SAN DIEGO – During graduation season, commencement speakers will often urge young people to take the road less traveled. But this year, I’d like to put in a good word for something that can be just as fruitful: the broken path.
Life isn’t a straight line. It isn’t some neat and manicured stroll. It zigs and zags. It’s untidy, unscripted and unpredictable. There are detours and dead ends, wicked turns and washed-out bridges. There will likely be fender benders, and maybe even a crash or two. We can lose businesses, marriages, family members. At times, we’ll need to back up and go in a different direction.
When you’re walking across a stage in a cap and gown, it’s tempting to think you need to have your whole life planned out.
That is absurd. We have not experienced enough at this age to know where we’re headed or how we’ll get there, and we’re also going to be different people as the years pass by. More than likely, what excites us at 23 probably won’t keep our interest at 43.
We’re fortunate if we find our passion early on and can sustain it for the rest of our days. But there is also a danger in pursuing a career path so narrowly that we miss what isn’t on the path. New opportunities will arise, if we’re open to them. Likewise, we might miss our calling if we’re looking only at the road ahead.
Yet, what if the road curves? It did for some of the type-A overachievers I went to college with.
▪ One day during senior year, a good friend announced that he had decided to abandon his goal of becoming a millionaire in favor of something more ambitious: a billionaire. He got off to a good start by attending a top business school and going into the financial services industry. However, he recently took a pay cut to head up a nonprofit organization that gives young people educational opportunities. He seems happier than ever.
▪ About 10 years after college, another friend wrote me a note recalling that many of us had talked about changing the world. She still believed the world needed to change, she wrote, but she no longer thought she’d be the one to change it. Today, she is a college professor, and she spends her time trying to impact the lives of her students. When the light bulb goes off over one of their heads, she’s changing her part of the world.
▪ Another friend went on to law school, and now he earns a salary of a couple million dollars a year. A while back, we went to a ballgame, and he confessed that there were days that he didn’t want to go to work. Practicing law is all about fighting, he said – and billing clients. Some days, he said, he didn’t feel like fighting. He also hated spending so much time away from his young children. He later jumped from one firm to another then another before finding the right balance.
▪ Finally, I spoke to a group of California judges recently about “writing the next chapter of life.” The happiest person in the room seemed to be the retired judge who was living up in the wine country tending a small vineyard and raising Portuguese water dogs. I doubt that, as she sips her coffee in the early mornings and looks out over the rows of grapevines, she thinks back to preliminary arraignments and murder trials and pursuing appointments to a higher bench.
Twenty-five years ago, when I graduated from college, I wanted three things: fortune, fame, and to be at the center of the conversation. Today, I want different things: to follow my passion, to have a flexible schedule so I can spend time with my children, and to have a positive impact on others through words and deeds.
As you get older, suffer loss and gain perspective, you learn that the small things are the most important.
I’ve given a few commencement speeches, and it’s easy to oversell the message that young people can change the world.
It’s time for a new message: Don’t worry so much about changing the world. Instead, concentrate on changing the people who populate it – especially the children. Raise them to be kind, grateful, responsible, humble, respectful and productive human beings. And don’t forget to demand the same from yourself.
If you want to contribute to society, that’s more than enough.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.