As I stand before you, gazing out upon a sea of smiling faces, mortar boards and rented gowns, I am acutely aware of the immense responsibility I have to impart words of wisdom on this auspicious day.
Adding to that responsibility is the fact that this is my second attempt at a commencement address. Forty one years ago, I spoke at my own high school graduation. Neither I nor anyone else remembers what I said that June day in 1971. I don’t even remember why I was the one speaking. It certainly wasn’t because I was the Class Valedictorian. I’m not sure we even had one, but if we had, it would have been one of the Johnson’s: Sally A., Sally B. or Tim. I suspect the honor went to me because no one else would do it.
At any rate, I’m sure I trotted out the usual graduation fare: commencement is an end and a beginning, reach for the stars, you’ve made life-long friendships, et cetera, et cetera. Is it any wonder no one remembers what was said?
But occasionally in life one gets a second chance. And this is mine. So hang on to your tassels, young scholars. And take some notes.
First off, take a look around at your fellow graduates. Note carefully the ones you cherish, the ones you can’t stand, the ones you don’t even recognize. Here’s what you can expect: most of these people will leave your life today, never to be seen or heard from again. With the exception of reunions, their names, faces and attributes (both good and bad) will vanish for most if not all of your days. This will be a source of great sadness and great relief.
Some of these people will stay in your life—for good or ill. Here’s your first assignment: write down the names of 5 people who you are sure will still be important parts of your life in 10 years, and 5 people you are certain won’t be. Seal it up, put it somewhere safe, and in 10 years open it up. You will be shocked.
Speaking of time, here’s what you need to know: time is accelerating, starting tomorrow. It will be subtle at first, but pay attention. You’ll see that time passes faster and faster each day, and soon the years will pile up behind you like so many old iPods in a drawer. As a result, if you plan to do anything with your life, giddy-up.
The things that have been of such vital import to you here will prove over time to be mostly trivial. They will be replaced by other things that will be of vital import to you. These will also be mostly trivial. Eventually you may come to a place in your life where you understand what’s really important. But it will probably be too late.
Some of you will forever look back on this as the greatest time of your life. If you’re correct, I am sorry for you. Enjoy today anyway, because it’s all downhill from here. Others of you have yet to achieve your greatest moment. I wish you well.
Here are a few tips for your impending adventure:
- Learn your history. Lots of people have gone before you, and their screw-ups can help you avoid your own. I’m not talking about dates and places. I’m talking about stories. History is filled with great stories, most of which are more interesting than the versions you might see on TV or in movies.
- Write down your own stories. Someday they will be important and you’ll be glad you captured them. You think you’ll remember them, but you won’t…at least, not accurately.
- Listen to what others have to say, but in the end, make your own decisions. You will find no shortage of advice for you to follow. Like my comments today, all of these should be taken with several shovels-full of salt. It’s your life, so decide what’s best for yourself and be accountable for your results.
- Don’t worry about making the wrong decision. There’ll be another decision to make right away.
- Be conscious. Of your choices, of your opportunities, of your strengths and your weaknesses. Maintain a constant state of alertness or you’ll miss something important. Or worse, end up living someone else’s life.
Starting tomorrow, you will be entering the so-called “real world”. Unless of course you’re going to college, and then you will be delaying the inevitable for a few more years. And why not? Because frankly, the world is a mess.
It used to be that each generation strove to leave the world a better place for the next. In that regard, my generation has failed miserably. If we ever tried at all. The good news is we’ve left you with plenty of opportunities for improvement. So if you want to change the world for the better, there’s never been a better time.
Albert Einstein never memorized his home phone number.