If memory serves me right, the commencement speaker at my college graduation was Wisconsin Governor, Scott McCallum. A guy who didn’t even become Governor because he earned it, but rather because he was next in line when Tommy Thompson was elevated to the office of Health and Human Services Secretary by then President George W. Bush. Summarizing, a guy who lucked into his job was giving a speech to us graduates who were about to commence careers.
In the far more inspirational words of Maya Angelou, people will forget what you said, they’ll forget what you did, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel. Who knows what Scott McCallum said, but I do recall being bored to death. When his speech wrapped, I yawned, found my proud parents and went out to dinner.
I’d speculate it is more common to get a dry and boring commencement speaker a la Scott McCallum than a charismatic and inspiring one like Maya Angelou. The task of imparting wisdom on a room full of graduates and their financially exhausted but extremely satisfied parents is tough.
Two of my cousins graduated this spring and I am equally proud of the Harvard Law degree that was earned, as I am the electrician’s apprenticeship that was locked down. Both are set to start on very different but fulfilling and successful careers. This has me thinking of commencements. Knowing what I know now, what would I tell my younger self as she graduates?
Here are the discoveries that would have been good to know on day one.
Discovery: Attitude is everything. Be happy. Be willing even when you aren’t sure you’re able. Be helpful. Be open to doing everything (as in “yes, I will take notes this time. Yes, I will make the coffee run. Yes, I will find an all-night dry cleaner in Vancouver to press these shirts before tomorrow morning’s press conference”). Believe really big things can and will happen. Smile a lot. Laugh even more.
Discovery: Not everyone wants you to succeed. Figure out quickly who can help you and who is threatened, jealous, insecure, dumb, or just plain trouble. Choose your mentors wisely. Be friendly with everyone, but be very selective with who becomes a friend. Don’t gossip. Assume everyone gossips about you and help curate the story so they have flattering content to share. It is better if they don’t like you because you are great at your job than if they don’t like you because you are terrible at your job. Greatness should be a goal.
Discovery: Always care deeply about people. People do business with people they know and like. Let people know you, be likable. You will spend an insane amount of time with your coworkers like that time I did a 5-day road trip through the Ozarks in a van with a publicist. Treat everyone with respect. If one day a coworker has a chance to see their kid play basketball for the first time, cover for them. Help people because you can, not because you have to or even want to. Helping people, especially people who really need help, is tremendously gratifying.
Discovery: Take every vacation day you earn. Only suckers give up their vacation time. Don’t be a sucker. Even if you don’t go anywhere, plan a day at a museum, make $2 bets at the horse track, go to the beach, volunteer. It is your time to take. You are paid to take it. Whoever you are, whatever your role, they can do without you for a day. And if they can’t, at least you don’t have to shower and put on a suit to field emails and phone calls from home.
Discovery: Be grateful. Write thank you notes. Make a big production out of every success. Appreciate up the ladder, down the ladder, laterally and externally. Recognize your teachers, coaches, neighbors, kids, parents, servers, community leaders, and the mailman. Even when people know you are blowing smoke up their butt they are grateful for the effort. You are never too busy to leave a voicemail saying thank you, or write a post-it telling how much you appreciated something. Make gratitude an everyday habit.
Discovery: Love yourself, exercise, read, sleep, pay your bills and save money, dance, have a salad every now and then. Your body is the most sophisticated piece of technology you’ll ever own and you’ll never get to upgrade for a newer model. Treat your body and your mind and your soul with tenderness. Forgive yourself when a mistake happens and chart a new course. Surround yourself with people who uphold high standards. Right or wrong, people will judge you on your looks, so look like you care and do the best with what you’ve got.
Discovery: You will have good days, you will have bad days, but most days will be just regular days. Find happiness in the routine of life. Be a bit philosophical. When there is a bad day, lick the salt from your wound and put it in a margarita*.
Cheers to the Graduates.
* credit to the Spin Doctors for the inspirational lyric, and also revealing my age as someone who was alive in the 90s when the Spin Doctors was a big thing.