Every Scared College Grad: This Is The Graduation Speech You Won’t Get (But Should)


Hello college graduate,

Congrats, you made it! Firstly, if you’re wondering why I feel the need to give you a graduation speech, it’s because I’ve attended enough graduations in my life to feel I can make a fair judgment. And the speeches never seem to live up to expectation. They’re mostly decent. But they’re also mostly filled with things you already know: Believe in yourself, follow your dreams, work hard, etc. All great things to be reminded of, but rarely anything new. Secondly, I’ve just always really wanted to give a graduation speech, and for now, doing so on here will have to do.

Before I get to the heart of the matters, let’s begin with my thoughts on imparting wisdom unto others. That is to say, giving “advice.” My favourite quote about advice will always be this one by Mary Schmich in her brilliant Wear Sunscreen essay:

“Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.”

In other words, if you get to the end of this and think I am entirely full of horse manure, I won’t take it personally. The advice I give or anyone gives, might not work for you. But then again, it might. And maybe that’s the first lesson that one ought to learn after the collegiate experience: No one has all the answers. No one can give you the perfect advice that will cater to your life.

Sometimes the answer to your problem might be working harder, pulling all-nighters, and fighting through the pain. Sometimes the answer might be going to bed, getting drinks with a friend, or calling your mother and crying. Sometimes the answer is making the decision to do nothing at all. But the key, I think, is to make a decision, and make sure it’s your decision. It won’t always be the right one, and you’ll have to learn the hard way. Indeed you will learn that all the best advice in the world, can’t hold a candle against good, old-fashioned experience.

Speaking of experience, actively try to do things that you think you’re bad at. I know, that doesn’t sound particularly fun. Nobody likes to do things they’re bad at. But I’ve found it is one of the most continuously humbling things, to live life as a sort of continuous rookie – always learning, and always being open to learning. Whether it’s a physical activity or a creative hobby or even reading material you don’t think you’re “smart” enough for, do it. Of course, make time for the things that come easy to you too. It’s okay to have comfort zones despite what people might tell you. The comfort zone is where you should come back to however, not where you should stay permanently.

Your relationship with your parents is going to change. Hopefully, for the better. Eventually, you will see your parents as much more than your parents: People who had hopes and dreams, some of which they didn’t fulfill. And it’ll make you have a deep compassion, love, and respect for them because they made it through. (Just like they know you will.) You will realize hopefully sooner rather than later, that just like you, your parents are growing too.

As you first struggle to find your footing in this thing called, “adulthood,” you might be a little bitter towards your parents, however. Why? For not forcing you to be a child prodigy, that’s why. If only because now that you have the freedom of adulthood, you also have to deal with the harsh realities of bills, bills, bills. And the latter aren’t going away until death. Yay adulthood! And yes, it will take a balancing act to get those things right. But when you finally do, you’ll see that there is also a certain kind of freedom that comes in being able to take care of the practicalities of life by yourself. And if this comes after you’ve known what it means to cry into 89 cent Minestrone soup while wondering how you’re going to pay your rent next month, you’ll be a better person for it.

“The best thing to do, however, is to try to be truly and authentically yourself – however difficult that is.”

When it comes to your friendships, try to be intentional about the friendships you want to keep. You will lose a few along the way, but you’ll also gain some unexpected soulmates. There’s value in keeping old friends close but remember that things change, and sometimes people grow out of each other. Sometimes, old friends become new ones again, and sometimes new friends feel like you’ve known them forever.

You will feel lonely at times especially if you move far away from people you know. You will have to build your own family of friends from scratch. And it will mean being vulnerable with people and sometimes getting rejected. But your friends do become your family at this stage of your life, so be the the kind of friend you want to have.

As for your romantic relationships, good freaking luck. I wish I could give you some type of mathematical equation, where if you work out all the variables, you’ll get the right answer. But so far I’ve learned there’s no such thing. If you’re one of those lucky ones who met “your person” before you entered “the real world,” just know that everyone hates you and wants to delete you off their Facebook. Just kidding. But you are lucky because dating isn’t easy, and sometimes it’s not even as fun as it should be.

Chances are, you’re going to get your heart broken, you’re going to get rejected, and funny enough, you’re going to miss out on dating someone spectacular because you were too busy being heartbroken and rejected. It’ll feel like you can’t win and that everything sucks sometimes. And it’ll be easy to want to stay with the things and people who are familiar, because well, they are familiar.

The best thing to do, however, is to try to be truly and authentically yourself – however difficult that is. And it is difficult. Because sometimes we become crazy versions of ourselves when we like someone. But in the end, that’s a version of yourself that is part of what makes you, you. Sometimes if you try to hide your flaws, you also end up hiding the best parts of you too. But if you want love, expect some humiliations and pains along the way. Let life surprise you, let people surprise you, and surprise yourself. And have the courage to be vulnerable with a stranger that you just met, who made you take a second look.

As for your career, please know firstly that you’re allowed to change your mind. Also know that you might need to have jobs that have nothing to do with your career. And that it’s okay to not be doing exactly what you want to do; and even more than that, to not know exactly what you want to do. Don’t get into the business of defining yourself by a job. But do discern what you want your vocation to be.

“Remember that when it’s all said and done, no matter how materially successful you are or aren’t, that the “stuff” of life does not make up for who you are, and how you treat people.”

Some of you will follow your dreams and be well on your way to achieving them; some of you will follow your dreams, and discover that you have to get some new ones. You will fail sometimes, maybe a lot, and it will hurt. But know that failing is much better than the easy way – doing only what is expected of you; never taking any chances.

Indeed finding the balance between doing what you love and what will pay the bills is another reality. But take it from a girl who moved to a city to become a lawyer, failed at going to law school, went to grad school, and somewhere in between started getting paid to write about my opinions on things (and is now privileged to be called a “writer”) – focus on doing good work in whatever you do. If the work is good, everything else can be negotiated. But first, the work must be good.

As for who you are and who you want to be, that will be the biggest struggle of all. People aren’t always going to see you as you want them to. You aren’t always going to see yourself as you need to. You’ll sometimes feel extremely lonely in crowded rooms, even rooms filled with people you love. You’ll sometimes feel like you have no idea what you’re doing at all, and that you’re the only one. The best thing you can do is feel the feeling. Own it. Don’t rush it or try to skip or fast forward it. It’ll catch up with you. But if you feel it, eventually it passes.

Forgive your childhood, your teenage years, and your early adulthood, so they don’t get in the way of experiencing your life now. Confidence, true confidence, will come not from “faking it till you make it,” but from confronting your insecurities head-on; having lots of conversations with yourself about them.

Try to visit as many places and converse with as many people, as time and money will allow you. It will make you a more compassionate person, and it will make you realize both how big and how small the world is. But don’t be one of those people whose identity is wrapped up in being a “traveler.” Always be multidimensional. You are so much more than what you can afford to do.

Make people feel welcome; make them feel like they matter. The world can be a cruel place for a lot of people who suffer in silence as they pass you. A smile and a kind word can be all the goodness you need to put into the world on some days.

Remember that when it’s all said and done, no matter how materially successful you are or aren’t, that the “stuff” of life does not make up for who you are, and how you treat people. That ultimately, “how well you’re doing,” is not about titles or bank accounts or the image of your life you project to the world. It’s about what you’re giving to the world and to those around you. And indeed, strive to be a more of a giver than a taker.

But if you remember nothing at all from this, and even if everything I’ve said really does amount to horse manure in your eyes, one thing you can bet on, and it is a cliché – it is that time is one of the most valuable things. But it goes quickly. Don’t waste it. Don’t put things off till “you’re ready.” You’ll never be ready to try out a new career path or move to a new city or tell someone you love them. Tomorrow may be too late – and that will be one of the most cruel life lessons you can experience – being too late. So forget about being ready, and go after whatever it is, today.

A few final things: Remember to wear sunscreen, as Mary Schmich writes about in that brilliant essay. To that I add, drink lots of water. Those two things are more invaluable than most people realize. And maybe one more thing as well, and it’s something that I’m just starting to work on. Whether it’s career or friendships or love: Don’t be attached to the outcome of things; don’t be attached to a particular outcome of things. The process, is where life really happens, I think. And sometimes the ending that you want when you go after whatever it is you want, is not the ending that you need.

Good luck. Have fun. And don’t let the struggles steal your sunshine.

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