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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

In Other Words: I Give My Younger Self Advice in a Commencement Speech

Dear Younger Self:

Graduates hear pretty much the same commencement speech across the country. Most are variations on “Today you begin a new chapter in the book of life….” Yawn. It’s a sweet sentiment and, even if it true, it’s a tired metaphor - so tired that the audience can take a quality nap, update Facebook, tweet a short thought, or post goofy Snapchat photos of the commencement speaker. (This will make sense much later in your life. Trust me.)

You sit there under that cap and gown excited, nervous, worried, sweaty, and a bit terrified. You are not sure of yourself or your future. Not sure if you can really make it. Not sure if you made the right decisions. Knowing that you made a lot of bad decisions. Not sure of anything. Welcome to the world.  Life does not move in a straight line. It’s like zig zagging through a crowded cafeteria only to find your favorite seat is taken. Remember that? Your life is more like a jigsaw puzzle and your job is to put it together to see what image emerges.  Remember those summer evenings on the porch with the family working on jigsaw puzzles? Yeah, it’s like that.

I don’t want to take anything away from what your commencement speakers will tell you, (Who was that anyway? All you will remember is the protester and the rain.) but school is just a small part of your education. In fact, you won’t remember anything they say. You will have that piece of paper that indicates you have the ability to learn or at least endure seat time - but you have much more to learn.  Everyone does. But I am talking directly to you. Us. Myself.
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Dad gave us lots of advice - some you won’t learn right away - but this is the most important one that I will remind you again when you graduate college.  He said, “Never think of yourself as an employee. You are an independent businessman. You may have one or more ‘clients’ but you are in charge.” You thought he was deranged. Even though his own business collapsed, he always had work. After all, he had five kids to feed and you ate a lot. (Remember that Saturday when you and your brother ate a dozen eggs and a pound of bacon for breakfast?) But this shift in attitude will make a difference in how you see your place in the work world. “Clients” will come and go, but you are growing your “business.” You will eventually understand it, but at a cost.

This will make sense when early on in your professional career when your position will be eliminated because a tax levy failed.  You won’t lose a job; you will lose a major client. But you will find other major clients.  And in an age where loyalty in the workplace is pretty much nonexistent, this will be a valuable attitude to have.  You have a business to grow.

You know how you listened with only half an ear? Like now. Remember how many times Dad fired you? Yeah. Three times. That’s because you didn’t listen. But you were always stubborn. In fact, that will motivate you to become a teacher so you can get through to students like you so they won’t make the same stupid mistakes.  You will be glad that you figured out that piece of life’s puzzle.

Every list, every speech, every story, is incomplete.  The problem is that each expresses just a partial thought. From here on you must piece those partial thoughts together to see the larger picture and to find meaning in it. Here are just a few pieces of the puzzle to help you along the way. So listen, younger self.

It’s a big world and your understanding of it is small.
Show up early and give more than asked.
Take the time to do it right; fixing mistakes can be costly and damages your reputation.
Be polite. It’s the grease of the social machine.
Look for patterns. Everything has a pattern. See the dots; connect the dots.
You earn your reputation every day, but it only takes a second to ruin it.
Keep it short and sweet.
Question everything.
Wear sunscreen. Seriously. You will thank me when you get older.
You are not the center of the universe.
Follow the money.  Know where it comes from, where it goes, and how you use it. But do not worship it.
Put people first.
Hard times reveal and build character.
If you don’t know, ask. Faking it is worse. No one knows everything.
The world does not owe you anything, but you have obligations to the world.
You will fail. Deal with it. Learn from it. Move on. No defeat is final.
Accept change.
If the waiter says it tastes like chicken then order the chicken.
If it sounds too good be true, it is.
Be patient.
What you feed your body is as important as what you feed your head.
Learn to relax. Stress will kill you.
Try something new.
Education never ends.

Okay? So walk up on that stage, accept your diploma, shake hands, and get out there and connect the dots. You have business to take care of.

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