Graduation Day: Words of wisdom for the class of 2014
Artwork by Chris Strouth
Makes No Sense At All captures the visions, ramblings, and memories of Chris Strouth, a Twin Cities-bred master of music, film, and everything else.
I get asked to do speeches a few times a year -- usually involving kidneys, some times about art, music, or tech. No one has ever asked me to do a commencement speech of any kind. But given that this is the year that all of my friends' teenage children seem to be graduating from high school, I decided that I would give my own. I will say the things that I really wish some esteemed alumni had told me at 17 -- as opposed to "the treasure the family" and something about Jesus riding beside me (I went to a Catholic school).
Note: Please picture me wearing a ceremonial cap and gown and a fancy sash as you read this.
Today is graduation, the end of an era. But with every ending there too must be a beginning. It's the beginning that you should really be celebrating.
There are things I wish knew when I walked down the gymnasium floor for graduation. It's the same floor that hosted bitter defeat at games of dodge ball, basketball, volleyball... really anything with a ball, because I suck at sports. The good news is that as of today, unless you're playing them on the college or professional level, they no longer matter. Although, about ten years from now you will start going to the gym compulsively. It'll be more lifting and fewer balls being thrown at your face -- so you know it gets better.
Something else that would have been nice to know is that the slow songs are just as good as the fast ones. When I graduated, it was the era of hardcore punk and the dawn of speed metal. I wanted loud, fast, and no mercy. The goal was to "Search and destroy," to be a "street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm." It's the problem of all you know: being all you know. The world is such a bigger place than you can ever imagine. When the tempo is too fast, you can miss the textures of the song, the interplay of the notes, and subtle waves of tone. It becomes a blur of genre and scene that can lose the intent in a quest for the cool.
Now I know to take the time and listen to the slow songs, to live outside of my genre. A lot of what I loved at 16 sounded pretty awful by 19 and downright embarrassing at 30. I know you think you'll love One Direction forever, but soon it will embarrass you almost as much as your Lightning McQueen bed spread.
Learn to hear more than you like -- whether that's in music, politics, religion, or recipes. Just because someone hands you a piece of paper doesn't mean learning is over. Now it's harder not because there aren't tests. There are, but they just aren't all given by a teacher who grades them at the end. The final results have more impact then a number written in red ink.
This is where it all really starts. Until now life has been a multitude of "everyone is a winner" speeches, always getting a turn at bat, and being told, "If you can dream it, you can do it." Here is the thing: You can dream all you want about being the Queen of England, but unless you're a first generation Windsor you're not getting the hat. If you had to ask someone to explain that reference, you might need to pick up a book or at least watch a movie on occasion that doesn't involve wizards or people driving cars really fast. Dreaming isn't enough. You need action too.
The world you are about to enter into is crazy. Certainly you have all heard the Chinese curse/blessing: "May you live in interesting times." But it's not Chinese, nor is it ancient, Most academics trace it back to the 1930s from one of three books. It entered the popular vernacular in a 1966 speech by Robert F. Kennedy. Personally, the first time I ever heard it was in the 1995 movie Outbreak, in which a virus spread by a monkey almost wipes out a small town. Ironically that monkey later went on to play a Monkey on Friends -- a virus that almost wiped out an entire nation. So yeah: Hakuna Matata, circle of life, blah blah.
People will tell you things, stupid things, smart things -- but things that should be questioned. If you don't question them you wind up looking like a guy who gets really into Rob Schneider films. You don't want to be that guy -- or girl. Who are we kidding? No girl thinks Rob Schneider films are funny.
Still it's not wrong about it being a blessing and a curse. These are precarious times and the future is uncertain and unprecedented. Of course, the future is always uncertain and unprecedented. It was uncertain when I graduated, it was uncertain and unprecedented when my parents graduated, and when their parents graduated and, spoiler alert: It will be uncertain and unprecedented when your kids graduate too. But that's okay. If it was the same as what came before, what fun would that be?
To quote Hunter S. Thompson, "It's a strange world. Some people get rich and others eat shit and die. Who knows? If there is in fact, a heaven and a hell, all we know for sure is that hell will be a viciously overcrowded version of Phoenix."
You will go places that other generations have never even dreamed of, that is if you dare to go there. If you question and challenge the status quo. It isn't easy. You have to argue with facts and knowledge, not an opinion. Because if your opinion is only backed by your "feelings" and you are not Spider-Man, it is worthless. We'll cut Spidey some slack, thanks to the whole "Spider sense'" thing, but all but the rest of us have to know what we are talking about. Knowledge really is power, and that is truly the power to move mountains.
There is a gift that I tend to give the graduates in my life. (If I don't like them it tends to be cash.) If I do, it's specific books that I think everyone should be somewhat familiar with if they want to have a good life. They are the tools that survive economic bubble bursts and startling tech bursts. I always give a book on etiquette because an adult needs to know how to behave like one, and a simple book on economics. The sooner you understand what money really means, even if you don't have a lot of it, the sooner you can make it work for you. You can also make informed choices about wants and needs.
I also give Hoyle's Rules of Games, because there are lots of games you'll have to play in life and it helps if you know the rules -- especially if you want to bend them. Lastly and most importantly, a blank Moleskine. Write down all your ideas: good, bad, and indifferent. Writing leads to thinking, thinking leads to choices. And knowledge you gain along the way helps to make those choices easier to choose. It doesn't matter what occupation you go into: Doctor, lawyer, butcher, baker, tinker, tailor, or anything else. Just do it to the best of your ability.
Leave average for the average people. You do have the power to be extraordinary; that is if it is what you choose to be.
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