college | May 02, 2013

10 Things Commencement Speakers Don't Tell You: Charles Wheelan In The WSJ

How does Charles Wheelan feel about commencement speeches? "I've found that the saccharine and over-optimistic words of the typical commencement address hold few of the lessons young people really need to hear about what lies ahead," he writes in The Wall Street Journal. If anyone can be the judge of what commencement presenters should tell new graduates—it's Wheelan. He's the author of the book 10 1/2 Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said, after all. And, his first job out of school was writing speeches for the governor of Maine, where he says he "would offer extraordinary tidbits of wisdom to 22-year-olds." Now, he delivers that advice in his own keynotes.

Here's some of his advice on what new grads should know—but aren't often told:

1) Making time for friends is as important as making time for your studies: "Research tells us that one of the most important causal factors associated with happiness and well-being is your meaningful connections with other human beings," he argues. So don't feel guilty that you may have spent too much time making friends and seeking out connections while in school. Your studies are, of course, the main reason you are in school. However, as Carlin Flora also argues, "now is a time to be conscious about what you value and what you want to get out of college, and to seek out friends who share those goals and who can therefore help you meet them." Hold on to those connections after receiving your diploma—you never know where they could lead you.

2) There's a hard road ahead of you: You may have thought college was a grind, but Wheelan is here to remind you that there's still an uphill battle coming up. Anything worthwhile will take hard work, and probably some sacrifices. "One year after college graduation I had no job, less than $500 in assets, and I was living with an elderly retired couple," he says. Be prepared to dig in and face the tough stretch that is waiting for you post-grad.

3) "Don't make the world worse": You are often told you can change the world. Here's Wheelan's take: "I know that I'm supposed to tell you to aspire to great things. But I'm going to lower the bar here: Just don't use your prodigious talents to mess things up."

4) Marry well: "You will do better in life if you have a second economic oar in the water," he argues.

5) Life's not a race:  "The message we are sending from birth is that if you don't make the traveling soccer team or get into the 'right' school, then you will somehow finish life with fewer points than everyone else," he says.  "That's not right. You'll never read the following obituary: 'Bob Smith died yesterday at the age of 74. He finished life in 186th place.'"

6) "Read obituaries" for inspiration.

7) Sometimes your parents don't always know what's best: They want to help, but you need to carve your own path.

8) Your boss is paying your for your performance—but your performance in your other relationships matters, too.

9) You're living on "borrowed time": Don't settle or squander opportunities.

10) Being the "best" isn't the most important thing: "Being great involves luck and other circumstances beyond your control. The less you think about being great, the more likely it is to happen. And if it doesn't, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being solid."

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