Bet you’re sick and tired of people asking you what you want to be, grads. You’ve probably been hearing this since kindergaten.
Well, I’m not going to ask you because I already know what you want to be. You all want to be the same thing.
You want to be happy.
How you go about trying to attain happiness, of course, will be different for each of you, but a word of caution: if you think it comes down to money, be careful. Do any of you believe Donald Trump is truly happy? Or the Kardashian clan? I rest my case.
Few of you, I suspect, have heard of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, poet and social activist, but I’d like you to take a moment and contemplate something he wrote in one of his 70-plus books: nothing man-made can make you happy.
You might want to refute this right off the bat, and I can’t say I blame you, but you’ll soon learn he’s right. The new car smell doesn’t last long. And then what?
Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with having money and nothing wrong with making it. The point is to not allow such a pursuit to become the center of your life, or you might one day discover you don’t have much of a life.
Still, you’re going to need to earn a paycheck. And while money can’t make you happy, not having it can make you pretty miserable. So you’re going to have to trade some of your time, roughly 40 hours a week or so, for the currency it takes to put food on the table and pay the bills, and, yes, buy a new car every now and then.
Which brings me to something I’ve come to call my Formula for a Happy Life. It goes like this: figure out something you would do for nothing, and then find someone who will pay you to do it. I did not originate this concept, but I sure do promote it. Author Marsha Sinetar puts it like this in her famous book by the same title: Do what you love, the money will follow. Some refute this but their arguments often are silly. “What if what you love is to smoke pot?” they might say, when it’s clear that’s not what the advice means.
Her advice is the same as Steve Jobs’ — and I know you’ve heard of him — in his famous commencement speech at Stanford University: “Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”
Have that courage, grads.
Another writer, Richard Bach, says something similar which I frequently share with my students at the community college. I tell them there are two parts to it and you might not like the second. The first goes like this: You are never given a wish or a dream without also being given the power to make it come true.
Here’s the second: You might have to work for it however.
Perhaps the best advice I can give you is to not fear work but in fact embrace it. Some of the greatest joys you will experience will be those earned through hard work. There is nothing like the feeling that comes with a job well done. Don’t deprive yourself of that feeling.
I mentioned smoking pot a few sentences ago and I’d like to revisit that topic. While my personal feelings are that smoking pot is probably not as dangerous as drinking alcohol — although I could be wrong because by being legal, alcohol has had much more opportunity than marijuana to show how destructive it can be — I am not a fan of artificial “highs” of any kind.
Still, I know some of you will continue to explore such things. So I will tell you what I told my own kids when they were your age. I told them I prefer that you don’t drink at all, but since you probably will, I’ll just say this: Don’t die or cause someone else to die because of alcohol. And, remember, you have to make that decision while you are still sober.
My message to them about having sex was this: First of all, there is no such thing as “safe sex.” It’s a bigger deal than that. And, truthfully, I’d prefer you didn’t have sex until you are married. But because that is rather impractical in today’s day and age, I’ll just say this: Never make a baby with anyone you aren’t willing to be intertwined with for the rest of your life.
Gosh, there is so much more I want to share with you, graduates, but I have to conclude this somehow, so let me end by going back to that fellow Thomas Merton. “The biggest human temptation,” he writes, “is to settle for too little.”
They call it commencement for a reason, grads. It’s a beginning not an end. I caution you to not stop growing. Never allow yourself to feel you have “arrived,” that you know all you need to know, that you’ve achieved all you need to achieve. Keep challenging yourself. Keep learning new things. Keep becoming. Keep striving to be the most perfect you you can be.
My own goal is to die in a state of becoming. I encourage you to make it yours, too.