In 1997, Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich advised that year’s graduates to “Wear Sunscreen.” Humanities professor Neil Postman once told a graduating class they must choose between being Athenians or Visigoths, urging them to use education to cultivate a fulfilling life. Iconic contemporary novelist David Foster Wallace went viral with a commencement speech entitled “This is Water.” Novelist Carl Hiaasen wrote the book Assume the Worst about advice you’ll never hear in a commencement speech. And, of course, Steve Jobs told Stanford grads the way to do great work is to love what you do. Giving advice to young graduates each May is a timeless tradition, though in many ways it’s probably also a pointless one. Ultimately, we all have to figure it out for ourselves.
Despite the negative talk about the youth, public education, and the country in general, I look to young people, filled with hope. You are our pride and joy, our best and brightest, and the future belongs to you. The question is what are you going to do with it? The twenty-first century is a time constantly in flux, undergoing perpetual change. While that can be unsettling and even scary, it can also be tremendously exciting. The future truly is wide open, and the challenge is to find your path, to carve out your niche, to make your impact. When Henry David Thoreau went to Walden Woods to live, he said he wished to “live deliberately.” My advice is to extend that idea and “live artfully,” carefully crafting and thoughtfully creating the canvas, the sculpture, the picture of your life.
In the movie Dead Poets Society, teacher John Keating urged his students to “Make your lives extraordinary.” I say also make yourself useful, focusing on self-improvement and commitment to service. In fact, a good friend of mine credits his success to always being the one who says, “Yes,” always being the one who says, “I’ll try,” always being the one who says, “I can do that.” Beyond being skilled and hardworking, he achieved success by making himself indispensable. In an episode of the HBO show Girls, the lead character Hannah is fired from her unpaid internship. When she learns her replacement is actually being paid for the job, she adamantly protests to her former boss. He says, “Well, she knows PhotoShop.” When Hannah tells him, “But I can learn PhotoShop,” he responds, “Maybe, but you didn’t.”
My point is to be the kind of person who learns PhotoShop. Or Excel spreadsheets. Or coding. Or piano. Or Chinese. Or gardening. Or anything that brings value and even beauty to your life and to those around you. Craft and cultivate the art of living. As Daniel Coyle explains in his book The Talent Code, it is through developing your skills and talents that you will find your passion and joy in life. Regardless of your path, do whatever you do with commitment and determination. You have worked very hard to get here, and we celebrate your achievements, even as we look with great anticipation for what comes next. If you develop your skills and cultivate your character, you will make a difference, and you will, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, “meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
From Steve Martin’s early days as a stand-up comedian and original cast member of SNL, he has become a film icon as an actor, director, writer, and producer. He has written numerous best-selling books and an award winning play. He is considered one of the premier art collectors and art critics in American society. And he is a renowned musician whose prowess with the banjo rivals the best in the business. Steve Martin is just so good at what he does. So, when Steve Martin was asked for the secret to success, he responded, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” That’s the kind of advice you can do something with. Dedicate yourselves to your craft whatever it is, and commit to excellence as you make both a living and a life.
The point of life is not just to be happy or successful or rich or famous. Though all those are admirable goals. The point of life is to simply live it. Live it with grace and class and joy. Live artfully. Practice and cultivate the art of living. Your entire life is out in front of you, and so my advice is simple – live the heck out of it.
Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. Ytou can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org