Words to the wise The commencement speech our new graduates need to hear

A little over 20 years ago, Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich wrote what I’d consider the first mock-commencement column. In it, she advised the class of 1997 to wear sunscreen.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/06/2018 (1626 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A little over 20 years ago, Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich wrote what I’d consider the first mock-commencement column. In it, she advised the class of 1997 to wear sunscreen.

Baz Luhrmann turned her words into an unlikely spoken-word hit, and everyone else falsely attributed them to Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Mary Schmich went viral before “going viral” was a thing.

Fifteen years ago this month, I walked across a stage and accepted my own diploma from Kelvin High School. It was the longest evening of my life because “alphabetical order” is the worst kind of order. Also, it was very humid. Also, I was hungover.

Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Mary Schmich. (Bill Hogan / Chicago Tribune)

Many famous Winnipeggers have roamed Kelvin’s halls, including beloved children’s entertainer Fred Penner, The Big Snit animator Richard Condie and Weakerthans frontman John K. Samson, to name just a few. Neil Young also went to Kelvin, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t graduate. Things worked out OK for him, though.

I am not famous but, like Schmich, I do have a newspaper column. Thematically, my most faithful readership demographic is “moms of people I went to high school with,” but today, I’m using this space to deliver my own mock commencement address to the wide-eyed, fresh-faced class of 2018:

Congratulations! You made it. I’m guessing that, for most of you, high school was a ‘best of times, worst of times’ situation. Either way, it’s time to move on. You have a whole, big life ahead of you. That’s either relieving or terrifying to you. Or both.

In celebration of this momentous — and, eventually, largely insignificant — time, here is some advice from me, a sage woman of 33:

• Drink water.

• A lot of people are going to bombard you with reach-for-the-stars platitudes that mostly just encourage low-key workaholism and anxiety. Dream big! Work hard! I’d encourage you instead to “dream medium and work smart.” Hear me out. I’m not to saying you shouldn’t have grand ambitions — you should! — but breaking those ambitions up into realistic goals with sustainable, attainable plans to meet them is going to get you there a lot quicker. Listen: do you want to dream big or do you want to live big?

CP Kurt Vonnegut Jr.: a great author, but he didn't tell you to wear sunscreen. (Marty Reichenthal / The Associated Press files)

• What your version of success looks like might be different than your friends’ or your parents’. And that’s OK. You may not want the things society wants you to want. That’s OK, too.

• Your parents mean well.

• You will fail. A lot. Where are my Type A’s at? This will be a particularly tough lesson for you. Try things you don’t immediately excel at. Keep trying things. Setbacks and struggles are part of life, but it’s your ability to keep going anyway that speaks to your character.

• Never be ashamed to say you don’t know something. It’s pretty hard to learn anything if you pretend to know everything. Related: don’t pretend to know stuff to impress someone else. Someone else’s snobbery about a subject will always say more about them than it will ever say about you.

• Everything is temporary.

• Hating your body is an enormous waste of time and energy. Focus on what it can do, not on what it looks like.

• It’s OK to abandon your plans if they aren’t working for you. Maybe your chosen career path isn’t for you. Maybe university isn’t for you. Maybe backpacking isn’t for you. Those dreams we talked about? They can change. Make a new plan.

• There’s a sign at my gym that reads, “The secret to getting ahead is getting started.” I was prepared to make fun of that, but it’s actually solid advice. Do the thing, whatever it is. The perfect time doesn’t exist.

• Self-care is all about recognizing that Present You is also Future You. When making decisions, ask yourself: ‘Does this screw over Future Me?’ (Spoiler: you will screw over Future You from time to time.)

Stay hydrated! (Dreamstime)

• Choose your adult beverage of choice carefully because you won’t be able to stand the smell of it by the time you turn 30.

• Take chances. On love. On work. On places. On yourself.

• You know how inspirational posters tell you to dance like no one’s watching? That’s because no one is. Trust me on this. No one is looking at you. Everyone else is too worried about how they look/sound/act to worry about what you’re doing.

• Learn how to cook at least three dishes. They can be easy dishes, but being able to feed yourself is, like, 99 per cent of adulting.

• Competition can be motivating, but have you ever tried supporting people?

• Look up from your phone sometimes.

• Don’t stifle your own voice because you think it’s not good enough. It is, and so are you.

The world has changed a lot since I graduated in 2003. We used to have to work super hard to send a text (remember T9 keyboards?) and social media didn’t exist.

Your generation is under a lot of pressure, and sometimes that will feel unfair. But your generation is awake and engaged, and you give the rest of us hope. So get out there and kick some ass — and stay hydrated. Twitter: @JenZoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.

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