As the local high schools prepare for commencement ceremonies this weekend, I find myself reminiscing about my own high school graduation.
I was proud to have completed another milestone and at seventeen, I was almost officially an adult. I was looking forward to my next adventure in college. My mother had always joked that she and my father raised the five of us to be independent and then realized they had to live with us when we’d try to assert that independence. Obviously, I was more than ready to strike out on my own. Although I looked forward to that change, I was also saddened and a little uneasy by what it would bring. My whole world existed within a radius no wider than 20 miles. I had traveled outside that small circle on a few occasions. It was both unsettling and exhilarating to leave the comfort of all I had known.
(Here I go with the quotes again). Looking back on it now I realize I had no clue where it would take me or how long it would be until I accepted who I really was. I had always been good at math, but not exceptional. I just didn’t enjoy it enough to put in any effort into studying. My mother was a math teacher, the head of the math department at my high school, She taught the talented and gifted classes, so naturally, I should pursue a career that involved numbers. I chose Accounting and ignored what my instinct was telling me. I’d always been something of a dreamer, a creative being who spent hours drawing and filled entire notebooks with poems (hopefully any record of those juvenile musings has long since been destroyed).
“Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.” Edgar Allan Poe
But my observation showed fortune doesn’t favor the dreamer, so I spent years suppressing that intuition. My idea of what I should become hinged on the opinions of others and what society expected. Success meant acquiring wealth, power, and possessions; at least that is how society had defined it. I was reluctant to give my opinion any value. I was just a kid after all, what did I know? Actually…it turns out I knew more than I thought. I discovered that another rung on the career ladder and a bigger house still left me unsatisfied. Why? Because society’s definition of success is a lie. Shouldn’t “happiness” figure most prominently in that definition?
If I were to give advice to the graduates this weekend, I’d tell them to listen to that inner voice. It is far wiser than we give it credit. No one knows you better than you know yourself. We each have our own unique combination of talents, abilities, experiences and perspectives. If you want to truly be successful, maximize the qualities that make you…you. Do what makes you happy. Ignore what others say you should do or be. Embrace who you are; otherwise, you waste the opportunity to leave your unique imprint on this world that says you were here and all of your experiences, talents and abilities mattered.
Since I’m discussing advice for graduates, I wanted to share some of my favorite commencement speeches. Take their advice: appreciate the benefits of failure and make good art.