“A graduation ceremony is an event where the commencement speaker tells thousands of students dressed in identical caps and gowns that “individuality” is the key to success.” ~Robert Orben 


Just as we feel pressure to stay locked in the status quo with graduation announcements, we may unknowingly parrot the same mantra about one’s future after that graduation occurs.

“Reach for the stars.”

“You can achieve anything you put your mind to.”

“Go change the world!”

These are common platitudes given to thousands of graduating seniors, but what about the advice Charles Wheelanchose to give while delivering what he calls his “anti-commencement” speech to his alma mater, Dartmouth College and has since received national attention:

1~ Some of Your Worst Days Lie Ahead of You

Everything is not going to go your way. All of the things you’ve studied and dreamed about most likely won’t go as planned. This doesn’t mean it won’t all work out in the end (God has a great plan and purpose for each individual- Jeremiah 29:11), but there will be toil and disappointment along the way.

Catching up with a friend at church yesterday reiterates this idea. As she talked about how interesting life has played out for her in the past few years she paused then said, “Life has taught me in ways I would not have chosen.”

Let’s help our graduates realize this instead of shooting endless ideas of stars and famous success in their near future.

2~ You’re not that special

I know Johnny is very special to you as his parent, but he’s not the Messiah.

I also know that you are very special too, because God created you like no one else!

But in the big scheme of things~ meaning day to day life, in the workplace, in the drudgery of each and every day~ we are not that special. Everyone had needs; let’s notice them instead of ourselves.

3~ You know very little

I remember being shocked by the fact that within months after graduating from college our knowledge is already out-dated. That means I know absolutely nothing about Communications Media since earning a Bachelor’s degree almost twenty-five years ago. My seventeen year old recently asked me how we edited our footage “back then.” True to the statement my reply was, “I don’t remember!” I do know it was nothing like today.

Graduates should be told that they’re still going to have to learn their way into whatever career they choose.

4~ Don’t try to be great

Charles Wheelan himself said it best with, “Always going for awesome could cause you to make decisions that are too risk averse or lead you in a direction that isn’t best for you.”

He also adds, “You don’t have to be the greatest there ever was, just be solid with what you know.”

During Wheelan’s interview with NPR, a caller commented on his own happiness by choosing to stay local with his journalism opportunities instead of going for top dog. By not striving to make it “big” he feels as though he’s remained grounded, knows his own limits and that it’s okay to have limits! That’s actually huge in my opinion, because I have wrestled with my own tendency to forsake my limits in the quest to achieve more, bigger and better.

Wheelan’s advice is to not worry so much about the journey, but remain focused on your purpose!

5~ Read obituaries

Not a likely piece of advice to give graduates! The point, however, is that people don’t lead linearly lives (we have bumps, setbacks, and detours) but at the end of life suddenly that person’s first love becomes very clear. Anyone who has achieved something worth noticing (Steve Jobs, for example) is one who has worked at creating value. It is that “value” that comes forth when all is said and done.

6~ Don’t make the world a worse place

You could be the smartest, richest, most clever person in the world, but if you graduate with honors and then move on to create, market or distribute unhealthy products, well…

7~ Not everyone is going to treat you as you want to be treated

This goes back to the Messiah syndrome. The less we think of ourselves (accurate humility), the easier it is when we realize not everyone is going to be impressed by us!

I can remember my first job out of college working as a sales rep for a commercial printer and having a strong opinion that I haughtily let my boss know about. Thankfully he was not impressed by me and quickly put me in my place! What a favor he did by not bowing to the elevated view I had of myself.

8~ Time with friends is time well spent

Our kid’s Youth Pastor is so good at driving this point home. The 3.9 GPA is not going to matter years down the road, but the time invested in relationships always matter and they teach us things that school never can.

“I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school. They don’t teach you how to love somebody. They don’t teach you how to be famous. They don’t teach you how to be rich or how to be poor. They don’t teach you how to walk away from someone you don’t love any longer. They don’t teach you how to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying. They don’t teach you anything worth knowing.”
Neil Gaiman, The Sandman, Vol. 9: The Kindly Ones

Do you constantly choose work and career over friends and family? I love how Wheelan explains that choosing the career is nothing short of a circus animal stunt. The career is often where we get the biscuit treat for a job well done. At home, maybe not so much. Relationships are hard work! We don’t always get rewards…more like misunderstandings. But its people who matter in the end.

It’s true~ I don’t remember a thing my professors said, but I can still tell stories, see faces, and recall experiences with people.

What do you wish you were told at graduation?


Photo credit: Flickr (Creative Commons)