Advice for graduates

By Geoff Schumacher

As roughly 3 million students graduate from high school this month, they are no doubt getting more advice than they care to receive. Mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, grandparents and siblings, friends and newspaper columnists — everybody, it seems, has some wisdom to impart at this pivotal moment in a young person’s life.

Most of the advice is well-meaning but ultimately worthless. Every time-worn platitude is uttered by keynote speakers and valedictorians alike, reflecting not only poor speech-writing (“Follow your dreams!”) but an apparent desire to muddle through the excruciating task without stepping on any toes (“The future is in your hands”).

In the interest of cutting through the cliches, I offer these tidbits of advice that I’ve picked up over the years.

Since many 18-year-olds don’t read newspapers, I’m relying on older family members to clip out this column or e-mail a link to their beloved graduates.

•Your education is never over, or it shouldn’t be. Some of you soon will go to college or a trade school, where your formal education will continue. But the truth is that everyone should consider education to be a lifetime endeavor. College may not be for everyone, but learning is. I would submit that I’ve learned more from my reading and experiences in the past 10 years than I did in the preceding 34.

• Explore the world to expand your frame of reference. By this, I don’t mean you should travel to every continent or go on exotic or dangerous adventures. I mean that you shouldn’t limit yourself to a provincial existence. You ought to check out some other places to see what they’re like. This is important not only to help you decide where you want to spend your life but to be exposed to different places and ways of living.

• For most of you, your parents have been the most important influences in your lives so far. That’s how it should be. But here’s a secret: Your parents aren’t always right. Whether it’s politics or what kind of laundry detergent to use, you need to sift through what you’ve learned from them and decide what works for you and what doesn’t, what makes sense and what doesn’t hold up to independent scrutiny. You are people, not parrots.

• A debate and an argument are two different things. We should strive for a debate, because it “admits at least the possibility of eventual synthesis between the opposing positions” (Charles P. Pierce).

• In this day and age, it seems that everybody knows the answer to everything. But of course it’s not true. Often we speak before thinking, or we speak without knowing what the hell we’re talking about. Here’s my advice: Sometimes the wisest answer is, “I don’t know.”

• Work will be a huge part of your life, so you should do whatever you can to find work that makes you happy. I’ve been fortunate to always have a job that I’ve loved. But from what I hear, there are few more deflating things than having to go to a job you hate. And here’s another secret: The most rewarding jobs don’t necessarily pay the most.

• Often, the best movies are not blockbusters. Often, the best books are not best-sellers. Often, the best music is not on the radio. You’ll be rewarded if you don’t settle for the most-hyped products of the culture.

• Most anger is a big waste of time. All kinds of everyday things can make you angry — reckless or rude motorists, incompetent store clerks, hopeless family members. In addition, things beyond your personal reach — foreign conflicts, political issues, environmental calamities, etc. — have the potential to boil your blood. My advice: Be very selective about your anger. Most of this stuff isn’t worth getting worked up about. It’s going to happen whether you like it or not, and getting angry isn’t going to change that. Save your anger for things where it could have a positive effect.

• Tolerance is not a partisan belief, and it’s not limited to racial or ethnic differences. Tolerance means understanding that there are all kinds of people in the world. We aren’t all alike, and we aren’t meant to be. You may not like or approve of everything that some other people do, but tolerance means you understand it’s not your place to dictate their beliefs or behavior (within the parameters of the law, of course). In fact, a full embrace of tolerance means you are curious about people’s differences, and open to the possibility that valuable things can be learned from those differences.

• Ambition is important but it shouldn’t be all-encompassing. This concern doesn’t apply to every graduate, but undoubtedly quite a few aspire to great achievements in their fields of endeavor. That’s fine. But understand that career aspirations are just one part of life. It was the late philosopher (and rock star) John Lennon who said: “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.”

Geoff Schumacher ( is the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s director of community publications.

Categories: Commentary