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Etc.: The Class of 20__
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Twenty years ago, I wrote a sample graduation speech for the Tri-County Press’ graduation section. I’ve had the chance to give this speech once, and this is the middle of the college and high school graduation season, so imagine me speaking to a packed, overheated high school or college gym of impatient graduates-to-be ...

Members of the Class of 20__: Let me be among the first to congratulate you on your impending graduation. This event is called “Commencement,” not “Graduation,” because, even though you are ending something today, you are supposed to begin something new after today.

I am under no misapprehension about my role here today. I fully realize that, in most cases, the only thing graduates remember about their commencement speaker is how long he or she spoke. I therefore resolve to give a speech that fits in between the two poles of speaking — between “Why did we bother inviting him if he was going to say that little?” and “Can you believe how long he talked?”. I also realize that I am one of the few people standing between you and your graduation party. So you can determine for yourselves if Shakespeare was correct in “Hamlet” when he had Lord Polonius say that brevity is the soul of wit.

Commencement speakers are compelled to give advice based on their relatively longer lives and broader experience. I have five pieces of advice. You are, of course, free to follow this advice, or not.

The first is to stand up and speak out. Today, fewer than half of people bother to vote, and a larger percentage than that — most people, in fact — don’t bother to express themselves on issues of the day, whether that’s in a government meeting, the letters to the editor section of the local newspaper, or on a Web site. More than 1 million American soldiers died to preserve your right to stand up and speak out, whether or not — and perhaps, especially if not — your views adhere to conventional wisdom or are politically correct. Remember the words of Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” It is not that those who oppose your point of view are evil, but no one listens to the silent.

Related to this, however, is that you need to realize that life is not fair, and will not be fair anytime before the Second Coming. This world is a flawed place, full of flawed people who created flawed institutions. The Declaration of Independence lists the inalienable rights with which we have been endowed by our Creator, including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Not “happiness.” Your life may not work out the way you think it should, or want it to work out. That is reality, and that will be the only world you ever live in.

My next piece of advice is related to this point. You will unquestionably be doing more than one thing over your half-century or so in the work world. Your choice of career should be based on what you do well, not necessarily what you like to do. Every job, even the glamorous jobs, has a certain amount of drudge work — things you won’t enjoy doing but have to do. Your work duties, and compensation for your work, will be based on the quantity and quality of your work, not on what you like to do and what you don’t like to do. You will find that hard work and quality work is its own reward, and in some poor-paying jobs or professions, hard work and quality work has to be its own reward.

My fourth piece of advice is related to the second and third, and something that took me a long time to learn. You may be sick of where you are right now, ready to get out of school; you may think to yourself that, if I could only get out into the work world, or if I could get a higher educational degree, then my life will really begin. And then you may find your first job out of school is not only not what you really had in mind upon graduation, but that this job of yours is clearly beneath you, and you may think to yourself, if I could only find a better job than this, then my life will really begin. Or you may be dissatisfied with your social life, and you may think to yourself, if I could only meet a special someone, then my life will really begin. Or you may not really like where you live, and you may think to yourself, if I could find a bigger and better house, then my life will really begin.

I hope you can see where this point is going. Your life is what is happening while you’re waiting for your idealized life to begin. There’s nothing wrong with self-improvement, with looking to better your circumstances. But ultimately your circumstances should not define who you are or how you feel about yourself or your life. And if you’re determining your overall level of contentment based on your job, or your status, or how much stuff you have, I predict that you will have an ultimately unfulfilling life.

Finally: Go home. (I’ll pause now while your parents recover from the shock.) What I mean by “go home” is to remember where you grew up. A lot of you may have plans to move to a bigger metropolitan area — Chicago or Minneapolis–St. Paul, for instance — with the idea in mind that you’ll have more opportunities there. You should remember, though, that your education up through high school was paid for by your parents and your neighbors, whose tax dollars footed the bill for the education you have. More to the point: If you feel any connection to the area where you were raised, you should realize that if you want to see, for instance, jobs where people of your educational level can work, and jobs where people can afford to live in the same place where they work, or vice versa, it may be up to you to provide them. There are few places in the world where that kind of opportunity exists today. This is one of them.

Congratulations and good luck.