My small New Jersey community finally had its Class of 2020 Graduation Ceremony, outdoors with the appropriate distance and personal protective equipment. Those of you old enough to remember John Travolta’s role as Bubble Boy have a good idea of what it looked like.
I didn’t know anyone attending, and am still avoiding crowds after contracting COVID-19 in the late-winter, but in the last few days I couldn’t help but think about the world that this year’s graduates are walking into, or watching on ZOOM.
Perhaps needing some motivation myself, I knocked the following long distance Commencement Address out quickly:
We have seen each of you during good times as well as tough times. You should first know that it is quite possible for you to create the future you want for yourself. Anything is possible, just don’t fall into the trap of only thinking and talking about what you plan to do.
The years ahead will become your story, and in large part your purpose. If you haven’t found your purpose yet, don’t worry. It will eventually find you. Just make sure that it is something which brings you true joy and satisfaction, rather than something simply to pay the mortgage or keep your family members off your back.
Today you continue writing the beginning of your story, while preparing to type away at the middle and ending. New characters are sure to appear along the way. Some will only be in a chapter or two, while some will be there for you until the end.
Don’t let anyone dissuade you from writing the chapters as you see fit, whether it be a peer, a friend, or a family member — or more importantly, yourself. Do not allow negative noise to interrupt you from following your chosen career path or entrepreneurial urges. This may involve uncomfortable conversations with your family, but it is vital. Only you know exactly who you are and how you may want your story to unfold.
Be fearless, or fake it. It’s difficult for others to tell the difference, and faking it will be an essential skill for the future. While you’re at it, avoid occupations which may find you constantly looking at the clock, which constitutes a large share of occupations. Instead, keep moving and innovating. Yes, you’ll make some mistakes, but you quite literally have all the time in the world, and they won’t be mistakes, they’ll be lessons learned.
Many people around the globe, including in the U.S., are living in a society where civil rights violations are the norm. Everything from bullying, inequality, the lack of legal support for the LGBTQ+ community, and voter suppression — to imprisonment, public shaming, or death, depending on your postal code. With all of this in mind, you’ll also need courage to stand up for one another. Again, perhaps sometimes uncomfortable, but essential for how you want your story — and that of the country in which you live — to move forward.
You will stumble and occasionally fall down, but if you look up at the world around you, you’ll see that there are millions of success stories that initially stumbled along the way, including our nation itself, still finding its way. Hopefully, you’ll also see the many people who love you as you look up from your spot on that sidewalk.
Photo: M.J. Phelan. Trenton, NJ 2015.
As a member of Generation X, I acknowledge that in many ways you are all being handed a real shit sandwich, while being asked to smile and be grateful for it. Sure, I could look back and point fingers at how we all arrived here, but that is a waste of time when considering the millions of talented graduates moving forward this year, and the collective skills, power and potential you each possess.
Many of you are already knowledgeable in ways which many of your elders are not . You know or will soon learn that caring, humility, empathy, passion about quality work, and not being afraid to ask for — or offer — help to one another, are signs of strength, not weakness. You see, you’ll have to build resilience into yourselves, but be trusting enough to allow others to fortify you as well. If you haven’t learned by now, know that the idea of “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps” has always been bullshit, and is merely a fantasy for many of your fellow graduates during this chapter of their lives.
As the pages turn, you’ll often find good people who simply have opinions differing from yours. Start by listening to their perspective. Then listen some more before you even say a word. Silence can work wonders, and most listeners can’t help but interrupt. Choose not to.
While there are countless potholes ahead, there are also persuasive arguments to be made that this may also be the very best time ever to be alive.
So, today we all celebrate each of you. Go off and finish writing your stories. Don’t be discouraged from taking action for positive change by the readers, leaders, or parking meters. Each of you will learn to lead in your own way, the most obvious of which is through your words, actions, and the examples you will set. (No pressure, but we’re all watching.)
Whatever may occupy the 24 hours you’ll each have in a day, start by aspiring to care about and understand the perspectives of others. Consider that you will have no idea what is going in the life of that person who took your seat on the train, or the distracted pedestrian who accidentally bumped into you.
Don’t strive to be one of among many personal brands or “influencers” who are quite impressed with themselves these days. Instead, study greatness. Pursue situations in your future chapters which will drive you to understand, strengthen, and inform others, rather than focusing only on yourself. In turn, you will improve yourself and find or clarify your purpose. You’ll learn far more than you can ever imagine simply by finding ways to improve the lives of others.
At the same time, you’ll work toward gaining true awareness which will be a rare trait among the millions of people who will instead choose to simply sleepwalk through life in order to pay the mortgage.
Congratulations to the Class of 2020! Stay safe and well.
[P.S. Hide away as much money as you can, and floss regularly.]