I attended a high school graduation this past Friday. It was similar to all the other high school and college graduation ceremonies I’ve experienced over the years. The graduates filed in to their seats accompanied by the notes of Pomp and Circumstance, the high achieving graduates received special recognition and a stream of awards, then the valedictorians (the highest achievers of the high achievers) gave speeches, followed by the mass roll call of all the graduates as they crossed the stage to receive their diplomas.
A new thought struck me as I watched the ceremony on Friday. When you take out the time allotted for the graduates to march to their seats as well as the time for the roll call awarding the diplomas, 90% of the graduation ceremony is focused on 10% of the highest achieving students.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a high-achiever. I think every student should aim to perform his/her best and those outstanding performers definitely deserve special recognition. However, those are the exceptions, not the norm. Most people won’t graduate with a 4.87 GPA and plans to study Neurobiology at John Hopkins University. The fact is that most of us graduate with little clue as to what we want to do with the rest of our lives. What sort of leadership advice should be passed on to those “average Joe’s?”
Well, from one average Joe to another, here’s what I would say:
1. Don’t stress, it’s normal to not know what you want to do with the rest of your life. Most of us are bozos on the same bus; we’re figuring out life as we go. Very few of us have a crystal clear purpose of what we want to do in life, and even many of those high achievers giving the graduation speeches will take unexpected turns in life that deviate from their original plan. It’s called life. We learn, grow, and mature (hopefully) and our wants and desires change over the course of time. But somehow life has a way of working out. We all eventually find our niche and you’ll find yours.
2. Don’t compare yourself to others. Playing the comparison game is a guaranteed way to make yourself miserable and unhappy. There will always be someone who has a better job, makes more money, owns a bigger house, or accumulates more “stuff” than you. But that doesn’t mean they’re happier than you. Learning how to be content in all circumstances is one of the secrets of life. If you can find contentment, gratefulness, and thankfulness for what you do have, then you’ve got it all.
3. Be patient. More than any previous generation, today’s graduates have grown up in an instant gratification society. Many young graduates expect the work world to operate the same way. It doesn’t. Get used to it. However, you are among the brightest and quickest learning people to enter the workforce in ages and that has its own strengths. Work hard, listen more than you speak, learn from the experience of others, and prepare yourself to take advantage of opportunities when they arise. You’ll get your shot, but it will take some time and hard work.
4. Live for something bigger than yourself. If you haven’t yet learned this universal truth, I hope you will someday soon. Life really becomes meaningful and filled with purpose when you learn you aren’t the center of the universe. Life is not all about getting that job with the corner office or the handsome paycheck. It’s not about vacationing in Europe every summer or making “bank” as my 19 year-old son likes to say. Life becomes worthwhile when you realize it’s about giving more than you get. It’s about serving others, not yourself. One of the mysterious paradoxes in life is the more you give your time, talent, and treasure to others, the more deep-seated satisfaction you receive in return. I don’t know how else to describe it and I don’t think there’s a way you can learn it without doing it. Give it a try. Sooner rather than later. You’ll save yourself a lot of wasted living.
5. Don’t give up. Life throws you curve balls and sometimes you strike out. Other times you get beaned by the pitch and you’re on the disabled list for a while. But if you keep getting back in the box and swing at enough pitches, you’ll get your fair share of hits. It takes time, effort, and patience but it will eventually turn your way…as long as you don’t give up. You matter. You are important. No one else in this world is like you and we need you. Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.
None of this is rocket science; much of life isn’t. It’s the basic fundamentals of life, that when practiced well, lead to success and happiness. Not being the honor grad with plans for a grand future doesn’t mean you’re a loser…it just means your normal. And normal is a pretty fantastic thing when you consider how amazingly gifted you are (even if you don’t realize it or believe it).
Congrats all you grads! There’s a fantastic life waiting for you. Go out and live it!