Friday, June 21, 2013

The Commencement Speech I'll Never Give

Thank you, students, faculty, administrators, and parents.

It's a proud moment for me, giving advice to a group of college graduates to guide you as you make your way in the world, or at least not put you to sleep.

I had never heard of North Dakota Polytechnic Institute until your president called me, offering 50 bucks and a Greyhound bus ticket, and the promise of the return ticket home if I could get through this speech without swearing.

So here is my useful advice to you, the summer graduating class of 2013.

Developmental experts believe your mid-20s are the last time your brain will undergo major developmental growth. Just like the developmental leaps you made as a toddler learning to talk, and as a teenager going through puberty, you have one more stage of development that will occur over the next few years. This means something very important:

Your twenties are not an extended adolescence.

This is not the time to "find yourself." Or to work in a coffee shop so you can write bad poems for poetry journals. Or to take a year off to figure out what to do with your life. You just spent four years doing that.

Also, you may not move back into your parents' house!

(Wait for thundering applause from parents to stop.)

This is the time to become an entrepreneur, work for a nonprofit, or take a new job in a career you want to explore. If you want to figure out what to do with your life, figure it out by learning you hate your job, and doing something else.

Now is the time to learn new work habits, read new books, and absorb new information. What you do now will ripple through your life for the next 30 or 40 years. The success you have in your 50s and 60s will be a direct result of what you do in your 20s. If you work on positive personal growth, you'll achieve more. If you watch just TV every night and get drunk every weekend, you'll achieve less.

Here's my second piece of advice: your 20s are the only time in your life you get to be selfish.

So, enjoy it. Embrace it. Suck the marrow from life, and keep it all for yourself. Because one day, you'll get married, and this opportunity for selfishness will disappear.

Here's how life works: when you were a small child, the world revolved around you, until one day, your parents put a stop to that. You were told to be considerate of others, to share, and to stop being selfish.

That meant that instead of watching your favorite Disney videos every night, suddenly your dad wanted to watch the game. Instead of going to Chuck E. Cheese for dinner, your parents wanted to go somewhere quieter.

And you had to suck it up and deal with not being the center of the universe.

One day, you're going to have kids, and the same thing will happen again, except you're the one watching movies you hate. You're going to have to eat at Chuck E. Cheese when you wanted steak. And you're not going to be able to watch the game or go to a real restaurant until your youngest kid turns 10, which is about 15 years from now.

Even when you get married, you'll have to compromise and share, and do things the other person wants to do.

That leaves the time between your freshman year until you find someone to spend the rest of your life with.

For some, that day may be years away. Enjoy your time.

For some, it happened three weeks after you got here, and you completely missed out on your time. That's what happens when you fall in love with the first person you saw naked.

For others, it may be decades away. If that's the case, find someone in a similar situation, and make a pact to marry each other if you're both still single at 35.

Here's the important thing to remember: your final period of selfishness is aligned perfectly with the time of your greatest mental and emotional development.

That means, what you do during your selfish time is going to greatly improve, or greatly screw up, your later life.

Welcome to your parents' greatest fear.

So do something special with this time. Travel, and see the world. Not just a road trip to Burning Man; backpack around Europe.

Don't watch TV every night, go to baseball games and football games.

Don't go out to bars every weekend, go to concerts and plays. (But on some weekends, do the things that you'll make your kids promise to never do themselves.)

In 10 minutes, we're going to unleash you, the new graduates of North Dakota Polytechnic, on an unsuspecting world. You're going to embark on a time of personal growth, and a chance to make a big impression.

Don't blow it, Fighting Woolly Mammoths. Now is your chance to make big things happen for yourself and your future. Your work isn't done, it's just beginning. Go forth and be awesome.

Now, can someone give me a ride back to the bus station?

(Note: The part of this speech about a person's 20s being an important part of someone's growth is true. Clinical psychologist Meg Jay gave a great TED talk that explains this, and makes every 40-something weep and wish they could do that part all over again. You can watch it here.)



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