Commentary: Advice to grads everywhere: Get a life

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“Graduates, parents, faculty and friends of the Class of 2002…”

It’s the time of year for boring commencement speeches (anyone even remember who spoke at their high school or college graduation?), full of exhortations to dream big, climb high, and remember your roots. It’s also the time of year I feel inclined to throw in my penny’s worth of advice.

I must confess, however, that the best commencement advice I’ve seen recently came from novelist Anna Quindlen, speaking to Villanova grads last year. Quindlen said, quite succinctly: Get a life.

“A real life,” Quindlen said, “not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck.”

Get a life, don’t live your life to fulfill someone else’s expectations. Do what you want to do. Heed the lyrics in old rock song by the band, Yes: “You are the steps you take.”

Looking back, one of the most amazing things my parents did when all five of their children were at this interchange was to do and say nothing. They didn’t influence our college choice (or even if we went pursued post-high school education); they didn’t influence our career path; and even when three of us transferred to different universities, they stayed mum. What a gift.

Get a life. Even if you start down one road, who says you can’t turn around, or turn left or right and try another.

Know what you do best. I greatly admire health care workers in nursing home settings and I am so grateful that that is something someone “does best,” because that work is not my strength. I have three good friends who work with the mentally disabled and am thankful it is something they “do best.” And yet, I’ve had people tell me, “I don’t know how you write; I could never do that.” Certainly, the breadth of talents and skills and abilities is what makes this world go ’round.

Know what you do best.

Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden wrote, “Success is peace of mind that is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.”

It’s a mouthful, but worth rereading and pondering.

Quindlen’s outlook on life changed drastically when she was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. One of her points is this: Why did it take that diagnosis to show me what a “real life” is?

“Get a life in which you are generous. Look around at the azaleas in the suburban neighborhood where you grew up; look at a full moon hanging silver in a black, black sky on a cold night. And realize that life is the best thing ever, and that you have no business taking it for granted. Care so deeply about its goodness that you want to spread it around. All of you want to do well. But if you do not do good, too, then doing well will never be enough,” Quindlen told the graduating seniors, and added, “Learn to be happy.”

Hunter R. Rawlings III, president of Cornell University, closed his 2002 commencement address quoting poet Archie Ammons’ short poem, Salute, a fitting sentiment to close my soapbox oratory, too:


May happiness

pursue you,


catch you

often, and,

should it

lose you,


be waiting

ahead, making


a clearing

for you.

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