provide little, if any, real-life advice.
That’s not to say the speeches aren’t inspirational.
One address by Naval Adm. William H. McRaven at the University of Texas in 2014 has garnered more than 10 million views on YouTube. McRaven’s speech famously opined, “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.” He explained, “If you can’t do the little things right, you’ll never be able to do the big things right.” Coming from a Navy admiral, the importance of discipline is sound.
Denzel Washington’s speech at Dillard University, a private, historically black, liberal arts university in New Orleans, Louisiana, has 21 million YouTube views. Denzel’s advice? “Put God first in everything you do.” Having a spiritual foundation in life is wise counsel.
For even more YouTube views, check out Steve Jobs’ 2005 Commencement Address at Stanford University, which has racked up 33 million views.
Jobs, co-founder of Apple, urged graduates to “Follow your heart,” saying, “The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” Passion can certainly keep you going when life throws you curves.
Most graduation speeches I’ve heard or read suggest believing in yourself and having the right attitude will result in success — success meaning significant global impact or financial gain. Is that what graduates want or need to hear? Having finished high school 40 years ago, I got to thinking about what practical advice I wish I had gotten back in 1979.
One of the most important lessons I learned is that making money rarely equates with true success.
There is a joke that goes, “How much money does it take to live in New York City?” “All you have!” Of course, this can apply to living anywhere, if we are always chasing the bigger apartment and the more expensive car. True success is not about accumulation of wealth. Learn early to separate financial gain from successful living.
That being said, you still must save and plan for the future. My parents set the expectation early on that my brothers and I were to get an education and make a living on our own to be able to save and support a family. That was their minimum definition of success. I’d love to hear a graduation speech that focused on saving. Saving should start early. With the first paycheck you bring home (and every one thereafter), set aside some to save.
But don’t just save; give! Yes, you work for you. But it’s not all about you. Give of your time, talent and treasure to support causes that you believe in (religious, civic, nonprofit, etc.). Then live within your means with whatever you have left.
Occasional splurges can be planned, but don’t borrow to keep up with the Joneses. That is playing with fire. A major illness (like cancer) at any age can trigger unbelievable expense and a significant risk of bankruptcy. The focus on inequality or “keeping up” breeds jealousy. Equal work does not guarantee equal results, much less equal pay.
You can’t live your life comparing yourself to others. Yes, fight for justice. But do your own work without resentment when others happen to have more financial success, fame or glory. Don’t envy.
Happiness, especially if based on accumulation of things, is fleeting and deceptive. Joy, on the other hand, is a mindset. One of the most joyful people I’ve ever known never had a dime to her name. The Rev. Bettie Kennedy was too busy giving whatever she had away, feeding and clothing others. Learn to give.
The Protestant Reformation brought with it the idea of our vocation as our calling, indicating the spiritual nature or our work. Whether Martin Luther actually said it or not, the idea that even a milkmaid can milk cows to the glory of God is encouragement to find meaning in even our most trivial tasks.
When we do, we don’t cut corners. We always put forth our best effort. And we treat each person we interact with as the most important person there is at that moment. View your own work as a calling and your interaction with others as your ministry. Love God; love others. Simple to say; hard to do.
Don’t forget to make time for yourself. Burnout is real in any profession. Maintaining your mental and spiritual health is just as important as your physical health, maybe even more so. Learn to retreat.
Finally, expect to regret certain decisions, actions, roads taken. I don’t believe anyone who says they never regretted anything they’ve ever done. In fact, I feel sorry for them. That attitude exposes a selfish view of a life lived with callous disregard for any hurt inflicted on others, much less yourself. A life without regret is a life without grace. Embrace grace.
To summarize, the best graduation advice I can give is to save often, give freely, live within your means, treat your work as a calling (but take a break every once in a while), treat others with dignity, and accept and extend grace.
Success is not found at the journey’s end; it is embodied in the life well lived. Sounds like good New Year’s advice as well.