OK. I’ll admit it. I’ve long harbored an unusual fantasy.
I want to be a commencement speaker.
I yearn to join the celebrities invited to campuses each year to shower graduates with wit and wisdom. I can almost hear the raucous laughter that follows a deftly delivered punch line. I can almost see the tears wiped from eyes moistened by a poignant anecdote. I can almost feel the thunderous ovation of a crowd caught up in the profound power of the moment.
I’m neither famous nor infamous enough to be a commencement speaker. I’ve never been elected to public office or managed a Fortune 500 corporation. I’ve never performed in a movie or penned a book. What’s more, I’m not even certain what I’d say or how I’d say it. I’d want to say so much, of course, to articulate in clear and compelling fashion that which I hold dear and believe to be true. I’m afraid, though, I’d end up saying little at all — extolling platitudes and mixing metaphors like crazy, perhaps, but conveying no deeper meaning. In attempting to deliver the Gettysburg Address, I’d offer instead shampoo instructions. Not four score and seven years ago, but wash, rinse, repeat.
This strange desire of mine stirs every spring as commencement exercises draw near. The feeling has been especially strong this year, though, because my youngest son, Alex, soon graduates from American University in Washington, D.C. I wasn’t invited to deliver the commencement address, by the way. Not even considered. What I’ve been considering, though, is what I’m going to tell my son. What advice should I offer? What message could I dare impart that would endure beyond the moment? It’s not a matter of what I’d tell graduates, but what I’d tell my graduate.
My first bit of advice, for what it’s worth, is this: Pursue your dreams and remain steadfast in your confidence to make those dreams come true. I’m not naive enough to believe wishing alone turns dreams into reality. Hard work and plenty of it turns dreams into reality. But it also takes the firm belief the improbable, even impossible, is not only possible, but also plausible.
Most bright young people start out anxious to change the world, but end up sadly disillusioned by the erosive forces of life. It’s tragic to think about the immense power of minds to perform marvelous feats and conjure miraculous inventions harnessed instead to deal with the minutiae that too often fills life. The poet Oliver Wendell Homes lamented the situation this way: “Alas for those that never sing, but die with all their music in them.” The philosopher Henry David Thoreau described a fate even more regrettable: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” The alternative? Thoreau encourages this: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.”
So do your best, and resist the temptation to settle for less. Then get ready to fail miserably anyway. But here’s the point about perseverance: You’ll invariably learn something that will ensure success if not the next time, then the time after that or, more likely still, at some distant moment when you least expect the revelation. Chances are, you’ll have to take a lot of steps to get where you’re going and make a lot of sacrifices along the way. No good thing ever comes easy. But that’s exactly what makes things good, isn’t it?
Secondly, I would encourage you to find your calling — that which combines your talents and passions, that one thing you were seemingly born to do. I believe those who discover and pursue their callings lead the most productive and gratifying lives. As you go about your search, don’t be afraid to change your mind or go in radically different directions. Polonius was right: To thine own self be true. You know better than anyone who you are. Don’t try to be anyone else, imagined or otherwise. And don’t let anyone else define you, either.
Last, but certainly not least, I’d offer perhaps the one bit of wisdom I’ve gleaned. It’s a lesson I learned from my brilliant and beloved wife. She didn’t live nearly so long as I would have wished, but lived better than anyone I’ve ever known, embracing with equal enthusiasm the opportunities and challenges each day presented. Treasure the relationships you develop. Nurture them. Never take them granted. In the end, you’ll realize it’s not so much the success you’ve achieved or the material goods you’ve amassed in life that matters, but how much you’ve loved and how much you’ve been loved by others.