Congratulations to all our local graduates who are accepting diplomas, tossing their tassels and celebrating the fruits of their hard work. For whatever reason, we often feel compelled to offer advice along with our congratulations and well wishes. Several years ago, I was given such a platform to share my personal encouragement.
In 2010, I was honored to give the Commencement address to the graduating class of Pike Liberal Arts School. It was a daunting task to deliver an momentous message for such an important occasion in front of not only people I knew, but quite a few of my former teachers. As I began to brainstorm what my remarks might be, I thought about all the clichés we tell graduates this time of year. I realized how so many of those common sayings really aren't the truth or good advice at all.
What I offered that night was actually a rambling of non-conventional, anti-advice wisdom. The response was humbling and I have since been asked on a few occasions to share the speech.
The following are updated excerpts taken from the original speech, "A Reality Check for the Class of 2010: What the Real World Wants You to Know."
Stephanie (far right) with friends from PLAS Class of 1996.
... I find myself standing here at this podium, knowing that many of you are wondering what in the world I can say that could possibly be anything new, different or inspiring that you havenʼt already heard before.
Well, possibly that is why I was asked to speak here tonight. I have been in those very seats
before- listening to my commencement speaker-who I canʼt tell you who he was or anything that he said. I probably heard things like “the world is yours, go find yourself and these are the best days of your lives…”. And I was inspired, I was excited and I was ready to get going. I thought I had it all figured out but I quickly learned that all of those little cliché sayings make for a nice Hallmark card but really aren't that accurate about the real world. As I embarked on my new adventure called life, I got what you might call a few reality checks.
I would like to crack some of those clichés we often tell graduates and offer you some truths that the real world really wants you to know.
Reality Check #1: This is NOT the time of your life. When I look back at my old yearbook, there are inscriptions like “never change, stay just the way you are, etc.” I thank God that those naive little notes did not come true. Donʼt misunderstand my point. I look back on my high school days fondly but I donʼt want to relive them.
Your high school days, as wonderful as they have been, donʼt have to be the only glory days of your life.
High school is a foundation, not a peak. So cherish your experience here, but build upon it. You wonʼt ever have these days again. Even if you refuse to move on, life still does.
Never forget what you have learned, what you gained or where you came from, but donʼt
let your story end here. Get out there and start making new memories, accomplish more and
add to your legacy because if you are willing to keep living life to the fullest, learning and growing even more, youʼve got bigger, better and brighter days ahead.
Reality Check #2: It's not about you. Your Senior year has been your year to shine, with
lots of activities and celebrations in your honor. You and your family certainly have a lot to be proud of. But the party is almost over and youʼll quickly realize thinking only of yourself will lead to a lot of frustration and disappointment later in life.
Donʼt focus on what you can get out of life, what you deserve or what someone owes you.
Instead think about what you can give. How will you contribute? Contrary what you may have
heard, the world is not yours for the taking. But there sure is a lot of space to leave your
Personal satisfaction and fulfillment is not where happiness lies. I have never once regretted taking the time to help someone else in need. On those days when you are not sure of your place in this world, offer an encouraging word or a smile, go volunteer or just get involved in something you believe in and the most amazing thing will happen to your spirit. Find a cause you believe in and get active. You will find that you complain less and hope for more. I have found that I am happiest when I am using the blessings and talents that I have to give back to others. There is great fulfillment in making the world just a little better. When you give of yourself, you will find the largest rewards.
Reality Check #3: Donʼt go out in the world searching for yourself or success. You need to know who you are now. No one can tell you who you are-they may have opinions, but you have got to figure out for yourself who you are and where you are going. There is no sense in packing your bags until you do. You will only waste time and money.
Now, I didnʼt say you had to know all the answers or have a step by step plan. In fact, if you do, you need to prepare for some surprises. Just know yourself. Know what your truths are. Know what you believe in, and more importantly know why you believe it. Knowing yourself isnʼt about what you have learned or what knowledge you have retained. It means what you think, how you feel, how you approach problems and what your viewpoint is.
You don't have to have money or awards or titles to be a success. It's enough to be a good person. Be a good student, a good son or daughter, a good neighbor, employee, a good friend. Itʼs a fairly simple concept but not always the easiest road. I know right now you are bombarded with challenges to define what success means and to set goals and aim high but donʼt forget that the decisions you make along the way reflect the person you are.
Making good decisions can make a good person. And making bad decisions, well… it makes for a lot of regret. So set your sights and work hard to achieve your dreams but donʼt compromise who you are to get there or otherwise it will mean nothing.
Reality Check #4: Turn off the GPS system and think for yourself. Don't you just love GPS technology? You type an address into your maps app and you hardly have to think-just do what the voice tells you.
In life, people are full of directions. Quite possibly they are telling you now where you need to go and what you need to do. Iʼm not saying you should ignore the advice, but you need to figure out how to get there yourself.
Every now and then, and we've all been there, the GPS is wrong. Even sometimes the so-called experts can lead you wayward and when you have relied solely on someone else to get you where you are supposed to go and they turn out to be wrong, well then you will find yourself totally lost with no sense of how you got there or how to get back.
So know where you are going, get some direction from those with wisdom and experience, but then make sure you are in the driverʼs seat, aware of your surroundings and thinking for yourself. Because you never know when you may need to get yourself back home.
And speaking of technology...
Reality Check #5: Smart phones don't know everything. Seriously, give the mobile devices a rest. We are quickly losing our ability to communicate with people because we are allowing text messages and social media to be our voice.
We are addicted to getting the most recent updates from news, sports, weather and social networks and yet, we ignore the real life happenings right in front of our eyes.
We have lost the value of having real conversations with real people in exchange for a virtual
life. Now, I promise that I am not advocating we throw our iPhones in the trash. My point is
this: Learn to communicate. Face to face, real verbal communication.
There have been many times, where I was not the most intelligent person in the room. I wasnʼt the most successful, the most attractive or even the most qualified, but I could get peopleʼs attention simply because I could speak.
Your timing, approach and audience is, of course, everything-but if you have something worthwhile to say and you speak with just enough confidence, enough articulation and enough passion, people will listen.
You donʼt have to offer answers when you speak, questions are good. In fact, questions are great. Some of the largest leadership positions I have found myself in started not because I immediately offered solutions. It was because I asked the right questions. So ask lots of questions, it will show interest, a willingness to learn and prove you are not afraid to speak up.
One day, you will find yourself in a room full of people that you really donʼt know and you are supposed to be networking or connecting or just having casual conversation. And it will be horrifying and make you feel small and unimportant and then, the moment you decide that you are not going to hide in the corner, pretending to check email or text, and you put a smile on your face, stick out your hand and introduce yourself to a stranger, you will suddenly have the most amazing sensation of being very compelling and keen and assertive.
So find your real voice. It doesnʼt have to be loud but it does need to be authentic. No one is going to hire you, vote for you, go out with you, recommend you or even want to help you if they donʼt know you. And they canʼt get to know you if you canʼt have a real conversation with them. So please start practicing now.
And when you speak, look people in the eye. Even if they donʼt remember exactly what you say, they will remember you.
Reality Check #6: You are not in control of your destiny. There is good news, I happen to know who is and I hope you do too. God is real. And He really does have a plan for your life. I know that when you feel accomplished and feel independent, itʼs really easy to focus on what you have done. But I choose to believe that anything good that I have is really not mine.
God has blessed me tremendously and allowed me opportunities to meet all kinds of people and see amazing things. God has given me talents that when I use them, I have a stirring in my spirit and I know I am fulfilling His purpose and calling for my life.
I encourage you to stop and recognize what God has done in your life and thank Him. When the going gets tough, get on your knees. When your world get chaotic and loud, stop and pray and just be still and listen. And when God gives you direction, obey and get going.
I am thankful that I have a God who is in control and who loves me and when I donʼt know where my next turn is, I trust that He does and He will be right beside me. In a life that is changing so fast, God is
the one constant that will never fail you and offers the only plan that is perfect.
And the final reality check is actually to the parents of graduates...
Reality Check #7 (to the parents): He / She's a big kid now. When I asked my parents for some advice on my commencement speech topic (because no matter how old you get, there is always something your parents can teach you) my mother offered her analogy of shoestrings.
Teaching your kids to tie their shoes can be the slowest, most frustrating process. Itʼs a lot of repetition and a lot of patience. Yet, you do it because you donʼt want your kids to trip and get hurt and you know you wonʼt always be with them to tie their shoes so they need to learn to do it for themselves.
Then one day they get it and they get so excited and you are excited for them and thankful you donʼt have to constantly tend to their shoes. And then sets in that twinge of sadness that they are growing up and they donʼt need you as much anymore.
Parents, your kids know how to tie their shoes now. They still may trip and may hurt themselves from time to time but they know what to do.
Now, they will probably need you to buy their shoes every now and then so you will definitely be needed but itʼs time to let go and let them see what those shoes can do.
Your job is not over, but you have now been moved to part-time status. Obviously you have done a great job-they earned a diploma, you worked hard to give them a great education and provided in every way you could. You should be celebrated and commended as well, but you can't send your kids out in the real world with velcro tennis shoes and you can't always be standing in the shadows ready with band-aids.
You can't make all their decisions but you can make their favorite meal. So encourage them to venture forward and remind them that in spite of the failed attempts they are likely to have, your love and confidence are unfailing.
Congratulations, graduates! Donʼt let these days be the best of your life. Donʼt go through life focused only on yourself. Know who you are. When you start to make your way, pay attention and think for yourself so you know how to get to your destination and also how to get back home. Text less and talk more. Know that God is real and He has amazing plans for your life and find purpose in everything that you do, no matter where life leads you.
You are certainly entering into the real world during an interesting time. You have great opportunities because this nation desperately needs fresh vision, problem solvers and leaders who arenʼt interested in what has always been done. Vote every opportunity you can. The issues at hand will affect you for the rest of your life so pay attention. Our world is getting turned upside down at this very moment making room
for voices just like yours that will make a difference.
And who knows? Maybe one day you'll be the one taking the podium to offer your own real world wisdom for future graduates.
Good Luck and God Bless!