A Graduation Speech by a Guy Who Has No Business Giving One

Hello class of 2015! You had your real graduation speeches a couple of weeks ago. You had a famous person or, at the very least, an accomplished person address you as you head out into the world. That person started with a welcome message and a joke particular to your university, probably about a local custom, sporting event, personality, or cuisine. That person made note of your heavy drinking and perhaps juxtaposed it with the vast amount of money your parents spent on the course of education you just completed. The speaker may have made knowing jokes about how all of these speeches progress, much like I am doing now.

If you want some great commencement speeches, there are plenty to be had. Bradley Whitford’s “take action” speech is pretty great. George Saunders said to be kind. Jim Carey said that you can fail at what you don’t want so you might as well take a chance on what you love. Listen to Michelle Obama or Maya Rudolph. David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” could be the commencement speech to end all commencement speeches.

No one would ask me to give a commencement address and rightly so. I’m not important enough. I’m not an author or an entrepreneur. I am an entertainer but not a known one. I’m just some guy. But that’s exactly why I want to address you, class of 2015, because you will probably end up like me, just a person.

And this isn’t one of those tough talk speeches where I tell you you’re all coddled because you got trophies. I’m telling you this because it’s the truth. I graduated from Cornell University in 1999. One of my classmates whom I didn’t even know, Lauren Weisberger, wrote The Devil Wears Prada. You don’t know any of the others (and these days, probably not even her). That was a crop of about 3,500 people. So, you’ve heard of roughly 0.03% of my graduating class. I mean, sure, many of them are successful. I know many lawyers and doctors and a few professors. Some of them could go on to be commencement address worthy. It’s possible. And don’t get me wrong: Many of you will be more successful than I am, however you measure that – be it by wealth, prestige, or number of sexual partners. But the point is, don’t worry about that right now. Don’t worry about greatness. Worry about being a person who can take care of him- or herself. That’s hard enough.

The important people who addressed you were looking back. They talked about their struggles and how they overcame them. You need to hear from someone who’s still struggling and just happens to be a little further along the path than you.

So, now that you’ve got that diploma, what do you do?

Chill out this summer for as long as you can. I started my first job in early July the summer after I graduated, but I got plenty of relaxation in beforehand. Sleep until noon, watch reruns. If your life goes well, this will be your last summer of doing that. In the adult world, sleeping until noon and watching reruns will get you a Lexapro prescription.

Move to a city. Get a crappy place with some roommates. Piss each other off by not doing the dishes. Get into arguments about who ate whose food. Watch movies together. Be poor. There’s one time in your life for this and it’s now, right after college.

Earn those annoying “when I was in my twenties” anecdotes that you’ll tell in your thirties.

Be where you are. Be someone who just graduated from college. You have the rest of your lives to be older and more responsible. It’s coming whether you like it or not. So, for now, be a twentysomething.

If you don’t have a credit card, get one and pay the balance in full every month.

Don’t argue politics on Facebook.

Have a thing that you do that pays your bills and have a thing that you love. It’ll be hard to focus on the latter sometimes because you’re so busy with the former. But it’s cool. It just makes the thing you love that much more of a vacation from the rest of your life. Some of you will be lucky enough to have the thing that pays your bills and the thing you love actually be the same thing. Some of you will try your whole lives to make it the same thing. It’s all about the journey.

During tough times, people will speak to you in platitudes like, “It’s all about the journey.” Just smile and nod.

Don’t be the first of your group of friends to get married, but do go to the wedding and take advantage of the open bar. Do something embarrassing. Tell and re-tell the story.

Speaking of open bars, you know how you can drink as much as you want for as late as you want and still be okay around the early afternoon the next day? You have about two to three years of that left. Plan accordingly. In the adult world, skipping out on things because you were too hungover will land you in a church basement introducing yourself to people by your first name.

Time passes differently out in the world. Without exams and semesters, it slips past you. There’s nothing to do about that. Just be prepared for it. (You’ll realize that at twenty-six when you’ve blinked and you’ve spent as much time out of college as in.)

Try on the life of an adult like you’re trying on clothes. See how it fits. You can change. It gets harder to do as you go on, so figure out some stuff now. Figure out how to provide for yourself. If you’re paying your rent and bills and that’s all you’re doing, you’re winning. Figure out how much work you can stand. Figure out how much stuff you need. Not how much you want, how much you need. Figure out the difference.

Gentlemen, enjoy your hair.

Expect some bad things to happen because they will. Expect some money trouble. Expect a bad breakup. Expect something so unexpected that you won’t even know how you could possibly explain it (I was in New York for 9/11, so…). I’m not saying this to be morbid or pessimistic; I’m saying this so you build up your resolve. You’ll get through those things.

You’re never going to feel old, you’re just going to become it. It’ll be a funny transition, feeling like the exact same person on the inside while watching a bunch of new, shinier humans take their place around you.

No one has it figured out. The people who seem to have it figured out aren’t self-aware enough to realize that they don’t have it figured out.

You are often told in these speeches to be true to yourself, but that’s so plainly obvious that it almost needn’t be said. What no one tells you is that you betray yourself many times on the path to figuring out who that self really is. You show up to that job you hate. You don’t tell that person off. You listen and observe because you need to gather some experience. Gather the information that will serve you. You won’t know how but trust that it will.

The best graduation speech I ever heard was from the president of my high school, Father Fisher. It was a Jesuit high school and we had already sat through a mass and were prepared for something long and meandering. He stood up, thrust his fist in the air and said, “Never give up! Never give up! Never give up!” and then sat back down. We all applauded, probably because it was so short and we were now able to leave the church.

Also because it’s true.

2 thoughts on “A Graduation Speech by a Guy Who Has No Business Giving One

  1. I have more degrees than is ever necessary for a human being and this is the best graduation speech I never had to sit through. Especially this lovely bit: You’re never going to feel old, you’re just going to become it. It’ll be a funny transition, feeling like the exact same person on the inside while watching a bunch of new, shinier humans take their place around you.
    Thank you.

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