Sunday, June 9, 2013

The commencement speech I'll never give...

Flickr: Cupcakes Cubed
They say never say never, but I'm never going to give a commencement speech. I wasn't valedictorian of my high school, my college had the class president give the speech, and I didn't bother to attend my graduate school's graduation ceremony.  I'll never be famous enough to give one of those speeches that gets 'shared' on Facebook like Steve Jobs', although I find it really bizarre to ask someone who dropped out of college to inspire recent grads.  Wouldn't it have been more honest of him to say: "hey, the best way to be successful is to be a total genius and that way you don't need a degree?"

Many years ago, there was a list of advice tidbits to graduates which began with the words 'wear sunscreen.' It became very popular amongst people who like to quote 'inspiring advice.'  This was in the 90s, before social media, but with all of the 'graduation stuff' I was thinking, what advice would I give to graduating kids (both high school and college)?  I mean, I'm not rich and successful, but shouldn't that make me even MORE qualified to tell you what you shouldn't do?

1. I do agree you should still wear sunscreen and floss--that hasn't changed since 1997.  Make sure to wear a cream with a high enough SPF and reapply. Go to the dentist. Teeth are one of those things that don't heal on their own and the more you put it off the worse it gets. If you have any remediable health problems, get them taken care of now while you are still on your parents' health insurance, which is likely to be better than the insurance you will get at your first out-of-college job.

2. Don't get fat.  I know this sounds really mean, but kind of like letting your teeth go, it is much harder to repair the damage after it happens. I know it's tempting to prop up your mood or your eye lids with an extra doughnut when you are working crazy hours but if you really hate your body any extra money you make doesn't seem that meaningful. If your job is making you fat, stressed and sick because you have no time to exercise or cook a meal, try to find something different to do.

3. If you can swing it, major in the sciences or another in-demand field that pays well.  You can always double major or minor in something that is your passion, but until you 'get out there' you don't fully appreciate how many crappy administrative jobs there are out there for kids who majored in the liberal arts.  Have a skill, learn something unique that is highly desirable so you can walk away from a job if you need to do so.  That's a good measure of whether a major is worth it: like a romantic relationship, they should want and need you more than you need them. There is no shame in being poor, but there is no reason to seek out poverty either.  Of course you should take risks, but having something you can fall back on actually makes it easier to do so--it's more likely you'll have a long career as an acrobat if you use a net. Even if you are a genius, it doesn't hurt. T.S. Eliot worked in a bank before he became a famous writer, and you are probably not a better writer than he is.  Of course, if you are a science major you might not know who T.S. Eliot is, since Cats is no longer on Broadway.

4. Learn how to 'do something,' whether it is how to design websites, cut hair, repair motorcycles--something tangible that can keep you afloat if you are struggling. No one cares if you major in English, Communications, Women's Studies, whatever. It kills me to say this, because it shouldn't be that way.  I hate to think of what my life would be without studying Shakespeare and the Brontes on a graduate level and I think the words of all the writers I studied do subtly infuse my writing and my life. But honestly, being able to write well is becoming less and less important.  We're becoming a more technologically-driven society and the ways most humanities and social science majors are taught are designed to prepare you to teach and write academic research papers, which has very little to do with what 99.9 percent of the population is reading today. Yes, you can 'always teach.'  But two of my friends who are tenured teachers just left the profession because they can't stand all of the crap they have to deal with that has very little to do with teaching.

5. That said, use good grammar and spell correctly.  It matters because it discourages sloppy thinking and is good for your brain and your ability to express yourself.  Even though you will get rejection letters back from employers with misspellings that really piss you off.

6. If you believe in something, don't be a obsessive asshole about it.  I don't care if you are Christian, atheist, vegan, paleo, Democrat, Libertarian, Republican, or whatever, if you're really militant and everyone around you can predict 100 percent of the time how you will respond to a news article or to a comment, you're not converting anyone or doing your cause any favors. The best way to be an advocate for something you believe in is to be nice, helpful, and to have a sense of humor.

7. Don't listen ONLY to the same music you listened to when you were young, or wear the same types of clothes, or read the same types of books, but don't forget about them, either.

8. Money, even if you're not a super-materialistic person, is MUCH more important than you think it is right now. Money isn't just new clothes and name brands. It's travel, education (and you will still want to educate yourself even after you graduate), and the ability to have new and exciting experiences.  Money is the difference between watching a documentary on PBS about London or an African safari--versus actually BEING in London or on an African safari.

9. You can work at a sucky job for great pay or a great job for somewhat sucky pay.  Don't work for a sucky job at sucky pay. And if you find a great job that pays well, appreciate how lucky you are.

10. Your parents are human beings: treat them that way.  They aren't gods and they aren't monsters (although you really should see the film Gods and Monsters).  They are probably very much like you. They don't owe you a living but you don't owe them a diploma from law school/grandchildren/ or the need to sacrifice your happiness to meet their standards. Unless your relationship with them is profoundly dysfunctional, few people will love you as much as they do right now.

11. Learn how to cook a chicken, make banana bread, and make one vegetable dish really well. Even if you don't eat chicken, you will have to make chicken for someone at some point in your life.  Banana bread can't come out wrong, and makes a lovely, cheap, tasty gift. If your are in your 20s and your main source of Vitamin C is Skittles, know that nothing says 'I am not a grownup' quite like giving yourself scurvy in an affluent, industrialized nation. 

12. Unless you're really rich and stressed out, don't buy your lunch and your coffee everyday.  It's a waste of money and McDonald's really isn't that good. And even if two slices of pizza or a club sandwich is worth it to you taste-wise and financially, you shouldn't be eating that stuff every day unless you are Michael Phelps. In which case, none of this advice applies to you.

13. Despite what I said earlier, it is still important to read, expose yourself to new cultures, and learn things that have nothing to do with making money and--if I can say this without making you throw up--enrich your soul.  In fact, these are the really important things in life but don't get expect to get paid for doing them.  It's nice if you can, but opportunities to do so are very rare.  And if you get one, seize it. 

14. Don't be superstitious.  Don't believe in astrology or pseudo-science.  Although I just included this to avoid having a list with 13 on it, so maybe you shouldn't trust me.  After all, 13 is a baker's dozen.
Flickr: bunchofpants

15. But having 13 doughnuts in the house if you are alone is usually not a good thing. Trust me on this one. And although numbers 3-13 don't really apply to you if you are Steve Jobs and a genius with a highly lucrative idea, the rules about wearing sunscreen, flossing, not getting fat, and not eating too many doughnuts still apply to you geniuses, too.   Which is some comfort to us mere mortals. I guess.


  1. When dinosaurs roamed the Earth and I was a college freshman, I planned to major in Business Administration and become a CPA because I wanted to have a marketable skill. I ended up majoring in Philosophy and English, which qualified me (a) to go to graduate school and (b) to sell bras at Nordstrom. I think I was more sensible at 18 than at any point later in life.

    I wear sunscreen, but I'm immune to its effects. Even at SPF 50, I still end up with a farmer's tan by August.

  2. @flurrious--in yet another odd parallel, at age 18 I had decided upon a very practical career path (law, back in the 1990s before the profession was glutted) and then drifted away into an English and Religion major. I wish I had the skills to become a CPA. People talk about how teachers have the summers off, but from observing my accountant, he works very hard about 4 months of the year for great pay and that isn't a bad life.

  3. (I wrote a clever little comment yesterday but it looks like Bloglovin' lost it. Wah!)

  4. @bitten--that happens to me ALL THE TIME. I hate it!

  5. i remember that sort-of commencement speech/song? But I think your advice is actually better. Much better. Although - to be warned - there really aren't many jobs in science any more unless you're willing to do something that isn't science-related with your degree (like consulting or working in finance).

  6. Yes, that sunscreen essay was even made into a song!

    Actually--I take back EVERYTHING I said, because that journalist made more money with that essay about sunscreen than you and I will ever make, (most likely) despite my liberal arts degree and your science degree!

  7. Best commencement speech ever. Read every word. You can bake and write! So do you fall back on baking or writing? :)

  8. @Baking Ribbons--thank you so much! I have been baking much less (although I am still cooking), so I am hanging on by a thread with my writing!