It’s a fascinating ritual. Every college graduation ceremony includes a speech by someone important who says something inspiring. The intent is to send young people out into the world on a wave of congratulation, optimism for their future and exhortations to get out there and do good in the world.
I’m guessing you don’t remember a word of it — which is perfectly normal. Graduation day is often such a combination of celebrations and goodbyes to college friends that it’s nearly impossible to take in words of wisdom. So, now that the dust is settled and maybe you have room to think about it, I’m taking the liberty to offer my own “graduation speech.”
First, of course, congratulations are in order. You made it through the challenges of classes and the complicated social scene of college. You have a degree and memories that will probably inform the rest of your life. Good for you.
It’s also perfectly normal to be nervous about what comes next. Unless you are one of those who is headed straight for graduate school or you immediately lucked into a great job, the future can look uncertain indeed.
As you are only too aware, the future is now. As much as you might wish that someone else would make the decisions and open the way to fame and fortune, or at least a decent job and a supportive group of new friends, it ain’t happening without your active participation. It’s up to you to make the future you want.
Your best ally for making it in the world beyond school is you. Like everyone else, you are a complicated person with both strengths and areas that need work. Being successful, both professionally and socially, requires building on your accomplishments and positive qualities and acknowledging and working on undeveloped skills and disagreeable traits.
On the positive side: Do remember that you are, in fact, a pretty accomplished person. You have accumulated a base of academic knowledge that is probably more valuable than you yet realize. Just as important, you have amassed skills and strengths along the way. You know how to define a problem, research solutions, navigate the internet, write a decent sentence, and deal with deadlines. You know how to manage a schedule and get stuff done in spite of the many temptations and difficulties of the social scene. If you lived off campus for a time, you had to figure out how to get yourself fed, get along with roommates, deal with a landlord, and perhaps how to fix a faucet, If you were on a team, you learned or re-learned the value of teamwork and fair play. If you were in a campus organization, you learned how to have fun while doing something worthwhile. Maybe the last 4 years or so have also been a time when you overcame some shyness, learned to say “yes” and “no” wisely, or figured out how to be a good friend.
Being human, you also probably learned more about your flaws. Maybe you struggle to meet deadlines. Perhaps it’s difficult for you to juggle several tasks at once or to keep priorities clear. Maybe you anger too quickly or give in too much. Or maybe it’s hard for you to hear it when others disagree. Whatever. You know you’re not perfect. You’re probably painfully aware of some of the gaps in your knowledge, your skills, or even your character. Some of these problems could become major obstacles to your success. Others will become quirks that people in your life even find humanizing and endearing. The point is that at any given time, your deficiencies are as much a part of who you are as your strengths.
The key to making progress toward your personal and professional goals is maintaining a balanced sense of yourself. Owning your good qualities and achievements will give you confidence. Acknowledging and working on the not-so-good will keep you humble and more approachable. Doing both will help you be all you can be.
To create the future you want
Emphasize the positive: Remember to tell yourself the truth about your positive qualities. They are the basis of your positive self-esteem and self-confidence. Think about your best talents, qualities and achievements. Include everything from the smallest (“I have great hair.”) to the largest (“I got people together to do a fundraiser.”). Can’t think of many? Consider what your fest friends and family members tell you, even if you don’t believe them. These are positive attributes that can contribute to your successes. It may seem silly to sit there and tell yourself how great you are, but reminding yourself of your good qualities and past accomplishments can be just the pep talk you need to keep going when things get tough.
Work on the negative: Be honest (not brutal) with yourself about your negative qualities. Take responsibility for personal faults and mistakes you have made. Include the small stuff (“I forget to do my laundry.”) to big issues (“I avoid people when we disagree.”) Now commit to taking steps to improve. If it is too threatening to do this, or you just don’t know how, get into some therapy for the support and practical help you need. You’ll feel better knowing you are finally taking care of your personal issues.
Because this is a “graduation speech”, I suppose I should end with something inspiring so here goes:
You have everything you need to reach your goals. Really. You do. You are smart. You already accomplished this, your graduation. But graduation doesn’t mark the end of your development. It is only a milestone on the way.
You are the author of your own future, every minute of every day. You can become successful in work, surround yourself with wonderful friends and even find true love, if — here’s the big “if” — you work at it. Never use only a part of yourself, positive or negative, at any point in time as a final measure of your total worth. Instead, commit to doing the life work that is you.