California Forum

Words from graduation: After the speeches, you decide what’s important

I love to reflect at graduation time, a perfect moment when simple ideas can carry additional meanings. This rite of passage announces a transition to something new, completing a cycle surrounded by family and friends.

So to all you graduates and your supporters: congratulations. You’ll soon hear speeches, get unwelcome advice and suggestions about the future that may sound old and out of touch. Some people will badger you with questions, such as: “Now that you’ve graduated, when will you get a job?” Many comments are simply not helpful or insightful. And certainly not inspiring.

I hope I can honor you with thoughts from some of the best graduation speeches. Wise words. Advice for the future. Parting notes. A moment to reflect and react.

“You’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped. But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you are not.” – David McCullough Jr., teacher and son of a famous historian

This line was delivered by an English high school teacher at a college commencement – and the speech went viral with millions of views. People interpret the quote in various ways, some using it to shake up a younger generation who may have been spoiled. Others want to send a wake-up call to graduates who are confronting a tough new world.

McCullough felt his words were taken out of context – he wanted to point out the mistake teachers make thinking some students were more important than others. He wanted graduates to believe that they were starting afresh, no matter the distinctions they may have achieved. I believe he wanted graduates to take a deep breath, celebrate their accomplishments, then jump into a new world and invent themselves.

“Avoid people who tell you that something you want to do is not possible.” – Fred Armisen, actor

Early on I heard a similar piece of wisdom: “Purge the negatives from your life.” The advice was targeted at people around me. It was the best and one of the hardest recommendations to follow. It meant leaving some relationships behind and making critical decisions about who were my friends or were not. Purge the negatives.

“Stay fluid and roll with those changes. Life is just a big extended improvisation.” – Jane Lynch, comedian and actor

This will help you graduates deal with the question: “So what are you going to do with your life?” Take advantage of being young to explore, if you are fortunate to have such life options and circumstances. You will have plenty of time to work. But then again, I’m not your parent.

“I found that nothing in life is worthwhile unless you take risks.” – Denzel Washington, actor

In almost every endeavor in life, rewards follow risk. Yet it’s hard because many will advise you to play it safe. I have found that taking a risk is often for those who can afford to – it’s an act of privilege. Be grateful when you can take risks.

“So long as your desire to explore is greater than your desire to not screw up, you’re on the right track. A life oriented toward discovery is infinitely more rewarding than a life oriented toward not blowing it.” – Ed Helms, actor

We equate right with caution, and I think that’s incorrect. Be bold, but not reckless. We will all screw up, some of us a lot. It’s hard to see the lessons in failure, but over time, most of us will learn from our mistakes.

I’ll admit, though, there are some who keep making mistakes over and over and never seem to gain anything from such setbacks. For them, I might suggest that we are not all explorers and there’s nothing wrong with taking a break from messing up.

“In life, the things that go wrong are often the very things that lead to other things going right.” – Arianna Huffington, writer

“I waited a long time out in the world before I gave myself permission to fail. Please don’t even bother asking. Show it. Do it.” – Peter Dinklage, actor

Mistakes are only mistakes when nothing is learned. Ironically, in school, we’re taught not to experiment and take chances. We’re often graded by what we got wrong. I’d love to see students occasionally rewarded for just for trying.

I once heard a sage teacher who tried a different approach with a student who was always performing badly on tests. On one test, he missed 18 out of 20 questions and instead of an “F”, she wrote on his paper “+2”.

He asked if he failed.

She said, “Yes. Of course.”

But he then responded: “No one ever told me what I got right. They always told me what I got wrong.” It seemed to then make a difference. The student was motivated – never an “A” student, but he managed to graduate. A success story – absolutely.

“Don’t be deceived by life’s outcomes. Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them.” – Michael Lewis, author

While growing up, a famous writer once told me, “Good work is 10 percent skill and 90 percent hard work.” I believed him but added luck into the equation. It’s not all about working hard – privilege makes a difference (money and status will have an impact on your life), and also luck.

In a similar vein, some of the best advice I received is that you have to make yourself available for good things to happen. Luck isn’t about winning the lottery or success at a casino. Luck is positioning yourself to be in the right place at the right time.

So, congratulations, graduates. This is the season for advice and speeches. Please listen. Then you determine what’s important.