Yesterday I had a chance to reflect on the things my dad has said that stayed with me over the years. I was also motivated to dig out a commencement speech he made to a graduating class in 1987 to see if his messages were still relevant to 20-somethings today. Here goes:
1. Age is a mindset not a number.
“You are only young once, but you can be immature for a lifetime.” – John P. Grier
This is a quote my dad used to say to me when I was in my 20s. Some people see this quote as cynical but for my dad, I think it means you’re never too mature to play hard and enjoy some youthful fun. When you do that you can always be young. Here’s to an 80-something adventurer with his last trip being to Ecuador for some intrepid bird-watching.
2. Choose travel when you can.
When it came to vacations vs. savings…he told me that he and my mother most often opted for the travel. This advice is so consistent with one of the most common “wishes” for 20-somethings — travel! I was lucky enough to enjoy the benefits of that. Thanks dad!
3. I was lucky enough to find something I loved to do and find someone to pay me to do it.
I asked my dad about this one because in the simplest terms, he’s a rocket scientist. Not something you just fall into. I remembered hearing him say that he chose a career in metallurgical/ceramic engineering because it was named as one of the most promising careers at the time. So was it love or career trends? I asked him about it since I often hear the push-back that telling young people to “follow their dreams and the money will follow” creates unrealistic expectations in today’s economy. He replied that he had always loved science and was good at it so the focus was a natural outlet for pursuing what he loved. I think the net net is that choose a general area that you really enjoy and then figure out the best way to make money doing it.
4. Never leave your partner on the trail.
This after I got lost while hiking with my brother and nephews near my parents home. It was time to turn around and head back to make a dinner reservation…they insisted we had to reach the top before turning back. Feeling stubborn and independent, I decided to head back on my own, only to find myself lost. Having just read Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods“, I envisioned a long night spent fending off bear attacks. I was rescued by a lovely man named Norman who I came upon in the middle of a huge fight with his girlfriend. He cites my chance encounter with them as being the “breather” that perhaps saved their relationship..but that is another story! My life lesson on this one? It’s better to reach the top with others than get lost on your own? At face value, good advice …and a good reminder that when you have a partner in your business or in life, don’t work against them, work with them, and you will be less likely to get lost.
5. Go forth and be successful.
In 1987 my father gave the commencement speech at the university where he taught and those were his final words. I always remembered those ending words to his speech and decided to look back on what else he said 20-some years ago. The theme of his speech was on pride, change and challenge. It is as relevant today as ever.
On change: it’s never “done”.
Never buy into the thought that “it can’t be done”. Most scientific advancements have been made just at the point when someone predicted there was nothing left to discover. A leading physicist in the 1920’s warned students not to go into physics because all of the important problems had been solved. Five years later quantum theory was discovered to profound effects. There are millions of similar examples from the size of computer chips to new galaxies.
He does note that the same can’t be said for people. “We can question whether humans get along any better than they did times of early civilizations or in the Middle Ages.” My take. Always hold on to the thought that people can surprise you but don’t hold on to people who refuse to change if it has a negative affect on you.
On teaching/leadership: Your goal is to be surpassed
The most satisfying success of being a teacher is to be surpassed by one’s students. The same could be said for being a manager or boss or leader. The focus is on the greater advancement rather than protecting one’s own success.
On youth: You don’t have it easier
There is a tendency to think that each younger generation has it easier. Gen Y / Millennials are entitled and not willing to work hard and pay their dues. He bucked this trend back then when he was talking to Gen X.
“You could regard yourself as the most successful class ever to graduate in the sense that your path to graduation has been more difficult than those of the classes that preceded you. My freshman math courses consisted of algebra and trigonometry, topics most of you took in high school. Courses are more advanced, new disciplines such as computer science, have appeared. Extracurricular activities are more demanding and subtle pressures in everyday life have increased.”
One can only say this is more true today! My college roommates and I all laugh that we could never have graduated if we when went to school now. So more power to you. The advancements made do make life better but we forget it is also more complicated and challenging in many more subtle ways.
On the upside on the downside of change…the final words:
While change is fundamental and good for our own growth, it also comes with risk. For all the advances quantum mechanics made on biological sciences, he commented on the threats from the effects all of these advancements have on our natural resources, clean water and waste disposal. Again ever more relevant today.
“Problems exist and they may grow more severe. However, as Emerson has told us, such problems should be faced with optimism, for it is at the times when problems see the most insurmountable that man’s greatest advances are made.”
It is clear from these examples that there is no question that the world will be dramatically altered in twenty years when you are entering your mid-careers. This then is the challenge: that you regard your graduation today not as an end to education but rather as an indication that you are prepared to continue to educate yourself to deal with a changing world.
As a final word, congratulations on your success…go forth and be successful.