Is there anything more predictable than the commencement address? You know exactly what happens: somebody who’s already a success stands up and tells a bunch of kids in caps and gowns that they too can be a success. “You can be whatever you want to be!” the speaker cries out. “You can live your dreams! Happy clichés for everyone!”
How many of this year’s graduates do you think believed a word that they heard at their graduations? How many believed the classic graduation punch line that they are in control of their own destiny, when the fact is that just about everything else they hear is all doom and gloom, bankruptcies and foreclosures, cutbacks and layoffs? My favorite commencement address of the year came from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who told the graduates of the Boston College School of Law, “My advice to you is to stay optimistic. Things usually have a way of working out.”
The trouble with today’s times is that the future isn’t what it used to be. Yes, it’s going to come back around. Our kids’ prospects are not always going to be so dim. But that doesn’t take away from the reality of what they feel right now.
So here are 10 things I’d like this year’s graduates to hear, plain and simple:
1. Don’t live in a bubble. There is no way you can get a sense of what life is all about through Twitter, MTV or even the Dr. Phil show, along with some brief headlines on the Web. Stay informed. Read a newspaper. That’s right, a newspaper. The more you know, the more you’re going to know what to do with your life. I swore the day I finished school that I would never read another non-fiction book! Fortunately, that only lasted a few weeks. You either get it or you don’t, and if you aren’t aware of “it,” then you sure can’t “get it.”
2. Don’t expect that you have something coming to you. One of the worst attributes I see in young adults is their sense of entitlement. Today’s young people didn’t invent this, as we all had it, but they sure are taking it to a new level! Let me tell you, you are not entitled to anything, not even when times are good. You have no right to expect to start your life at the same level that you enjoyed when you were living with your parents, or when they were paying your bills. It took your mom and dad 20-plus years to get to the standard of living that they now enjoy. It is just flat-out crazy for you to think you should start out at the level they are at today. And it’s crazier to want them to subsidize your life so you can live that way.
3. Don’t be a financial idiot. Please try to remember that you’re living in an economically challenging time, which means you must - absolutely must - avoid as much debt as humanly possible for the next five years. Do not, for instance, finance a toy. I don’t care if you want a widescreen television, a boat, a motorcycle or a vacation, you simply should never borrow money to do something you don’t have to do. Instead, find an expert, and find out, as scary as things are, if you should be putting money into your company’s 401(k), or buying stocks or mutual funds. I know when you’re 22, the last thing you’re thinking about is retirement, but this could be one of the most important, forward-thinking changes you can make now that will change your future.
4. Don’t let your Facebook page screw up your future. Right now, go scrub your Facebook, MySpace and any other social networking Web site you’re on. Every employer is going to check you out on the Internet. And if you’ve got pictures of yourself half naked with vomit down your arm while you’re cannonballing a Quaalude, then trust me, you are not going to leap to the top of the resume pile.
5. Don’t confuse the virtual world with the real world. Many people, young and old, decide to find a job virtually. Well, sure, it’s easy to get on some Web-based job site and post your resume, then sit at home and play video games waiting for someone to call you. But it just doesn’t work that way. If you want a job, you need to make eye contact and “press the flesh.” You need to knock on doors and let people see you are a real person, not another e-mail message, and convince them that you can do something for them right now, today.
6. Don’t pigeonhole yourself. If you have a specific degree in, say, accounting or engineering, do not make the mistake of thinking that you therefore have to work as an accountant or an engineer. In this economy, you need to be willing to use your skills and abilities in a variety of settings. If you’ve got the “I don’t do windows” attitude, you’ll be sent straight to the sidelines. The world is changing fast, and you need to be flexible to change with it.
7. Don’t be afraid of failure. This is so baffling to me. So many people, when faced with disappointment, have no idea what to do. They feel humiliated. They feel sorry for themselves. Eventually, they become paralyzed. It’s important to understand that, at some point, everyone fails. That’s right, everyone has a significant set back. And it’s going to happen, especially in this day and age — whether it’s not finding a job, or having to work at a “crummy” job or having to stand in line at the unemployment office.
8. Don’t forget your manners. When young people today reach the age of adulthood, they rarely hear anymore talks about the importance of good manners. It’s assumed that they know what to do. Oh, is that right? Here are a few reminders beloved graduates: Call your parents once a week. Always leave a tip, especially for the maid who has to clean up after you when you stay at a hotel. Actually listen when someone else is talking to you and don’t interrupt. And never forget to take a couple of minutes a day to ask yourself, “Did I do anything today that made someone else feel better about his or her life?” Just as you have skills that employers are willing to pay for, you have skills that can be used in service to someone else. So go volunteer. We’re all in this together, and it’s your duty to do your part.
9. Don’t forget what you can control. This recession has taught a lot of people that they don’t fully control their fate. Yes, for now, they might have to accept the fact that the glass is half empty and not half full. But despite all that, everyone does still control the formation of the most important thing they have: their character. They get to decide if they’re going to lead a life that has meaning. Believe me, you don’t have to perform some earth-shattering, headline-grabbing act to find that meaning. It’s the little, un-historic choices that you make that will lead you to happiness.
10. Don’t hesitate to take a leap of faith. If there is something you really want to do with your life, even if it’s something that other people ridicule, then there is no better time to try it than right now, before you have the responsibilities of home mortgages, a spouse and children. If you’re inspired by an idea, follow that inspiration. You’ll never be sorry you tried too soon. The one most devastating phrase you will ever utter is, “I waited too late.”