Three Life Lessons from Commencement Season

Career Advice

It’s commencement season. Across the United States, students at all levels, dressed in every sort of colorful cap and gown with scholarship bling, are graduating—to kindergarten from preschool (yes, they do that), from elementary school to middle school (yes, they do that, too), from high school to college, from college to life. And every good graduation deserves a good graduation speech packed with important life lessons that . . . had I only followed those life lessons . . . . It’s not too late. Here are some commencement speech life lessons worth revisiting, perhaps even trying.

have a PURPOSE

What am I going to be when I grow up? The fact is, we really have no idea. While we may not know where we’re going to end up, even at, say, 52 years old, we can have a say in the matter. Having a clear purpose for your life is fundamental to asserting what little bit of control we really have. One speaker I know once told his student audience, “Live every day with a clear purpose. . . . Purpose is first and most important.”

Then comes the hard part: finding or knowing your purpose. If you believe in a larger order to life, some sort of intelligent design to things—then it’s about figuring out what purpose you’ve been assigned. If it is about you determining your purpose, then you have to work to figure out where your skills will make the biggest contribution, make the biggest difference, in a way you find fulfilling. Either way, I think, it’s tough, but an important step in giving our lives some direction.

MAKE A DIFFERENCE

Loren Eiseley’s starfish story is a favorite for graduation speakers, and rightly so. If you’ve not heard it, here’s how it goes, in short: as the sun is rising, a young man finds an older man on the beach picking up starfish stranded by the receding tide and returning them to the water. Since there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of stranded starfish, the perhaps cynical and certainly overwhelmed young man tells the older man that there’s no way he can make a difference. Throwing another starfish to the water, the old man says, “It makes a difference to that one.”

As pop-culture-ish as this story has become, it’s still a good one. And there are good lessons to consider and apply, whether you’re a new student or half-a-century into your life. First, and most obviously, make a difference in the lives of others. Sometimes, remind yourself, that’s what you’re doing. Indeed, we may not individually be able to “save” the world (not that the world needs saving), but we can, moment by moment, day by day, strive to make a positive difference. And making a positive difference in the life of just one person can be pretty miraculous. And there’s no question that it’s better than making no difference at all.

STAY COOL

Another important lesson from the Eiseley story, for me, is this: don’t get overwhelmed. When faced with a huge, monumental task or workload, we can become paralyzed or defeated with a fear of failure. When I was a young second lieutenant in an UH-1 aviation maintenance company, I had a vivid nightmare about grounded Huey helicopters extending across the horizon waiting for maintenance. A friend shook me awake. I was screaming, “I can’t fix them all! I can’t fix them all!” I know now what I didn’t know then: I don’t have to fix them all. Sometimes, we may find ourselves completely overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work to be done. Perhaps the best approach is to just begin. One by one. And attend to each one—whatever that one is—before moving on to or worrying about the next. It’s been said, “The journey of thousand miles begins with one step.” As trite as that might be, it’s simply and unequivocally true. Or, as I’ve often less articulately asserted, I can only do X, I can never do X+1, with X being my capacity to achieve or produce.

Ed Ledford enjoys the most challenging, complex, and high stakes communications requirements. His portfolio includes everything from policy and strategy to poetry. A native of Asheville, N.C., and retired Army Aviator, Ed’s currently writing speeches in D.C. and working other writing projects from his office in Rockville, MD. He loves baseball and enjoys hiking, camping, and exploring anything. Follow Ed on Twitter @ECLedford.

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