This week, I will be delivering the commencement address at my former high school in New Jersey. It is a great honor and one that I am proud to accept. As a welcome side benefit, it offers the tantalizing chance to redeem myself for the disastrous speech I gave there as a graduating senior some twenty odd years ago.
On that auspicious occasion, I tripped on my way up to the podium, before delivering one of the most bloated and forgettable speeches in the history of high school graduation speeches. But it wasn’t for the want of trying. With typical teenage enthusiasm, I sought to cram in every meaningful quotation I had ever heard, every reaching metaphor and arcane literary reference to drive home my message. Just what that message was, I’m still not entirely sure. The resulting mess was giant lumbering beast that was dead on arrival: a Thesaurus Rex. In my mind’s eye, I can still see my older brother nodding off in the front row, jolted out of his snooze a half hour later by the charitable and half-hearted applause.
In preparation for my “comeback” this week, I started to think about what I would say to my former self- that anxious, over tanned 18 year-old in the handmade graduation gown. And the first thing I would say is, “ten minutes or less.” Nobody has that much attention span, and no 18 year-old has that much to say. Cut, cut, cut! The second thing I would say is, “don’t over think it.” While this may feel like the most important moment of your life, it isn’t. Not really. Nobody will remember two hours from now what you had to say, and that’s okay. The important thing is to show up, do your best, and try to enjoy the overall experience.
We’re conditioned to think that our lives revolve around these “big” moments. When we finally win the plaudits, win the crowd, pull the metaphorical sword from the rock. The self-dramatizing teenager in all of us still wants to believe: This is the moment that will define me forever. This is the most critical juncture of my life. And you know what? It probably isn’t. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that life is a series of transitions, both large and small, and it’s much easier to enjoy it if we hold on very lightly to any desired outcome. There are no final victories, and thankfully, no final defeats either. Some of the other things I would like to say to this teenager?
Be a good friend (to yourself)
There will be many important relationships throughout your life, but none as long-lasting or as important as the one you have with yourself. You want to be the kind of friend who is honest and supporting. Who knows and accepts your flaws, but doesn’t delight in pointing them out to you. As someone wiser than me once said, “It’s hard to be a world beater when you’re busy beating yourself up.” The way we treat and hold ourselves can have serious consequences, and yet people turn on themselves all the time. Some of the things we say to ourselves, we wouldn’t dare say to another. So why would you say them to yourself? You are a fantastic, lovable person, on a journey of discovery. You deserve to be treated with patience, understanding and encouragement. Demand it from yourself.
Avoid the comparison game
As human beings, we are biologically programmed to look over at the guy in the next lane. Yet nothing causes as much misery as this tendency to compare ourselves unfavorably with others. It’s hard to swim in a straight line when you’re focused on what the other guy (or girl) is doing. You know the one who is swimming faster, more gracefully and easily than you are? Self-comparison is no-win game, and the shortest road to hell. The trick then is to gently and carefully, bring the focus back to your own stroke. Recognize that everybody has their own unique set of skills, as well as challenges. The goal is to embrace your journey, your potential. Are you learning? Are you growing? That is all that matters.
Plan for the future, but live in the now
Years ago, there was a bumper sticker that briefly caught on. It read, “Don’t postpone joy.” For people in a hurry (like me), this is always a difficult concept to grasp. Of course we want more joy in our lives, but it’s awful hard to find the time for it when there are so many other competing demands for our time. So we put it off till vacation time, or when we get promoted, or when the kids are grown, or when we retire. “When-then” is the most egregious fallacy of all. It is a mirage. The when is now. Yes, it’s good to plan for the future, but the only moment we can fully live and enjoy is the one happening right now. So try to find those small pockets of joy in between the mundane.
And the final thing I would like to remind that callow youth is that all of life is an experiment. When we treat life as a grand experiment, it frees us up from fear of failure, and opens the door to all kinds of possibility. As John Barrymore once noted: “Happiness often sneaks in through a window you didn’t know you left open.” Go ahead, and let it in.