It’s been a while since I wrote a graduation column. Seven years, to be exact. I reread that old one recently and thought it held up pretty well. I almost recycled it, in fact, but then found myself itching to write a new one. I guess you could call it the seven-year itch. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
So, to all you graduates out there, whose institutions steadfastly and wisely continue to withhold my invitation to be your commencement speaker, I offer the following unsolicited advice.
First, let’s get one thing out of the way. I don’t know what your career should be. I didn’t know what my career should be when I was your age, either. I’m in awe of people who set professional goals as children and pursue them relentlessly with no looking back. If you’re one of those magical super-humans, carry on and Godspeed! You don’t need my help.
To the rest of you, I wish I could just trot out that old cliche, “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” It’s true – most cliches are true – but it’s not that helpful at this point in your young life. It’s hard enough to figure out what you love, much less get somebody to pay you a living wage to do it. But eventually you will need to get a job, and it’s quite possible that it won’t be your dream job. In fact, you might not like it at all. But life is long, and the world is changing fast, so you probably won’t be stuck in that job you don’t like forever. It’s quite possible, in fact, that A.I. will soon swipe that job you don’t like right out from under your nose. Keep the faith!
(Insert laughter here. I’m kidding. Sort of. The point is that I have no decent career advice. Consult a professional.)
Find your thing. Your thing doesn’t have to be your job. I repeat: Your thing doesn’t have to be your job. Your thing is your joy. Maybe it’s photography. Or music. Or cooking. Or NASCAR. If you live long enough, you’ll probably have lots of things. I have, and I do. I am currently in search of a new thing, and the search, itself, is a thing – and its own kind of joy. Kids, search for your thing, find it, and nurture it.
Learn to listen, and listen to learn. When you’re in a private conversation. When you’re in a group. When you’re on social media. Listen to what people are saying – not what you imagine they’re saying, not what you expect them to say, but what they’re actually saying. Listen to understand, not to respond. Far too many people are busy thinking up a snappy retort when what they should be doing is listening. To apply this advice to the ever-expanding realm of social media, you need only read closely – and curiously – then think before you type. I recently heard an ethics professor on a podcast say, “I always instruct my students to approach a text with the greatest sense of justice possible – even charity. I instruct them to construe what they’re reading in its highest possible form before they respond to it.” Yes! Do that.
Grow things. Gardeners are the happiest people I know. You may not have the time or energy to keep a garden, but you really should think about growing things. Flowers in a window box. Tomatoes in a pot. A fern hanging over your porch. I aspire to having a garden, myself, but have thus far been too lazy to learn about the soil in my yard. But I do grow things, and it makes me happy. I know I’d be happier still if I had a garden. I hope to one day. #goals
Pay attention to birds. Yes, birds. You don’t have to be obsessed with them – like I am – but you should really start noticing them, and sooner than later. I didn’t start paying attention to birds ‘til I was in my 40s, but you don’t have to wait that long to enhance your life exponentially. I’m telling you – watch birds. Once you start seeing them – really seeing them – you will start to see everything else, and appreciate everything else, on a much deeper level. This is a profound truth that can’t be explained, only experienced. You don’t have to wait ‘til middle age to experience it, but most of us are too busy and/or self-absorbed ‘til then to do it. Trust me, I’m offering you a life hack here. Notice birds.
Sing in a choir. If I could give only one piece of advice that would change the world if taken en masse, that advice wouldn’t be “recycle” or “respect pronouns” or “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” That advice would be “sing in a choir.” If we all started our day with choral singing, the world would be a better place. Period. Choral singing changes you – mind, body, and soul. It raises you up. It requires discipline and humility, deep breathing and good posture, listening and blending and feeling and harmonizing – all on a voluntary basis. For your efforts, you become part of something greater than yourself. Greater than the sum of its parts, even. You get to create beauty. You actually get to become beauty. And you get to do it with other crazy, imperfect, messed-up people like yourself. It’s a bonding exercise in a world of increasing isolation and alienation. Take my word for it. Join a choir.
Don’t join a gang. Street or otherwise. It’s highly unlikely anybody reading this twee column is on the verge of joining a street gang, but those aren’t the only gangs doing real damage out there. Don’t join an internet gang. Don’t jump on social media with a bunch of like-minded folks and gang up on a fellow human, possibly wrecking his life. Don’t even “rumble” with another cyber gang if you can help it. You weren’t a bully on the playground, were you? You wouldn’t get together with your pals today and heckle people on the street, would you? Well, you shouldn’t do it on social media, either. Joining an internet gang, much like joining a choir, is a bonding experience, and that’s one reason people do it. But being cruel is never cool, even if your cause is righteous. In fact, when you’re not righteous, you undermine your cause. There are better ways to promote your position without shredding our social fabric, which has already worn dangerously thin. “All the other kids are doing it” has never been a good excuse for bad behavior. Your mama taught you better.
I’m running out of space, so I’ll finish with bullet points:
Value what’s real. With the rise of tribe-driven news, social media filters, normalized cosmetic surgery, and – of course – Artificial Intelligence, “real” will become much harder to distinguish – or even find – in your lifetime. Treasure it when you see it.
Read books. Full length books written by humans, not A.I. (And good luck telling the difference!)
Find some great podcasts. They make house cleaning much more tolerable.
Fall in love with walking. Your body was made for it, and it’s a fitness routine you can do any time, anywhere, with no special equipment. It makes you feel good. And you’ll see birds.
Be kind. This phrase has become a hackneyed bumper sticker slogan, but that doesn’t make it any less important. Treat every person you encounter as someone worthy of care and respect – not just because they are, but because that’s how we grow better people. Just like plants and animals, humans thrive under care and respect. And better people make a better world. If you really want to change the world, be kind. It all starts there.