What Your Commencement Speaker Should Have Told You

Charles Wheelan, who once wrote commencement speeches for the governor of Maine, has written a new book, 10½ Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said.

Wheelan has found that the overly optimistic words of the typical commencement address hold few lessons young people really need to know about what lies ahead. I’ll use ten of his suggestions to tell graduating seniors what I think they really need to know and add an economic twist.

1. Your time horsing around was well spent. Whether it was intramural sports, working on the school newspaper, or just hanging out with friends, those connections will prove worthwhile in later life.

Research shows that one of the most important factors associated with happiness and well-being is your meaningful connections with other human beings. Look around today. One benchmark of your postgraduate success should be how many of your classmates will still be close friends in 10 or 20 years.

2. Some of your worst days lie ahead. Graduation day is a time for joy. But if you are going to do anything worthwhile, you will face horrible days of self-doubt and failure. Life can be defined as what happens when you are trying to make plans, and—believe me—they can sometimes be a train wreck. Be prepared to work through the consequences. That’s one reason why you earned that degree.

I’ll spare you my personal details other than to tell you that one year after I left college, I was making $100 a week, I was married, my wife was pregnant with our first child, we lived in a third-floor walk-up with no elevator, and I had a boss who summoned me with “Hey, sonofabitch!”

3. Don’t make the world worse. Your commencement speaker will tell you to aspire to do great things. I’m telling you not to use your talents to mess things up. Too many smart people are doing that already, and they justify their deeds by pointing out how much money they make.

Everyone will tell you that you can change the world. They are right, but “changing the world” can also include skirting financial regulations and selling junk food to increasingly obese children, If you can’t cure cancer, at least don’t spread it.

4. Marry someone smarter than you.  My older son has started his own business, but he cannot afford health insurance. Fortunately, his wife has a steady job with health care benefits that cover him and their two children. Moreover, you will do better in life with a second income.

Wheelan points out that commencement is like “shooting smart fish in a barrel.” Look in the program. If you see someone in it with honors listed after their names and you like them, seize the opportunity. If the two of you are mutually inspired, form a relationship.

5. Help stop the Little League arms race. Kids’ sports are becoming too structured and competitive. Whatever happened to playing baseball because it’s fun?

“We are systematically creating races out of things that ought to be a journey,” Wheelan writes. “We know that success isn’t about simply running faster than everyone else in some predetermined direction. Yet the message we are sending from birth is that, if you don’t make the traveling soccer team or get into the ‘right’ school, you will somehow finish life with fewer points than everyone else. That’s not right.”

6. Read obituaries. They are like biographies, only shorter. They remind us that interesting, successful people rarely lead orderly lives.

7. Your parents don’t want what is best for you. They want what is good for you, which isn’t the same. They have a natural instinct to protect their children from harm, so they urge safe choices. Don’t always listen to them. If you want to take a risk, study the consequences and then—if you like—take it.

8. Don’t model your life after a circus animal. Performing animals do tricks because their trainers throw them peanuts or small fish. Even though a paycheck is powerful incentive, you should aspire to do better. Don’t let your life decisions be distorted by the fact that your boss is the only one giving you peanuts.

9. It’s all borrowed time. You shouldn’t take anything for granted, not even tomorrow. You might be hit by a bus. But make plans. Write down everything you want to accomplish in your life. Then write down everything you want to do in the next five years.

Then pretend that you know you will die in six months. Write down everything that you feel you must do in that time. If you don’t have a will, despite your age, see your friendly neighborhood lawyer.

10. Don’t try to be great. Greatness involves luck and circumstances beyond your control. The less you think about being great, the more likely it will come to you. If it doesn’t, there is nothing wrong with just being solid.

And, as commencement speakers always say, “Congratulations and good luck.
Joe Brisben is a retired financial  advisor.