Dear Graduate: It’s Normal (A Reality Based Commencement Speech)
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Thank you for inviting me here to speak to you. I know you’re expecting I’ve come to tell you the world belongs to you and then inspire you to go out and conquer it. To take the bull by both horns and throw it down. To dream big because you can do anything!
But that’s not why I’m here. We all know you’re going to get plenty of graduation cards that trumpet about the magic of your future. So I’m going to skip that part. Instead, I’m going to cut right to the chase and tell you what I wish I would have heard at my graduation 20ish years ago.
#1: Dear Graduate, you will never arrive.
As you head out into adulthood, and rack up your successes, you will be looking for that point where you will know you have “arrived”.
I’m here to tell you that, sadly, you will never arrive.
Or perhaps I should say you will arrive and you will enjoy that arrival for a fleeting moment in time before something changes and smacks your arrival right flat to the ground.
Something always changes. That’s how life operates. There is no super glue that holds us in that perfect spot of job you love/enough money/healthy family/clean house/six vacations a year/running vehicles/the right weight/mentally stable/great marriage/strong faith/etc. There is no magnet in existence that is strong enough to hold those things all together all the time. Something always shifts. Always.
The wind will change direction multiple times as it blows through your sails; a wind that no weather forecaster can predict. Some of those winds will be hurricane forces that destroy. And you will not see it coming.
You will mutter the words, “I did not think this would happen to me.” You might even say, “It’s not fair.”
And this is normal.
People will say and do things they shouldn’t. Why? Because they are alive and because they can. Things might not work out even though you did everything right. You might look at an acquaintance, who has done everything “wrong”, and wonder why they seem to get all the awesome that you’ve been striving for.
And this is life. This is the riddle. This is the challenge that you’re stepping into. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense.
And that’s normal.
#2: Dear Graduate, life happens mostly in shades of gray.
You have your ideals and opinions. At 17 or 18 years old, you have figured out your black and white.
But what you will find as you get older is that the world exists and carries on in shades of gray.
Right now you know how you feel about gun control, abortion, and EBT cards. You know what kind of person you would and wouldn’t marry—or if you would get married at all. You know how you feel about kids. GMOs. Religion. The military. Alcohol. Sex.
And I’m here to tell you that things change. I’m here to tell you that life experience may dictate that your opinion does a 180. The answer will seem so clear and you will have things figured out (again)…and then you will meet someone or hear about something or be involved in a situation that changes your opinion another 47.5 degrees.
Shades of gray. Sometimes a shade you can’t even put your finger on or describe or understand because you’re frustrated that you can’t be more black and white. Aren’t we supposed to know how we feel? Aren’t we supposed to have a solid opinion? Aren’t we supposed to build a fence and know what side of it we stand on?
The secret I can reveal to you as someone who has been adulting now for 19 years is this: the longer we adult, the more we figure out how little we really know. How very few absolutes there really are. How confusing this thing called Life can actually be because it very rarely adds up.
And that’s normal.
#3: Dear Graduate, life is not an algebra problem.
You have spent the last 13 years of school memorizing facts and studying for tests and writing papers and hoping for a good grade. You’ve been worried about your GPA. You’ve been scrambling to make sure that you have all the right answers for every question.
But here’s the thing, graduates. Life is not an algebra problem. It will, at times, be as confusing as one…but the difference between life and an algebra problem is that the algebra problem has a definitive solution. Several wrong answers and only one that is right.
That is not how life works.
There is no answer book out there. There is no website or app that you will give you the solution to every issue you will encounter in the big wide world. Sometimes you will not know what to do or what to say or which way to turn because there are too many options and all of them seem right, or none of them do. Sometimes you will simply stand still and wait because you just aren’t sure.
And that’s normal. Completely and totally normal.
So. Where does this leave you, dear graduate?
Hopefully, not disillusioned. Hopefully, not jaded. Hopefully, not angry or squirming in your seats or unwilling to try. Because we want you to succeed. We want you to take the things we haven’t fixed and work to make them better. God, how we want you to succeed.
But my fear is that in all the you can do anything, someone will forget to mention that sometimes you can’t. That sometimes things not working out is normal. That sometimes things not working out is part of the plan. And that when things don’t work out, you’re not a crumbling failure and you’re not a complete screw up—you’re just human. And to prepare for life in the big bad world, someone needs to tell you that.
One day you will be staring out the window wondering what the hell happened and how you ended up here and I want you to know it happens to every single one of us.
And it’s normal.
So as you step out into adulthood, know this: you will find your footing and you will start to climb and the truth is you will do as well as the rest of us are doing, which may be better than you hoped or worse than you planned depending on what day of the week in which month you’re currently living.
Because this, dear graduate, is how adulting works.
And it’s normal.