Graduates of the class of 2020, I know this isn’t the graduation you were expecting when you first stepped inside the halls of your high school four years ago. Your graduation year has been without fanfare, without parties and without ceremony.
You are graduating in the midst of a global pandemic that will shape you in some way. Know that despite the state of today’s world, adults everywhere feel your pain, are on your side, and are rooting for you. Some of you will be immediately entering the adult world and some of you will be attending college. Whatever comes next in your journey, here are 20 pieces of advice to help you navigate the waters you’re about to be thrust into.
THERE WILL BE GOOD TIMES AHEAD
No one can predict the future, but I can assure you with some amount of certainty that this crisis is not the end of the world. Life is filled with peaks and valleys, and while a global pandemic right as you join the adult world is scary, I promise things will get better. Some of you will get married, some of you will have children, some of you will build amazing careers, and some of you may even change the world. When you do, you will find that where you are today was just a small step in an incredible journey. Enjoy all of life’s highs to the fullest.
Don’t let the good times make you cocky and don’t let the bad times bring you down. It’s OK to experience hardship and it is OK to question everything you know. You will learn over time to appreciate life’s valleys just as much as its peaks.
ENJOY THE JOURNEY
First it was, “when I can read” then “when I can drive” or “when I can date.” Next, “When I graduate” or “when I get a job.” After that, “when I get married,” “when I have kids,” “when the kids grow up,” and “when I retire.” There is always going to be a next thing and there will always be a next stage of life that you look forward to, but don’t forget to enjoy the journey. Don’t be so focused on the goal or the destination that you miss the moment, because when all is said and done, life is a collection of precious and glorious moments. Pay attention to them. Each moment will one day become a memory.
CHARACTER IS FORGED IN HARDSHIP
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, you have probably learned some things about yourself that you didn’t know. You may have even found out some things about yourself that you don’t like. You’ve probably learned some things about your friends that you didn’t know before, and chances are you’ve found out some things about them that you didn’t like.
A person’s character is both revealed and shaped by hardship. You will grow from this experience and you will probably grow more from this than from most other experiences in your life. It is moments like these that can determine what type of person you will become. It is also a great time for introspection and self-improvement.
LAUGH. A LOT.
If you’re going to laugh about it “one of these days,” go ahead and start laughing about it now. It’s a cliche’, but laughter truly is the best medicine. If you can laugh about it, you can overcome it. Humor can ease pain, declaw hostility, and bring sunlight to dark days. During this pandemic, you’ve seen more memes and jokes than at any other time in recent memory. We all laugh to keep from crying and to make ourselves feel better. Learn to laugh even at adversity.
SAY “I DON’T KNOW”
The phrase “I don’t know” can be powerful and profound. It is a mark of maturity to admit you don’t have it all figured out. It is OK not to have an opinion on something, it is OK not to have an answer and it shows that you are an honest person.
FRIENDS WILL COME AND GO
This may shock you, but chances are the people you count among your closest friends today will be a small or even insignificant part of your future. This isn’t going to be your fault or their fault, it’s just part of growing up. You’ll make new friends, you’ll lose touch with those friends, you’ll enter another stage of life and make more new friends. You’ll probably have one or two really close friends that withstand the test of time, but the majority will be part of your life for a while and then fade into the shadows of social media.
Enjoy every friendship while it lasts and realize that friends will come and go like waves in the ocean. Each friendship is beautiful and unique and worth the effort, but most of them will be fleeting.
You’ve spent the last 18 years of your life under someone else’s authority. First, you learned to listen to and obey your parents, then you learned to listen to and obey your teachers. As an adult, you will still be subject to authority and, while it’s true you should show proper respect for those in authority, you need to know that it is important and acceptable to question authority.
The most successful minds in business and government are those who say, “Why do we do this?” or “Is there a better way?” If you want to dance, fly, thrive, or whatever other verb people tell you to do after you graduate, you have to learn to both respect and question authority.
NEVER STOP LEARNING
Your cap, gown, and diploma mean you have finished school. They do not mean you have finished learning. You will find very shortly that you are far from finished with learning. Life has many more lessons to teach you. You will learn from others, you will learn from circumstance, and you will learn from discovery. Don’t ever think you have it all figured out and become set in your ways. No one still alive is a finished product.
BE CAREFUL WITH INFORMATION
Information is the key to learning and growing, but it can also be deceptive and misleading. Don’t ever use it that way. Also, be careful not to be misled. Check your news sources and realize that there are authoritative sources of information and poor sources that spew misinformation to propagate an agenda. Check and double check the veracity of what you hear, read, see or believe. Remember, there is a big difference in “My friend, Steve told me on social media” and “According to The Washington Post.”
You are graduating at a time when the country is polarized both socially and politically. The loudest voices you will hear will often be the most extreme. As easy and tempting as it may be to get pulled too far to the left or right on any issue, realize that the truth and the whole story tend to live somewhere in the middle ground. To the best of your ability, work to change what previous generations have ruined.
We used to not be this polarized. Right after Sept. 11, the country was united. People didn’t put their political party before their country. We were Americans first and republicans or democrats somewhere under that. Prior to that, politics was a part of American life, but the majority of us weren’t defined by the full party platform of our chosen political parties. There should not be political fights associated with a pandemic. There should not be sides here. Fight for a world where there aren’t.
PICK YOUR BATTLES
You will have hot-button issues and there will be hills that you are willing to die on. If you lack this kind of conviction, you’re probably doing something wrong. But every hill can’t be worth dying on and every issue is not a cause for deep offense. Save anger and argument for when it is truly important. Otherwise, you’ll be like the boy who cried wolf and people won’t take your outrage seriously.
LEARN TO DISAGREE WITHOUT DISGUST
As I mentioned before, you are graduating in a highly polarizing time. When you disagree with a person or an idea, learn how to do it without disgust or contempt. People come from different backgrounds and have different perspectives than you. Their past, like yours, has shaped their worldview. Realize that you could be wrong, or that maybe the issue is a matter of preference and sometimes there is a vast gray area.
TREAT OTHERS WITH DIGNITY
Along those same lines, even if you have trouble understanding someone else or you don’t agree with their choices, always treat others with dignity. Never strip another person of their humanity, even if it is only in your mind. When you do that, you become less human.
Sometimes what you know isn’t as important as how you come across. People will always believe a confident person who lacks wisdom over a wise person who lacks confidence. I know you’re tired of being told to “believe in yourself,” but there is a reason people are telling you this over and over and over again. Confidence is a kingmaker and it can make a huge difference in who you are, who you marry, and who you will ultimately become.
BUT DON’T BE TOO SURE OF YOURSELF
Confidence only works if you are actually able to back it up. Nothing will derail you more than being over-confident and misstepping because of it. Ask other people for their honest opinion of your skills and make sure you know what you are and aren’t capable of to the best of your abilities. You will not be able to perform like Mozart if you’ve never had a single lesson.
DON’T LET OTHER PEOPLE DEFINE YOU
You may not know who you are yet. You may still be slowly discovering that. But, no matter what, don’t let other people define who you are or who you will become. Don’t let other people’s opinions of you affect how you feel about yourself or how you value yourself. This is your life, after all. It would be a shame to live it to someone else’s specifications.
DO THE THING YOU WANT TO DO
If you have an idea, see it through. If you have a dream follow it. If there is any part of you that is entrepreneurial and thinks you could start a business or a nonprofit or create something that hasn’t been made yet, spend your time on that. You can spend your life working to make money for someone else or you can spend your life doing what you love and working for yourself. Don’t be afraid to lead. Remember to be patient though. Most entrepreneurs are in their 40s when they start their new ventures. You have plenty of time to achieve your dreams.
TELL OTHER PEOPLE WHAT THEY MEAN TO YOU
If you miss someone, tell them you miss them. If you love someone, tell them you love them. If you count someone as one of your closest friends, make sure they know that. There are literally people dying alone in hospitals right now who will never hear the voice of a family member or friend again. Make sure your loved ones know how you feel about them. In times like this, there isn’t much room for waiting.
KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE “WHY”
Always remember the reason you do something, otherwise you will lose sight of who you want to be. Wealth for the sake of wealth will only make you greedy, and love for the sake of feeling loved will only make you lonely. Wealth for the sake of charity or family, and love for the sake of friendship and giving will take you much farther. When you forget the reason behind what you do, you cease to recognize the person looking back at you in the mirror.
MISTAKES ARE HOW YOU LEARN
It’s easy to be afraid of failure, but the sooner you learn to embrace it and learn from it, the better off you’ll be. You will learn more lessons from a single mistake than from a dozen triumphs. Your mistakes sharpen your skills and shape your character. They are a necessary part of the person you become and in the long run, you will be thankful for the opportunity to fail.