A Commencement Speech for the Graduating Class of Life

Another school year is ending as my high school seniors prepare to graduate in a week. There’s been lots of chatter about grades and college and caps and gowns on campus lately. Everywhere are high school seniors signing year books and wondering what’s in store for them as they contemplate the next leg of their journey in life.

Every year, speeches are written to commemorate a benchmark achievement in life and send off another graduating class into the world to make something of themselves. It is proper to send them off with words of both encouragement and direction. They are, after all, entering the semi-adult world of something in between a kid and an adult, not quite a child anymore, not quite a grownup yet.

I too have some advice to share with those who have turned that corner in life and are about to embark on a new journey with some old and some new challenges and responsibilities … and opportunities to lay a foundation of more joy and happiness.

Here is what I would say to the graduating class of 2011 … had someone asked me to say it:

My Dear Graduates,

Life is about tradeoffs. We have limited resources, including time. We are therefore compelled to choose among competing options. When we choose to use our resources in one particular way, we simultaneously choose not to use those same resources in any number of other possible ways.

Your happiness depends on how you choose. Here are some tradeoffs I would advise against.


1. Never Sacrifice Character at the Altar of Success

It will be tempting to cut moral corners on your path to success in grades and career. Don’t do it! In the end, who you are as a person will matter to your happiness much more than the number of zeros on your paycheck.

2. Never Sacrifice Effectiveness at the Altar of Efficiency

In all your efforts to do things right, make sure you’re doing the right things. I would rather you be inefficiently just than efficiently unjust. So master the art of efficiency as you learn to study better and work more productively. But first be sure you’re studying the right concepts and doing the right work. Otherwise, your improved efficiency will simply dig you a deeper hole to climb out of.

3. Never Sacrifice Happiness at the Altar of Fun

As I’ve said elsewhere, achieving happiness requires emotional and spiritual and mental work. Fun, on the other hand, is easy. Pursuing fun can replicate aspects of happiness by producing the chemicals that make us feel good. But it can’t substitute for the sense that the person looking back in the mirror is a crummy human being. Fun doesn’t last. Happiness endures. Fun is situational. Happiness is a state of being. Don’t neglect the development of personal traits that creates happiness in the pursuit of the transitory nature of fun and excitement.

4. Never Sacrifice Wisdom at the Altar of Knowledge

As you head off to college, be sure to always seek wisdom first. “Knowledge is power,” as Sir Francis Bacon put it, but wisdom informs the appropriate application of that power. Knowledge split the atom. Wisdom determines its proper use. Knowledge created the ability to clone human life. Wisdom tells us whether that would be a good idea or not. Wisdom without knowledge is intelligent impotence. Knowledge without wisdom is a dangerous and potentially destructive force that can lead to horror, misery and great personal, societal and even civilizational unhappiness and regret.

5. Never Sacrifice the Moment at the Altar of the Past

Your past may be filled with pain and remorse, or loneliness and despair. There may have been deceit, neglect, abuse and great sadness. But if today is lived under the shadow of the past, you give tremendous power to past circumstances and those who may have hurt you. So much of life is missed by those who spend their time in the past, rehashing old memories, picking at the scabs of old wounds. Sometimes, of course, infected wounds need treatment. But other times, scabs just need to be left alone to heal. When we keep picking open old wounds, we miss all the precious moments of joy right here, right now, all around us, every moment.

6. Never Sacrifice the Future at the Altar of the Moment

I see students everyday choose to fill the moments of their lives with sex and drugs and TV and video games and endless hours on Facebook and YouTube, engaged in mere distractions, or worse. The next day’s test, the grade at the end of the year, their future lives are left largely unconsidered as they bow to worship at the alter of the moment. But if the now is the only reality you allow, you’ll be, as it were, a rudderless ship adrift on the ebb and flow of the moment, without goals, without direction. By definition, goals are future oriented. So enjoy the moment, make the most of it … while you work to construct a better life.

7. Never Sacrifice the Truth at the Altar of Being Right

“Facts are stubborn things,” said John Adams. Truth is too. Don’t paint it up or dress it in the latest fashion. Don’t disguise it or add numbers to it that don’t belong. Leave it alone, empty of anything and everything but its own naked power. Accept the truth when it’s presented. Brave where it leads. Follow it as a lesser person would follow power and fame. Let truth be your lighthouse, beckoning you toward it. Love truth more than being right. Because if you first and foremost are a devotee to truth, then it will never be long before your are, once again, right.

8. Never Sacrifice the Best at the Altar of the Good

It is good to earn lots of money; it is best to earn lots of respect. It is good to raise smart kids; it is best to raise good kids. It is good to have fun; it is best to be happy. It may be good to watch the news, but it would be sacrificing the best at the alter of the good if your 5-year-old son is sitting on the couch with a new baseball glove on his lap, a frown on his face, waiting … again … for the opportunity to try it out.

Sometimes, as we pursue the things in life that are good, we push out the things that are best. We only have so much time to do the things in life we need to do. So to spend more time than we have doing good at the expense of doing what’s best is to limit our potential and sacrifice the best that’s in us and the best that can be accomplished by us. And those are not sacrifices that serve us well.

Final Thoughts

So, dear Graduating Class of 2011, go and leave your mark on the world! Just be sure it’s a mark you will be proud to show your children one day. Stand tall, love truth, seek wisdom and decency. Build character that is unimpeachable. Strive for the best, not so much to be the best, but to be the best you, you can be. And as you do these things, I am confident happiness will be along for the ride.

What would you add?

  • What do you think of my advice?
  • What am I missing?
  • What would you add?
  • Please share your thoughts in the comments!

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