What I Would Say If Anybody Misguidedly Asked Me to Make a Commencement Speech Tomorrow
Real life sucks.
People you thought were irreplaceable will get replaced, others will just lose touch. Coworkers will stab you in the back and then get promoted; they will ask you to do them favors – no, they will expect you to do them favors, but never will return the gesture. People will hurt you by accident; people will hurt you on purpose. A friend will sleep with your significant other and then exhibit shock and offense when you don’t forgive them. Close friends and family will show you things about yourself you hoped you’d never have to see, they will piss you off, they will get cancer. People will take advantage of you – landlords, dry cleaners, seemingly friendly strangers you meet drunk in the street will work under the assumption that you are not fit to defend yourself, to argue with them, even to be right.
You will be expected to figure out a career path and excel in it, unfailingly. You will be expected to do things like pay bills and not show up to work hung-over. And by the way, you will hate your job. Maybe not now, but later…probably now and then hopefully not again later. You will singularly be held to standards you may or may not uphold. You will be punished for other people’s mistakes. Some of you will have to learn how to budget, really budget. You will have to learn when it is appropriate to speak up and even harder, when and how to not. You will hear horrible, heart-wrenching stories about people you know, know of, once knew.
The hardest part is that learning to take care of yourself in the real world, learning to do all the day-to-day tasks, on time and without difficulty, is all happening while you are overwhelmingly busy just trying to figure it out. Big picture “it.” You.
Worrying about paying the bills is just a distraction.
What nobody tells you (well, somebody told me, but by then, it was already too late) is that your twenties are a second puberty. Unlike teen puberty, however, the mood swings don’t hover near the center of the pendulum, they swing violently from end to end, the pressure to come out the other end a functioning adult is greater and urgent, and the constant self-questioning surrounds financial stability, love, and finding meaning and passion in your life instead of figuring out what a period is all about or how to hide an untimely erection.
But here’s the thing (and forgive the cliché): None of that stuff matters. All of that stuff will work itself out. People matter.
How many years it takes you to find a “big-girl” job after graduation doesn’t. Living paycheck to paycheck for a while doesn’t. Changing careers four times before you get on a path you’re happy with, doesn’t. Having your father voluntarily send you a check for JDate because you are a super-single 26-year-old virgin, however embarrassing, doesn’t. The people – the ones you call to laugh, cry, and commiserate with about all of these things – do.
Those people will make you laugh harder than you ever thought possible. They will see in you the things you thought nobody would understand, they will spoon-feed you ice cream when you get dumped, and they will hold your hand when a family member gets cancer.
It is with those people, when you’re figuring out how to stop being broke, single and hating your job, that you will create the moments in life worth remembering. Moments that will make your old friendships stronger and your new friendships real. Moments that will shape you into the person you’re meant to be. Those moments are the things those people will remember about you after you’re gone, not how much money you had (at least I hope not) or how you always paid your bills on time (they couldn’t for me anyway because I don’t).
The feeling you give people survives you even as the details begin to fade. A football trophy doesn’t.
A few years ago, I met an older woman at an event. Immediately upon learning my last name, the woman asked if I was by any chance related to Dave Bliss. “Yes,” I told her. “He was my uncle.” And she began to cry. She cried and urgently beckoned her husband to come over, overwhelmed with emotion and excitement to have met me merely because of my relation to her late childhood friend. To this day, I find it difficult to put into words what that felt like; what an amazing impact her reaction had on me because of the impact my uncle had on her.
Relationships matter. Memories last.
So when you leave here, thinking you know everything and you’re ready to take on the world, just remember…you don’t and you’re not. Some of you will figure it out right away and some of you have had the decisions made for you, but most of you will have friends that make you feel inadequate. From my experience, feeling like you are completely and utterly failing at life in your twenties just means you’re doing it right.
Just make sure, through all the stuff, you leave time to become a person whose biography you’d want to read. Or to become a person whose biography you didn’t want to read, but felt was kind of interesting. Be a person friends of friends are excited to meet based on the things your friends say about you. Be a person of whom your parents are proud. Be a person of whom your parents aren’t proud. (I don’t know what they’re like; they could be horrible people.) Give good hugs, real hugs, hugs that don’t involve the condescending back pat. Be a person high school acquaintances are ragingly jealous of after they’ve stalked you on Facebook. Be selfless, be empathetic, be honest. Give good advice. Be the type of person other people can’t decide if they want to date or want to become. Be the person that gets the party started, that makes people laugh, that people call in the middle of the night to pick them up when they’ve had too much to drink.
Or I guess, you can be selfish, caustic, and a liar because nothing I say is going to change your life; you’re the only person who can do that. But I hope you decide today to be the type of person that will have the type of lasting impact that makes people smile deeply even after you’re gone.
You deserve it.
(Image via Shutterstock.)