It’s cap and gown season, folks. I have been listening to sound bytes from all kinds of graduation and commencement addresses, and it made me think. I have never been asked to address a graduating class of any kind, but if I were asked, what would I say? After some careful thought, here is my commencement address to you, the graduating class of Frocktalk 2012.
Good afternoon graduates, families, friends. Thank you for coming out on this exceptionally warm afternoon to celebrate the achievements of this group of fine scholars. This is a momentous day, an august occasion. You dignify me with your presence, and now you have to sit through my speech.
Frocktalkers, you are officially adults now. You have graduated high school, and you all sought to further your education here at the University of Frocktalk. Congratulations for taking the first step. You see, getting a degree does not mean the end of your education. Not by a long shot. Getting a degree is but one signpost on the road of your life. The degree is a signpost, a flag planted in a pile of dirt, on the road to adulthood. Your childhood lies behind you, and there is no turning back. You are on your way.
As I am older than you, and have travelled further down the road of adulthood than you, let me offer you a few words of guidance and encouragement. This is not to say that you need to follow my words, but hopefully my foibles and mistakes will make your path a bit clearer. Perhaps you will steer clear of some of the implosions and emergency room visits I managed to create and endure while on my own path. Here are my words. Consider them the Kristin M. Burke Guidebook of Adult Imperatives, if you will.
Imperative number one: Leave the house as soon as you can
You are an adult; you are not a child. Children live at home; adults live on their own. I swear, your parents did not pay me to say this. Living on your own will afford you the freedom to do as you like, and to become your destiny. Living on your own teaches you independence, problem solving, and how to properly do a load of laundry without turning your t-shirts pink. “But times are hard,” you whine, “and it’s expensive to move out!”
Tough sh*t, graduates. Times will always be hard (and financial issues will always seem insurmountable) when you are sucking on the teat of your family. Figure out a way, and move out as soon as you possibly can. You can do this. You may not get to live in a posh neighborhood, and God forbid, you may have to have a few roommates, but you CAN find a place to live that is not in your parents’ home. You need to do this. Children live at home. Adults live on their own.
Imperative number two: Learn to be independent
This relates to imperative number one. You will never gain your independence while you suck on the teat of your family. What does that mean? Adults do not get an allowance; children get an allowance. Adults do not have their mom cook their meals and do their laundry; children do. Adults do not ask their parents to pay their bills or to financially bail them out of their debts. Adults solve their OWN problems, and do not ask for intercession from their parents. I don’t know if any of you are watching the HBO show Girls, but as Adam Sackler once said, “It’s not adult life if your parents pay for your Blackberry.”
As many of you probably already know, parental financial assistance often comes with strings attached. Parents, cover your ears. THIS IS A TRAP, graduates. The more money you take from your parents, the more they think they are entitled to control you!! Fight the power!!! Make your own money and do not ask them for any!
You may not make a ton of money right out of school, but you need to figure out a budget for yourself and live within it! I know this may be hard to believe, but mani-pedis are actually optional, not necessary; trust me. Once you learn to live within your means and be financially independent, you can seize the reins of your own life. It is so empowering. And while skipping mani-pedis may not sound like much fun right now, making your own decisions – doing what YOU want with your money, with no strings attached – feels awfully good.
Okay, parents, you can uncover your ears now.
Imperative number three: Do some jobs you don’t like
In a tough market, you may not get a job in your chosen field right away. These are the breaks, and this has been, and will continue to be, reality for a lot of us. We all need to make money, and sometimes you just have to do what you have to do in order to make ends meet. While I may seem like a successful costume designer now, do you know that I have also been an art dealer, an executive assistant, a babysitter, a classified ads editor, a taxation clerk, a lounge singer, an event planner, a boating instructor, and a radio DJ? We all take a circuitous path to our destiny.
The important part was that through all of those crazy (and sometimes undesirable) jobs, I never lost sight of my passion. I knew that more than anything, I desired to design costumes for films. I also knew that I needed to pay my rent and put gas in my car. I did what I had to do in order to take steps toward my ultimate goal. It’s called delayed gratification. So don’t freak out if you are waitressing or processing mail for a while before you get a job in your field. Use the time to learn from your co-workers, save your money, and in the evening, please do some side projects related to your passion. Sometimes, a job you don’t like can help you to understand what you DO like. Have patience and hang in there.
Imperative number four: Distinguish yourself – do something extraordinary
This is where I feel like I am going to sound like an a$$hole. I am a member of Generation X. You graduates are members of Generation Y: the Millennial Generation. We are different creatures. We Gen-Xers were latch-key kids. We grew up without computers or the internet. We played in the street and skinned our knees. We’ve lived through a number of recessions. You Gen Y kids grew up with laptops, helicopter parents, no-child-left-behind, and positive reinforcement. Perhaps too much positive reinforcement for things that did not merit the feedback. Okay, you can boo me here; that’s fine. But hear me out.
Positive reinforcement is great when it accompanies achievements that are commensurate with the praise. If you were eight years old and your parents were still praising you for going poop on the toilet, this is exactly what I am talking about. That’s an event that, at eight years old, doesn’t deserve praise anymore. So when I say in imperative number four, “Do something extraordinary,” I mean, something more than pooping on the toilet.
Extraordinary accomplishments distinguish a person. There are 3.4 MILLION college students graduating this year. That’s more than the entire city of Chicago graduating, all at once. How do you tell the difference between individuals in that huge pool? How do you know who the good ones are in such a big group of people?
The good ones distinguish themselves. Think about something you’d like to accomplish. Something that seems insurmountable, crazy, or insane. Think about the people who might benefit from your crazy accomplishment. Will it make the world a better place? NOTHING that makes the world a better place is ever crazy, insane, or even insurmountable. Do what it takes to accomplish the extraordinary, and do it now.
Imperative number five: Lose the loser friends
When we graduate, whether from high school or college, we leave friends behind. People move away, seek other paths, and drift apart. You may think that you are losing your foothold, your security, your “peeps”, but let’s be realistic. You are living in a world of Facebook and Skype, and staying in touch is easier now than it ever has been. You can still hang out and eat popcorn in your pajamas and watch bad movies with your friends, even if they are in Bangkok, Mexico City and/or New York. It’s possible. So it’s not a time to mourn, exactly, but to reassess.
Sometimes there are people in our lives who bring us down, who invite us into a place where we are not of service to others or ourselves. These are the loser friends, who will suck you dry with things like (but not limited to) negativity, gossip, drugs, misogyny/misandry, crime, or drunk driving. You do not need people like this in your life. Don’t let someone else’s drama become yours. Clean house if you need to, and start fresh. Your friends are a reflection of you, and if you don’t like the toxic reflection, it’s time to do some diplomatic unfriending.
Imperative number six: Make friends who are not like you
Along those lines, it’s important to get out of your bubble and make friends with people whose lives are different from yours. If you’ve grown up in an environment where everyone is more or less just like you, what have you learned about other people? Not as much as you could. Life is a big learning experience. Take advantage of it and get to know people with different backgrounds, different life stories, different experiences and different perspectives on the world. You might be surprised by how much you have in common, and you will develop a healthy compassion for the ups and downs of others.
So while you’re slaving away in the warehouse at Costco, living imperative number three (doing a job you may not like), get to know your co-workers. Invite them to your house; get to know them. Learn about their experiences and their lives. I can’t adequately express how much joy this has brought me in my own life, and how many beautiful friends I’ve been lucky enough to make by simply reaching out and showing interest in the people around me. Your friends don’t have to look like you, be the same age as you, sound like you, or dress like you. Good friends are pure gold, and you never know where you will find them. Don’t waste any opportunities on your stale, outdated, preconceived notions about who your friends should be.
Imperative number seven: Leave it all on the court – take risks and don’t be afraid to fail
I have endured some of the most humiliating, cringe-worthy, “that’s gotta hurt” moments on earth. Most of them have come at times where I have made myself truly vulnerable. Most of them are now hilarious, but they seemed like life-wreckers at the time. They turned out to be some of the best learning experiences of my life.
If you love someone, tell him. You never get a second chance to express what you’re feeling in the moment when it’s most important. We don’t get to plan our lives – there is no script. There is no guarantee of tomorrow. If you have something to say, and it is important to you, say it. If you want something intensely, go for it. Hesitate, and you lose.
Things may not always work out in your favor in these cases (and I am living proof of that), but I will never live with the regret of things unsaid or undone. When it was important, I spoke up. When I knew I loved him, I said so. When I wanted something, I dove in. I will never regret the fact that I tried. All of these experiences taught me that failure was just a matter of thinking. None of these experiences was ever a failure. All of these experiences brought me freedom, in one form or another. I no longer fear failure, because I know that failure doesn’t really exist.
Imperative number eight: One person’s success does not mean you fail
Now that we all agree that failure doesn’t really exist – I mean, I hope you agree by now that failure doesn’t exist? – we can talk about being supportive to one another. If you have a close friend and they achieve a goal (let’s say they get a good job in their field), their success does not mean that you fail, even if you are working in the Costco warehouse when you’d rather be writing for a magazine, or styling commercials. If your friends suddenly become successful, know that it is possible for you, too. Lose the jealousy. Success is not a finite commodity.
Learn from other people in your field who have careers you admire. Talk to someone you consider a mentor. Talk to a therapist, for God’s sake. Being supportive of your friends’ successes is an adult undertaking. Remember, always: one person’s success does not mean you fail. We are all on different paths, and you will have your own success in your own time, and on your own terms. Keep in mind that everyone defines success differently, as well. Do not lose your sense of self in the projections and dreams that other people have for you. It’s your life, not theirs, and only you will be able to satisfy your criteria for success. Hang in there.
Imperative number nine: Recognize your role in this world
We all have something special we can give to the world. Your job, moving forward, is to find what that special something actually is. Some people call it purpose; others refer to it as a calling. Sometimes, it takes many years to uncover what that purpose or calling actually is. We have spent so much time being told (by other people) what our strengths are, where we excel, what we’re “good at”. This is how we are groomed for life in the mysterious real world.
You might think that you want “X” out of life. But why do you want it? Have you ever paused to think about why you want what you want? Have you ever stopped and tried to unravel the programming that’s been fed to you by your parents, society, educational institutions, the media, religion, and your peers? Take a moment at some point, I beg you, to do this. Seriously, I beg you.
You may find that what you truly want, at the deepest pit of your core, is NOT what you’ve been led to believe that you want. The only person who can unravel this mystery for you is you. There comes a time when we all need to sit at the bottom of the well with ourselves and have a big talk. At this juncture in your life – at this moment where you have completed the road out of childhood and are forging ahead into adulthood – it’s a perfect time to begin the discussion.
Many of us sit at the bottom of the well and talk to ourselves on a regular basis, just to make sure we’re still aiming in the true direction of our desires. I advocate for that. Come to terms with what your role in this world can and will be: what you desire, what you’ll do in order to achieve what you desire, and what you’ll give back to the world when you have achieved it. No one can know what you want but you. Once you know what you want, it’s easier to set your aim and get it.
Imperative number ten: Be of service and hope to make a positive impact
We are all here on earth for an indefinite period of time. We don’t know what the future holds for us, or how long we’ll be here. Therefore, none of us has the luxury of time. We don’t really get to say, “Oh, I’ll do that tomorrow,” because honestly we don’t know if we will be around tomorrow. Life is mysterious that way.
Think about writer Marina Keegan, the 2012 Yale graduate killed in a car crash only two days after graduation. She was just starting her adult life, and in the blink of an eye, it was over. She wrote a poignant essay about her time at Yale, and it was published posthumously to great acclaim far and wide. Marina Keegan didn’t get to decide when her time was up. However, her writing made an enormous impact on the world after her sudden death. What if Marina had procrastinated, had never written “The Opposite of Loneliness”? What if she thought to herself, “Screw it. It’s senior week, and I want to party. I can write another column another time.”
We would never know Marina Keegan, that’s what would have happened. Marina’s service to the world was something she never expected. She could not have predicted the impact of her service because to do so would have meant understanding her demise and the framework of her writing. She made a huge impact on the world by living her life and expressing her feelings honestly. That was her service.
Moving forward, think about the impact that you make on this world – the impact you may never realize in your lifetime. Will it be good? Or will it be bad? We have a choice, every day. We choose our behavior, we choose our actions, and we choose our intentions. We animate the machine. If you could choose, what would you like your impact to be? Well, graduates, you CAN choose. Your impact is up to you, and it starts today. Be of service, and hope to make a positive impact on the world around you.
Twenty-five years ago, I sat in a cap and gown, graduating high school. Four years later, I wore another cap and gown as I graduated college. I could never have known what was ahead on my road to adulthood. I have passed many flags planted in piles of dirt along the way – signposts of accomplishment, success, defeat and triumph. This journey, this education, doesn’t end at the next signpost – it doesn’t end until we expire. Today marks the beginning of a hopefully very long, rich and rewarding journey for all of you. I am honored that you have invited me to share it with you, and I hope that if you stayed awake long enough to hear them, you enjoyed my words.
Thank you, Frocktalk University. Thank you graduates. Thank you families and friends. Good luck and Godspeed to all of you – especially to Karla. Don’t let anything stop you!!!!