Ice Cream For Dinner: A Graduation Speech

high school students graduates tossing up hats over blue sky.

It’s graduation season, but alas, once again, none of the fine high schools of America, or elsewhere, have asked me to bestow my great wisdom on their graduates. I’m not sure how such a thing could have happened yet again this year.

This season brings back the painful memory of the two valedictorian speeches at my high school graduation. One argued that life is like a mountain. We climb up and up, meeting new challenges, always rising higher. The other spoke about how life is like flying an airplane, we climb up and up, meeting new challenges, always rising higher. Those two speeches, and their strange resemblance to each other, pretty much encapsulate everything I hated about my high school years.

I’m not saying I’m a sage. I’m not saying anyone should follow my advice. Especially not with respect to money. But I think I can do better than “Life is an airplane.” And just because I’m horrible at taking my own advice, does not make it bad advice.

So here’s what I would tell a crowd of restless high school students, veins coursing with hormones, their minds and bodies itching to get this over with and get on to the graduation party.

Welcome Graduates

Welcome, parents, grandparents, teachers and, above all, the Class of 2009 [pause to give audience a moment for exuberant, self-congratulatory, cheers and applause].

I know some of you are asking how this dashing, exuberant but oh-so-young man before you could possibly have any wisdom to impart. To you, I say that I am here not for you, but for your grandchildren. They are the ones you have humiliated by forcing them to wear those silly hats and gowns and who, only seconds into what will, I’m sorry to say, be a long address, are already nudging their neighbor and saying “That old guy is boring.”

Boring I may be and certainly no wiser than your grandparents and parents and teachers, but since you won’t listen to them, I have been recruited in a last ditch effort to repeat the same old saws you’ve heard many times these last 17 or so years. But don’t worry, this will all be over in less time than it takes to watch all three Lords of the Rings movies. The director’s cut.

I have a few things I’d like to impart to you, the graduates of the Class of 2009 [pause again for self-congratulatory cheers from the audience]. Some are things I’ve learned through hard experience. Most of them are things I made up yesterday when they told me that I had a full three hours this afternoon. In no particular order, here are eight things I wish I had known at your age, rather than waiting until yesterday to make them up.

1. Write Your Biography Now

You have a summer before you. Write your biography, but don’t stop at 17. Go to 70. It may seem early to write your biography, especially for the years you haven’t lived yet, but everyone is telling you who they think you should be. By everyone, I mean television ads, inane magazines at the supermarket, teachers and parents, friends and enemies. Take some time and sit down and write the biography you want to be able to write when you’re seventy.

Record now the life you hope you will have lived. What will you have done? Who will you have been? Who will you have loved? Where will you have lived? Feel no need to stick to the boring details of your actual life. I certainly haven’t in my biography.

This biography is not, in the end, a blueprint, a plan, a roadmap or a tick list. What it is, is a safe spot. It’s the place you can go to remember who you are and who you should be when your tin foil hat falls off and you get confused by those messages the government is beaming into your head.

2. There Is No Plan.

Why isn’t your biography a plan? Because there is no plan. There is value in planning for the long-term, which is fundamentally planning for uncertainty and varied outcomes. That’s different from thinking you can predict the future and make a step-by-step long-range plan.

When you make a plan, you exclude the things that have a one in a thousand chance of happening. But played out over thousands of options, sometimes the one in a thousand chance will come to pass and your plan is out the window. If every five years since I was 15, I had predicted where I would be living and what sort of work I’d be doing, I would have have been wrong on one or both counts every single time.

That should be liberating. You don’t have to know now what you will become. You’ll work it out as you go mostly. One of the most dangerous myths foisted upon you is the idea that you should know today who you will be and what you will be doing (particularly what type of job) in twenty years. In addition to being dangerous, it’s ridiculous.

I’ll wager this: the adults that you really admire did not become what their sixteen year-old selves thought they would become. Make plans. Have goals. But don’t be too upset when you have to scratch them and start over.

3. Life Takes Patience and Persistence.

I just made it sound like it’s no big deal to cast aside goals and plans, but it is. All I meant to say is that it was necessary, not that it was easy. Lou Reed says:

You’ve got to be very strong,
Because you start from zero
Over and over again.

Most great things are achieved not with brilliance, but with persistence and patience. That’s good news, because unlike genius and innate talent, those are things we learn, not things that we have to be born with. So they’re available to all of us.

Having patience does not mean sitting around waiting for something wonderful to happen miraculously, out of thin air. It means working the hard work and getting your hands dirty and sticking to it as the seed grows bit by bit until finally, something wonderful pokes through the soil.

But when it doesn’t, when Plan A fails, you need persistence, because you start from zero, over and over again. The most powerful metaphor I’ve known in life is that of the phoenix, the bird that burns to ash and rises again stronger and renewed. It runs through my mind whenever I face hard times and setbacks. Sometimes in life, you need to burn like the phoenix before you can rise again and for that, you’ve got to be very strong.

4. Life gets easier.

Patience? Persistence? That makes life sound nasty, brutish and long. But in truth, for most people, life gets easier as you move from childhood to adulthood. That’s the secret that adults hate to tell kids. In fact, they constantly try to make you believe it’s the other way around.

In fourth grade they started telling me I wouldn’t be able to get away with that when I got to fifth grade, where we would get letter grades, the threat of which was supposed to shake me to my bones.Then they threatened me with the specter of not being able to get away with that in middle school, then high school, then college and then with the most ominous threat of all, the “real world”. Nobody ever clearly defined what that was, but it was always something vaguely related to my laziness, incompetence, poor penmanship, inability to sit still in class or some other supposed deficit of mine that, in the end, never once hurt me in any way, shape or form in the supposed real world.

That’s just me. I can’t guarantee that life will get easier for all of you, but the part they don’t tell you is that in general, the tools you have to work with and the freedom you have with which to use them will increase in much greater proportion than the tasks you’re given.

So yes, you’ll be expected to do five times more and to do it five or fifty times better, but by the time that expectation is placed on you, it will actually be easier than what you’re being asked to do now. If an adult in your life scoffs at this idea, ask if he or she wants to trade places. I guarantee none of them will.

And adults in the audience, I have a request. I don’t know why so many of you have decided it’s your duty to fill the next generation with pessimism and foreboding for the future. Do me one favor: please, help them get started. Then get out of their way and let them create their future. They’re the ones that have to live there.

5. You Are More Free Than You Know.

Feet sticking out the car windowIt’s difficult for me to watch kids being told not to do things that their parents do. Really? That food is bad for them, but not for you? Me, I lead by example. The other day my wife and I were passing by the Lake Champlain Chocolates store in Waterbury, Vermont. Since they have the best chocolate ice cream in the universe, we decided to have chocolate ice cream for dinner. Being a grownup is great.

Most people don’t know how free they are. Much of what they see as natural and obligatory is just a set of circumstances handed to them because of where they live and who they know. When I was a few years older than you, I had the chance to meet Michel Foucault, one of the great philosophers of the twentieth century. He gave me something valuable that I keep with me at all times and which I bring out in times of need. Now I’m going to give it to you. What he gave me was an idea. He said “The purpose of my work is to show people how free they are.” When you feel boxed in, you can pull that out too and remember how free you are.

It doesn’t mean you can be anything you want. Adults, please stop parotting that claptrap at young people. Some things are impossible or so difficult that only the foolhardy would even try. Some things require innate talents you don’t have. You can’t play pro basketball if you’re 5’2″ and 120 pounds and you can’t be a pro jockey if you’re 6’10 and 280 pounds. Being free doesn’t mean you’re God, Superman, Einstein or a shapeshifter.

Too many people see compulsion where they should be see choice. Consider two people:

  • One says “I wish I could go skiing tomorrow, but my boss won’t let me”.
  • The other says “It would be fun to go skiing tomorrow, but I value my job more than a day of skiing.”

One sees nefarious, external forces at work (the boss). The other sees a personal choice. One sees constraint. The other sees decision. We, as Americans in the 21st century, are unlikely to be sold into bondage. We lose our freedom in our minds. Never forget how free you are.

6. These Are Probably Not the Best Years of Your Life

Why do we tell people who are 17 to “enjoy it, these are the best years of your life”? That was actually the line they used to try to sell me a yearbook when I was your age. It seemed ridiculous to me then and it makes me sad now to think of the kids who believed it, who believed that at 17 years old their best years were behind them. Screw that. My grandmother told me her eighties were her best years. Let’s just stop and think about that for a second. Her eighties were her best years [pause].

If your high school years have been great, think how lucky you are. Even better years probably await and it’s way more fun to believe that anyway. If your high school years have been miserable, don’t despair just yet. Lots of happy, well-adjusted, successful adults with great friends and wonderful spouses and children were miserable in high school. How happy you are in high school is not a good predictor of how happy you’ll be as an adult.

If you have felt awkward, possibly miserable, these last years, this should tell you something fundamental about yourself. Namely, it lets you know that you are like almost everyone else in the audience, whether they showed it or not. For the vast majority of you, better years are ahead. It’s dramatically easier as you get older to find a circle, a group, a tribe that you belong to. Just because you can’t be anything you want, does not mean that the doors of possibility are not about to be thrown wide open. They are.

7. Fear Is the Mind Killer

I stole that title from Frank Herbert’s Dune, a story about Paul Atreides, a boy who becomes a God. Your future is not nearly scary as his, but trying new things is a scary business. Remember this: the things that you fear the most will almost never come to pass. Everyone repeat after me: “The things I fear the most, will never come to pass.” [repeat until crowd says it] You will worry. You will fret. At times you will be paralyzed with fear. Yet most of the time, nothing bad will ever happen. Remember that while you’re remembering how free you are.

8. Do What You Love, But the Money Probably Won’t Follow

I don’t know why adults insist on telling kids that if you do what you love, the money will follow. For the overwhelming majority of human beings on the planet, that is not true. In most times and places, the idea that the thing you love the most would also bring you enough money to live on wasn’t even reasonable, in some cases not even desirable.

Most people will have to make a choice. If your passion is medecine, law or business, you might be able to have it all. Me, I loved outdoor sports and history and I have been fortunate to be able to support myself as a historian in some form or another since 1989, though the first several years, on grad school wages¬†were lean. Very lean. I’ve made a living, but it would be hard to say “the money followed”. God forbid I should have loved to write poetry or fly fishing or playing basketball with the hope of making a living doing one of those. Roughly two men in a million are currently playing for the NBA. And let’s be clear here. You’re one of the million, not one of the two. But that’s okay.

For the most part, if you are like 99% of humanity, your job may¬†not be something you love. You can still do the things you love. You’ll spend less than half your waking life at work. So always set aside time in your life to do what you love. Almost nobody can make a living writing poetry. But it doesn’t mean you can’t be plumber and a poet.

Last Words

I know I was supposed to tell you that you can do anything, can be anything. I think, according the the International Committee of Graduation Speech Protocols, my closing words were supposed to be “And now go out and change the world“. That seems to be the standard script. Actually, you can’t do anything, but know that the range of possibility stretches beyond your imagination and mine. And you will change the world, but only a little bit. Still, try to change it, try to make it just a little better if it’s all the same to you. Try to behave such that you will be missed when you are gone, whether gone from this job or gone from this life.

And life is wonderful. But sometimes it’s hard too.

I’m an optimist. I think a world in which you can both make a living and do what you love is a pretty good place, even if you can’t always do both at the same time.

And now one last thing: take the rest of the afternoon off. Remember, life takes patience. Pace yourself.

4 Responses to “Ice Cream For Dinner: A Graduation Speech”

  1. Mousey

    Very nicely put. Your love of people shows.

  2. Laurie Mackert

    Hi Tom,

    After I looked at your blog on the bandwith on home routers I decided to look a little more. I love this piece and am going to print it for my children to read (22 and 19). There is a lot of wisdom here and I think it’s an awesome graduation speech. I think we can all take something from it, especially the part on fear.

    Thanks for sharing.


  3. That makes my day! I literally almost turned off comments yesterday because they are overwhelmingly spam. That’s such a nice comment though! Glad I left them on!

  4. Sherwood Botsford

    Two aphorisms in our house:

    * Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.

    The other comes from a Dean Koontz novel (An author who’s early books I dislike but who became a beacon in his later books.)

    * Where there’s cake, there’s hope. And there’s always cake.

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