Commencement Address: Accept & Conquer

Every year at graduation time, so-called successful people stand up and deliver speeches imparting the wisdom of the ages to new graduates.

These well-meaning people are usually twice your age and seem like old farts who can't possibly relate to your life, because you and your friends invented angst, music, and sex.

You can't tell it from looking at them now, but they were exactly like you 25 years ago. Now they are still just like you, only more wrinkled, more tired, more experienced, and probably more frightened because they have seen, first-hand, that there's more to be frightened of. And they're afraid of dying, while you probably haven't even figured out yet that you, too, are going to die someday.

And inside, most of these people think and feel like they're 20 years old. So pay attention. You can learn more from their failures than their successes, but most of them won't go around talking about their mistakes.

People giving commencement speeches are either powerful, famous, rich, or all three. I'm none of those, but I've lived long enough know people who are and that they got where they are through a combination of passion, hard work, and of course, good luck.  (You can't become a success on passion or talent or even hard work alone; everyone who's successful has also had luck along the way—the only person who's become famous on luck alone is Paris Hilton).

You may watch these people and think, "Oh, they're powerful, famous, rich, or all three, they must be so together and really know what they're doing. Or Paris Hilton." If so, you're wrong.

So, my first tip of the day is this: "No one is really all that together, and no one really knows what they're doing."

Some people are brilliant at publicly appearing to be together, and acting as if they know what they're doing. But inside, the only people who feel like they know it all are people who don't.

No one, not me, not your teachers, parents or role models, feels like they have life all figured out, much less mastered. There may be narrow subjects where we feel like they have a good grasp on things, but even then we know there are other people who know a lot more—and a whole lot of other people who think they do.

But with life in general—we are all as clueless as everyone else.

My next tip is that "Almost everyone who's remembered by history would have been forgotten if it weren't for relentless self-promotion." What separates most historic figures from the forgotten ones is that the historic ones made sure someone wrote about them.

Yes, George Washington was a great man who did great things but he was made greater by Ben Franklin and others writing about him. Thomas Edison "invented" the light bulb, but others were doing the same work, and had their own patents. Tesla was brilliant, not ruthless, and now only scientists remember him. Edison was ruthless—and, most importantly, plastered his name on everything, so we still remember him today.

My final tip, and this is the biggie, so nudge the kid next to you and pull the MP3 player headphones out of their ears so they hear this. You only have to pay attention for a few seconds, and if you do, it can change your life.

Uh oh, I've forgotten what my big life tip was. This is how life is—you can instantly forget vitally important things. Wait, I've remembered it:


Consider that for your next tattoo. You are who you are. You were born that way. Your parents can tell you that from the moment you were born you had a personality and you are the same person today. You will be that same person in 25 years.

There are parts of you that you love, and a lot of parts you hate. The parts you love can sometimes wither away. The parts you hate only get worse—unless you accept them, even make friends with them. Use them so they don't use you.

A sure way for your worst parts to take over is to be in denial about them. Then they will plot, secretly, in your unconscious, and misdirect everything you think and do. And you won't have a clue that you're being manipulated, if not destroyed.

Don't think that "when" something happens you'll be different. "When I get rich..." or "When I get that job...," or whatever—it doesn't change who you are. Don't expect plastic surgery to fix you. You may end up with a smaller nose or a bigger chest, but it will be the exact same old you inside.

Admit that you are who you are. Yes, you can learn from your mistakes, from your parents' mistakes, from the mistakes of powerful, famous and rich people. You are not a slave to your genes, but everything you think and do is guided by them.

A friend of mine once told me, "It's only a problem if you think it's a problem." That was one of the best things anyone ever told me, because after thinking about it, I realized that this was true. If you think being something (insert "your demon" here) is a problem, then it's a problem. If you don't, and don't let it define you, then it's not. Face up to your flaws and accept them as just small parts of the whole you. It's all about attitude.

You don't have to be defined by what you hate about yourself. I used to be fat. I accepted it. I never thought of myself as "the fat guy," and then, nobody else did either. Interestingly, when you accept yourself it's easier to change yourself. I lost weight. I'm normal-sized now and I have to accept the fact that I'm no longer "larger than life." Sometimes even change for the better is a challenge. And despite the change, I'm still the same old me inside.

Try to find the positive aspects of your negatives. OK, so you have the attention span of a gnat—that can have practical applications; you will be more aware of certain things than people who can think about the same thing for hours on end. Use your so-called-faults to your advantage.

Sometimes what unimaginative people call a "fault" is the very thing people with imagination call a "talent."

Time is the most valuable thing on earth, because we only have a limited amount of it. Don't waste it trying to make big bucks, spend it doing things you love. You will be an older person before you know it.

Which leads me to my final word of advice: Pay attention. Remember you're alive. Every day—be thankful you're here. Even when life sucks, you can find something fascinating in it. You'll be dead soon enough, and stay that way for a very long time. So enjoy the ride.

And remember—accept yourself or face the consequences.

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One Final Word

One thing you learn through the years is that most of us end up learning things the hard way. Maybe it's human nature, or maybe this year's graduates can be smarter than we were and learn from our experience. One can only hope.



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