UNPACK THE BACKPACK – Class of 2022 – Live Smart

In 1997, Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich advised that year’s graduates to “wear sunscreen.” Humanities professor Neil Postman once told a graduating class that they had to choose between being Athenians or Visigoths, urging them to use education to cultivate a fulfilling life. Iconic contemporary novelist David Foster Wallace has gone viral with a keynote titled “This is Water”. Novelist Carl Hiaasen wrote the book Assume the Worst about advice you’ll never hear in a commencement speech. And, of course, Steve Jobs told Stanford graduates that to do a great job, you have to love what you do. Giving advice to fresh graduates every May is a timeless tradition, though in many ways it’s probably unnecessary too. In the end, we all have to figure it out for ourselves.

Despite the negative talk about young people, public education and the country in general, I look to young people with hope. You are our pride and our joy, our best and our brightest, and the future is yours. The question is what are you going to do with it? The 21st century is an era in perpetual motion, in perpetual change. Although it can be disturbing and even scary, it can also be extremely exciting. The future really is wide open, and the challenge is to find your way, to carve out your place, to have an impact. When Henry David Thoreau went to live in Walden Woods, he said he wished to “live deliberately”. My advice is to expand this idea and “live craftily”, carefully crafting and thoughtfully creating the canvas, the sculpture, the image of your life.

In the film Dead Poets Society, Professor John Keating urged his students to “make your life extraordinary”. I also say make yourself useful, focusing on self-improvement and commitment to service. In fact, one of my good friends attributes his success to the fact that he is always the one who says “yes”, always the one who says “I will try”, always the one who says “I can do it”. “In addition to being skilful and hardworking, he succeeded by making himself indispensable. In an episode of the HBO show Girls, main character Hannah is fired from her unpaid internship. When she learns that her replacement is in fact being paid for the job, she protests outright to her former boss. He said, “Well, she knows PhotoShop.” When Hannah says to him, “But I can learn PhotoShop,” he replies, “Maybe, but you haven’t.

My goal is to be the kind of person who learns PhotoShop. Or Excel spreadsheets. Or coding. Or piano. Or Chinese. Or gardening. Or anything that brings value and even beauty to your life and those around you. Crafting and cultivating the art of living. As Daniel Coyle explains in his book The Talent Code, it is by developing your skills and talents that you will find your passion and zest for life. Whatever your path, do everything you do with commitment and determination. You have worked very hard to get here, and we celebrate your accomplishments, even as we look forward to what is to come. If you develop your skills and cultivate your character, you will make a difference and you will find, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, “unexpected success in ordinary hours”.

From Steve Martin’s early days as a stand-up comedian and original SNL cast member, he has become an icon of cinema as an actor, director, screenwriter and producer. He has written numerous bestselling books and an award-winning play. He is considered one of the foremost art collectors and art critics in American society. And he’s a renowned musician whose banjo prowess rivals the best in the business. Steve Martin is so good at what he does. So when Steve Martin was asked the secret to success, he replied, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” This is the kind of advice you can do something with. Dedicate yourself to your craft, whatever it is, and commit to excellence by earning both your living and your living.

The purpose of life is not just to be happy or successful or to be rich or famous. Although all of these goals are admirable. The purpose of life is simply to live it. Live it with grace, class and joy. Live smart. Practice and cultivate the art of living. Your whole life is ahead of you, and so my advice is simple – live it to the fullest.

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, and school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. Ytou can email him at [email protected]

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