It’s the end of May, friends, which means that it’s commencement speech season. I love commencement speeches. That may seem like a strange thing to say, but hear me out. In the spring of 1997, Baz Luhrmann gave a speech to a graduating class that was later set to music and, for whatever reason, became wildly popular. By the time I walked across the rickety stage at my high school graduation in 2000, it, along with that insipid Green Day song, had been played ad nauseam at every important event in teenage American life for years. When I got to college, it continued to feature prominently on mix CDs and Napster playlists, and is now one of a handful of de rigueur nostalgia anthems for myself and that group of friends. So I feel confident blaming Mr. Luhrmann for my fetishistic love of folks in weirdly medieval robes behind lecterns droning advice at youngsters through subpar sound equipment.
And isn’t it a strange tradition? Robes and funny hats aside, very famous or successful or important grownups giving lengthy speeches to groups of exhausted twenty-somethings, sweating in the sun, waiting patiently for this person to stop yacking so they can have their parents buy them lunch and then go get wasted and forget everything in the speech almost immediately. Basically, it’s the age when people don’t listen and a day when they particularly don’t care. I don’t remember my college commencement speech, or even who gave it. But ten years later, now that I can pay attention, I enjoy seeing those people doling out nuggets of wisdom. It’s one of my favorite YouTube rabbit holes. Very much like watching TEDTalks, only sappier. Do I need this sort of advice? Not usually, but sometimes. And it is certainly not collated and speechified with someone like myself in mind as the intended audience. There are some great ones that I watch over and over, though, because they consistently make me happy.
- This is Water, David Foster Wallace
- Connecting the Dots, Amanda Palmer
- Make Good Art, Neil Gaiman
- Tim Minchin at the University of Western Australia
- Kid President
Very often, it’s easier for me to just make someone watch one of these than it is to organize my own thoughts coherently and efficiently. Why reinvent the wheel? It’s not that I think I give bad advice, necessarily, but I’m a pragmatist and I don’t sugar coat things very well. When I try, I get all befuddled. It’s like my brain can’t tolerate bullshit and it can make me seem harsh or cold. I like to describe myself as “frank,” “straightforward,” and “levelheaded,” but in this context those feel like euphemisms. Someone once told me I’d be a very good mob boss, but that’s probably a conversation for a different time. There are two distinct types of these speeches: “You did it! Hooray!” and “Okay, now the rest kind of sucks.” Both of which are completely valid sentiments and things graduates need to hear. But I wonder if there aren’t other folks who need to hear that sort of thing as well. College is becoming less and less important, frankly. Not that it’s not valuable, but in the day-to-day paying the rent sense, people need jobs more than they need degrees. And sure, a degree might help you get a better job, but it might not. Then what? You’ve wasted a number of years you could have been gaining job or life experience and saddled yourself with a mountain of very dangerous debt and you still may not get a job in your field. It’s a risky gamble. Sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes not.
Guys like Adam Savage and Mike Rowe make an excellent point when they talk about technical training. Both have said that teaching people a skill, a tangible, immediately usable and marketable skill, is a better investment than sending them to a four-year college. If you can drive a backhoe or weld or build real things with your actual hands, there are huge opportunities out there because we’ve come to value and want tidy office work over getting shit done. What’s that about? Dig a hole. Plant a seed. Swing a hammer. Simple, useful work. We need those things done but look down on those who do them. Fuck. That. Shit. I spent $80K on a piece of paper that says I know how to read books, you guys. Think about that for a second. I won’t say it was a waste of money, absolutely not. But I feel like what I paid for was that time, not that piece of paper. Those years were incredible and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. Just being able to dedicate myself to thinking and learning and growing and making mistakes? Invaluable. Unquestionably, though, a luxury. If I had gotten a degree in something “useful,” maybe I wouldn’t call it a luxury. But for me, having the degree itself hasn’t changed anything. And I didn’t learn a single thing about what I’m doing with my life now during those years. Not one.
So when do those folks who don’t go to college get their big motivational rant? Who tells them when they’ve done well on a lengthy, difficult thing? When they get a promotion? When they have a kid? When they retire? Nothing really compares to the pomp and circumstance of getting a degree. Why is that? Why do we so equate education with utmost accomplishment? Don’t get me wrong, a college degree is a huge deal, and ostensibly a lot of work, but it seems to me to be one of the only occasions for which such a fuss is made. And, as far as I can tell, the last one. No more marching in weird robes (probably). No more speeches. It’s bleak and it’s hard, but you can do a good job and for that I preemptively pat you on the back. Hooray! You did it! But the rest kind of sucks.
Clearly I nor you see myself giving any commencement speeches anytime soon. But a couple of years ago, a friend’s younger sister was graduating high school and as a gift my buddy had people from all over the country send postcards with life advice on them that she bound together into a book (a fantastic graduation present, by the way). I kept a copy of my list and have kept adding to it. So since no one asked or is likely to, I will dispense this advice…now (cue bass line):
- Find something you love and strive to be very, very good at it.
- Never let anyone tell you what not to love.
- Don’t order blue drinks at parties or crowded bars.
- Travel and read and see as much live music as possible.
- Tip heavily. Always.
- Learn to appreciate difficult poetry.
- There’s nothing between you and anything in the world but distance and time.
- Pay attention. Be deliberate. Be precise.
- Always carry a flashlight, pocketknife, and lighter.
- Pick your battles.
- Keep an open mind. Be flexible.
- Don’t stress too much about money.
- Embrace new experiences, even when they’re awful.
- Give help freely and often.
- Own your mistakes and use them to your advantage. You’re better for them.
- Memorize important phone numbers.
- Know how to drive a stick shift.
- Laugh. Laugh. Laugh some more.
- There is a big, important difference between a discussion and an argument.
- If it feels bad, don’t do it.
- Never own more tupperware than will fit in your fridge or more hangers than will fit in your closet.
- Love doesn’t fix anything.
- Say what you mean, not what you think they want to hear. Never be afraid to say “I don’t know.”
- Comfort equals confidence – comfort in your own skin, your clothes, your beliefs, your decisions.
- Respecting others’ opinions doesn’t mean you have to agree with them.
- Make your bed first thing every morning, especially if you live in a small space. It does wonders for your motivation, and you’ll always have extra room to get things done.
- Accept compliments and criticism gracefully.
- Food is fuel, not just stomach-filler.
- The glass is neither half-full nor half-empty. The glass is always full. It’s half air.